Killer Instinct creator Ken Lobb had a very interesting comment about Black Tusk Studios and their upcoming Gears of War title for the Xbox One. He said the game would be “innovative” and that there were a ton of interesting ideas for the next bloody chapter.
When one looks back and thinks about the first Gears of War, it’s amazing to forget how much the game innovated.
It changed the way we looked at third person shooters. No longer were you zipping around levels, playing third person platformer while dealing with enemies. Now you were meandering around, dealing with your own bulky weight and dying out in the open. It was for this purpose that developer Epic Games decided to mimic “real warfare” and have you rely primarily on cover. The rules were simple: Find cover or die trying.
But that’s not all. Gears of War also introduced the Active Reload, which had you carefully timing your button presses to properly reload. A wrong reload caused your gun to jam. A proper reload saw you ready your weapon that much faster and a true Active Reload meant the next few bullets (or potentially the whole clip) received a damage boost. In the midst of finding covering, struggling to reload and mowing down foes that were extremely dangerous even in pairs; Gears of War delivered a palpable, hellish experience that had you on the edge of your seat.
Of course, the main mind behind Gears of War, Cliff Bleszinski, didn’t stop there. The game’s intensity was further enhanced by a near-lethal injection of violence, post-apocalyptic genocide and outright brutality. Chainsaws attached to assault rifles chopped Locust to pieces. You could brutally execute enemies on the ground or gib them into several pieces using explosives, perhaps best exemplified by the Hammer of Dawn’s concentrated laser from heaven.
Mix in some water-cooler moments inspired by Resident Evil 4 – the encounter with the Brumak, the first fight with the Berserker, laying siege to Locust barracks, fighting off General RAAM on a train, navigating the brutal darkness as enemy Kryll waited till all was dark – and Gears of War for its time was one of the craziest and most outright insane shooters out there. And that’s not even counting its biggest contribution to cooperative multiplayer with Horde Mode.
It wasn’t its mechanics that made Gears of War innovative or outright amazing but they helped bring its essence to the forefront of gamers’ minds. Even as Gears of War 2 and 3 shifted the focus towards more cover-based shooting and narrative-focused murder respectively, the action shooter’s many layers left us wanting for more.
Which brings us to Gears of War 4 and reminds us of Gears of War: Judgment, another game in the series that wasn’t developed by Epic Games (it was actually handled by Bulletstorm developer People Can Fly). Judgment took the traditional Gears of War experience and attempted to add its own hooks. You can choose tougher variants of missions. The enemy count was significantly higher.
Newer weapons were added along with newer enemy varieties. Horde Mode had been incorporated into the single-player campaign while Survival took a more class-based, defense-focused objective. All in all, it was a solid Gears of War experience but did it really offer much distinction between “hook” and “innovation”?
This is the main obstacle that lies before Gears of War 4. In attempting to keep the game firmly entrenched in Locust-massacring territory, Judgment acted as a prequel but Gears 4 can’t bury its head in the sands of time. It needs to make a solid effort at moving forward.
So why not set the game several decades or even centuries after the first? The Locust Horde itself resulted from early human Lambents and their mutated genes being passed down to their children. The Horde then found itself torn between fighting the divergent Lambents and being pushed towards Sera’s surface to establish its own home. The Locust formed the basis for a lot of Gears of Wars’ gameplay – would it be a cop out to bring them back again? It would, if they suddenly just reappeared in full force. So why not a slow evolutionary return, entrenched in the annals of human corruption and conspiracy that finally sees them make their triumphant return by game’s end?
The only problem with this route would be the placebo enemies that the player would need to cut down throughout the game. This isn’t Gears of War without insane cover-based warfare and the Lambent reappearing would just be a similar dilemma. So why not have a cult built around the Locust, one that worships the teachings of Skorge and swears by Queen Meera in the middle of another civil war between the various factions of humanity?
The cult could slowly swell in power before declaring open war as their attempts to bring back the Locust come to fruition. This serves to paint the Locust in a new political light – that of an alternate solution befitting of humanity’s current state but one steeped in past horrors.
With regards to the game’s mechanics, it makes sense to incorporate some form of linear mission progression intermixed with the ability to race around a giant set piece and murder enemies. It would be akin to Halo’s open air battles which promised multiple approaches, vehicles and tactics towards successfully killing enemies.
We’ve seen hints of such open air areas in the Gears of franchise but within a tighter area – and without the feeling of “Go there and do this thing before doubling back and doing the other thing” – it could help lend that urgency of war without compromising on the in-your-face intensity that the series if known for.
Active Reload shouldn’t be scrapped but it should be built. Deliver damage multipliers for successive Active Reloads. Send out enemies that can only be taken down in this fashion or at least structure certain difficulties in such a way that these multipliers will be necessary. Allow gamers to customize their load outs at the beginning of each mission along with different Perks and Abilities. Give them different equipment to further distinguish themselves from their friends and have these character load outs carry over into multiplayer/co-op.
Most importantly, Gears of War 4 should incorporate some form of persistent multiplayer. Have up to 16 players fighting together in the campaign, turning the exercise into one gigantic Horde campaign, and throw in those same open air missions for some additional carnage. There is so much that could be done with the next game in the series that it’s plain crazy to think about.
However, the one thing that Black Tusk Studios shouldn’t compromise on with Gears of War 4 is the series’ spirit. It’s about killing. It’s about staying alive and it’s about being a bad-ass about it. Plot, characterization, dialogue wheels, sandbox elements and whatnot are some nice hooks but at the end of the day, it’s about chain sawing an enemy to bits for the 1000th time and still feeling like it means something.