E3 2016: Gears of War 4 Hands-On – Teaching new dogs old tricks

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Throughout its successful time on the Xbox 360, Gears of War as a core exclusive franchise did little to change between iterations. It evolved, refined itself and grew bigger, but the core experience of cover-based shooting and intense, bloody close-quarters combat stayed true to itself from the word go. With new developers The Coalition behind it, Gears of War 4 has the choice of radical reinvention or clever side stepping, and I kind of wish they had picked one.

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Sitting down to play a lengthy demo of the game’s single-player campaign, Gears of War 4 felt immediately familiar. Being thrust into the boots of Marcus Fenix’s son, JD, muscle memory quickly reminded me of the series’ tropes. Take cover, fire sporadically and never, ever forget an active reload. JD’s two companions offered up some relatively cheesy chatter to make the opening a little more engaging – at least until the Swarm made their presence known.

The Swarm are the new enemy type that this seemingly first entry in a new series will delve into, and at face value there’s little differentiating them from the past Locust threat. The first enemy I encountered spawned from what looked like an abnormally big larvae sack, but essentially mimicked the behaviour of Wretches from old. They were a little more nimble by being able to hop around from nearby walls, but a quick change to the classic Gnasher was the same way to deal with them in the most efficient manner.

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Later on this same enemy hopped into some infected patch of ground, which pseudo act as the game’s new emergence holes. Initiating a transformation process, the Swarm’s version of the standard Locust Drone emerged, picking up the new Lancer on the ground nearby and offering up the first bit of cover-based combat the demo had to offer. It felt as tight and exhilarating as Gears of War has in the past, but it didn’t feel all that different.

Gears of War 4’s aesthetic might have darkened itself a little, with a dreary storm and much darker indoor environment (made better by the small but effective flashlight JD had on the front of his Lancer), but the action remained the same until that point. The demo shuffled me from one combat scenario to the next, with the lobbing of grenades into holes and close up Gnasher finishers quickly turning into habit as it did so well in the previous trilogy.

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It drastically shifted in the closing moments of the showcase however, which suddenly piqued my interest in the direction The Coalition is attempting to take Gears of War forward. Throughout the demo JD and co. were chasing the silhouette of a rather large beast, which made its presence known in a big way near the end. The Pouncer, as the squad so astutely named it, was a completely different type of Swarm creature. And it forced me to rethink how I played.

Instead of letting me find solace in knee-high cover, the Pouncer, well, pounced around the circular arena I found myself locked within, forcing me to stay on the move to avoid its range of deadly attacks. When it wasn’t viciously trying to pin me to the ground and rip my jugular out, the Pouncer stood on top of nearby cover, using a ranged attack the was able to drop me to the floor with just  few hits. The temptation of rushing forward with a Gnasher was certainly there, but a few close calls (and required AI revives) quickly taught me that it was definitely the wrong way to go.

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Instead, flanking with sporadic bursts of damage did the trick, with my attention swung to avoidance rather than direct conflict – being a different approach to how I’ve traditionally play Gears of War. It worked as the Pouncer eventually dropped to the floor, only to introduce two more into the mix for a little more difficulty. I died at least twice trying to best the trio, although I wasn’t frustrated at the fact.

Instead the possibility of just one of many new enemy types forcing me to rethink how this treasured franchise works was all I needed to know about Gears of War 4, even if its opening segments gave a very different impression. It’s clear that The Coalition know what makes this series tick – as they should considering some of the veteran Gears of War developers they have on-board – but it’s just as refreshing to see risks being taken to shake up the standard formula.

How that carries through into the campaign will be seen later this year when the game launches, but I’m more confident now that this could be the start of the series needed to kick-start a new sort of history for Gears of War on the Xbox One. I just hope these moments of invigoration aren’t few and far between.

Last Updated: June 15, 2016

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