Listen, Gears Of War 4 is fantastic. Developers The Coalition deserve a lot of credit for producing one of the games of the year under what must have been pretty high-pressure circumstances for a new studio. It’s as if they’ve just concentrated on the one thing that matters: making a really great game.
I have issues, though. Big issues. And, as a huge fan of the series, I’m concerned for Gears Of War’s long term future as one of gaming’s premier series.
Before we get into that, though, what makes Gears 4 so successful? Well, I’ve heard a few commenters comparing Gears 4 to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and this does seem like a fitting comparison. Both the movie and the game perform the tricky feat of reintroducing a franchise that has been away for quite some time to a bunch of potential new fans, whilst pleasing returning devotees, too. And in both cases, the story manages to be both a continuation of the original trilogy, whilst still being a wholly appropriate place for a series newcomer to just jump right in and get going.
With Gears 4, there really is very little to criticize: The combat feels enjoyably fluid, whilst retaining the characteristic weight that has always made Gears so satisfying to play. The single-player is an enjoyable ride. And the graphical improvements have been vast — this iteration of Gears is clearly pushing the current Xbox hardware just as the original game did on the Xbox 360 a decade ago.
But the game’s biggest strength is, in my opinion, its most fundamental weakness, and nothing less than a genuine threat to the longevity of the series itself.
Here, a Force Awakens comparison is again appropriate. Because my own biggest criticism of Abrams’ foray into the Star Wars universe is how closely it sticks to the blueprint of the 1977 original movie — the plot’s broad strokes are largely the same, while some story beats are matched almost exactly, along with, of course, the finale. Starkiller Base indeed!
Abrams has been pretty honest about why he took the track he did on the Star Wars gig. It was no accident. He and his team were consciously concerned with invoking that original movie, with reminding fans what made them fall in love with the series in the first place. So that’s why we got returning characters. And familiar-looking locations. And that all the elements that made up that quintessential Star Wars feel that had been missing for so long.
The parallels with Gears are obvious. With its familiar gameplay mechanics, and the return of original protagonist Marcus Fenix to bridge the gap between the original trilogy and this new iteration. Gears Of War 4 was engineered by The Coalition not to reinvent the wheel (the Cog?), but to remind gamers why the series is so fondly remembered.
And under the care of veteran series developer Rod Fergusson, few mistakes have been made. But it’s harder to make mistakes when you’re playing it safe, and I think with this release, they certainly did that.And who can blame them. It’s the first Gears game in a few years, developed by a new studio. Art direction, enemy and weapon design, those classic controls; the focus will have been on getting these Gears fundamentals right.
And get them right they did. But they did so by taking literally NO risks.
Now, with the series successfully re-established, it’s time to push boundaries again.
Yes, five games in (Judgment did happen, whether The Coalition choose to believe it or not) its sometimes easy to forget that Gears Of War was a series that once did some pretty ground-breaking stuff. First and foremost, Gears invented an entire sub-genre and inspired dozens of copycats when it unleashed its revolutionary cover system on the gaming world. It changed the way we played third-person action games forever, and left everyone else was scrambling to catch up.
With its storytelling, OG Gears was also pretty innovative. Epic Games used the unprecedented graphical fidelity of the Unreal 3 engine to really imbue those characters with personality, and then used those characters to attempt some pretty cinematic stuff that was far from commonplace at the time. Now, looking back, the action movie tropes are leaned on a little too much, sure, but we cared about Marcus and his fellow Gears, and the journey they were making. This focus on character would go on to pay dividends further into the series, as various arcs played out, and even into Gears 4, where it is Marcus and his continuing legacy that forms the backbone ad human element of the story.
And although story and character is still front-and-centre in Gears 4, the game neglects to really push the narrative in a uniquely cinematic way. Here, along with the overall game mechanics, is where Gears is resting on its laurels.
It’d be nice to see something different next time out. Something that not only has that Gears feel, but also has the power to really surprise, both in terms of story but also gameplay. In fact I don’t just think this would be nice. I think it’s absolutely necessary.
Game series that change little tend to stagnate and die as they’re superseded by the new and different that springs up around them every year. Even the most ardent of fans will eventually turn away from a franchise in search of novel and fresh gaming experiences. It’s human nature.
Maybe the need to change things up a bit is already on the agenda. There has been vague talk recently from Fergusson about of Gears Of War diversifying into other genres. Perhaps a big move into another genre would free up the developers from their shackles to create something new and different. Or what about bringing-in genre specialists to play to their strengths, and expand the Gears universe in unique and interesting ways?
Ok then, an example:
The Coalition could focus-in on one character within the Gears world, perhaps a former Gear that has become an Outsider, cut off from the bulk of humankind much like Marcus Fenix in Gears 4. The gameplay could focus less on big action set pieces and slaughtering wave after wave of enemies, and more on day-to-day survival, perhaps concentrating on a smaller, more human story in the process.
Not convinced? What about this, then:
At the other end of the scale, why not employ Firaxis, or another studio with a background in large scale, turn-based warfare, to create a game where you take on the role of the COG First Minister. Starting on E-Day, you’d be managing limited resources, training Gears, and sending those forces to tackle flashpoints as the Locust emerge all over Sera. The ultimate goal: to research the decisive weapon that will end the enemy threat once and for all. Yes, it’s XCOM, but rather than falling from the skies, the enemy is tunneling up through the crust of the planet.
Or a squad-based RPG. Or an RTS. And these are just a few of the possibilities off the top of my head. Imagine if someone with some actual industry expertise were to give it some thought.
Here’s hoping we see some true innovation in Gears Of War’s future. Because this is a franchise made by passionate people, for passionate people. While that remains true, it deserves to not only continue, but also go back to being the trailblazer it once was.