If you've been waiting for the next big entry in the Gears of War franchise to witness an evolution, you're going to be disappointed.
"Even the control scheme is the same. You either play by 2006's outdated rules or you're out."
The Gears of War 4 beta recently ended. Of the many disappointing things about it, one thing stood out to me the most: how little it’s changed in the ten years since its inception.
Let me just start by saying that Gears of War's movement mechanics and general character feel never sat right with me. I enjoyed the single-player immensely, and had my fair share of fun with Horde mode. But when it came down to it, its slow and clunky animations never once felt like a good fit for multiplayer. Gears of War multiplayer to me has always been this elusive thing that I knew only a subset of the game’s audience enjoys, but nonetheless never understood why.
I expected the first Gears game on this console generation to represent something fresh, bring about a bold change, offer an innovative mode, or something – anything - to really pitch the game one more time to the audience at large. Unfortunately, Gears of War 4 is touting the same Gears experience to the exact same crowd that fell in love with the series years ago.
Playing the beta made me realise just how much of what’s there is the same it's always been. You still start with the same weapons you had in older Gears games, a shotgun and the choice of one of two rifles. The gameplay still revolves around people rolling up on you or you rolling up on them with a shotgun. It’s absolutely still is a shotgun game through and through.
The game’s assault rifle is still a support weapon, only useful if you’re hanging back, helping a teammate take out someone. It’s still not a very accurate weapon, and the way it handles hasn't really changed. The way characters move is almost identical to how they did in the previous game.
It’s kind of astounding how no one thought that a change to the movement system ten years later would be a good idea. Just looking at how much the shooter genre has evolved in the last ten years really puts things in perspective.
Your two new moves are one that lets you grab another player from behind cover, and a vault-over-cover animation that lets you stun opponents.
Even the control scheme is the same. There’s a new “tournament” setting, for the all-important esports crowd, but there’s nothing there to tempt fans of other games, or even casual shooter players. You either play by 2006's outdated rules or you’re out.
There’s a modern coat of paint on top of the whole thing, of course, but none of it matters. You have your daily challenges, a new league-based ranking system, and cosmetic unlocks through packs. These only serve to increase engagement from those already invested.
"Any shake-up to this stagnant formula would have been welcome. No series will ever see growth if it continues to sell to the same group of people."
I am going to use the example of Halo here to show just how befuddling Gears of War 4’s situation is. Halo, too, is a franchise that always maintained a very specific feel in everything it does, its developers always had a certain way of doing things that stood clear from the rest.
Yet in every new iteration there was something there that would piss off a few and welcome many newcomers at the same time. Not all changes worked of course, as Halo 4’s loadouts and Spartan abilities will show you, but no new release was ever boring. Even controller mappings eventually included a Call of Duty-style scheme.
This innovation never stopped, and Halo 5 proves it. We got a mode specifically designed for those who don’t care about the game's 4v4 Arena. The movement, too, received a much needed upgrade, making it fluid and faster.
Halo 5 also wasn't lacking on the technical side, running at 60 frames-per-second for the first time in franchise history. 343 even added an aiming-down-sight-esque mechanic, a change that must have caused a few heart attacks for the truest fans, if message boards are to be believed.
Yet after all that, Halo still has a distinct feel that remains unique. It never lost its identity, and more importantly, it took risk after risk.
I can’t say the same for Gears of War 4, and it saddens me. It saddens me that, in 2016, the fifth entry in this franchise plays more or less the same way the original did. I would have been content with a Warzone-style mode for Gears, an update to movement mechanics, or even more inclusive controller layouts.
Really, any shake-up to this stagnant formula would have been welcome. Even having a 60fps target for multiplayer, while novel, is already available in last year’s Ultimate Edition remake. In fact, I would wager many of those playing the Gears 4 beta have already spent more than a few hours in the remaster.
Ardent fans will single out tiny details that make each iteration stand apart, but none of it will make sense to casual Gears players, nor should it. Because no series will ever see growth if it continues to sell to the same group of people.
The Xbox brand is not what it once was, and if it were up to me I would have made drastic changes to everything about Gears of War in this release. I am still looking forward to the single-player campaign and Horde, but none of that will last me more than a few short days. Unless we’re looking at another game like Gears of War: Judgement, which I don't imagine is going to make anyone happy.