*Gears of War 4 spoilers ahead! They’re everywhere!
One of my favorite things about the Gears of War games is the character dynamics. The series has always done a phenomenal job of creating interesting, believable characters. In the games, you play as a member of a four-man squad, and the guys are constantly ribbing each other. One character goes bananas for engineering; another used to be a sports star. You learn to love these characters, despite the fact that for the most part, the squad I’m referring to here is basically a bunch of ridiculously beefy dudes.
Gears of War 3 introduces female squadmates, Anya and Sam. By default, playing solo you’ll play as a male character — but depending on how many players are sharing a co-op experience, one of the players may assume the role of Anya.
As a girl gamer, playing as Anya is a nice addition to the Gears experience. Since I feel like I relate to female characters a little more naturally than male characters, I’m always choosing female avatars in character creators. And any game that features a female lead intrigues me for that reason alone. It’s becoming more common to see women in lead roles in games, which is awesome. It made me happy to see that Gears of War is making strides there too.
But the franchise took an even bigger step forward in Gears of War 4 — because in this game, the new character Kait Diaz is central to the entire story.
Kait is an Outsider, living in a village outside the walled cities the COGs have built after the Locust War. As such, she’s independent and capable. She and her people have learned to live off the land, without the benefits the COGs provide — and away from COG propaganda. When the Swarm aliens take her mother Reyna, Kait and her new friends J.D. and Del take off to find and rescue her.
In this way, Gears of War 4 is really Kait’s story. But when you play Gears 4, by default you play as J.D. Fenix, son of the previous Gears lead Marcus Fenix. Only playing co-op do you have the option to assume the role of Kait.
J.D. does have some skin in the game, too. After J.D. meets up with his dad, he finds extra motivation to track the Swarm when Marcus is taken too. This means that for a portion of the game, both J.D. and Kait are trying to save their parents, together.
The thing is, the squad finds Marcus first. Marcus is able to tell them what it was like being inside a Swarm pod — and because they’re all linked, he knows that Kait’s mother Reyna is still alive. In fact, the Swarm are keeping her alive. This intel seems to be the reason the story includes this subplot of Marcus being taken — that, and the fact that J.D. has that extra purpose for an act or two of the game.
But Gears of War 4 is still Kait’s story.
This is why, about halfway through the game, I started feeling like Kait should be the protagonist of Gears of War 4. Rather than being a strong lead, J.D. seems to mostly be along for the ride. While I like his character just fine, Kait is the one who not only directs the squad, but also has a real emotional involvement in the outcome of their mission.
Playing co-op, my partner took the lead as J.D. while I played as Kait. The second player in co-op can choose between playing as Kait or Del. Considering Del has very little backstory compared to J.D. or Kait, a part of me wishes the game had just made Kait the second character, without Del being an option. (Not to say Del’s not cool. He revived me so many times when I was down-but-not-out.)
Better than making Kait the only second playable character in co-op would be just making her the lead. I understand that J.D. is important for retaining players who loved previous Gears games, because he is the son of Marcus Fenix — but being important through inheritance is a lot less interesting than being a character who earns her place the way Kait does.
If Kait had been the lead in Gears of War 4, I don’t see that there would have been any difference in the story or missions at all. J.D. could still be there, bringing Marcus into the story and keeping Gears 4 grounded in what came before. But Kait would be the leader she already is, with agency to go after her mother and deep involvement in the entire story, from start to finish.
Now, the ending of the game is a little chill-inducing, because Reyna asks Kait to kill her rather than let the Swarm finish their mission: to change her into one of them. This is hard for Kait to hear, but when J.D. offers to take over in killing Reyna, Kait insists on doing it herself. (More points to Kait’s strength!)
Kait and Reyna have a tear-jerker of a good bye, and in their last moments together, Reyna gives Kait a necklace that apparently belonged to her grandmother. Kait reveals the pendant in the last seconds of the game — it bears the Locust emblem. If you’ve played Gears before, you may recognize it, because the Locust are the primary enemies throughout the Gears trilogy.
If we consider that the Swarm (who are successors of the now-extinct Locust) were trying to turn Reyna into one them rather than kill her, and that Kait’s grandmother had this pendant, we can assume that Kait is related in some way to the Locust and its former queen Myrrah. That means that the Swarm may be after Kait next. Gears of War 4 is clearly setting us up with a cliffhanger here, and whether Kait remains “good” or goes to the Swarm remains to be seen in the next game(s).
I could see where, if Kait becomes an antagonist at some point, it would be hard to set her up as the hero of Gears of War 4. Maybe. On the other hand, this whole plot twist also makes her even more interesting as a potential lead! In future games, Kait could be conflicted about her place. That means more emotional investment in the story — not to mention motivation to interact with the Swarm in one way or another.
Maybe she’ll fight the Swarm despite her ancestry. Maybe she’ll sacrifice herself the way her mother did rather than become one of them. Maybe she’ll try to negotiate with the Swarm, becoming a liaison of peace as only someone in her position could. Or maybe she’ll return to the Swarm; maybe she will go full-on bad guy. Whatever the case, she would make for a fascinating character who would be interesting to play as, and I wouldn’t mind one bit if the games switched from her as the lead to J.D., should her allegiance shift later. Playing as her in the early games, watching her morally transform as she comes into contact with the Swarm, and then taking over as J.D. while she becomes the main villain — that would be epic storytelling to me!
In any case, Kait is a great character in Gears of War 4, and I’m glad that Gears is stepping it up with their female protagonists — whether they’re the “main” characters or not. I just personally wish Kait were the default lead of the new Gears games. =)