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Gears of War 4 Hands-On Impressions at San Diego Comic-Con – CQB and Gore Galore

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Being my first ever foray into the Gears of War franchise, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up the Xbox controller and began the Gears of War 4 demo during San Diego Comic-Con last month. In short, prepare yourselves for quite a few cringing, self-defamatory comments about my quite-frankly negative experience in terms of combat in the latest entry of the positively-praised franchise.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I died quite a few times while traversing my learning curves of how to deal death with both in-game weapons against enemies and the bane of my existence: the Xbox controller. Yes, you read into that right. I don’t like the Xbox controller. It made me feel like a newborn baby while I struggled to disassociate where I’m used to the X button being on a PlayStation controller and where it is for Xbox.

According to what I was told by the booth people, the demo is cut from the very first few missions of the game. (You can view a YouTube video of the same full demo I played through at the bottom of this post.) The demo’s set-up, according to the booth people and an Xbox article I found about their SDCC presence, finds JD, Del, and Kait with Marcus Fenix on their quest to rescue Reyna, Kait’s mother.

With the dam set as the waypoint objective from the start of the demo in order to get a better view of a burial site, the group of four make their way there, with me controlling JD. After doing some research on the Gears franchise, I found Gears 4 to be basically the same, with the added advantage of better graphics, but also the negative addition of enemies that can take quite a lot more bullets than Gears 1. Mind you, I base this off of watching walkthroughs and gameplay trailers of Gears 1 through 3, so I don’t know what difficulty they played at.

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JD and company soon meet obstacles to their goal in the form of hostile Swarms and destructive wind flares. This is the point when much dying ensued. The primary assault-rifle-like weapon ideally would have been my go-to firearm, but I forgot to keep my shots to bursts instead of full auto. This naturally led to both most of my shots missing the target and running out of ammo about halfway through. Whoops. Headshots felt impossible, even with the large reticle directly over the enemy’s head, but maybe I was just not aiming correctly.

Turning next to the shotgun in the demo arsenal, close-quarters-combat was much more consistent in hitting targets. However, the Swarm I met also knew how to vault over cover when you got in close, then charge at you (shooting from the hip, or blind firing, is much more effective in such situations), in which case, melee-chainsawing them became necessary. The shotgun feels really awesome when you blind fire over cover at an exposed enemy, but it can be tough to get the situation just right; that’s where the chainsaw comes in.

I don’t know if should chalk it up to not being familiar with Gears, but melee-chainsawing enemies felt too easy and cinematic–emphasis on cinematic–with how carnally-visceral it all is. It’s almost as if using it in combat all the time would be more preferable than the standard of mixing it with gunplay. If only dying and needing to be revived by allies weren’t inevitable and frequent when too long outside of cover, then melee would be best for the sheer thrill of it.

Grenade-throwing was never my strong-suit in all the shooter games I’ve ever played. From Call of Duty to Uncharted, strategically using them is always challenging for me. Maybe because I didn’t get the chance to play with it a lot; the arc-throwing mechanic reminiscent of the Uncharted franchise was confusing for me, resulting in missing pretty much all of my throws and their explosions not damaging their intended targets.

When I came down to the pistol, the decrease in power was obvious. The corresponding increase in maneuverability and ease of use was also apparent. Aiming with the smaller reticle was so much easier than the long guns, but the cost in power was too great, since it took several headshots just to bring down a nearby enemy.

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Lastly, environmental hazards and destructibles were dangerous and useful during my playthrough. While I couldn’t figure out what to shoot at in order to trigger a deluge of debris to take out enemies behind cover, the game nonetheless kept insisting that there are such targets. Cover itself can be destroyed. Embryo-like sacs even blow up when shot at enough, releasing a newborn Swarm that charges at you in a frenzy in the process. Other than a section where you get pushed back if you don’t keep going forward and the end of the demo when JD and the team are charging through a wind flare to get to shelter, the weather phenomenon didn’t make me feel the need to urgently get out of it, as the voice-overs imply. While I didn’t let myself get touched by the funnel-shaped storm cones, it can be inferred that they can cause damage.

So in summary, my first ever Gears of War experience with Gears 4 wasn’t all chocolates and roses, but it was pleasant enough when my actions on the controller translated into actually kicking butt on screen instead of dying all the time. At this point, I can say that for newcomers like me to both the franchise and Xbox in general, the learning curve is slightly steeper and quirks more detrimental to the experience than I would like, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of getting it right and scoring kills in the process.

The verdict at this point in time before release, and with only a bit of the campaign under my belt: hit-or-miss most of the way as a novice player with a lot of patience, but also enjoyable and nostalgic for third-person-shooter veterans who know how to dish out the pain with a hailstorm of bullets and choking chainsaw smoke while looking and feeling cool doing it.

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