Not only is Gears of War 4 one of the few games this generation to offer proper couch co-op, it’s the only one that comes to mind that’s been designed, first and foremost, to be played that way.
With the possibility to play the Campaign solo, splitscreen, online or – for the first time – online cross-play with one player on Xbox One and another on Windows 10, I asked creative director Chuck Osieja which takes precedence. Without a doubt it’s couch co-op, he said. New developer The Coalition knows that’s how the Gears of War series has been best played thus far and that’s how they’ve crafted Gears of War 4.
While the gameplay mechanics were built from the foundations of the more modern Gears of War 3, the co-op design plays more like the original Gears of War with the reduction from four to two players. There’s a narrative element to that, with just three playable characters, but it’s to ensure a better experience for the duration of the Campaign. Where player four didn’t really need to contribute, both players will be put to the test and need to work together in Gears of War 4.
Set 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, one or two players will assume the roles of new protagonists JD Fenix, Kait and Del. Following the defeat of the Locus and loss of imulsion, humanity has been forced to rebuild and find a new energy source. Under the leadership of First Minister Jinn, civilisation has been condensed into large cities controlled by the new Coalition of Ordered Government (COG), with safe automation replacing human workers.
But not everyone agreed to fall into line. Some members of society rebelled against the COG regime and established their own community as Outsiders, often conflicting with the orderly COG. When COG citizens go missing, they blame and attack the village of Outsiders — home to JD, Kait and Del. It’s an easy victory for the enthusiastic trio, fighting off the COG’s robotic army of deebees, but soon their village comes under attack again; this time from a more destructive, unknown force. With everyone else either killed or taken captive by the savage monsters, our youthful heroes are forced to turn to the one man they know can get results.
A lot has changed in a quarter of a century. Old Man Marcus is a cranky recluse with little time for his estranged son, with whom he doesn’t see eye-to-eye. But you can’t keep an old dog down. When he realises the gravity of the situation, Marcus agrees to help his son, Kait and Del uncover the truth behind the mystery.
It’s a new role for the Xbox 360 icon. Marcus is not playable at any point during the Gears of War 4 campaign. Instead, we see him through the eyes of three others, anchored by his tumultuous relationship with his son. All the while, Kait and Del have their own surprisingly deep backgrounds, and it will make a difference, at least in terms of connecting with the characters with which you are playing.
On the gameplay front, this is Gears of War. That may appear an inconsequential statement, but there’s no greater compliment to pay to The Coalition. An accomplished team led by Gears co-creator Rod Fergusson comprises it, but there’s still a sense of trepidation when a new developer takes over such a revered franchise. Not only has The Coalition nailed the feel of Gears of War, it understands what makes a co-op game so enthralling.
There’s plenty of story – having played through Act II and most of Act III I suspect this will be the most emotional Gears narrative – but it doesn’t slow down the action. It’s a tight, linear shooter with segments designed to keep two players readily engaged on normal, hardcore and insane difficulties.
Where the unknown monsters play like the Locust, mostly resembling similar enemy types (I can’t say more without venturing into spoiler territory), simultaneously fighting the second faction, the COG, injects a refreshing element into Gears of War. The robotic army is powerful but much more predicable than savage beasts, and ensures combat doesn’t become stale. You’ll readily have to adjust your tactics, and weapons, between the two vastly different factions.
The co-op mantra delves beyond the Campaign into Horde Mode 3.0. It’s the standard 50-wave affair, but with a renewed focus on playing your role within the team. Online you’ll play in a team of five, ideally with each of the five classes – soldier, scout, sniper, heavy and engineer – focused on their personal objective. Teamwork is imperative to best utilise the Fabricator, a military 3D printer positioned wherever the team chooses to buy and upgrade defences between waves. Those are bought using power, a currency collected from defeated enemies. Ideally the team’s scout (or scouts) will pick it up during a wave, where he or she earns double the amount of other players for each power pick-up. Meanwhile, the engineer will be busy restocking ammo and fixing defensive weapons, while the heavy is dishing out damage and the sniper is wracking up a majority of the kills.
Horde will be most practically played online, as to ensure a complete team of five (although you don’t need to employ all five classes. You could have three snipers, a scout and an engineer, if that’s what works best for your crew). However, for a retro setup, it can be played on a LAN connection – the joy of completing the 50th wave with all players in the same room can’t be replicated online. It’s a difficult scenario to muster; unless you have powerful gaming laptops, it’s going to take five screens and as many consoles or PCs in the same room. However, unlike Halo 5, which required playing over Xbox Live in a similar situation, Gears of War 4 has been made for such an occasion. It can be played over a proper local area network.
Even the competitive versus mode has an element of co-operative play. If you’re not enticed by playing against breathing opposition, you can instead play on a team of five human players against bots.
Few games offer so much co-operative scope, and while I’ll be getting stuck into Horde Mode 3.0 on Xbox Live, it’s the couch co-op Campaign that has me eagerly awaiting the launch of Gears of War 4 on October 14.