Is Gears of War the best thing ever? I visited The Coalition to find out!
On October 11th the fourth installment of the Gears of War franchise finally hits the Xbox One and Windows 10 PC as a Play Anywhere title. Last week I had the privilege to visit The Coalition who make the Gears games and get a sneak peek at the campaign and Horde Mode 3.0. I also got to chat with Rod Fergusson, the Coalition Studio Head about the game and motivation to continue the saga.
Here's why I'm excited about this game even for those who have never experienced the franchise. Consider Gears of War 4 a new beginning and I'll tell you why you should check it out.
Interview with Rod Fergusson
In this ten-minute interview filled with my actual gameplay, I ask Rod about the humor of Gears, the challenges in making this game accessible for new players, and the potential for a Gears movie down the road. Don't miss it!
Gameplay and discussion with Daniel and Jez
Premiering today is the official full-launch trailer for Gears of War 4. For those in the U.S. you can also catch it on tonight's Monday Night Football game so keep an eye out!
To be honest, I would consider myself a novice when it comes to Gears of War. While I have friends who swear by the online co-op modes, and I have started playing the Ultimate Edition on Xbox and PC, my experience with the community is much more limited. That is why I was excited to learn what I could at The Coalition studios last week in Vancouver, Canada. Clearly, there has to be something to this game that has so many devoted fans including those who emblazon the game's symbols and badges with tattoos (see the Gears Ink campaign).
For two days, I got to play the campaign of Gears of War 4 and many of the game's co-op and versus modes. During this time, I was also able to sit down with the game's developers like Otto Ottoson (Lead Multiplayer Producer), Beau Breannan (Lead Multiplayer Software Engineer), Mike Rayner (Technical Director), Matt Searcy (Lead Campaign Designer), and Studio Head Rod Fergusson. Through these talks I was able to learn about what goes into making the game, the challenges of delivering such a game with high expectations, and what that game offers to those – like myself – who are new to the whole Gears world.
Gears of War 4 – A new beginning
What makes Gears of War 4 interesting for myself is while it continues the trilogy – albeit 25 years later – the game is kicking off a new generation in the Gears universe. It's now decades after the end of the Locust war, and Sera (the home world in Gears) is deprived of Imulsion, which while causing problems (to say the least) also provided energy for the planet's denizens.
What happened with Marcus Fenix? Is the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) still around and what happened to the Gears?
If you are a veteran of the Gears franchise all of the above gets addressed in Gears of War 4. If you have never even played Gears don't worry about all of that as it's explained in the prolog and during the campaign gameplay. That's what I found refreshing about playing Gears 4 as a new player I never felt out of place. Part of that is because of the new characters like JD (Marcus's son), Del (JD's best friend) and Kait (the female heroine whose mother has disappeared). Those are new to everyone in the Gears universe, and they're kicking off what will likely be a trilogy of new games in the Gear's universe.
A relevant analogy would be what J.J. Abrams had to do with the Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Sure, hardcore Star Wars nerds like me geeked out over it, but if you never saw the original trilogy (you're a bad person, by the way), then you could watch that film without the full context and still get it. The same applies to Gears of War 4 where there is a lot of familiarity for the fan base, but more than enough to pull in new players who have never experienced the familiar drama that inspires the Gears franchise.
...25 years later
The thrust of Gears of War 4 is humanity is on its last legs due to the brutal war with the Locusts (Gears of War 1 through 3). The COG has created zones for citizens to live under constant protection. Automation (robots) have replaced all dangerous jobs including security and construction to ensure the repopulation program loses no lives. The COG is led by First Minister Jinn whose heart is in the right place (we think), but rules with a heavy hand. Not everyone likes her authoritarian style, so some people leave the COG settlements. These people are labeled 'Outsiders,' and they frequently raid COG settlements for supplies.
While the two groups are not at war, they are not entirely friendly either. That's why when citizens of the COG settlements go missing they look to the Outsiders as the culprits.
So far, so good. But as like all good movies the friction between the COG and Outsiders is kind of a McGuffin. The real threat is something unknown, inhuman, and sinister (aka The Swarm). JD and his friends Del and Kait get caught between the two groups and search out JD's father, Marcus Fenix, the legendary Gears solider who now lives neither with the COG nor the Outsiders, but alone on a large, secluded farmstead. Can someone say badass?
This moment is where the two generations meet. It's quite dramatic to see Marcus aged 25 years, and I'm confident fans of the franchise will enjoy his important role in this game.
The COG track down JD, Del, and Kait to Marcus's homestead and let's just say all hell breaks loose.
A new, but familiar style
What I found exciting about the campaign was the focus on an unraveling plot that goes from attacking COG DeeBees (robots) to the new, but familiar biological threat that is something other than the Locusts (cough, The Swarm). Speaking of, the DeeBees are quite entertaining in how they attack (they don't duck) and some of the lines they mechanically bark are out of context. This disconnect makes sense as their mission has shifted from police to authoritarian soldiers who want to kill Marcus. What jerks.
If I had to make a more general comparison I'd say elements of the game resemble Resident Evil with its slow, unraveling, horror and Half Life 2 with its shifting game style that feels like you are playing the movie version of a great Sci-Fi thriller.
Lead Campaign Designer Matt Searcy tells me that the intent was to get back to the feeling of the original Gears game where there was more mystery, and less slog. I was also happy to see the game having more color instead of the drab, beaten down look from the previous games.
Searcy notes that the ability to free themselves from the constraints of the original franchise was liberating for them. The planet Sera is now healing from the damage, so life is coming back, but not without compromise. One of those is the spectacular wind storms (called Windflares) that keep popping up during gameplay. These giant threats of wind and fire look like something out of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and not only are they terrifying, but they affect gameplay too with a burst of the wind that blows the trees and leaves around the environment.You can feel their ominous approach.
While some of the gameplay gets a bit repetitive e.g. the constant arrival of new DeeBees the game quickly shifts tone – and enemies – just as the right time before you get bored. The game also has some very forced mechanics e.g. you can't wander very far or discover many secrets so no love for open-worlds. Instead, the game directs you on a specific, pre-ordained path with little room to explore. Nonetheless, the story kept me intrigued, and I can't say I ever became frustrated even after 90 minutes of straight of playing the campaign.
If there is one thing Gears of War is known for it is the Co-op and Versus side of the game. For years, people have been playing Gears online with people around the world, forming relationships, and honing their skills in Horde Mode and Team Deathmatch.
Personally, I have always been apprehensive of such gameplay if only because I always find myself randomly being sniped. So, what has Gears of War 4 done differently to assuage my fears of being pwned without justice?
I spoke with Otto Ottoson (Lead Multiplayer Producer) and Beau Breannan (Lead Multiplayer Software Engineer) about my concerns, and luckily they had the right answers. GoW4 brings improved matchmaking based on some technology from Microsoft Research whose algorithms promise to deliver fairer results. Players now have skill ranks - Bronze, Silver, Gold, Onyx, all the way up to Diamond – based on your actual game experience and performance. Users can level up to categories as they improve and as will continually be matched – in theory – against people of equal ability.
There are the usual styles of gameplay including Warzone, Team Deathmatch, Dodge Ball, King of the Hill, Guardian, and Arms Race. Arms Race and Dodge Ball are both new and quite fun.
In Arms Race both teams start with the same weapon (Boomshot). Each time a team kills three opponents, they shift to another of the game's thirteen firearms. The first to go through all thirteen of the arms wins (it ends on the Boltok). It's a fun way to learn the mechanics of the new weapons and get a feel for different styles. Going from a pistol to a sniper rifle and dramatically change the situation.
The studio describes Dodge Ball as "a high intensity respawn mode with epic clutch moments" and that's because you can respawn a teammate when you kill an enemy. Just as one side is winning, a few kills can dramatically shift the game and the round (the object is to eliminate everyone on the opposing team).
Interestingly, with Gears of War 4 PC and console gamers can play together. However, due to the advantageous nature of a mouse and keyboard setup, at least for online versus modes the two shall not meet. PC and console can play on the same team, however, for all co-op modes like Horde 3.0 where the enemy is the computer. Nonetheless, if you wanted to host your own LAN party you could allow PC and console users to play against each other (aka Private Versus). PC players will even have a 'PC' designation when listed to let others know. Clever.
Horde 3.0 is where it's at
I think the most interesting of the online multiplayer gameplay is the Horde 3.0. This five-player co-op pits you up against 50-waves of ever evolving enemies with a boss wave on every tenth wave.
A new element in Horde 3.0 is the Fabricator, which the developers describe as an "indestructible military-grade 3D printer". Think of Command and Conquer where you first have to choose a location for your base, and you'll get the idea. This style of gameplay mixes real-time strategy with a third person shooter game, and it adds a new, creative element to the match. Building your base on the high ground gives you a vantage point, but you are now also exposed to Guardians (flying DeeBee drones). Choosing something sheltered gives you some protection, but you are now vulnerable to explosive weaponry.
Let's get classy! Gears of War also introduces the increasingly popular mechanic of class systems: Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Sniper and Engineer. We have seen such systems used in the Borderlands series where you choose a specialty and level-up through experience. The difference with Gears, however, is that you are not forced to remain in that class. Engineers can grab a sniper rifle; a Heavy can run and do a Scout's job, etc. While sticking to your class has advantages this flexibility lets you breathe a little on during the game. Users can level up with five skill slots and up to 13 different skills.
Users can also do some personalization for character and weapons skins as well as emblems.
I found Horde 3.0 to be a ton of fun. You are playing on a team, you have a role (albeit flexible, if necessary), and there is less pressure than in Versus. The maps are certainly challenging, and the way the levels evolve will keep you on your toes. For the record, I did see all 50-levels beat, but it will be a massive challenge to make that a regular occurrence (Not to mention the time needed! I sense a lot of breakups in the future...).
We'll be doing a lot with Horde 3.0 when Windows Central regularly streams the game later next month on Beam, so stay tuned.
As someone new to the Gears of War world I have to admit I'm quite excited about Gears of War 4. Some of that is also because I have a 4K TV with HDR and an Xbox One S. Yes, Gears of War 4 is one of the few new HDR games to hit and having personally seen the results during my Vancouver trip all I can say is 'wow, not a gimmick.'
Besides technical wizardry, I thoroughly enjoyed the Campaign, the story, and the accessibility for new users like myself to the franchise. I'll be curious to see how others review the game, including our own Jez Corden, in the coming weeks, but for now, I can say I finally get it.
All I want to do is play Horde 3.0, hear Marcus's gravelly banter, and maybe chainsaw a few of the Swarm with gooey satisfaction. Count me in!