The Second Act of Gears of War 4 portrays J.D and his team looking for someone to help with an imminent danger of a new Locust breed, which turns out to be Marcus Fenix, a welcome recognisable figurehead of the franchise. The levels within the chapters of the Second Act are largely situated within the different areas of the Fenix Manor, an isolated and rural location within Sera, the fictional game world. Taking place during a cloudy night, the levels are both striking to navigate through and are enhanced by the strong encounter design, helping the core gameplay loop of Gears of War to shine.
Taking place on a cloudy night, the Second Act conveys the intense struggle to outrun and escape the C.O.G forces that are pursuing J.D and his squad to successfully reach the location that Marcus needs to investigate, ultimately to confirm a suspicion of the imminent threat of the new Locusts.
Chapter One – Prodigal Son
The Act starts with an introduction cutscene of J.D arriving at the house providing an nice overview of the initial space showcasing a large rundown manor house with Victorian building architecture themes and an overgrown partly destroyed garden, it is clear that this area was once a stunning location but has been forgotten and ravaged by the previous war over the past twenty five years after Gears of War 3.
The initial view of the level helps to give the player an idea of the state of the larger world. Moving forward, the lights on the upcoming bridge and the white cobblestones, contrasting nicely from the grass, help to lead the player on the golden path by creating leading lines encouraging the player to natural move forward.
After a short traversal over the bridge the path will split into two routes. Here both areas of interest are clearly highlighted by a prominent light above each door, the lighting contrasts nicely from the overall night environment settings and skybox contrasting. If the player decides to take the right path it will lead to a short cutscene of J.D. wiping leaves of his mother’s grave. This moment helps to both create emotion in the player and provide narrative of previous events since the ending of Gears of War 3. After the cutscene has concluded the only route the player has yet to explore is the single door of the small, rundown shack and because of the prominent light placed next to the door the player knows exactly where to go.
Interacting with the door will trigger a cutscene revealing Marcus Fenix, a great memorable moment. The cutscene conveys the difficult relationship between both Fenix’s and helps to progress the narrative nicely. Once the cutscene has conclude the first encounter begins. The player camera is directly facing a piece of cover the player can easily reach and remain safe to decide their next move.
The space is relatively small but is filled with strategically placed staggered cover to allow the player to complete cover to cover movements. The enemies spawn at the back of the encounter space with one sniper and several assault robots. The sniper spawns on the balcony above helping to give the sniper a vantage point over the player, this helps to suppress the player and create an element of vulnerability. Whilst the assault robots suppress the sniper can take shots from above, the synergies work very well as their position and archetypes were thought of to create an intense but relatively simple initial encounter.
Using the first cover prop nearby the player can a lane on the right to reach a flanking lane, highlighted by a light. Taking the lane rewards the player with slightly more protected cover from the sniper and gives easy access to a flanking route to reach the assault robots easier, getting in close to use the Gnasher shotgun.
The placement of the cover is positioned to maximise momentum by being angled to encourage movement in a specific way. This creates positive flow by making the feel of the movement and navigation much smoother.
Eliminating all the NPCs completes the encounter, triggering Marcus to run to the door again highlighted by lights. Marcus opens the door and upon entering the player is immediately met with C.O.G robots once again. The pacing is constantly escalating nicely through the different beats and the level flows together between traversal and encounter spaces. Upon reaching inside the rundown theme is carried further with the house visually looking destroyed.The interior stairwells and paths are wider than a traditional path due to the number of characters within a level and the larger, exaggerated character models. This helps to create a sense of fantasy and ensures that all players can easily navigate the space without the frustration of player collision blocking them.
Completing the small interior encounter the player can reach the second floor, where another brief encounter is triggered. The fight is in a small narrow corridor that acts as a chokepoint with not a lot of available cover, encouraging the player to take the flanking route immediately in view when entering of the encounter in which the player can see both the entrance and exit, a great example of how to implement a flanking route. By taking the flanking route the player is rewarded with a better view of the enemies to overcome the threat.
Once the encounter has concluded the player must navigate along the corridor, the moonlight lights up the corridor nicely and looks rundown and old. The destroyed wall on the right has a crumbling opening that highlights the previous area the player was in, helping to showcase progress.
Waiting for the player at the end of the corridor is Marcus, upon reaching Marcus he opens a secret room behind a dusty bookshelf and triggers a cutscene where it displays the squad suiting up in armour and equipping weapons to regain the traditional Gears of War look, it is a great memorable moment in the level and concludes the first chapter.
Chapter Two – Geared Up
The second chapter begins in the armoury and is an extremely cool location, it is filled with various weapons giving the player the choice of their preferred playstyle, a great way to make the player feel powerful. Once the player is ready to leave, they must interact with the door to proceed but on doing so it immediately triggers the next encounter. The constant escalation of the level is great and routinely jumps starts the intensity again after a downbeat or cutscene very nicely, helping the level flow from chapter to chapter with minimal intrusion to the player’s experience.
The player must now fight the incoming waves of robots, the tight corridors and the lack of cover makes for an intense but brief fight in the hallway. Upon destroying the initial wave of assault robots, the player is introduced to a new archetype, the Kestrel, a flying helicopter type robot that fires rockets and machine guns. The player must dodge incoming fire whilst also try to destroy the Kestrel’s engines. This fight is engaging and fun due to the introduction of new mechanics and the constrictive area the player is in making the player use cover smartly and choose when to lean out to fire. The lower cover makes the player feel vulnerable and whilst there is high cover it can be easily destroyed, the shattering segments of concrete that fly off when shot really helps to create an element of intensity to the fight and escalates the in game presence the player feels.
The Kestrel will often hover in positions that are framed by doorways and the gap in the wall making it clear to the player what they need to focus on at that moment in the level. Upon damaging the Kestrel enough will result it retreating in which robot reinforcements will arrive forcing the player to switch weapons to better suite close quarter engagements or prepare to melee them. Defeating the reinforcement wave will result in the Kestrel returning, restarting the mechanic from the first wave, once the player has damaged the Kestrel enough it will create another opening in the wall which increases the locations the player can receive damage from, again adding an element of intensity to the fight and nicely creates a 180 degree fight as it moves between hover points.
During this encounter there is hard level gating in the form of a closed door, preventing the player from exploring outwith the encounter boundaries. This helps the designer to ensure the player is in the intended position to complete the boss fight. The overall gating of the mission includes hard level gating including fences and solid bushes, helping to define a clear route.
Defeating the Kestrel triggers a cutscene of it crashing into Marcus’s house the encounter is over and briefly drops the pacing allowing more narrative to be conveyed however when moving down the previous corridor an assault drone bursts through the door immediately ramping up the pacing again, alongside the assault drone a Tracker archetype which seeks out the player and explodes, the combination of the assault and Tracker compliments each other as the assault directly damages the player and the Tracker pushes the player out of cover, making the player vulnerable. Once the small encounter has been completed the player is free to return to the entry of the house, however now the area has been drastically changed due to the Kestrel landing in the house previously.
The area now is destroyed, crumbling and on fire due to the Kestrel crash landing into the house. This is a great contrast to how the area was when the player entered and allows the player to see their actions make a difference to the environment, increasing player agency. The area is a visual treat and the combination of the fire, the lighting and the audio create a strong memorable section of the mission, to prevent the player quickly running to the next area there is a small combat encounter here. Upon completing the encounter and reaching the stairs a scripted cutscene is triggered of the burning Kestrel falling down the stairs, this also acts as gating preventing backtracking.
The next section is a traversal down beat that takes the player through the basements, cellars and tunnels of the Manor leading to the exterior through a secret passage. The exterior section is the next encounter space. This is evident due to the props clearly placed to use as cover, this is an evident throughout the Gears of War. The down beats are void of cover and the encounter spaces are a clear contrast with cover throughout, clearly exhibiting visual language.
The encounter space is a medium size arena with one clear flanking route to the right, highlighted by hanging lights. The hanging lights is a nice way to lead the player to the flanking route. The cover in the encounter is a mixture of destructible and non-destructible cover potentially creating urgency for the player to keep moving. At the end of the garden courtyard is the exit door, framed by a large archway and two sides at each side, clearly marking the goal for the player.
Upon completing the encounter Marcus opens the door to the next area, a greenhouse. The greenhouse is a great space for an encounter as the potted plants, being destroyed and shooting dirt and fragments of plant pot around the space when shot create an interesting dynamic to the combat. The cover is placed close together through the greenhouse making the cover to cover actions quick and snappy and encourages melee finishers and the use of the Gnasher shotgun.
This encounter space is a nice contrast the previous one where long sightlines, wide space for navigation, mixture of high and low cover and flanking routes were available whereas in the greenhouse the space is narrow without any flanking routes making the fight feel much more concentrated.
After completing the encounter and reaching the exterior path a Wind Flare begins to transform the level surroundings, warping the weather and environment settings. This makes the traversal downbeat slightly more interesting and pressures the player to navigate the linear path to reach the barn quicker. Once at the end of the path the player will come across the first of the COOP gates, a gate where it requires the COOP partner to assist opening a door or moving an object to progress. This ensures that both players are gathered at the same point preventing one player becoming stuck as another progresses, helping to naturally prevent unnatural or disjointed teleporting.
Once inside the next brief encounter begins. The cover immediately in front of the player is a small stack of destructible boxes that quickly get destroyed by incoming fire forcing the player to quickly reach the flanking routes for a safe vantage point and solid cover. Once completed a cutscene triggers showcasing the Wind Flare destroying the barn and a passing Condor plane, another plane variant in the C.O.G's armoury, which gets pushed back because of the Wind Flare and almost lands on the squad, a great set piece that seamlessly changes the barn environment to a crash site with debris and fire scattered over a short linear traversal beat. The change of environment keeps the level fresh and interesting and allows the player to traverse through the crashed plane wreckage, briefly creating a short break from the rural environment.
Reaching the end of the linear traversal beat the player will enter the next encounter space. The route highlighted by a light and framed by overhanging foliage makes the point of interests, the vantage points, the cover and snipers placed at the back stand out nicely. Before entering the encounter space lies a sniper and an ammo box, often weapons that are suited to the encounter space are placed at the entrance encouraging the player to change their playstyle, a sniper in this case is highlighted as the combat space is long with snipers at the back, making an assault rifle or shotgun less appealing. This helps to mix up the combat by varying strategies, controls and skill.
The archetypes in this combat space work well and successfully suppress and push the player out of cover by making cover to cover movement risky. To the right of the player there is a clear flanking route with a slight variation in the terrain, risking taking this route will give the player a better angle to use the sniper rifle on the enemy snipers by having a slight height advantage and a better line of sight. The encounter spaces are designed to incorporate strategy as smoothly as possible by creating a sense of urgency, keeping the players on their toes. At the far end of the space is the exit door highlighted by two lights, a theme carried through the level nicely, giving the level an element of affordance.
Through the mission the encounters constantly escalate the intensity and challenge by increasing numbers of NPC's or switching archetypes to subvert the player feeling safe within cover, in addition to this the encounter spaces themselves feel different in their layout, their terrain and cover placement creating much more interesting and dynamic fights.Once the encounter has been completed Marcus opens the gate to the next area and creates attention to the windmill in the distance, this focal point is framed by two large trees at either side and is an instance of denial and reward as the focal point is far away at the moment but as the player progress further through the level it will get closer, clearly identifying progression and completion of the players goal.
At this point the player must drop down again at a “point of no return” where it will unload all the previous areas of the level. Adding drop off points is primarily to aid in unloading much of the level to help with performance, budgets and to prevent any backtracking. A short traversal beat helps to convey backstory elements of the manor and triggers a cutscene of a Kestrel ambushing the squad as they cross a bridge, destroying it in the process, forcing Marcus and his team to jump into the dried-up riverbed below, concluding the chapter.
Chapter Three – Plan B
The chapter immediately begins at an intense pace with Trackers dropping into the gully, a moving mine that seeks the player out. The gully is a narrow space with not a lot of room to manoeuvre and dodge incoming robots, this forces the player to dodge in and out of cover more and pick their shots, encouraging the need for the player to be more skilful. Once the initial enemies have been defeated another Kestrel swoops in and begins its attack, following the same pattern as before but due to the narrow space and the greater angle of fire the Kestrel has on the player makes it slightly more challenging, escalating the level's challenge from previous instances. In this encounter the cover is destructible which means gradually the high cover will become low cover, lowering the protection the player will get and intensifying the combat as the cover crumbles.
Upon destroying the Kestrel it triggers a sequence of it crashing into the bridge ahead, conveniently destroying a sewer grate, creating an exit to the next area. This section was a nice explosive set piece that encapsulated elements of previous encounters just increased slightly. The exit door of the encounter has a clear yellow lighting tint to it due to the adjacent flames, helping navigation by creating a clear contrast to the blue night sky to clearly direct the player.
As the player goes through the opening, they can now see a new Wind Flare building in the skybox, this adds a nice visual element to the players immediate view and was clearly placed to make sure the player would see it, foreshadowing what is coming next for the player. Progressing through a small linear section results in the player reaching another point of no return, again to unload the previous level segments. The player will find themselves in a secluded rocky cave section, with high rocks and overgrown foliage, this leads onto an interesting section that gives the player the choice of their approach.
Here they can choose to take the left route labelled as Road or the right route labelled as Riverbed. Both sides have relatively simple combat but splitting up the players is an interesting COOP mechanic of the level due to the need to destroy blocked doors on either side in which only the player from each side can destroy, encouraging teamwork, communication and possibly a small replayability element. The environment is now tinted orange and is quickly becoming twisted and warped by the Wind Flare, the wind is now picking up and debris is flying around creating a sense of urgency in the players actions.
The player must destroy the barricades to allow the players on the other side to progress. This might be a throwback mechanic which was seen in the original Gears of War. An interesting ingredient in this encounter space is the clearly marked combat ingredients that if destroyed let loose dynamic explosive barrels or large haybales that make quick work of the robots as they get carried by the wind. The incoming Wind Flare, the ambient music, the debris and the need to assist teammates really helps to push the player forward to complete the encounter and to reach the next COOP gate.
After passing through the gate the “Storm Wall”, an effect from the Wind Flare that damages the player if they get near it, warps the ground in front of the player. Visually, this looks great and helps to reflect the danger and severity of a Wind Flare. The player must use cover to safely bypass it as it splinters off into different directions, a great finale set piece and mechanic that nicely concludes the chapter by creating a final blocker preventing the player from reaching their goal easily, the Windmill and the safety of the barn, which at this point in the level is in front of the player, showcasing their progression. Managing to bypass the Storm Wall to reach the barn will conclude the chapter.
Chapter Four – The Great Escape
The final chapter starts with a cutscene of the squad bursting out of the barn as it gets surrounded by robots on motorcycles, making their escape. However the C.O.G are in hot pursuit. After the cutscene concludes the level opens and switches to an on rails vehicle section, the player is confined to a relatively small constrained path and cannot deviate from it except from going left or right to avoid oncoming trees and rocks. Despite the linearity of the navigation the fast paced elements is a nice contrast to previous beats.
This beat introduces the Vulture plane, a large combat plane, akin to an AC130. The Vulture is huge and covers much of the night sky as it passes overhead. The scale of the plane makes the player look and feel small and vulnerable. As the player flies overhead it begins to drop explosive barrels which then destroy the road, forcing the player to react quickly and dodge them and the craters left behind, at first the drop rate is slow and making the barrels easily missed but as the beat continues, they drop quicker, increasing the pace of the player's actions by making the player switch sides closer to the explosions forcing the player focus more inherently increasing the pressure.
The player traverses through several different environments that helps to show that the player is travelling through the world, including a dried-up river, high rocky canyons and dark twisted forests warped by fire. A small ingredient to keep the player engaged on the linear path is to destroy the wooden barriers that can inflict damage if the player goes through them, a small ingredient but a nice addition to make the level a little more engaging.
During this beat there are events and enemies that are triggered around and in front of the player, these are there primarily to make the level feel more intense than it actually is by creating vistas to create the feeling of danger, despite the player never being in any amount of danger. An example of this is when a Kestrel flies in but is destroyed shortly after as it reaches the tunnel entrance, it explodes without doing any damage to the player. Despite this the level is a great change of pace and is exciting to experience by capturing the classic finale aspect very well.
A particularly interesting moment is driving through the tunnel as it begins to collapse, here the lowering ceiling, the VFX and the sound of explosions makes this segment really enjoyable by creating a claustrophobic feeling in the narrow space and a real sense of urgency to make it through and reach the exit. This is contrasted nicely when exiting the tunnel as the level opens up and displays a great vista of towering mountains accompanied by two distinctly large moons shining down. This is a great landscape to fight the Vulture in.
As the Vulture flies overhead it exposes its engines, that are bright orange and yellow. The difference in colour acts as a focus point and clearly marks the objective for the player making it easier for the player to know what to fire at and how to damage the Vulture, making the player feel smart.
This is a reinforcement of the earlier mechanic seen during the previous boss fights of the Kestrel. The player was taught the “shoot at the engines” mechanic earlier in the level which allows the player to be better prepared for the Vulture boss fight, making the player feel more powerful and capable. By destroying the engines and then the guns of the plane it will open the cargo hatch, giving clear access to the engine core, successfully placing enough shots on it will then destroy the Vulture in a huge fireball resulting in debris crashing around the player before concluding Act Two. The dirt flying up, the bike going through fire and the explosions is a great way to conclude the Act by capturing the over the top feeling of a Gears of War game.
Level Design Summary:
Great use of lights to highlight mission doors and points of interest
Places collectables through the level to solicit exploration
Flows nicely from beat to beat and through traversal to encounters
Features a great unexplored location and theme that is interesting to be in and experience
The paths are nicely scaled to fit all players at once making sure that navigation is fluid
Great use of enemy archetypes to push the player out of cover and make vulnerable
Smart cover placement to lead the player in a direction and provide flanking routes
Nice escalation of encounters and pacing through the level, starting of small and ending large
Great readability of combat spaces as they are uncluttered and simple to navigate
Cover affordances of geometry are great as everything that looks like cover is, creating less frustration