Gears of War, a flagship franchise for Microsoft, is a series which has been through a bit turbulence as of late. Before discussing what should be done to the new sequel, it's necessary to understand what the fans and the franchise have been going through.
Up until recent, Gears sequels had consistently hit the near-impossible niche between new features and mechanics, and maintaining the classic feel which made the original Gears of War a complete dark horse success. However, 9 months after Gears of War 3 ended the trilogy, Microsoft revealed an entirely new Gears game, Gears of War Judgment, before Gears 3 could even wear its welcome. While fans have bashed this sequel enough, it's important to note why this out-of-house project failed. Whether it was to cater to a wider audience or funded from the beginning as an effortless money-grab from Microsoft, one thing is certain: so much of what made Gears Gears was missing.
Judgment left fans with a bad taste in their mouth. The fate of the series was uncertain, and fans would likely have preferred no sequel at all to a second Judgment. However, once word escaped that Epic Games had sold the rights to Microsoft, the news bred mixed emotions; would Microsoft give the franchise back to People Can Fly for a Judgment 2 or could a heart-felt new Gears of War be developed for Xbox One? Well, Microsoft executive Phil Spencer assured fans that the poor reception of Judgment was acknowledged, and he recognizes the importance of such a sequel for the future of the franchise. Also, it was revealed that Rod Fergusson, a man who has been influential to the Gears of War series since its inception, would be a creative lead. The possibility for a great sequel was beginning to look realistic.
To the dismay of some, a recent article on Gamespot reported Ken Lobb's, Microsoft Studios creative director, thoughts on what Black Tusk Studios had created so far, describing them as "innovative". This vague, overused game's media term is likely the last description Gears fans would hope described the new sequel. 'Innovation' is what turned so many people off to Judgment's "unique" creative decisions.
So where is the line drawn between true innovation and stomping on what made the original trilogy so great? These are my suggestions on what the next Gears needs to return to its roots.
Classic Map Design
There are few components of a game's multiplayer that determine its success or failure than map design. Historically, Gears of War's maps have ranged from dreadful foul-tips, such as Stasis and Gondola, to absolute home runs, like Jacinto and Gridlock. A few key characteristics are what separated the classics from the garbage.
For one, symmetrical maps have always complimented Gears' attrition-centric combat. Two equal forces meet on even terms, and the team with the greatest cohesion comes out on top. This has always been the heart of Gears, and maps which give teams an equal opportunity to collect power weapons and gain footing are usually the ones which stay in players' hearts. Maps which are just a cluster of cover are usually confusing, and make hit-and-run guerrilla tactics necessary and frustrating. While occasionally an asymmetrical map can add some welcome variety, symmetry helps generate the firefights fans love from Gears.
That being said, if the new Gears is going to include maps from previous games, keep the maps untouched. Gears 2 launched with the Flashback Map Pack, which was an absolutely genius idea. The maps themselves, fan-favorites from Gears 1, were unchanged, but they were given a cosmetic change, giving them a new flavor. But in Gears 3, Epic somehow got the idea that when players kept asking for Jacinto to make its return to Gears 3, they wanted a slightly different map than before. The minor changes ended up majorly changing how matches played out, and the hideous imulsion yellow glow completely ruined what fans had hoped for. Naturally, Judgment had to one-up this slap in the face and introduced the new-and-improved Blood Drive, which added entirely new routes and pathways, ruining that map as well. Bottom line, these maps are classic for a reason, so they should remain untouched.
In my opinion, the absolute biggest damn on Judgment's multiplayer was its verticality. NEVER should a player be able to jump down from so high that height damage is even considered. The slow pace of Gears' multiplayer is what separated it from other shooters at the time. It wasn't like a Call of Duty match where you could run around the map like a monkey, jump-shotting people from every angle. It wasn't like a Battlefield match where there was so much shit happening that it's impossible to comprehend what your opponents are doing, and you're never safe with so many players in such a huge space. In a Gears of War match, a clear line in the sand is drawn between the territory your team controls and the area your enemies protect. In a map like Jacinto, if your team set up a solid perimeter, there was no way someone could drop down from a building and kill you out of nowhere. In a map like Gondola, it's impossible to establish any sort of territory when there's so many levels. Players can hop out of the hanging gondolas and kill you from nearly anywhere on the map. This chaotic environment is the complete opposite of what Gears combat should be about. Maps should consist of a single plane with elevations which can only be entered or exited via slopes or a mantle-climb.
And let's also hope that this game ships with more than 4 maps.
While Gears 2 included a few golden weapon exclusives, Gears 3 gave players a wide variety of fun, awesome weapon skins... to buy. It was disappointing to see all of the hyped weapon skins available only through purchase, but that frugality was nothing compared to what Microsoft had planned in Judgment. People Can Fly changed the iconic COG vs. Locust multiplayer teams to consist only of humans. But conveniently, Microsoft could also start selling armor skins, which ranged from tacky to seizure-inducing. And to make matches even more dull, there were only a handful of characters to choose from. The huge cast of Locust and COG to use as a multiplayer model had now been dumbed down to about 10 humans. The individual look and sound of each multiplayer model is so key to the flavor of Gears, so how can the next installment build from lessons learned?
First and foremost, COG vs. Locust multiplayer matches. Period. Unless the next Gears is based around the Pendulum Wars, in which case each team should still be easily distinguishable from one another, not just Red team vs Blue team.
With regards to selling weapon skins, I understand that we live in an era of video games ruled by monetization and microtransactions. However, weapon skins are so miniscule that only the most dedicated players are going to buy that Pulse lancer for $3. The inclusion of challenges in Gears 3 was great, and I think there'd be even more incentive to complete these and play the game longer if weapon skins were awarded upon completion as well. Unfortunately, seeing how Microsoft incorporated microtransactions into their recent next-gen launch titles like Ryse and Forza 4, which are practically free-to-play, the hope that the next Gears won't scrape for every dollar it can ask for is unlikely, but one can dream.
In terms of number of characters, I don't see why a Gears 4 should have less characters to choose from than Gears 3. The models are only cosmetic, so there's no reason why certain characters should be excluded. To build on that, instead of having two separate characters dictated as say Classic Marcus and current Marcus, it'd be fun to let players mix and match armor pieces from different iterations of the character. Microsoft could even begin selling additional clothing items as DLC. Hell, I'd pay for a botanist costume pack for Dom, or a Thrashball Cole armor set. If something absolutely must be monetized, this would be DLC I could concede paying for.
Expanded Horde and Overrun Modes
Of all the things Judgment did wrong to the Gears franchise, the one bit of good out of the project was the seemingly impossible feat of creating a mix between Horde and Beast mode, Overrun. The class-based mode offered the possibility of deep strategy which was never fully realized due to the game's appropriately short lifespan. Horde, a mode which was as influential on the game's industry as the original Gears' patented cover system, was expanded upon in Gears 3, adding an economy system and multi-tiered fortifications. These improvements were nice, but overall felt a little arbitrary when a Berserker could destroy your entire base in a matter of seconds. Multiplayer is core, but Black Tusk would do wise to put some time into revamping these modes as well.
In Overrun, an individual ranking system with branching skill trees for each class would add a ton of depth. With no variations in each class of COG and Locust, it was difficult to justify including a Medic on your squad when a team of Soldiers could keep Locust teams from getting enough money to purchase the higher-tiered Locust at all. Conversely, the Ticker ended up being useless when in the time it took to destroy a spiked wire a Grenadier could have destroyed it in two grenades, and still be a huge threat to COG soldiers. Skill trees would allow players to specialize with a particular class as well as allow teams to spec to team builds, all of which would create an entirely unique but equally fun versus experience separate from standard multiplayer.
Learning lessons from Gears 3, Horde should deepen its fortification and economy system with more useful things to buy, like AI companions or perks. Rebalance the strength of fortifications and let players build an actual base to defend. Wave challenges were nice, but the crates you were awarded with either contained ammo you didn't need or power weapons which were useless beyond Wave 10. Give players more useful heavy weapons or enhancements to their standard weapons like laser sights or extended magazines. In each set of waves, give enemies more practical attributes like increased intelligence, not just more health and damage. Overall, make Horde mode less archaic and give players more ways to spend their money.
Given that Epic planned on shelfing the game for the foreseeable future, fans should feel fortunate that they're getting a new game at all. With Rod Fergusson as a creative lead, fans should feel optimistic and know that the man who helped create the spirit of Gears is guiding Black Tusk to create a project that will reinvigorate the series. All of us Gears fans need to forgive the betrayal of Judgment and go into this new Gears announcement with an open mind.
Unless it's Gears of War Online, a free-to-play multiplayer-only downloadable title. Then give up all hope.
This a relevant and thought-provoking episode of Game Theory which discusses innovation and if it's what gamers really want from the industry. Give it a watch!