A lot of people laughed at Gears of War 4’s E3 gameplay reveal. I can understand why. They were expecting bombast. They were expecting spectacle. They were expecting next-level chainsaw guttings, flecking lurid, red garnish over a meaty maelstrom of elevated cover-shooting and elaborate, but distinctly no-nonsense new firepower. They wanted the brutal, ballsy, and bloody spirit of Gears transplanted into a new machine, one harder, faster, shinier, and more defiantly nasty.
What they got was two new, unidentified characters nervously whispering to each other while exploring a distinctly empty hamlet setting, as well as the grounds of some kind of fort, broken up only by a brief bout of running away. From a storm. In the pitch black. For what felt like the best part of a long weekend. Coming off the expectations laid down by the escalation between Gears 2 and 3, it felt more like a pre-alpha Resident Evil game, one into which they’d forgotten to place the zombies, before panicking and throwing in a last-minute slug-dog seconds before the demo machine was pushed out on stage.
And you know what? I loved it.
Not at the time. At the time I was there with the rest of you, tapping my foot furiously enough to take off, whereupon I would awkwardly hover at my desk while still waiting for something to fucking happen. At the time I giggled like everyone else, at how badly Microsoft had chosen the demo section for this most important reboot of one of its most important and industry-shaking franchises.
After the misfiring, Call of Duty: Spartan Warfare unveil of Halo 5's campaign, the presentation of Gears 4 compounded the feeling that while I was certainly witnessing an aspiring console on the resurgence, it was having its legs kicked out from under it by misguided parents every time it was about to make a big splash. Like a teenage nerd who’d lucked his way through to gold medal glory for the school diving team, only for his mum to accidentally pack his dad’s oversized paisley trunks for the final.
But then I sat back for a little while, poured myself a relaxing, frosty gin, and stroked my beard, properly cogitating what I’d just seen. And I decided that what I’d just seen was very possibly the return of the Gears of War – the real Gears of War – I’d loved in 2006. The one I adored, but had long since-mourned as the series progressively lost the run of itself.
You see Gears of War used to be a very different beast to what it has become over recent years. Before Gears 2 and 3’s game of sequel one-upmanship turned into a furious bullet-pissing contest - the latter game in particular whirling around its glowing, chainsaw-equipped, Lambent war-peen until dangerously close to snapping off in a burst of luminous viscera – the game that started the franchise, hooked the fandom, and captured the hearts and minds of a generation of shooter fans worldwide, was a much more intimate affair.
When I think of Gears of War – of the best times I’ve had in Gears of War - I don’t think of cities being sunk with giant worms, or sunlit warships being defended against monolithic tentacles with miniature mechs, or giant glowing bullshit exploding all over giant, exploding arenas as I run frantically from underground missiles that don’t give a shit about the tactical quality of my cover-use. I think of bleak, quiet, dead, dusky streets. I think of a perpetually creeping tension. I think of a growing, heavy sense of fatalism. I think of being alone, in the dark, behind enemy lines, with no help coming and minimal chance of ever seeing home again. I think of desperation, and I think of tight, back-footed, guerrilla determination, of summoning the will to take down just that next Locust, simply survive the next onslaught and move on a little further.
Because that’s what Gears of War is about. It’s a tight, demanding, but grimly satisfying cover-shooter draped with the black robes of survival-horror. It’s a game that amplifies the precise, hard-edged, grievous nature of its combat with an atmosphere of choking hopelessness. That – more than the cool of the Roadie Run, or tactile badassery of the Active Reload – is what made Gears of War so resonant, so powerful, so compulsive.
Along the way, as a result of the inevitable, gradual creep of ‘splosive, showboating spectacle that so often smothers those series with the affront to get it right first time, we lost that. And due to the slow-burn nature of that change, playing out as it did over five years, we eventually lost track of what we were even missing.
At the end of those five years, we had a very different game wearing the mask of the Gears logo. We had a sundrenched, globetrotting, Technicolor adventure movie, whose sense of apocalyptic peril had been forcibly scaled up several times over, as necessitated by repetition, to the point that there was no possible, relatable human element left to it. And we had it with an increased co-op cap of four – a move Cliff Bleszinski had previously written off, over fears that opening up a Gears campaign to any more than two players would unbalance the game and radically change its flow.
And old Cliff was right. The simple addition of two extra seats to the lobby acts as a playable metaphor for the series’ tonal changes, the forced influx of additional friendly NPCs ballooning Gears’ tight, demanding skirmish-grounds into vast, disorienting vagaries over which the player has greatly reduced direct control. Hell, on Normal difficulty you can easily get through vast swathes of the game without firing a shot. There’s nothing desperate, powerful, or compulsive about that.
I want the tension back. I want the claustrophobia back. I want back the sense of being one of a plucky, unlucky few, forced to maximise my firepower through panicked, fraught strategy in order to keep moving through a world of unremitting doom. I want moments like that dark house full of Wretches. I want another sequence like that rain-slicked, night-time forest trek toward the foundry. I want rooms that feel like bosses in themselves, in which one well-placed Troika turret and a handful of grunts combine with surgically unfriendly architecture to create an unswerving, uncompromising environmental meat-grinder. I want to have to deal with all of it with only a machine gun, a couple of emergency grenades, and my wits.
And I think – and really, really hope – that Gears 4 might give me that. It certainly looks like we’re back to two-player co-op, going off the E3 demo. And, assuming that the area shown off is an indicative cross-section of the final game’s values, and not just ‘the bit they had ready’, it also looks like atmospheric exploration and ambient tension are going to be the order of the day. Hell, that coldly sinister synth soundtrack has me half-sold already.
I’m also very heartened by the brief dash of combat on show. While I definitely do not want to be dealing with feral, leaping beasties by default, the returning sense of real danger to Gears’ confrontations makes me very happy, as does the wound-back weapon selection of Lancer, shotgun and pistol. Keep your burrowing rocket launchers and spam-happy flamethrowers. Just give me the basic tools for the job, and let me make them work.
And you know, this isn’t just about personal bias. Not entirely, anyway. Because for Gears of War to have a long-term future on the Xbox One, it has to pare things down. Gears 4 is a game that needs scope for sequels of its own. There’s no way it can be a standalone release. And to found that longevity, it needs to leave its follow-ups some places to go. It needs to give its sequels new things to do, and new directions to expand in. Hopefully more restrained, more thoughtful directions than we got the first time around, of course, but Gears does need to grow. Picking up the style of Gears of War 3 won’t serve anyone well. It’s very telling that the third game’s own follow-up, Judgment, went in a very different direction, remixing the series’ shooting by way of an objective-based score-attack model. It had to. There was just nowhere to go after Gears 3.
So I’m hopeful that Gears 4 is taking us right back to the start, in terms of philosophy if not narrative. Because I want Gears of War to be more than it has been of late. I want it to be more by trying to do less. I want to be really involved in my journey through that crapsack world. I want my actions to matter. And more than anything else, I want to feel it. I want to be scared again. I want that desperate, angry, knife-edge combat to mean something. I want that for me, but I also want that for Gears of War, so that it can grow back into something exciting and relevant, just like it used to be.