Chuck Osieja is saying things that I'm certain, usually, nobody in his position should ever be announcing to a room full of journalists. As creative director at The Coalition, the Canadian studio charged with bringing a new Gears of War to current-gen Microsoft platforms, you'd expect bold statements about fresh features, never-before-experienced action and unexpected twists to be spilling forth from his mouth. Instead, we get the opposite, sort of.
"This is very similar to what Gears has done before," he says, with everyone scribbling away. "Gears 4 is still a story about humans versus monsters. The goal was not to completely change things."
And that familiarity is all over the footage we're shown, of a new aggressive force, the (COG-created) robotic DeeBees, attacking the player-controlled JD Fenix, flanked by his dad Marcus – the hero of games one to three – as well as Del Walker and Kait Diaz. The sequence's tone is dark, its atmosphere oppressive – something that's been "the focus since the beginning", says Osieja. The robots might not look like the Locust horde of old, but they act comparably, using the same waist-high cover as you to protect themselves. Up-close kills are no longer accompanied by a splash of red, but by sparks and spurts of oil. The robots come in various forms – some on foot, some in the air. But they're all dispatched by the team's fierce array of weaponry.
'Gears of War 4', 4K Gameplay Demo from Gamescom 2016 (nb this is not the same sequence that journalists were shown)
And it's in the details like the player's arsenal where changes do present themselves, albeit more aesthetically than not. The DeeBees have guns engineered for their use, which are blockier than traditional firearms, but just as useful in a human's hands once they're forcibly separated from their owners. We're introduced to the "Overkill" and the "Tri-Shot", which offer slightly new ways to execute enemies. The loud and deadly Lancer remains the loud and deadly Lancer, though, and seeing its chainsaw slice through a humanoid drone is just as viscerally satisfying in 2016 as it was in the original Gears, back in 2006. The series' "active reload" remains one of gaming's greatest joys to pull off perfectly, and it, too, is present and correct here.
There's no Locust in Gears 4 – they're all (apparently) dead, gone, see ya. But there is The Swarm, a biological aggressor that rings just a few lookalike bells, and the world of Sera itself can be a risk to player health. "Windflares" race across the planet's surface – we see one such colossal storm tear a barn on Marcus's estate apart as if it were tissue paper. Combined with a DeeBee drop into a vegetable garden, things get pretty heated, leading to Marcus uttering a line that surely no Gears fan could ever have foreseen: "Shit, they're going to mess up my fucking tomatoes." The game's weather will impact on combat encounters: high winds will change the trajectory of bullets, and impede player movement.
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There is change afoot, then, for Gears 4, but what we're shown at Gamescom both looks and sounds an awful lot, possibly too much, like the Gears we've known for a decade, now – enough that, from afar, you wouldn't immediately think it's a new game. The added elements, weather aside, are entirely peripheral to the core action, which is as routine as ever. Which is, actually, fine: last year's Ultimate Edition of the first Gears reminded us that few third-person cover-shooters of right now are as good as a ten-year-old game, and if Gears 4's campaign (which can be played in split-screen co-op) is a rollercoaster on par with titles one to three, then it'll be a crackerjack experience while it lasts.
But when it's over, without seeing anything at Gamescom of the (presumably near to) finalised online experience, it's tough to make a call right now on the longevity of Gears 4. The game's multiplayer beta of earlier in 2016 was criticised for its familiarity and its rough visual edges. "That beta was a true beta, not a demo of what's to come," says Osieja. "From it, we were made aware of a lot of things." The Coalition, and Microsoft, has serious eSports ambitions for Gears 4, with a Pro Circuit starting in October, so those lessons learned are of paramount importance not just this year, but for every game in this series going forward.
Find more information on Gears of War 4 at Xbox.com.