It’s more than two years since Microsoft acquired the Gears of War IP from Epic, and a good nine months since The Coalition unveiled their newest title in the third-person shooter franchise at E3 last year. But for all the familiar elements – the chunky armour, the chainsaw bayonets, the destroyed beauty and the waist-high walls – that reveal didn’t really tell us much. Who were these new characters? Where were they, and what were they doing? Were we even on Sera anymore?
Now, new details have emerged in a Game Informer cover feature. Set 25 years after the climactic events of Gears of War 3, Sera is a very different place. Though it is a time of unprecedented peace, the remnants of humanity now live in walled cities, while violent windstorms batter the planet, an effect of the Imulsion bomb set off at the end of Gears 3. A community of Outsiders – think Stranded, but not nearly so downtrodden – live apart from the COG in their own villages, preferring a freer existence. Into this strange new world come our three protagonists, JD Fenix, Delmont ‘Del’ Walker, and Kait Diaz. The son of the original trilogy’s Marcus Fenix, JD has gone AWOL at the start of the game for reasons unknown, followed by his fiercely loyal childhood friend Del. Taking refuge in an Outsider community, they meet Kait, daughter of the village’s leader Reyna, and described as a capable survivalist who offers a different perspective on the world. When all of Kait’s people are kidnapped, dragged off into the night, the trio set out into the deep, dark woods to look for them, and uncover the mystery behind the Outsiders’ disappearance and the arrival of a grave new threat to the people of Sera.
Rod Fergusson tells Game Informer that the goal for Gears 4 is to get back to that darker, more intimate feeling the first game had, which often felt like four soldiers standing against the night. “It felt like, as the series progressed, we lost some of the intimacy,” said Fergusson. “The first Gears was a little bit darker and spookier, a little bit more bogeyman under the bed. But as you went through two and three, especially three, Gears became more of a World War II game where the Locust essentially became Nazis in a way. Because the scale had grown, you had gone from this sort of incursion behind enemy lines to a war at a planetary level. Even though we were trying to make the stakes greater, on a personal level, it actually felt like the stakes were lessened.” To get back some of that feel, The Coalition settled on a story featuring three protagonists that stretched over a single span of 24 hours. Getting closer to their characters has allowed the studio more time to focus on their development, as well as the theme of lineage, something that will no doubt be an important thread in the narrative of Gears of War 4.
But that’s not to say that Gears 4 is looking to be a retread of the 2006 original. While The Coalition don’t want to reinvent the wheel, there will be plenty of new stuff to look forward to. First off, the eradication of the Locust Horde means our heroes need an all-new threat to combat, and we now know they’ll be called The Swarm. We’ve already seen one example of this mysterious new force, the agile Pouncer from the E3 gameplay demo, and there’ll also be at least two new creatures to go along with them. The first are Juvies; fast, agile pale humanoids that rush you down to force you out of cover, and are capable of evolving into another new enemy type, the Drone. Named for their counterpart in the Locust army, these hulking monsters are capable of using guns and will likely make up the bulk of The Swarm’s forces. Hopefully they won’t be too similar to the old Drones we all know so well.
Our protagonists have a few new moves up their sleeves as well, mostly focussed around close-quarters combat. “One of the problems we’ve always had was with close cover,” Fergusson told Game Informer. “Occasionally you’ll get into that situation where two people come onto the same piece of cover and it looks kind of silly. It’s kind of The Naked Gun moment where the two people are throwing their pistols at each other. One of our big things in Gears was never make the avatar look stupid, so we started to talk about how we could improve players’ ability to move over cover.” To achieve this, The Coalition reworked the mantle kick system from the third game, making it easier to clear obstacles in one smooth motion. If an enemy happens to be hunkered down on the other side, they’ll be staggered briefly, allowing the player to use another new feature – the combat knife. This can be used in close-quarters situations to quickly execute stunned enemies, and to that end, you’ll even be able to drag your prey out of cover to finish them quickly or, if you’re out in the open, use a new short-range shoulder charge (which can be seen in the E3 demo) to knock your foes off balance.
Those violent windstorms mentioned earlier – called windflares – will also play a part in changing up how you use cover. More than just ominous background elements, the wind can affect projectile trajectory, hinder your movement through the environment, and even tear pieces of it away. Game Informer describes a scenario where you could shoot out support struts during an intense windflare, sending a piece of heavy machinery barrelling across the battlefield, taking out everything in its way, and The Coalition intends for the weather to completely change a play space, so much so that after you’ve moved through it’s almost a completely different environment. Additionally, these windflares are separated into four categories, with category 4 also bringing with it lightning strikes. Thankfully, you won’t have to fight off The Swarm while you struggle to survive these intense moments: “Our original idea was that categories one through four would always involve enemies,” said Fergusson. “But when we started playing around with the wind, we realized that just trying to survive in a category four – just trying to do that rock-climbing-like movement to get from cover to cover – was exciting. I was like, ‘I don’t think we need enemies in a four, but we need something else.’ That’s where the ideas for those lightning flurries came up. I wanted to feel like we were swimming through jellyfish, like we were surrounded by danger on all sides, and it was beautiful.”
With Gears vet Rod Fergusson heading the studio, and with The Coalition’s sterling work on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition under their belts, it feels like Gears of War 4 is in the right hands. “We have to do it right before we do it different,” said Fergusson. “That’s the message I came to The Coalition with. We were new stewards to the franchise, and we had to show that we respected the franchise and that we knew the franchise before we went off and did something crazy.” From what we know of Gears of War 4 so far, it’s sounding like it’ll be an exciting mix of the familiar and the crazy – exactly what we need for the return of one of the last generation’s classics.