Wednesday 19 June 2019

Getting Back Into Gears

After feeling lukewarm about Gears of War 4 when it came out, I'm surprised to find it sucking me in as I revisit it in anticipation of the sequel.

I have been a fan of the Gears of War franchise ever since the first one truly kicked off the HD era of games way back in 2006. Gears of War 2 is, and probably will remain, one of my favourite games of all time. I spent what must have been hundreds of hours playing with my friends in Horde, the wave-based cooperative survival mode that sparked countless imitators. Gears of War 3 continued the series' upward trajectory, layering complexity on top of Horde, introducing the novel reverse-Horde mode 'Beast', and brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. When I packed away my consoles from that generation, the Gears of War trilogy was part of a mere handful of games that I held on to.

Franchises being handed to a new developer is a double-edged sword. Successful series can become a creative burden on a studio even as they bolster their financial security, and a fresh take on a familiar idea has potential. But oftentimes the result is simply the new studio hitting the bullet points of what fans expect. Gears of War had already undergone something like this: when Microsoft needed a stop-gap game as the 360/PS3 generation dragged on longer than anticipated and the true next gen games were still far off. Gears of War: Judgement, handed off to the studio People Can Fly, was so poorly received that I never bought it. Even a studio with a proven track record like People Can Fly can sometimes struggle to take the reins on a much-beloved series.

Thus, Gears of War 4 had a lot to prove. Microsoft had completely taken over the IP from Epic and had assigned the game to Black Tusk Games, newly rebranded as The Coalition to highlight that this was the Gears developer from now on. I was excited and played the game at launch on my PC, using the game as an excuse to upgrade my graphics card in the process, since Nvidia were giving the game away for free when you bought a GTX 1080. I played through the campaign, had a couple of Horde matches with my friends and then... dropped the game and never looked back.

Whilst I had a good time with the game, it didn't leave much of a lasting impression. The campaign was fun and whilst some of the set pieces were spectacular and there were plenty of good callbacks to the old games, they didn't stick with me. The added depth and progression systems of Horde 3.0 promised something new, but the slow pace of levelling up and exploitative loot box and card system pushed me away. Overall the whole thing felt safe, because it was just more Gears of War with better graphics. Protagonist JD Fenix, son of original protagonist Marcus, was symptomatic of this problem. A carbon copy of what had come before but with Marcus' gruffness replaced with snark.

It was only right at the end of the game that things got interesting. My lasting impression of the game is the way the story ends: a ridiculous climax which has you piloting a giant robot, followed by some seismic revelations about the nature of the world regarding humans and their meaty, insectoid foes.

Recently, in an effort to spend more time connecting with my online friends and because Gears 5 is on the horizon, I've dipped back into Gears 4, and I'm actually stunned at how much more I'm enjoying it. I don't know if they rebalanced the levelling curves but now I'm advancing extremely fast through the multiplayer ranks. The new Horde Lite playlist makes it much easier to play the game without having to dedicate an entire evening to a single match. I finally figured out that I could scrap the cards I didn't want to craft something I did (and I've been playing as Colonel Hoffman ever since!)

I'm also playing through the storyline again and having a much, much better time. And I think I understand why. The ending of Gears 4, and everything that has been shown of Gears 5 so far, indicates that it's outsider Kait, not bland son-of-the-first-guy JD, who is the main character of this new story. In a franchise that took way, way too long to introduce female playable characters it's very encouraging that she is becoming the focus, rather than just a side character. Knowing that the story of Gears 4 is actually leading somewhere, that it's not just "Hey, the grubs are back for some reason" makes it far more interesting.

Suddenly I find myself very excited about Gears again, more so than I have in quite some time. Last week at E3 Coalition revealed their new three-player coop mode Escape which looks interesting, and I'm really hoping that the last few years of players voicing their dislike of loot boxes will prompt them to come up with something better and make it less painful or expensive for me to play as Colonel Hoffman. Edit: The day after I published this post, Coalition published this article on the official website explaining that content will no longer be earned through random loot boxes. Yay!

Gears 5 is coming soon, and this time I'll be ready!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.