There was a time not too long ago when Gears of War was Xbox’s other, other shooter, lagging behind Halo and Call of Duty. In the videogame industry, however, the only constant is change, and Gears has a very real opportunity to become Microsoft’s crown jewel shooter. Halo isn’t the killer app it once was, and Call of Duty turned its promotional partnership favour to the PlayStation 4. To paraphrase Chris Rock, Xbox needs another hit. Xbox needs another hit like a crack addict needs another hit. From the looks of it, Microsoft seems to be banking on Gears of War 4 being that hit.
With many gamers delaying an Xbox One purchase to find out what Project Scorpio actually is, Gears of War 4 may be the sole compelling reason to buy the cheaper Xbox One S. And unlike the seismic shift that hit Halo when Bungie jumped ship to Activision, some of the past Gears devs are still involved. Most notable is Rod Fergusson, whose reputation in gaming could be summed up as, “the guy who makes sure big games don't suck”.
I believe Gears of War 4 will be a look into what the reformed Gears developer The Coalition believes makes up, in developer terms, the DNA of the Gears franchise. The the most recent original Gears game, 2013’s Judgment, was downright terrible, and I believe that’s because Judgment was a game for Gears critics, not Gears fans: it attempted to “fix” so-called “bad” writing, which ironically resulted in humorless, hackneyed dialogue with an overly complex narrative structure devoid of any real spark.
I hope that Gears of War 4 marks a return to making games for Delta Squad fans who loved the bromances, the banter, and the games that didn’t try to be anything but what they were. However, the public stuff we’ve seen from Gears 4 so far has been visually pretty, but flat when it comes to characters. In general, the public mood surrounding shooters is cautious: with shooter after shooter turning away from traditional living room play to chase the eSports crowd, many gamers are waiting to see how much Gears of War is going to continue to be a franchise aimed at gaming consumers who just want to have fun, instead of eSports pros.
The behind-closed-doors session with Gears of War 4 did show promise, especially regarding those couch co-op features that Halo 5 stripped out. That said, it didn't totally assuage my concerns that this latest outing is going to feel flat compared to its predecessors. The new cast doesn't have the scrappy charm of the original Delta Squad, and I couldn't help but feel that the new Gears are just too pretty, losing that “I could hang out with this guy” feeling present in the first three games.
Granted, these Gears are rookies, not the seasoned fighters raised in wartime like the original cast. In fact, the powerful flashback trailer with the new protagonist, JD Fenix, shows his childhood memories of daddy Marcus planting trees and mommy Anya in a dress. I’m going to give him a chance because I’m interested in the intergenerational story of the Fenix men, but he just doesn’t have the visual charm that his dad does. Marcus Fenix still fills the screen in a much more compelling way.
I'm also not loving the extremely young, borderline-princess voice-acting approach on Laura Bailey’s character, Kait Diaz. There was an authenticity that came with Dominic Santiago being voiced by Latino voice actor Carlos Ferro that we’re not going to get here. That’s not Bailey’s fault, but she’ll probably take some flak for it, especially since she was also the mo-cap actress for the black female character in Uncharted 4. This criticism might seem minor, even oversensitive, but in the tinderbox conditions gaming finds itself in these days, it’s unfair to put actors in such politically awkward positions. If the character is from a particular racial background, the ideal casting is an actor who shares that background. Furthermore, grit and comedy have been so important to Gears in the past, and it’s hard to do either of these things as a female voice actor when you’re trying to make your voice sound more youthful without making it sound cartoony.
It doesn’t stop there, however. Kait is apparently an Outsider, a group that lives outside the COG and raids COG territories. There are no signs of hard living in the physicality of this character – she’s “model-with-tattoos pretty” instead of “mercenary pretty” – as if someone hired Zooey Deschanel to play a part meant for Claudia Black. This is usually a sign that she’s designed to be “the girl” and not a character in her own right, and that puts me off.
The third revealed character, Delmont Walker, voiced by Eugene Byrd, brought more pop to his lines, and he acted legitimately terrified, which I really liked. Delmont is so far the most inherently likable character with his orphan backstory and his legitimate reactions. He gives me the most hope that Gears will still be Gears from a character perspective because he showed signs of being fun.
Since Gears traditionally has a fourth character in the main roster, these are just my first impressions, not final judgements. The creative decisions that bother me could all make sense in the context of the complete team. I hope that there will be a second prominent female character to balance things out and take some of the pressure off Kait. Being the token woman is always a straightjacket, and Gears has had such great female characters in its extended canon.
Concerns out of the way, let’s talk about what's good. The aforementioned DNA of Gears of War combat is intact, with some extra flourishes that enhance what's come before instead of trying to outdo it. You can now grab enemies over cover, but if you miss it makes you vulnerable. There's also more environmental interaction, with blobs of cover you can shoot to make it drop from the ceiling… And yes, I meant to say blobs. They're mushy cocoons.
The enemies have stayed similar-looking -- with some cool notable exceptions to this rule -- but there seems to be a different motivation for them. Some enemy is swiping people and transforming them, and instead of grubholes there are nests… which function exactly like grubholes. I don't mind this “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” approach. The combat should feel familiar, since the third-person tunnel shooting is a hallmark of the franchise. Of course, this game opens things up more in places, but they're not straying so far afield that I'm worried it won't feel like a Gears game. This makes me happy since games lose something if critical pieces of their DNA are altered.
If I have to choose between good gameplay and entertaining writing, I'd obviously rather have the gameplay. I hope, however, that we won't have to give up either as Gears moves forward, and that the demo they showed just happened to be an especially flat bit regarding story and character. Gears plots have always been silly but entertaining. They’re action stories, not hard science fiction. I hope that continues. In the meantime, the gameplay definitely shows promise, complete with split-screen co-op in addition to PC/Xbox One cross-play. There would have been great sadness in my house if my husband and I couldn't play a new Gears game together. This feature is a pretty good sign that Gears of War 4 is still striving to be for the fans.