Why Gears 4’s campaign is too in thrall to its past
We never had Marcus Fenix pegged as a horticulturalist. Yet in the midst of a fierce assault on the greenhouse in the grounds of his crumbling, overgrown mansion, it suddenly dawns that his green-fingered efforts are soon to be for naught. “Shit,” he growls. “They’re going to mess up my fucking tomatoes!” The context has changed – we’re not playing as Fenix Snr, but his wisecracking son James – and so Marcus has been repositioned as a curmudgeonly veteran, juxtaposed with the youthful exuberance of the new central trio. All the same, that snarl takes you back a console generation. This isn’t exactly Gears Of War as you remember it, but in these moments you’d swear it had never been away.
Microsoft and The Coalition might well look at that and think: job done. Though Rod Fergusson, executive producer on the first three Gears games, was brought in as studio head, this is still a very different team from the one that made the original trilogy. Yet Gears’ systems have translated to a new console generation completely intact, such that any series fan should feel comfortable jumping in on Hardcore difficulty without any real period of adjustment.
That it captures the feel of the old games, from a branding point of view, makes sense, and the message it sends is clear: we’re fans of this series, just like you. Some players will find that a reassuring confirmation that the game they love is in safe hands. But safe is a double-edged sword, and there’s a streak of conservatism that runs through Gears 4. Take, for example, the re-introduction of Father Fenix. There’s a delightfully corny moment where his bandana is handed back to him with the kind of pomp and ceremony afforded to priceless historical relics. That scene in and of itself is fine – funny, even. But it speaks volumes for the approach The Coalition has taken. Respecting your past is one thing, but at times the game goes well beyond respect and into obsequious reverence.
The narrative clearly demonstrates that Gears is nowhere near ready to leave the past behind. It isn’t enough to have the younger Fenix as a point of connection, nor even to have Marcus himself along for much of the ride. By the end, we’ve witnessed a reunion of the old COG team (sans Dom) and a poignant moment that’s almost a direct lift from a key scene in the original trilogy.
In terms of mechanics, there’s a clear desire to return to first principles. No bad thing, you might think – and limiting campaign co-op to two players is a sensible reduction. But doing so means ignoring the lessons of Gears 2 and 3, which regularly found ways to vary the pace. Judgment’s score-chasing structure and optional challenges haven’t survived. Anything, essentially, from those three games that proved slightly divisive has been deemed surplus to requirements.
The trouble is, Gears 4 doesn’t have much to replace them with. Set-pieces that function identically to Horde mode are crowbarred in. The writers endeavour to contextualise these sequences, but the presence of a timer letting you know how long you’ve got to prepare your defences for the next wave is amusingly upfront and drags you out of the story. Otherwise, at least until a climactic riot of cathartic destruction, it follows a repetitive pattern: bickering and exposition in corridors, followed by shootouts in more open environments, possibly with some lever pulling, before the enemies show up.
It’s no great shock to see a sequel going back to basics when the fundamentals are so robust, especially with the benefit of visual spit and polish afforded by more powerful hardware. But in a year where Uncharted 4 made efforts to redefine its rules of engagement, Gears is merely content to re-establish them. For a game this noisy, its singleplayer portion is surprisingly timid.
Gears4 is the most colourful and scenically diverse entry in the series to date. The Swarm’s tendrils have stretched pretty far, but elsewhere Mother Nature has taken over