On paper, the initial idea of a Gears of War 4 was not particularly exciting to me. This console generation has been plagued with ‘sequelitis’, and I speak for a large demographic of gamers when I say that I have been disappointed with the lack of new franchises of late. By this time last generation we had Gears of War, Uncharted, and Dead Rising, not to mention the phenomenon that was Wii Sports. I don't want to discount the titles we have, and Gears of War 4 has been a joy to play as a whole, but I think it’s important for everyone to not stop asking for more from our games. Gears of War 4 is not a fresh new IP, but it has managed to make an enjoyable new entry into the franchise, that changes just enough to feel modern without getting away from what made Gears the classic it is considered today.
Rumors and discussions from the initial developer of the game, Epic Games, hinted at a departure from the original Gears format to look back to the pendulum wars of the games’ past, and in the process moving away from the ‘meatheads vs. aliens’ aesthetic. As development shifted over to The Coalition studios, it was announced that they were concerned that it wouldn’t be ‘gears-like’ enough and moved away from some of the proposed changes to create a gears game that’s new, but didn’t leave five years of game design innovations on the table. What came out of this is a beautiful, tightly controlling shooter that any player of the series will enjoy, but subsequently also a game that airs on the side of ‘safe’ and unspectacular. Gears of War 4 opens on a high note, with some new robot enemies that change up the format. And throughout about the first third of the game I was very impressed with how much of a departure they had taken from the original formula. But, it was this exact change that made it so disappointing when the game shifted back to fighting monsters, tossing grenades into ‘nests’ (not emergence holes, they are very specific about that), and the rest of the rinse and repeat gameplay elements that are telltale to the series.
Gears of War 4 sneaks in moments of quiet beauty in between murder-fests
The single player campaign has you take control of J.D. Fenix, son of the ‘face of the franchise’ Marcus Fenix, roughly 25 years after the end of Gears of War 3. The world has changed after humanity’s wars with the Locust Horde, and seeing everything from the perspective of those who didn’t know life before the war is a novel approach that put a different and welcomed spin on the attitudes and actions of the main protagonists. The main crew of characters are all genuinely likable, and interactions between them left me wanting to know more about their past in a way that military meathead banter hadn’t in the past. The quippy remarks have their funny moments, and the dialog is an improvement over past games in the series. Looking at the campaign as a whole I liked the story, though it started off on a much stronger note than it ended. It is clearly being set up as the beginning of a new trilogy of Gears games, and it shows with an abrupt ending that answers a few questions, but doesn’t come close to offering satisfying closure.
Fortunately for players, it’s more than just the dialog and story framing that has changed, the tone and the aesthetic as a whole had a complete overhaul. Gone are the days of giant men, bursting with muscle even a professional wrestler would dream about; and in its place a more realistic set of character models that still have the look and feel of gears characters without feeling like you are controlling a lumbering wall of flesh. Similarly, there is a fresh injection of color and life into a series well known for its drab palettes. Seeing bright outdoor areas and impressive weather effects was a breath of fresh air in the veritable sea of brown and grey military shooters of the past decade. This changed was welcomed, and I think the effort will do a good job of getting players new to the series interested to jump on board the gears train.
In contrast to the visual elements and story, there were very few changes to the series mechanically with Gears of War 4, in both the single player and multiplayer modes The campaign integrates some elements of horde mode by adding defensible hardpoints, waves, and constructible fortifications. Otherwise, the moment-to-moment action is what you would come to expect from previous Gears titles. The cover-to-cover movement is snappy and satisfying, and the gunplay is as solid as it ever has been. A handful of new weapons are available, but the classic pistol/gnasher/lancer paradigm is still available, as are the familiar power weapons like the boomshot and torque bow.
If you are coming to Gears of War 4 for the competitive multiplayer and the horde mode, The Coalition has you covered. The multiplayer comes with a mix of new and classic maps, and has the look and feel hardcore fans know and love. The run-and-gun action of close quarters combat, and shotgunning opponents in the back has returned in a stunning 60fps, and the devs made a point to make sure it felt like classic gears. Horde mode has had a few change-ups in the form of a class-system that allows individuals to have more specific roles in the action, but the tension and fun is just the same. If I had any criticism with the multiplayer features, it comes down to the microtransactions and loot system. In 2016 these practices have become the norm for online shooters, even making their way into this year’s Call of Duty title, but I can't help but feel like the progression (especially in horde mode) is actively tuned to incentivise players spending more money. The build up of currency over time strictly from play is a slow trickle, and the amount of rewards from even the most expensive loot boxes feels menial compared to the time investment to earn them.
Co-op horde mode is as fun and addicting as it’s ever been
Coming into Gears of War 4 with managed expectations lead me to an enjoyable couple-dozen hours of chainsawing and active-reloading pleasure. I wouldn’t come to this game if you are looking for a transcendent gaming experience, or something that is a far cry from the series roots, but it adds a few fun variables to the Gears formula. Despite some missteps with the story closure and playing it safe with the changes, Gears of War 4 reminds us why Gears was great in the first place in gorgeous fashion. It uses a mix of modern fun and nostalgia to justify its own existence as not only a new entry in a cherished franchise, but also the beginnings of what could be another great Gears of War trilogy.
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Release Date: October 11th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: Xbox One