, Last Updated: 10:56 AM ET
Coming to the Xbox One on Oct. 11, Gears of War 4 will mark the return of the visceral, blood-splattered sci-fi shooter franchise that introduced us to thick-necked hero Marcus Fenix and his fellow soldiers a decade ago. But with a new developer and a new yet familiar direction, this could be as much a rebirth as a sequel.
Gears of War 4 is being created by fledgling Vancouver-based studio The Coalition, who were chosen to pick up the Gears mantle after Microsoft purchased the franchise from Epic Games in 2014. Veteran Canadian developer Rod Fergusson, who has worked on every Gears title since the beginning, joined The Coalition as studio head, and says Gears of War 4 is aiming to recapture the taut tension of 2006’s original Gears of War.
Set 25 years after the cataclysmic events of 2011’s Gears of War 3, Gears 4 focuses on a new generation of soldiers: JD Fenix is the estranged son of original trilogy hero Marcus Fenix, Del Walker is JD’s comrade-in-arms and Kait Diaz is a member of the Outsiders, a renegade society that lives beyond the walls of the remaining fortified city-states on the now-peaceful planet Sera. Together, over the course of 24 hours, the three allies band together to face a new, monstrous threat: the Swarm.
“Basically this is the Swarm’s emergence day, you’re the first humans to see this monster and live to tell the tale,” said Fergusson.
Outside of its story-driven campaign mode, the original Gears of War was one of the first games to be embraced by the burgeoning eSports community, and the Coalition is betting big on Gears 4 becoming a staple of the now-massive eSports scene. To that end, the multiplayer component of the game is being designed from the ground up to appeal to pro players, commentators and spectators.
At the same time, Gears 4 will introduce a new skill-based ranking system to allow casual players (like yours truly) to hop online and be matched against opponents of equal talent. Co-operative multiplayer against AI-controlled enemies will also be a new focus, but Fergusson was mum on whether previous popular gameplay modes, such as Horde and OverRun, will make a comeback.
But how does the new Gears of War play? During a recent four-hour hands-on session in San Francisco, I was able to test out the game modes and trio of maps that will be included in a multiplayer beta launching next week on Xbox Live. (Xbox One owners who’ve played Gears of War: Ultimate Edition will be able to jump into the beta on April 18, while all Xbox Live Gold members will be able to fire up their Lancers on April 24.)
In short, it feels very Gears of War. The Gnasher – the shotgun of the Gears universe – is still the go-to weapon, and the game remains a tense juggling of close-quarters combat and mid-range warfare using the classic Lancer and Hammerburst rifles. New to the mix is the beastly Dropshot, which launches an exploding drill bit onto foes hiding behind cover. There’s also a new and aptly named “yank n’ shank” move that allows a player to grab an enemy from behind cover, pull him over the barrier and jam a knife into his noggin.
In addition to the classic Team Deathmatch mode, the multiplayer beta will give fans a chance to test-drive a new game type called Dodgeball. In Dodgeball, each player has just one life per match, but every time a team scores a kill it allows an eliminated player on their side to rejoin the fray. Some of my Dodgeball matches had wildly dramatic swings back and forth, with teams on the verge of defeat mounting nail-biting comebacks.
Gears of War 4 will launch with 10 multiplayer maps – all symmetrical, in order to appeal to competitive players – and a new map will be offered for free each month, slotted into playlists for a limited time. Also new to Gears 4 are virtual collectible cards that offer cosmetic character and weapon variations, experience point multiplier perks and so on. These card packs will be purchasable with in-game credits or with real-world currency, for those with more money than patience.
As with the Halo franchise before it, Microsoft clearly hopes the rejuvenated of Gears of War will last for many years across several titles. “Microsoft has invested so much in terms of acquiring it and getting the team up, we feel like we’re going to have more than one shot at this,” Fergusson said. “We’ve been able to look at certain types of features and go, ‘That’s a really great idea, but it really is better served later in the franchise.’ ”
Because once the Gears start spinning, there’s not much that can slow them down.