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How ‘Gears of War 4’ chainsaws its way back to the essence of Gears

The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up Gears of War 4 is that it feels exactly like the original series. The intimate combat system, the co-op focused camaraderie, the jovial chainsawing, even the way you slide into and out of cover, all seem to replicate the original games beat for beat.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, the return to what the team at The Coalition refer to as the “Gears Essence” will impress longtime fans of the series, who may be skeptical of the new studio’s ability to relight the series’ spark, while also showing newcomers what they’ve been missing all this time.

But working with a game that has such a storied background is tricky business. Gears-heads are intimately familiar with the story and tone, and a thriving eSports community surrounding the game knows every nook and cranny of the engine. So how do you build a game they’ll love? You use the same chefs, and you spend a lot of time tasting.

Break out the popcorn

But there’s more to Gears than sliding into cover and revving up the Lancer’s chainsaw. There’s a tone and pacing that’s incredibly important to the game too, and capturing that isn’t as easy as recording inputs and matching animations.

“I always felt like we found the summer blockbuster, popcorn movie pace.”

“I think where Gears has always succeeded is pace,” Studio Head Rod Fergusson told Digital Trends. “I always felt like we found the summer blockbuster, popcorn movie pace where you get on the roller coaster ride and it’s fast and feels really good, and then it’s over and you want more because you enjoyed it so much.”

“The game starts at noon one day and finishes at eight in the morning the next day. You’re in for that quick, intense ride. If a monster bursts through that window and you and I have to spend the next 18 hours together surviving, we would be focused on the moment, and that’s what I really like about our story, you’re caught up in the moment.”

That feeling comes through just as much in Gears of War 4 as it did in the previous games. Punchy one-liners, snarky comments, and even the occasional heartwarming chuckle, like a 60+ year old Marcus lamenting angry robots destroying his tomato plants, carry the same brevity as an Avengers movie. The humor helps cut some of the more violent aspects of the game as well.

“It’s a brutal game but it doesn’t take itself too seriously so you laugh when you chainsaw,” Fergusson added, “you don’t get grossed out.”

Under the hood

Before any work began on Gears of War 4, it was vitally important that the team understood the original trilogy inside and out.

“We actually put the designers through something we called ‘Gears 101’,” lead campaign designer Zoe Curnoe explained, “which is really studying the previous Gears games. Playing them, analyzing them, breaking them down and saying: what was successful here? What worked? What’s the core of the game?”

It wasn’t just about feeling the games and understanding them, though. The team at The Coalition wanted to make the move to Unreal Engine 4 for a number of reasons, according to technical director Mike Rayner.

“We were able to leverage a new physics system, new animation systems, new rendering systems. We really built a technical foundation for the franchise for the next ten years,” Rayner said. “However, in doing that, the engine is not 100 percent backwards compatible. We couldn’t just start day one with Gears of War 3 and make some changes.”

The team could’ve built a similar game and called it a day, but instead they went a step further in recreating the feel of the older games.

“We were very empirical about it. We went to Gears of War 3 and recorded inputs and sampled that directly, and then we’d measure the output of your animation movement – weapons, rate of fire, etc. – and save that out to a data file. We’d play the input back into our Unreal 4 engine, and superimpose our new animation and movement with playing back the movement of the recorded animation to make sure they lined up perfectly.”

The result? An engine that feels exactly the same as Gears of War 3.

Same as it ever was

Curnoe pointed out that Fergusson’s influence is a resource in and of itself. As an executive producer on the first three games, there are few people, if any, with as much intimate knowledge and experience with the franchise. “Certainly having Rod here you basically have an expert – he made the games. Every time you’re questioning something, it’s really about going back to him and asking what he thinks of it.”

For Fergusson, his understanding of the series wasn’t just necessary to replicate the game’s success, but make sure it was distinctive enough to stand out on its own. “At some point, to be successful as a sequel, you have to betray your player’s expectations. If you betray them too much they say ‘this isn’t the game I wanted, this isn’t a Gears of War game.’ If you don’t betray them enough they say ‘I’ve seen this all before, what’s new about it?’”

The solution, according to Fergusson, is balance. “You have to walk this fine line, and manage that betrayal to say ‘I’m changing some stuff, but instead of feeling disappointed, because it’s changed, what you feel is surprise and delight because it’s things you like.’”

For Gears of War 4, there are certainly some new surprises. New characters and new enemies bring flesh blood to the series, but the Gears essence is unmistakable. The new cast mirrors the opening moments of the original game, outsiders taking on a mysterious threat, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Gears of War 4 comes to Xbox One October 11.