Post Script

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

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