Gears of War has never been known for its deep, imaginative storytelling. Each game is a popcorn-friendly thrill ride, pitting muscular soldiers against an army of bloodthirsty monsters. It's a simple concept: Grab an assault rifle, dive behind some cover and empty your clip until it's safe to move forward. Rinse and repeat. Gears of War 4, the first entry by a new developer called the Coalition, is trying to break that tradition. It's still a brutal shoot-'em-up, but the characters and plot are more complex this time around. More nuanced. So much so, in fact, that for people who have cooled on the franchise, it might be enough to reel them back in.
A hint of horror
Take the world. It's a bleak place, scarred from the weaponry that was required to wipe out the savage Locust and Lambent in the last game. Powerful storms known as "wind flares" rip across the sky, destroying nearby buildings and picking up loose debris. The government has walled off the few cities that remain, protecting what's left of humanity and rejecting the "outsiders" who have chosen to live on their own. You play as J.D. Fenix, the son of series hero Marcus, as he uncovers a new threat called the Swarm. They're vicious and creepy, especially at night, when much of the game takes place.
Chuck Osieja, creative director at the Coalition, said the team has been working hard to bring back the creepiness teased in the first game. "The characters are experiencing [the Swarm] for the first time, so we wanted to create a tone that was in line with that," he said. "Before, everybody that was in the game already knew every enemy. It was never a surprise to them. They knew how to deal with them, they knew what they were named and they knew exactly what to expect from them. You as the player were the only one that didn't know."
With Gears of War 4, you're uncovering the threat at the same time as J.D. and his two companions, Del and Kait. "How they react to it, and how you react to it, is part of what you experience," Osieja added. "Creating a tone that is a bit more tense is in line with that type of experience."
Old man Marcus
At Gamescom this week, I was shown a sequence where J.D. meets up with his father. Marcus is now an older man: He still has arms the size of a beer keg, but his beard is a silvery gray. He's stubborn, telling the team to wait out a wind flare inside a barn. J.D. thinks it's a bad idea, but Marcus stands firm, believing his plan is the right one. When the roof is torn to shreds, and the group is left exposed, it's clear that Marcus -- even with his decades of military experience -- is far from a perfect soldier. He's worn down from a life in the battlefield, and not as sharp as he used to be.
It's a small but significant change in Marcus' character. Before, he was mostly a meathead doling out shallow one-liners. Now, he's an example of what happens to a warrior who no longer has a war to fight. "He's had to deal with not being a soldier anymore," Osieja explained, "and how him being a war hero has affected not only his own life but everyone around him. The government uses him, they hold him up as a hero of the Locust War, and he's a reluctant hero. He's got to deal with that and he's also got to deal with his relationship with J.D., who has never dealt with war before."
Marcus isn't playable. He'll join J.D. in his adventure -- for how long, it isn't clear -- to show that he's still most comfortable in times of war. "He reacts differently as an AI character," Osieja said. "The way he observes the world and the way he reacts is different to J.D., because J.D. is a reflection of the player. When the player doesn't know something, they instinctively ask questions -- you want the main character to ask those same questions in the game so they can be answered by people inside the environment."
Marcus is one of the characters that can play this role. "It gives him more range in what he can express and the things we can tease out of him, both in terms of his personality and the way he deals with problems," Osieja said.
J.D. and his friends will get some character development too. The Coalition is staying tight-lipped at the moment, but each will have his own "journey" throughout the game. They'll come together as a team and learn what it takes to be a soldier in this turbulent, war-ravaged world. Battling the Swarm and persuading the government that this new threat exists, all while evading the army, which considers them renegades -- these elements have the potential to create a more compelling Gears story.
It's a small but significant step forward for the franchise. Gears of War has a strong following because of its combat; the controls are responsive and the weapons have a satisfying heft to them. But after Gears of War: Judgment -- and the departure of series creator Epic Games -- many lost faith in the franchise. A better story could pull back gamers who have lost interest, while appealing to people who have skipped the series entirely. It won't be the sole reason that people pick up the game, but it could restore the franchise to its pedigree status on Xbox (and PC) hardware, setting up future installments that the Coalition is clearly desperate to develop.
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