With all the hype and high scores, we’ve established that Gears of War 4 is a great game. But the original Gears of War trilogy was more than a typical collection of action games. The games were story driven affairs. The themes of brotherhood, courage and tragedy played heavily into the Gears of War experience. And I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say that the resounding success of the series was largely contingent upon the emotionality of these storylines. While we’ve heard many good things about Gears 4, the majority of its accolades have centred on the excellence of its mechanics. Make no mistake, mechanics, multiplayer and Horde mode are important parts of the Gears of War games. But we’ve still got to ask, is there more to Gears 4 than gnashers and chest-high walls?
I’d say yes. In fact, I’d say the story in Gears 4 is one of the most important stories in the franchise. And that’s because it’s different and personal. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that Gears 4’s story is a step backwards simply because it’s a step down in size. We’re not saving the world or the species. There’s no all-consuming war. But high-stakes isn’t inherently a good thing. And it’s definitely not a compulsory element of a good story. When done right, a high-stakes story can raise pulses. But it’s also the recipe for a cliché superhero story. And I’m sure we’re all aware, with the recent outpouring of Marvel films, that after a while the whole ‘the fate of the world is in your hands’ thing gets a bit repetitive.
See, Gears 4 is focussed on friendship and family, more-so than it’s predecessors were. The father-son and mother-daughter character dynamics – between Marcus and JD, and Kait and Reyna, respectively – provide an excellent platform for the series to explore familial issues, while at the same time, developing these new characters. With the planet ostensibly being at peace, now was the perfect time to do this because these smaller themes can often be overlooked in the face of world wars, the survival of the species and all that jazz.
Having said that, it is obvious that Gears 4 is setting the scene for something much larger. The game is a transition point for the planet of Sera: from complacent peace to all-too-familiar war. And that’s another reason for the slower, and smaller scale story. This is the first time in the history of the franchise that we see characters at peace. It’s also the first time that a Gears of War game has actually had to set a scene. Gears of War 1 said hello and then threw you straight into the fray. It let the war and the locust speak for themselves. You learned on the fly and by osmosis; you started the game with your guns blazing and you finished it the same way, and there wasn’t a moment of down time in between. The game worked so well because it threw you in the deep end. The stakes were high from the get go. Gears 4 can’t do that because there isn’t a deep end to be thrown into. Sera’s been at peace for 25 years. There’s a reason that JD and Del are so positive and easy-going: they haven’t lived their lives on the verge of death.
It’s also important to remember that Gears 4 hasn’t had the same emotional lead up that Gears 3 did. Basically, the series is starting from scratch. It’s building up new characters, a new storyline and new enemies. Gears 4 had a job to do, and that job was to introduce a new generation of characters. Of course it’s gong to feel odd going from a conclusion – Gears 3, where characters had been developed and emotionality was at its peak – to an introduction. But a straight on continuation from Gears 3 would have felt more odd – and worse: forced and unnecessary, which Gears 4 does not.
But I will admit that Gears 4 does feel short. Or, more accurately, it feels like it slammed on the breaks just as it was gaining momentum. Like I said, Gears 4 fulfils its role perfectly: introducing characters and foreshadowing a new threat. In fact, I think the game did that so well that it warranted a proper conclusion. The short, ambiguous ending cut scene did little to raise excitement. It shows the strength of the game’s story that this ending did little to drag it down; a lesser game may have suffered extensively from such an open-ended conclusion.
But as far as restoring a series goes, Gears 4 takes all the right steps. It preserves the important elements of the original games. But it also brings in new characters and fresh story content. Gears 4 honours its legacy but doesn’t wallow in it. The game is very much about JD, Del and Kait. But it also features countless throwback references and the cameos. And these make up Gears 4’s most emotional moments. Right now, the story may feel small – but don’t make the mistake of thinking that a small story is bad. Gears of War 4 has set the stage for a larger story, and the next instalments will undoubtedly shine when they take to that stage.