“Oh no, not my tomatoes!”
That’s Marcus Fenix, longtime protagonist of Microsoft’s Gears of War series, watching in horror as robot soldiers destroy his precious greenhouse produce. Marcus isn’t the lead here, but he makes a memorable appearance, partially because he’s just so damn funny.
But first, a little history. Microsoft has been making a lot of changes in recent years. As developers of their big-budget action titles like Gears of War and Halo shift to non-Microsoft projects, Microsoft has carried their cash cows to internal production houses created specifically for those games. In this case, Vancouver-based developer the Coalition is responsible for the future of the armor-clad Gears.
For Microsoft and Xbox gamers alike, a new Gears of War is a big deal. The Xbox-exclusive series has managed to ingrain itself into pop culture over the last 10 years in some creative ways. To celebrate the unveiling the new multiplayer “Horde” mode, for instance, hip-hop duo Run the Jewels actually debuted a new song for the trailer and, amusingly, will appear as selectable characters in the multiplayer modes.
The Coalition did a far better job with their first sequel than 343 Industries did with Halo 5. Where that game was a bizarre, humorless mess, tightly wound and desperate to prove itself, Gears of War 4 takes an almost diametrically different approach. The Coalition seems to intrinsically understand the conceptual absurdity of a game about steroid-addled armored men hiding behind objects and killing endless throngs of monsters.
Characters like Fenix are written as if they’re in on the joke that they’re superhuman killing machines modeled after ‘80s-era action heroes. Arnold Schwarzenegger would fit perfectly here. (Here’s hoping they tap him for the just-announced movie!) It’s this sense of irrelevant self-awareness in the characters that makes Gears of War 4 so damn entertaining.
The story, which takes place about 20 years after the last game, somehow manages to move from humor to balls-out action to horror so frequently you’ll almost get whiplash trying to follow it. The weird thing is I actually liked the storytelling here more than any of the previous games. Developing a sequel to a beloved series that pretty much ended with the third iteration can’t be easy. After all, your hands are virtually tied in terms of the changes you can make to a design already long-since set in stone.
The actual gameplay, despite a few minor changes here and there, remains almost identical to the older Xbox 360 games. The action is all about ducking behind obstacles to shoot at bad things from cover. Take away the story and you’d be left with a series of large rooms and corridors where predictable shootouts occur over and over and over. Gears of War has always been a game that used narrative to break up the ultimately repetitive action, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun. The violent gunplay is intense and satisfying and uses its third-person perspective to create an unrivaled atmosphere of war and chaos few games have ever come close to attaining.
But I wouldn’t stay with the game if that’s all there was. Gears of War 4 reinforces the idea that heroes don’t always get a happily-ever-after and just because the war is over, things don’t simply go back to normal. It just happens to tell its grim story with a distinct and terrific sense of gallows humor. It’s a valuable lesson for other developers struggling to crawl out from under the looming shadow of the past. I honestly didn’t expect to find so much heart in another sequel I had passed off as a cheap cash grab. Turns out sarcasm, insults and bad dad jokes in the face of death and destruction do make things better.