For over 15 years, the world of Sera was on fire. After a previously unknown species of sentient creatures – called the Locust – erupted from the ground, the world exploded in a war that dressed the planet in rubble. The Locust were eventually eradicated, but the war exacted a heavy toll. Nearly 25 years after that epic struggle, humanity has become an endangered species. Survivors huddle together in small, walled cities, and seek shelter from the hurricane-force gales that rip across Sera’s surface. In the midst of this ecological meltdown, the next generation of heroes rises up to combat the planet’s newest nightmare.
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IN THE WAR PATH
Rod Fergusson never thought he’d work on Gears of War again; not that he’d had his fill. Fergusson was on the ground floor for the development of Epic’s first Gears of War. As executive producer and director of development at Epic, Fergusson watched jaws drop when the company debuted the franchise as part of a technology showcase for Unreal Engine 3. He was there when the game released in November 2006 and became the fastest selling title of the year. He was also there when Gears of War 2 sold more than two million copies on its first weekend. And, of course, he was there when Gears 3 pushed the series past $1 billion in sales, becoming only the second Xbox franchise to ever hit that milestone.
Fergusson’s career was practically defined by Gears of War. He even worked as a producer on People Can Fly’s Gears of War: Judgment and helped prototype several ideas for where Epic could take the franchise next. However, in mid-2012, when Chinese multimedia juggernaut Tencent purchased a 40-percent stake in Epic Games for more than $300 million dollars, Fergusson felt the company’s climate beginning to shift. Epic drifted away from the narrative-driven triple-A experiences that he cherished and started to focus on free-to-play multiplayer titles, such as Fortnite and Paragon. Fergusson knew it was time to leave the studio that had been his home for a major part of his career.
2K Games didn’t waste any time signing on this accomplished producer, and Fergusson spent six months helping whip BioShock Infinite into shape before release. However, Fergusson was eager to get back into development on his own projects. 2K offered him the chance to organize his own studio in Marin, California, but after only a few months he realized that he was philosophically at odds with 2K. Fergusson was struggling to find a project that got him as excited to go into work as he had felt when he was developing the Gears of War franchise; he struggled to find a studio that felt like home.
“I had just given my notice to 2K when I phoned a friend at Microsoft and I said, ‘Hey I left 2K, and I want to form my own studio. Do you want to come with me?’’’ Fergusson recalls. “He said, ‘Actually, we’re thinking about buying Gears, and if you’re free that would be kind of a big deal. Would you want to work on Gears again?’ I didn’t even hesitate. I said, ‘Of course!’”
When Fergusson joined Microsoft, he got the rare opportunity to see where Epic had taken his prototypes after he’d left, and he took its ideas for the franchise to heart – for example, some character names and a force called The Swarm. Ultimately, however, Fergusson knew he would have to take the series in a direction that he felt best represented the franchise.
Fergusson’s return to Gears of War might have been serendipity, but Microsoft couldn’t give the entire franchise to one man. The publisher needed a studio capable of taking the reins on one of the Xbox’s biggest properties – a studio that could shepherd the franchise onto the newest hardware generation. It would take a lot of time and money to build a new studio from scratch, so Microsoft made a bold decision and handed one of its most viable properties to a relatively untested team that had yet to release a game.
Near the end of 2013, the Vancouver-based studio known as Black Tusk was composed of around 150 people who were heads down on a new, undisclosed IP for Microsoft. Little is known about this project, but it was a thirdperson, sci-fi shooter developed in Unreal Engine 4. Black Tusk had briefly teased the project during E3 2013, but the studio had yet to prove that it could release a successful game, let alone handle a multi-million dollar franchise. And yet, near the end of that same year, Microsoft approached the studio with an irresistible proposition: Would it be willing to cancel its existing project and work on the next Gears of War?
“That was a pretty big deal for the studio,” says Mike Crump, the director of operations at what was then Black Tusk. “You don’t work on something for two years without being invested in it, but at the end of the day the opportunity to work on Gears was a no-brainer… We talked to the team on Friday. We told them there’s a bad news, good news situation. The bad news was that the project we’ve been working on for the last two years is not moving forward. And then the next slide was: But we’re taking on Gears of War. There was kind of this shocked gasp, and then this cheer that started at the front of the room and went all the way the back.”
With around 150 people, Black Tusk was much larger than a traditional pre-production team, so Fergusson and the rest of the studio leads had to get creative to ensure that everyone on staff had something to work in those early days. The studio spent a few weeks playing through the old Gears of War games, analyzing their ins-and-outs. The team read the Gears of War novels and comics and studied fan wikis to prepare for in-house trivia competitions. Several designers even rebuilt some of the franchise’s most memorable firefights from scratch, such as House of Sovereigns from the first Gears of War, and then remixed them with new weapons, enemies, and environmental geometry.
The studio’s first official release was last August’s Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, but this remastering of Epic’s first Gears of War wasn’t a simple high-definition port. The Gears of War franchise has always lived in Unreal Engine 3, so the studio had to completely rebuild the game, which meant not only recreating old art assets, but completely reprograming everything from enemy A.I. to the cover animations. The work paid off as fans seemed receptive to The Coalition’s care for the series, and the game achieved a respectable 82 on Metacritic.
“We have to do it right before we do it different,” Fergusson says. “That’s the message I came to The Coalition with. We were new stewards to the franchise, and we had to show that we respected the franchise and that we knew the franchise before we went off and did something crazy. We really felt like we had to build up the credibility of The Coalition.”
The studio even changed its name from Black Tusk to The Coalition – a less-than-subtle reference to Gears’ fictional bureaucracy, the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG). The name change was important to many at the studio. It meant that the team would no longer develop new IPs, but would be completely dedicated to the Gears of War brand. From that point on, The Coalition would be the Gears of War studio.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition served as The Coalition’s boot camp; it helped the team better understand Gears of War’s DNA, and proved that the studio understood what made the series tick. With the remaster under their belt, the team felt ready to take Gears of War into a new era.
THE WAR’S NEW FRONT
When it came to ideas for the next entry, The Coalition had a lot to think about. The ending of Gears of War 3 presented a unique challenge. The entire franchise had been focused on the war between humanity and the Locust Horde. However, at the end of Gears of War 3, Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad had pushed back against the Locust and set off an energy-wave bomb that killed all the Locust and Lambent. The bad guys were dead; the world was at peace again. The finale wrapped the series up in a nice, neat bow. So, did The Coalition want to untie that bow? How could the team tell a new story, in the same world, that didn’t feel tacked on?
“The easiest way for us to make a sequel would have been to pick it up with Delta Squad, pick up with the Locust, and say, ‘It’s six months after Gears of War 3, and the imulsion weapon that killed the Locust didn’t get them all,’” Fergusson says. “We wouldn’t have had to worry about any new story formation or world building, but we realized that there was no future in that. It was just sort of turning the crank and churning out more of the same.”
Ultimately, the team found a future for the franchise by setting the next game 25 years later. More than two decades after the Locust war, humanity has dwindled to only a few hundred thousand. The imulsion countermeasure that took out the Locust also completely eradicated the planet’s fossil fuels, so people have been forced to find alternate sources of energy as they rally under a new COG banner (fans will remember that the original Coalition of Ordered Governments was disbanded by the end of Gears 3). The new COG rounds up the remaining populace and corrals them into walled city-states, banding together for safety.
Not everybody agrees with the COG’s approach to repopulating the planet. A second faction of humanity, called The Outsiders, begins forming its own pockets of society in the wilds of Sera. Tensions between these two factions rapidly rise as The Outsiders begin raiding COG settlements for resources.
“There’s this notion that the COG is like an overprotective parent trying to preserve life and ensure people’s safety,” Fergusson says. “The Outsiders are a group of people who are purposely stepping outside the COG and breaking free because they think life isn’t worth living unless it’s lived free… As we were conceptualizing the Outsiders, we initially started with the hippie movement, but then we realized we wanted them to have an edge and we started thinking of them more like this 1970s motorcycle gang.”
This new time period and new social structure seemed like fertile ground for a new entry in the Gears series. It gave The Coalition plenty of room to build something new without completely re-envisioning or overwriting everything Epic had done. More importantly, Fergusson felt like it got back to what was at the heart of Gears of War.
“It felt like, as the series progressed, we lost some of the intimacy,” Fergusson says. “The first Gears was a little bit darker and spookier, a little bit more bogeyman under the bed. But as you went through two and three, especially three, Gears became more of a World War II game where the Locust essentially became Nazis in a way. Because the scale had grown, you had gone from this sort of incursion behind enemy lines to a war at a planetary level. Even though we were trying to make the stakes greater, on a personal level, it actually felt like the stakes were lessened.”
In order to bring some of that intimacy back into Gears of War 4, the team settled on a story that would feature only three primary protagonists and stretch across the span of only 24 hours. This more intimate story has allowed the team to explore their protagonists’ backstories and lineage, making the latter an important theme in Gears of War 4.
JD Fenix is the primary protagonist in Gears of War 4, and as his name suggests, he is the son of legendary war hero Marcus Fenix. Marcus not only helped put an end to the Locust war but functioned as the face of the franchise for its first three entries. Like his father, JD is an idealist. He ran away from home at a young age to become a Gear in the COG militia. He worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant, before a classified incident forced JD to go AWOL. At the beginning of Gears of War 4, JD has sought asylum in an Outsider camp, but the mysterious incident that brought him there, and his estrangement from his father, are events that players will learn more about as they play the game.
JD isn’t the only new face in Gears of War 4. Delmont “Del” Walker is another ex-COG soldier who joins JD in the campaign. An orphan who befriended JD at boarding school, Del has followed JD’s lead most of his life. When JD joined the Army and became a Gear, so did Del. When JD went AWOL and joined the Outsiders, so did Del. His path is tied very closely to JD’s, and it’s evident from the beginning of the game that the two share a deep bond.
Kait Diaz is the final member of Gears of War 4’s new crew. Unlike JD and Del, Kait was born and raised an Outsider, so she’s not familiar with how the COG works, but she’s a capable survivalist and provides JD and Del with an Outsider perspective on the world. Kait is also the daughter of the Outsider’s leader – a strong, independent woman named Reyna. Unfortunately, Reyna doesn’t trust JD or Del thanks to their past ties to the COG.
“With Gears 1, we didn’t have a lot of time for backstory, so we had to default to a kind of shorthand with the characters,” Fergusson says. “They became archetypes because you really had to understand them right away. Now, I think people are looking for much more nuanced storytelling. We were able to describe Gears of War 1’s characters with a couple of words, but I find that it’s much harder to do that with JD, Del, and Kait because there are a lot more layers to them. You can’t pigeonhole them as, ‘overenthusiastic pro-athlete.’”
JD, Del, and Kait form a quick bond, but that bond is tested when their Outsider village is invaded by a mysterious new force and the entire camp is kidnapped and dragged into the forest. The trio gears up for a firefight, and heads into the wilderness in search of their fellow countrymen. But as they begin to uncover the truth behind why they were the only ones spared during the attack, they come face-to-face with a hideous new threat.
Our demo picks up just after JD, Del, and Kait have set off in search for Kait’s mother and the rest of her community. The trio begins their search in a fort built long before the war. Nature has slowly moved in to reclaim the area, but slivers of old brick buildings can still be seen underneath decades of foliage. Within minutes, the crew encounters their first sign of something unnatural: a series of strange, organic pods that look a bit like human-sized cocoons. The group cuts one open only to find the dissolved remains of something that almost looks human.
Our heroes don’t have to wait long to find out what these creatures look like fully formed. As they pe deeper into the fort, they watch in horror as one of these pods bursts open and a pale, monstrous creature lunges forward. Within moments, the trio is swarmed by these monsters. Our heroes dub these new beasts Juvies, because they seem to be just the first evolutionary stage of an entirely new army of freaks, called the Swarm.
With the Locust extinct, The Coalition had to come up with a new enemy that paid homage to Gears’ iconic monsters and could slide neatly into the franchise’s combat without feeling like a complete photocopy. To do this, the team spent months talking with Epic’s original designers and ultimately analyzed the Locust army more extensively than its creators ever had.
“Because the Locust were me, Lee Perry, and Cliff [Bleszinski] all coming up with gameplay ideas, there is no inherent logic to them,” Fergusson says. “I don’t know if we ever sat down and thought really analytically about what role everything plays. We knew it inherently, because the games evolved over time.”
Once The Coalition had reverse-engineered the Locust Army, they discovered that it was made up of three primary classes: mirrors, flushers, and pinners. Mirrors are enemies that function a lot like players; they have lots of different weapons, they take cover, and they work in groups to flank the player. Flushers were the kinds of enemies that tried to get players out of cover, and they were usually fast-moving enemies that traveled in packs. Pinners, on the other hand, were the big brutes that did a lot of damage and encouraged players to stay in cover. Usually a pinner would work in conjunction with another unit type to keep players pinned down while the horde closed in.
“This shorthand helps us a lot when designing encounters,” says lead campaign designer Matt Searcy. “If an encounter isn’t feeling right, you don’t even have to prescribe an enemy, you can just say, ‘The problem is there is nothing pinning the player down. That’s why people are not using the cover layout in this area.’ It helps us define problems.”
As the first enemy that JD, Kait, and Del encounter, Juvies are the kind of easy-to-kill enemies that try to flush players out of cover. Much like Wretches from previous Gears of War games, Juvies are fast-moving, meleebased creatures that travel in packs and quickly bounce over walls and other obstacles. Juvies might not be hard to put down, but they can call in reinforcements and overwhelm players that don’t manage the horde.
Given enough time, a Juvie might eventually evolve into something meatier. As a Juvie ages, its skin hardens and takes on a deep red, and it eventually learns how to use weapons. This enemy type is called the Drone, named in homage to its doppelgänger in the Locust army. Drones are Gears of War 4’s main mirror enemy, and will likely be the primary enemy type in the Swarm.
Thankfully, The Coalition isn’t just copying the traditional Gears of War script. The team has already started experimenting with unique enemy types that players haven’t seen in previous Gears of War games. A prime example is the giant mole rat-like creature called the Pouncer, which shifts its role based on player strategies. If a player is running out in the open, a Pouncer will likely unleash a steady stream of poisonous quills from its tail that encourage players to pe for cover. However, if the player hides for too long, the beast will switch tactics and jump over the player’s cover, knocking them back or even chomping through their armor with shark-like teeth.
Pouncers are highly mobile bullet sponges, but their bellies are a weak spot. During one encounter, we watched JD take on a Pouncer. After the monster had gotten the drop on one of his friends, JD ran over and knocked the creature on its back, exposing its supple belly. After that, a few well-placed shots easily took the beast down. During another encounter, just as a Pouncer was lunging for JD’s throat, our hero activated the chainsaw on his Lancer and caught the beast in the gut as it fell on top of him, proving that the Lancer is still a satisfying melee weapon.
COVERING THE BASICS
At its heart, Gears of War has always been a cover-based shooter. While many games over the years have tried to take Gears’ formula and build off it, The Coalition feels that Gears of War is still one of the best cover-shooter franchises on the market. So rather than rework Gears’ cover formula, The Coalition instead began to tinker with areas where Gears’ cover wasn’t useful. One of the few areas the studio felt it could improve Gears’ action was during close-combat scenarios.
“One of the problems we’ve always had was with close cover,” Fergusson says. “Occasionally you’ll get into that situation where two people come onto the same piece of cover and it looks kind of silly. It’s kind of The Naked Gun moment where the two people are throwing their pistols at each other. One of our big things in Gears was never make the avatar look stupid, so we started to talk about how we could improve players’ ability to move over cover.”
To help solve this problem, The Coalition redesigned Gears’ mantle-kick system, allowing players to more easily vault over a piece of cover and kick their enemies out of defensive positions. Now, players can hop over any piece of cover in one smooth stroke, and if an enemy is on the other side, they are left vulnerable to a quick melee kill from the new combat knife. In addition to the mantle kick, players can also choose to stay in cover and pull their opponent over to their side of the battle before gutting them. Alternatively, when moving out of cover, players can perform a short-distance shoulder charge, which knocks enemies off balance and opens up a short window to sink their blade through the enemy’s brainpan.
During our demo, we got to play around with these new cover mechanics, which feel fairly natural and give players a wider arsenal of moves to use when butting heads with the Swarm. These new close-cover mechanics also help accelerate player movement through the environment and create a more natural flow to combat. However, players should be careful not to place themselves in these close-combat scenarios too often, because Swarm enemies are also capable of pulling players out of cover and performing their own takedowns.
As The Coalition continued to experiment with close-quarters combat, they also looked at Gears’ dynamic cover systems. Gears of War has always played around with mobile and deteriorating cover, and The Coalition wanted to continue building on this system. The Swarms pods actually play into this dynamic cover. Not only can players use these pods as cover, they can shoot them to pop them and expose hiding enemies.
During one combat scenario, we watched JD shoot a pod that was clinging to the ceiling, causing it to fall to the ground and become a piece of cover in an otherwise open arena. Moments later he performed the same trick on another pod, which came crashing down on several Juvies’ heads, killing them instantly.
“Pods are kind of a risk/reward cover system,” Searcy says. “They are placed in strategic places where you can use them to kill people, but each one has a potential to be filled with body parts or a live Juvie. There is also a little bit of a dice roll that you could get a Juvie who screams and breaks all of the rest of the pods in the environment. We’re really interested in the idea of the player being able to control the combat a little bit. It’s up to you to bring that piece of cover down. You’re adding something that you can use strategically, but you’re also adding a potential new threat.”
The Swarm is definitely a threat to Gears 4’s new protagonists, and The Coalition’s tweaks to Gears’ classic cover system should help players circumnavigate this new army. However, the potentially greatest threat in Gears of War 4 is the planet itself.
GoW WITH THE WIND
Near the end of our demo, JD, Kait, and Del get the idea that The Swarm menace might be connected in some way to the extinction of the Locust, so the trio begins marching toward an old Locust burial ground. After the war, there were too many Locust bodies for the COG to properly dispose of them all. As a result, the dead Locust were corralled into several mass graves. Our heroes believe that one of these sites might hold clues to the sudden appearance of the Swarm. However, as our heroes crest a ridge on their way to the site, they catch their first glimpse of a storm wall – a massive cyclone of dust and lightning – that is currently bearing down on their position.
Sera’s ecosystem is slowly dealing with the damage dealt by the imulsion bomb set off at the end of Gears of War 3. As a result, the planet’s weather has become increasingly violent and unstable.
“These storms are like a hurricane meets a tornado meets a volcano,” Fergusson says. “We call these windflares, and Sera is constantly being assaulted by these intense storms. You could see them as a sort of background element in our E3 demo, but in the game they are much more than a background element.”
The Coalition created a weather system that has four categories of wind. The first category starts out as a heavy breeze, which players see manifested in the environment as trees whip wildly and dust billows across the ground. However as the categories tick up, the wind becomes more violent. In a category three windstorm, players feel the wind pushing against them, and projectile weapons, such as the Dropshot, get dragged off course.
“Essentially we’re asking the player to get a feel for the wind,” Searcy says. “Partway through the game you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve been using this gun for a while, but now I have to learn how to bend it, and think about which direction the wind is coming from.’ If you put the wind behind you, your projectile will travel even farther, but if you throw it straight into the wind, it will fly back and hit you in the head, like peeing in the wind.”
While the wind creates new challenges for players to overcome, it also opens up new opportunities to exploit the environment. Some cover loses stability under high force winds, so a couple of bullets may rip it apart and send it flying through the world. Take out a few brace supports, and you could send a piece of heavy machinery barreling across a battlefield, wiping out any enemy that stands in your way.
Enemies are also affected by the wind. They hunker down for safety, but players can quickly destroy their cover and leave them vulnerable. If you cut down an enemy at the knees, they might go flying off like a kite and then slam into a wall and smash apart.
Wind flares are a fight for survival, but they open up new opportunities for players to think strategically. The wind can destroy a lot of cover in the environment, but it might also bring in new pieces of cover, or open up a new flanking route. Ultimately, The Coalition wants players to look back at a battlefield after a wind flare and see that it has completely changed the environment.
This only describes what happens during a category three windstorm. Most of the time, players won’t even encounter enemies during a category four storm because the elements are so fierce. A category four windstorm is just as deadly as any Swarm monster. During our demo, we watched JD struggle as if being buffeted by ocean waves as he moved from one piece of cover to the next. Then, just as he was about to reach safety, a series of lightning strikes raked across the battlefield, and JD had to pe through these forks to avoid becoming a trail of ashes in the wind.
“Our original idea was that categories one through four would always involve enemies,” Fergusson says. “But when we started playing around with the wind, we realized that just trying to survive in a category four – just trying to do that rock-climbing-like movement to get from cover to cover – was exciting. I was like, ‘I don’t think we need enemies in a four, but we need something else.’ That’s where the idea for those lightning flurries came up. I wanted to feel like we were swimming through jellyfish, like we were surrounded by danger on all sides and it was beautiful.”
THE GEARS KEEP TURNING
Gears of War 4 could be a make-or-break project for The Coalition. It not only marks the return of one of Microsoft’s biggest properties, it’s a proving ground for a fresh studio that is picking up where Epic left off. Thankfully, everyone on the team is confident that this won’t be their last Gears game.
“The idea that we can cut ideas knowing that there’s a chance we can come back to them has been really liberating,” Fergusson says. “Gears 3 was over-scoped, and as a producer on that project, I’ll take full responsibility for that. But the reason that was over-scoped was that we all thought it was the last Gears, so we tried to fit in every idea that we thought was great. If we said no to a feature, it was never coming back. Now there is this notion that what we’re building is setting the stage for something bigger, so if we have too many great ideas we’re okay moving a lot of them to future projects.”
Before The Coalition can start planning for those future projects, the team needs to nail the one they’re currently working on. The studio has spent the last two years breathing in everything Gears of War. The team might still be unproven, but it believes it is honoring the work of everyone who has touched the franchise before it, while simultaneously pushing the series forward.
“I’ve been with the franchise for 10 years, and when I pick up and play this it feels like a Gears of War game,” Fergusson says. “We had a review where [head of Microsoft’s Xbox pision] Phil Spencer came in and played the game, which isn’t always typical at that point in production. So he played a few battles and then said, ‘Man, it feels like a Gears of War game!’”
To The Coalition, there could be no higher praise.
Que Sera, Sera
As The Coalition ramped up pre-production for Gears of War 4 they continually found inspiration in one particular part of the world: Northern Italy. Studio head Rod Fergusson became particularly interested in the crags of Italy’s Dolomite mountain range while dreaming up the backdrop for Sera’s forests. Later on, as the team was researching real-world inspirations for the COG’s circular city settlement, Fergusson ran across a late-Renaissance fort town called Palmanova, also located in Northern taly. Northern Italy continued to come up during several points in Gears of War 4’s pre-production stage, so at one point during development, the team took a research trip to the top of the boot.
“Once we hit three or four of these things where everything was pointing us to the same location, we decided to embrace it,” Fergusson says. “From an art standpoint it was huge. We were on our way toward shipping the E3 demo and we went to a place called Fort Fenestrelle. While we were there our associate art director said he had to make a call back to the state to tell them, ‘Stop! We have stuff we have to change.’ The team had to wait for us to get back so they could readjust the fort in the game based on what we got in Italy. There are probably two or three spots in the game that have a clear footprint based on stuff we brought back.”
Ready Player Two
Gears of War is a co-op friendly franchise, and Gears of War 4 doesn’t aim to change that. However, The Coalition is scaling back from Gears of War 3’s four-player co-op, so Gears of War 4 only features two-player co-op. Players can play through the whole campaign with a friend via both online and split-screen play.
Player one is always JD Fenix, but player two will get to choose between Kait and Del. While the three characters remain together for most of the game, at times they might get split up, and the story has subtle differences depending on whether player two is Kait or Del.
Gear Up For Multiplayer
The Coalition recognizes that multiplayer is an important part of the Gears of War experience. Unfortunately, the team wasn’t ready to talk about multiplayer specifics and wouldn’t confirm the inclusion of any particular modes. However, the team did acknowledge the importance of modes like Horde, and promised that fans wouldn’t be disappointed by Gears 4’s multiplayer offerings.
“Historically, the campaign is the hardest thing to make out of any of these games,” says studio head Rod Fergusson. “So if you look at the development of Gears one, it was probably 90-percent single player, 10-percent multiplayer. Over the course of the franchise, that percentage shifted, but I don’t think it ever got above 70/30. Coming here, multiplayer has a much greater position at the table. On day one, as we were prototyping our first campaign experience, we were also building multiplayer maps. We really want to meet the needs of not just recreational players but eSports players, and it’s something we’ve been thinking about for the entire development cycle.”