Gears of War as a series effectively canonized the modern cover shooter. Chest-high walls, the “roadie run”, the cover button, all of these things, while not necessarily originating with Epic’s 2006 title, were all packaged very neatly by it and presented as the starting point for an entire subgenre of the shooter game, with its influence extending far beyond its own titles.
The thing about cover shooters, however, is that they by their very nature they encourage a sort of very methodical sort of gameplay. There’s a reason the genre is also known as “stop ‘n’ pop”: you move to a piece of cover and sit there, popping out to shoot enemies whenever they, themselves, pop out of cover, before advancing towards the next piece of cover. Rinse and repeat. Compared to more aggressive shooters like Call of Duty or Halo, and especially compared to the modern wave of movement-focused shooters like Titanfall, Gears of War feels kinda slow. There’s a fair amount of waiting involved, between waiting for enemies to reveal themselves from behind cover, to waiting for the right time to advance between pieces of cover.
Now, Gears of War itself has actually acknowledged that through its design. A fair number of enemy types, namely Wretches and Tickers, actively charge players in cover, forcing them to take immediate action. Gears also balances its weapons, generally, such that those weapons which take you out of cover are the most powerful, with shotguns usually providing instant kills and the Lancer’s chainsaw bayonet always providing instant kills upon landing.
The thing here is that these mechanisms end up sort of in opposition to the game’s movement systems. Gears characters are big, hunky marines with the physique of linebackers. They don’t move with much quickness, except for the roadie run, which is a single mad rush in a straight line forward with very little steering ability. Beyond these tools, all the player has is a sort of clumsy roll that can take one a very short distance quickly, with some animation delay between the end of the roll and the next player input. Essentially, what this means is that trying to move into position to use any sort of short-ranged weapon leaves the player vulnerable. You’re defenseless for a short time after using the roll, have no control over your direction while roadie running, and are kind of just a sitting duck while walking. Long story short, you can either move or shoot.
Enter Gears of War 3, the final* episode in the main series, and the introduction of the Retro Lancer. The gimmick behind the Retro Lancer is pretty simple: instead of the series’s iconic chainsaw bayonet, it has…a regular bayonet. With that, the command which normally revs the chainsaw bayonet up instead launches the player forward in a weaponized version of the roadie run, bayonet forward. If you hit any sort of enemy, you skewer them, instantly killing human-sized enemies.
The thing about the Retro is that it provides an aggressive movement option where the game never had one before. Previously, your options were to either move or attack, whereas charging with the Retro was both. This doesn’t sound terribly significant at first, but what it does is incentivize player aggressiveness in a series and genre normally all about slowly progressing forward. Instead of dividing gameplay into attacking or moving, the Retro Lancer lets the players mount an attack and, as a result, change positioning.
Let’s back up a smidge. Once you’re actually in a piece of cover in Gears, the decisions that you have to make aren’t actually terribly interesting, in my opinion. You wait for a guy to stand up, then you stand up and shoot him. The only thing that changes about the game state is that there’s one less guy shooting at you. You can choose to move forward, but that’s pretty universally a bad idea unless there are, let’s say, two or fewer enemies left, or you’re on a pretty low difficulty.
The Retro changes that dynamic by offering a new decision. Let’s say you’re in a piece of cover and you realize that you’re in a bad spot. In a traditional Gears dynamic, you’re offered two options: try and clear the room from your disadvantageous spot, or cut and run, leaving yourself exposed to enemy fire. The Retro offers a third option: an aggressive push outwards, a marriage of the two decisions. And here’s the best part: to maximize the Retro’s usefulness, you need to charge towards enemies, encouraging you to violate the “my cover-your cover” dynamic the game normally has while also not making such a decision very dumb. Charge towards an enemy flank, stand up, rev the Lancer, and you’re probably dead. Charge towards an enemy flank, immediately skewer someone, then push towards cover, and your odds are slightly better.
Providing incentive on breaking from the player norms of playing a cover shooter is what the Retro Lancer encourages (and in fact, a focus of a lot of Gears of War‘s design decisions), and that is a Good Idea.