I played Gears of War 4 at The Coalition, and I can't stop thinking about chainsaw guns

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

Launch Trailer

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!

The Coalition

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).

Rod Fergusson

Rod Fergusson, Studio Head of The Coalition, Vancouver, Canada

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.

Marcus could use some Just for Men

Marcus could use some Just for Men

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.

"You're not the droid I'm looking for...wait wrong series."

"You're not the droid I'm looking for...wait wrong series."

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.

I could not get this through U.S. Customs...or did I? Bwahaha...cough, nevermind.

I could not get this through U.S. Customs...or did I? Bwahaha...cough, nevermind.

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?

"S'up, I'm Kait. Can I chainsaw you?"

"S'up, I'm Kait. Can I chainsaw you?"

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.

"Come at me, bro!"

"Come at me, bro!"

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.

"I'll just take a little off the...ah forget it, bisection it is!"

"I'll just take a little off the...ah forget it, bisection it is!"

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.

Multiplayer goodness

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.

Do not, I repeat do not mess with Marcus's tomatoes

Do not, I repeat do not mess with Marcus's tomatoes

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.

Road rage. Personified.

Road rage. Personified.

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.

"I'm not sure what to kill so I'll just shoot everything"

"I'm not sure what to kill so I'll just shoot everything"

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.

Everything you need to know about Gears of War 4's Horde Mode: Class list, cross-play and more

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...).

In detail with Gears of War 4's Horde Mode 3.0 designer

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.

Wrap up

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!

See Gears of War 4 at Microsoft Store (opens in new tab)

Need more? Don't miss our other coverage of Gears of War 4 including:

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

  • I'd like to thank everyone at The Coalition for hosting us game nerds last week. Also, Vancouver rocks. For the rest of you, tell me why you are excited about Gears of War 4 or why you think it won't hold up! Why am I excited? Passion. I guess every studio feel strongly about their games, but there is something authentic about The Coalition and Gears that is somewhat intoxicating. It's fun to see people so committed to a game and its creation. Hopefully, you will too.
  • Great review and interview
  • I've never really enjoyed the competitive co-op in gears very much. Always felt a little clunky to me, which was never a problem for me in Single Player and Co-op. I'm going to give it another go of course, but mainly want to play single player and Horde 3.0 which looks even more fun than in past games. I'm looking forward to seeing if the gameplay has changed much, how the cover system has evolved etc. I didn't play GoW Judgement but I have the other 3 digital from either past purchases and GwG - I guess I'll pre-order and get Judgement to complete the set!
  • Glad to see Vancouver treated you well, you lucked out with some decent weather too!  Where was the Vancouver meet and greet invite? :D
  • Anybody know how many Horde maps are included with the base game? And also if they have commented on how many new Horde maps will be added through DLC? I'm not paying the £80 to pre-order it with the season pass, just going to wait until the pass comes on offer in 6 months and enjoy the base game right away. £49.99 is normal for the digital release, and I'll be getting it that way because I just prefer digital these days and Xbox Play Anywhere. The downside to this is that it'll be £10 cheaper in store, so you're paying the extra there for the convenience/Play Anywhere - What was great about ReCore is that it's the same price in store regardless.
  • Can't wait to play these games, I bought gears of war but never got to play it because I needed a graphics card that supports direct x12. Never the less halo Spartan strike and assault gave me a blast. Really going to save towards that Surface Book. Greetings from Jamaica.
  • Finally. I thought I was the only Jamaican here. You use a windows phone too? Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Yes I do, Lumia 640. Running Windows 10 anniversary update on both laptop and phone. It's a great experience :)
    Posted via Lumia 640 (build 14393.189)
  • Cool. I'm stuck with an Android phone right now, but I should be getting a lumia 1520 today. Can't wait to see those tiles again. Glad to know I'm not the only Jamaican that uses and actually like windows phones. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Cheers, once you go Windows you won't go back. Big up yu self. Up up up waaay up
  • Woyoii! Nuff respect mi general. Will let you know how updating the 1520 goes. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Ahh
  • Cannot wait to play this.
  • I'm looking forwards to Horde! Never really enjoyed competitive co-op (In Gears specifically, love it in Battlefield and many others for example) Going to give the PvP multiplayer a go though in case the latest and greatest can change my opinion. Xbox Play Anywhere too! Absolutely a bargain.
  • Do you know if on Xbox One this will run at 30fps or 60fps? It doesn't really matter in terms of whether I'll enjoy it but if it's 30FPS on console it'll be another great example (next to ReCore) of how we WILL see a difference for those interested when Scorpio is unleashed upon us. You can play ReCore on Max settings (at 1080p) with pretty modest hardware and get a solid 60FPS and it shows (IMO) the kind of gap we could see in visuals / gameplay for games running on Scorpio vs current Xbox One consoles. ReCore (like Gears will be) is extremely fun on BOTH platforms, but my observation is around the few visual tweaks and improvement framerate that can be achieved with just a GTX 960 2GB vs the Xbox One version - It doesn't mean the Xbox One version isn't good but shows with Scorpio those of us who want that premium performance in our living room will have an option and will be able to have a more consistent experience across PC and Console with Play Anywhere titles. Regardless of console framerate I'll be playing this largely on Xbox but also on PC at times and can't wait!
  • 30FPS for campaign, 60FPS for co-op/versus.
  • Sweet, that's not bad at all and the game looks gorgeous
  • Did you get PTSD like the guy who shot the AR15?