I am terrible at keeping my expectations realistic. It’s hard for me to refrain from overhyping just about anything these days. The Force Awakens outweighed lightsabers with nostalgia, Jurassic World was all product placements, Deadpool wasn’t R-rated enough, and Leo could have gotten twice as mauled by that grizzly—okay, The Revenant was as good as I had hoped. But the point is, the Vancouver Canucks having a solid hockey season may be the only thing to surpass my expectations this fall.
So when it comes to abundantly hyped video games, I’m cynical. And as someone passionate about the original Gears of War trilogy, I was seriously skeptical about the upcoming Gears of War 4. The storyline that drove the first three games is finished; the Locust War had been won and Marcus Fenix was left wondering if it was all worth it. It was a beautiful story powered by love, friendship, determination, and chainsaw bayonets. So isn’t it best left alone?
The 12 year-old me wishes it were—I don’t think he could handle another situation like Halo 4. After years of devoted patriotism to the series, I asked Cortana why we were fighting The Covenant again, and all she could muster was, “A lot can happen in four years, Chief.” It seemed that an entire trilogy of gaming history was rendered moot in one lazy line of dialogue.
For years Halo and Gears of War stood as pillars that held up my end of the Xbox/Playstation debacle, and one of them had collapsed underneath me. The value of Sony’s hardware has always been evident, but Microsoft had franchises that I loved. First with the old black box of Xbox Live, a headset, and MechAssault; then the 1000+ hours of Halo 2, and finally when Gears of War came out there was no more doubt.
Nowadays Gears of War has become Microsoft’s last chance at getting me excited about AAA Xbox games, and it’s hard not to put high expectations on that. Microsoft purchased the rights to the franchise and entrusted it in the hands of Vancouver-based studio The Coalition. At last year’s E3 The Coalition debuted two of the game’s new characters, new enemies, as well as a few new moves, but it wasn’t enough to shake the doubt. I had flashbacks to the death of the Didact in Halo 4—the time that 343 Industries stooped to the low level of a quick-time event for its final boss. I cringed.
It wasn’t until April when the first cinematic trailer dropped that my expectations were genuinely raised. While the story behind Gears of War 4 was still a mystery, The Coalition had offered fans the connection to the original trilogy that they craved. The blonde protagonist seen in the E3 trailer is in fact the son of Marcus Fenix and Anya Stroud, two lead characters for the originals, and is speculatively named after Marcus’ two dearest male companions—his father Adam Jonathan Fenix and his best friend Dominic Santiago. Many years after the death of the Locust Queen, and the decimation of the Locust as a species, JD Fenix is fighting his own war. The new enemy is known as “The Swarm,” and while their origin is currently unknown, they do bear a strong resemblance to the Locust.
Even before I played the beta, I knew I would appreciate the multiplayer in Gears 4. It was a lot like what Gears of War: Ultimate Edition should have felt like: Gears of War multiplayer for the new generation of console gaming. The new weapons, like the Dropshot grenade launcher, aren’t breaking any new ground, but the upgrades to old conventions are compelling. Someone who hasn’t picked up a controller since Gears of War 3 will feel right at home.
With Gears of War 4, a new mechanic has been added to the cover battle, which The Coalition dubs “CCC,” or “close-cover-combat.” With CCC a player can now sprawl over cover to ‘Shanghai’ an opponent by dragging them over and leaving them dazed and vulnerable to the new execution—a knife to the face. These new additions can be pulled off with ample timing, but targeted players can also parry vault kicks and CCC with precisely prompted button presses of their own. These complementary new systems spruce up the old pop-n’-shoot cover battles of past games in the series, while maintaining real Gears-y action.
Although I still appreciate Halo multiplayer, both of 343i’s releases had abysmal storylines. Halo has lost its intimacy, and I fear this could be the direction the Gears franchise is being shaken. If the JD storyline isn’t engaging, the value will be in the battle tested multiplayer and the multiplayer alone—and at today’s game prices what kind of value is that? Gears 4 could be just the latest big-ticket Xbox-original with a messy transition to the new generation of consoles.
I look at the cinematic trailer and wonder why I got excited. The Swarm doesn’t seem any different than the Locust, or even the lambent humans from Gears 3, and the trailer revealed little more information than JD’s initials on his family farm. Yet I watched it probably 10 times in two days. Something was hyping me up.
Then I remembered the first time I saw the trailer for Gears of War. I had read all about Gears in a preview edition of Xbox Magazine, months prior to its release, but still images hadn’t done it justice. So when the trailer appeared on the little flat screen television in my parent’s kitchen, I was floored. The Donnie Darko version of “Mad World,” by Gary Jules, caught my attention, but it was Marcus firing hopelessly into the darkness as a Corpser plunged downward that excited me more than any game trailer ever has. It is an image that is still with me.
That’s when I realized why we build up hype around entertainment: because why the fuck not? What else will keep fans interested in long hiatuses between installments? Most AAA games are not produced like baby bunnies or Call of Duty games. We should not be afraid of what lies ahead, nor what 12-year-old boys think. I didn’t quite have my shit together back then.
Now with Epic Games alumni, Rod Fergusson, in control as studio head, chances are The Coalition has taken the appropriate actions to ensure their new chapter complements the book of the franchise. In an impromptu interview with Game Informer, Fergusson answered (almost all) 105 questions he was asked, many of which Gears fans have been wondering for years. The very fact the developers named their studio “The Coalition,” a name pulled right from the heart of the franchise, suggests it’s a studio with focus. This is their game now, and unlike Halo, the Gears of War storyline was never based on high science. This is personal.