It’s been quite some time since there’s been a discussion around third-person cover shooters, especially since industry trends have largely run away from that genre. Three years into this console generation, we’re seeing hero shooters and open world actions games, both of which reflect the state of hardware and e-sports alike. But 2016 brought us Gears of War 4, the franchise that popularized and set the standard for third-person cover-based shooters for the better part of a decade. Since Gears of War: Judgment, People Can Fly’s sidestep contribution to the series, we’ve seen the The Division, Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End to name a few. So with the return of Gears of War, where does the franchise stand? Is Gears still king of cover-based third-person shooters, or would it benefit from lessons taught by others in the genre?
Lessons Gears Needs to Learn
When playing Gears of War 4, I discovered that I was spoiled by what almost every other shooter – first- and third-person alike – has communicated to me as a player: “Hey, that dude just threw a grenade over there. Get the fuck out of the way!” With only the minor exceptions such as Halo, most modern shooters have adopted the standard of displaying an explosive icon that circles around the center of your screen, indicating how close you’re standing to a grenade that’s about to detonate. A few games now even grant small windows in which you as the player can toss them back at your enemy.
In Gears of War 4, like other entries in the franchise, grenades (specifically frag grenades) are extremely powerful. So much so that now they’ve rebalanced frags in competitive multiplayer by restricting them to power weapons that you pick up instead of having them equipped by default; instead, players now start off with smoke grenades. Perhaps the frag’s lethality in such a large blast radius is a reward for finding them in the arena before the opposing team. However, not knowing exactly where these explosives have been thrown makes other modes such as the main campaign and Horde, both in which multiplayer balance is far less important, all the more frustrating when you can’t tell where that agonizing clang and beeping is coming from.
In the years since we’ve last seen Gears of War, many cover-based shooters or action titles that feature a cover system have incorporated what I call “wrap-around cover”. This is done when your character can maneuver around the outer corners of the cover you’re hiding behind while still sticking to it. Plenty of less established cover shooter titles have used the system this year, such as Uncharted 4 and even Mafia III. Seeing that missing in Gears 4 makes the game feel stubbornly stagnant, and unwilling to adopt some of the beneficial quality-of-life-improvements in the genre. Gears’ cover system only slightly makes up for this omission by how snap-to its mechanics are. Pulling away from cover and giving your character a slight nudge to the right or left corner before hitting the cover button again takes only a second, if not less. But for a game that has historically allowed players to navigate the inner perimeter of cover, as well as swapping between adjacent cover, there’s little reason why Gears of War can’t implement a wrap-around mechanic.
I keep using Uncharted 4 as a reference point for a number of the systems discussed here, because for all its control flaws, Naughty Dog has incorporated many streamlined touches into its gameplay. The thing that stood out to me the most in Uncharted 4’s multiplayer was the fact that you can see your teammates’ silhouettes at all times. This bold visual indicator has a significant impact on team play in Uncharted 4’s multiplayer, and shows the developers’ firm understanding of how important it is to know who’s got your back in a cover shooter. Gears of War doesn’t do that. You can hold a button that shows you exactly where your teammates are along with the power weapons on the map, however you’ll generally only find the opportunity to do this in brief periods when you’re not being shot at or chased down by some asshole with a Gnasher. To be fair, Gears does have subtle indicators of your teammates’ locations on the default HUD, but there are so many ambient and visual distractions that these fade into the background so easily.
Lessons Gears Can Teach Others
There are many factors that make Gears of War’s arsenal so satisfying. The guns sound great, feel great, and splatter your enemies beautifully. Besides Gears’ staple mechanic, Active Reload, there have also been a select few weapons that have felt distinctive over the years, like the Torque Bow and the Lancer. But Gears of War 4 specifically adds some of the most interesting weapons to the series, all of which are targeted towards its cover mechanics.
Let’s first start with something we’ve never quite seen before: the Dropshot. This unique “tool” fires a hovering explosive that travels over cover so long as you hold down the trigger. Those behind cover aren’t safe from the Dropshot, as once you release and tap the trigger again, it shoots downward, killing anyone directly under it. We also have the Buzzkill, a blade-firing weapon where if you manage to time your shots when your target pops up from behind cover, the Buzzkill’s buzzsaw blades will relieve them of the upper half of their body. Angle your shots just right however, and you can make the blades ricochet off of walls behind them and hack the poor saps to pieces without looking at them directly.
And then we have the Overkill, which I’ll claim here is video game’s best shotgun ever (sorry, Doom). The Overkill is a double-shot shotgun that fires off two rounds with one trigger pull, the first when you hold it, and the second once you release it. You can control your shots if you happen to miss firing off the first round by holding down the trigger, or you can mercilessly punish your opponents by letting off 4 rapid rounds by just quickly pulling the trigger twice. It’s a devastating weapon to use whenever you’re being flanked from behind cover or when you’re moving on someone on the offensive.
Gears 4 adds other new weapons to the franchise such as the Embar charging sniper rifle, and the DMR styled Markza Mk 1, but the Dropshot, Buzzkill and Overkill are specifically contextualized to third-person cover shooters.
There have been dozens of Horde Mode-styled variants over the years, from Halo ODST’s Firefight, to Left 4 Dead’s Survival Mode, to Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer. And while most of them are good in their own right, Gears of War’s Horde Mode still reigns supreme. This is largely thanks to Gears of War 3’s Horde 2.0, which incorporated defense building to the already polished co-op multiplayer.
Horde Mode at its core capitalizes on the team focus of third-person cover shooters where, fundamentally, your situational awareness is limited, and the vantage points of your teammates are paramount to team success. Following Horde 2.0’s base building, Gears of War 4’s Horde 3.0 introduces the Fabricator, an item generator that allows players to purchase defense equipment such as decoys, turrets, and barbed or electric fences so long as the team as a whole earns enough cash in each wave. There’s truly no ‘I’ in team here as everything’s built around watching out for your comrades, but Horde Mode wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is without Gears of War’s basics…
The Cover System
Yes, even after three years since Gears of War: Judgment and almost 10 years since the original, Gears of War is still the gold standard for third-person cover shooters – and that’s strictly because of its snappy cover system. If I were to guess what the mantra was at Epic, and now The Coalition, for Gears’ cover mechanics, it would be “Instant Control”. From camera movement, to navigating cover, to simply just aiming over and around cover, every facet of Gears of War’s control is instantaneous and immediately responsive. Getting into cover in Gears (where your character slides themselves behind protection from several feet away) is a signature feature for the franchise, so much so that it’s not only a way to get to safety as quickly as possible, but it’s also worked its way into navigating the environment faster in pro-level Gears of War. In fact, it is the only third-person shooter played on that competitive level.
Gears 4 adds a few new features to the game’s cover system, such as vaulting and over-cover assassinations. But as a whole, all of the mechanics and sub-systems in the Gears games rarely slow down or get in the way of player movement like virtually all other cover shooters do, and allow the player to read and navigate the environment intuitively.
So there you have it…
It may not be much of a surprise, but Gears of War still sets the standard for third-person cover shooters nearly a decade later. Gears 4 is far from perfect, as small touches like teammate silhouettes and grenade icons would streamline the Gears of War experience, and fundamental additions like wrap-around cover will bring the franchise up to modern times. But Epic and The Coalition have demonstrated a mastery of the genre consistently over the years, and now that The Coalition have proven that they can preserve what made Gears, Gears, we should expect their next game to move the franchise forward in a big way.