Fun gameplay, but with worldbuilding that undermines the story.
The original Gears of War trilogy was a a game series that changed how players and designers approached the cover-based shooter. It popularized stop-and-pop shooter gameplay, something that ended up moving beyond the third person shooter, and over to some first person shooters as well.
The game’s narrative also had a fairly strong improvement over time – from the first game’s story being generally straightforward, but with some significant narrative hiccups, to the second story being solid, with a scope that successfully ranged from the world-threatening to the personal, and the third game having some incredibly strong characterization, including bringing some much needed depth to Cole.
Much like with Halo 4, Gears 4 shifts the developer to an in-house development studio run by Microsoft, with some of the same staff who worked on the earlier games. Unfortunately, unlike Halo 4, Gears 4 doesn’t quite do the same sort of narrative shift.
The game picks up about 20 years after the events of Gears 3 and the defeat of the Locust – the COG government is in the midst of rebuilding Sera, and shutting down the stormwall that had been protecting the COG government’s hidey-hole in Gears 3 have caused other massive storms to ravage the planet, with massive cyclones and lightning storms equal in power to the Hammer of Dawn – forcing citizens of the CoG to live in walled cities.
To make up for the lack of manpower, due to the declining population, the COG military has been supplemented by robots under human commanders. Not everyone is down with COG control though – some of the humans are rejecting COG control. Known as the Outsiders, they live in settlements out in the wilds – which has always been some form of Totalitarian in the past, has been actively trying to bring the Outsiders to heel by force.
Our protagonists, J.D. Fenix (Marcus Fenix’ son), and Delmont “Del” Walker, are former COG squad leaders, who left the COG and joined up with an Outsider settlement lead by Reyna Diaz. After a mostly successful raid on a COG construction site to steal a fabricator by J.D., Del, and Reyna’s daughter Kait, and after successfully repelling an attempt by the COG to take over the outpost in response, the Outsiders then finds themselves under attack by a bunch of mysterious creatures, who take everyone save J.D., Del, and Kait, who were locked in a shed by Reyna before the attack. J.D. and company head to meet with Marcus, where they determine that the Locus are back, in a mutated form – leading them to investigate the new threat and save any survivors from the outpost.
This leads to my main problem with the game. Halo 4, by changing up the primary enemy from the Flood to the Forerunners also significantly changed up the gameplay. The Forerunners worked very differently from the Flood, and consequently you had to change up their tactics more. The enemies that you’re generally familiar with – the Covenant, were still present, and you had to take them down the same way, but making the new primary opponents very different provides for some significant gameplay variety, and a dramatic visual shift from the other games.
On the other hand, while the COG Drones are very different, visually and tactically, from Locust Drones – the Swarm (the new form of the Locust) fight pretty much exactly the same way as the ones from the first 3 games – because they are almost literally the same enemies from the first 3 games. The main change between the old Locust and the Swarm, on the game-play front, are a few new units. The swarm has “Scions”, who use heavy weapons and make other regular enemies tougher, and a couple new types of boss style enemies. Of those, the most notable, and most frustrating, is the Snatcher.
Snatchers have a one-hit knockdown attacks, which can knock down an squad member immediately, and AOE “puke” attacks, which spews acid over an area of the map causing anyone passing through there to take damage. They are then able to capture downed squad members, and will immediately try to leave the map – and if they succeed it’s an immediate game over. They will release the character if they take enough damage to their belly. If an NPC squad member gets captured, this isn’t too much of an issue, because the player is able to target enough firepower to the critter to get your fellow squaddie loose. However, if you are captured, there’s no guarantee that the AI controlled characters will have the sense to fire on the Snatcher with enough accuracy to get you out.
This leads to my frustration with this game. While the controls are solid, Gears 4 does one thing that Halo 4 didn’t – it cheapens the victory of the third game by causing all the work the characters had done, and all the lives lost to be for nothing - or for that matter worse than nothing as it ultimately caused the Locust to become stronger and harder to kill. While the game still plays fairly well, and the characters are much more warm and witty than the cold and harsh protagonists of the original trilogy, the it’s at the cost of building a world.
The original Gears trilogy was vague as to the state of humanity in the Galaxy – with the seeming implication being that Sera was an Terran attempt to settle another planet via slow-boat colony ship several years down the line. This made sense as to why we were digging in as hard as we were – humanity had dedicated considerable resources to get here, and it would be impossible to go back (and there wasn’t the resources to go somewhere else). Further, it caused Emergence Day to make sense – if humans had only existed on Sera for, say, 50-100 years, it would make sense for them to not have run in to the Locust at all before Emergence Day.
Gears 4 makes it clear that no, Seran humans are not Terrans – which means, in a weird way, as Sera has become more and more inhospitable to human life, from the fight with the Locust to the storms ravaging the planet, there’s all the more reason to just leave. Yet, they don’t – indeed, apparently nobody is considering the concept. Maybe later in this trilogy we’ll have someone entertaining the concept of just buggering off to a planet that – without the Swarm (which don't want to coexist) and the Windflares (caused by the destruction of the Stormwall) – won't be actively trying to kill them (or at least not to the same extent).
Additionally, if Serans evolved on Sera, then there would have had to be previous encounters with the Locust. However, again, Emergence Day is considered the first major contact between humans and the Locust, with no record of them in the past – not even in legends. So, why hasn’t there been some kind of major contact between the two races in what has clearly been thousands of years of history before Emergence Day?
Is this game fun? Yes. However, after Gears 3 provided a really strong sense of closure, Gears 4 feels like it undermines that. I may pick up the next game, but I’m now less sure.
(Note: This originally appeared on my blog)