Aimed To Please
There are a lot of opinions out there regarding the Gears of War franchise, and — let’s just all be honest with ourselves — Gears of War 4 isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. If you weren’t a fan of the gruff sounding, smack talking, chest bumping squad from Epic’s original trilogy, do yourself a favor now and just move along. Live long and prosper and whatnot. You can almost see the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” hung above each developer’s desk at the Coalition’s studio in Vancouver. But let’s also be clear here, that’s not an entirely bad thing either.
Similar to Halo, Gears of War has been given to a new studio at Microsoft after the publisher acquired the rights to the franchise from Epic Games in early 2014. That being said, there are still some familiar faces working on this latest installment. Most notably studio head Rod Fergusson, who was an executive producer at Epic before leaving to help Ken Levine finish a little unheard of game known as Bioshock: Infinite. So despite the change in studios, there’s still a history and pedigree at the Coalition that should ease the fears of Gears fans. Fergusson has been out there saying that this would be one Gears-ass Gears game (generously paraphrasing) since the game debuted at E3 2015, and he most certainly wasn’t exaggerating.
What he was most likely getting at is that the fundamental gameplay mechanics are still here, all intact. Roadie running? Check. Active reloads? Check. A chainsaw attached to an assault rifle? Check — or rather, “vroom-vroom!” However, let’s also not be too reductive. The hallmarks of the franchise haven’t been merely copy and pasted here. There are a number of small refinements made to the formula that anyone who has played a Gears of War game recently will recognize and likely appreciate.
For one, getting in and out of cover is more responsive than it has ever been, which is important given how much you’ll be forced out of safety during the game’s campaign and multiplayer. Enemies, particularly the new robotic faction known as DeeBees, have no qualms about charging right at the player and exploding in the faces of our new heroes (more on them later). Weapons too have the ability to undermine cover altogether, the biggest culprit being the new Dropshot grenade launcher. As a result, this is the most mobile Gears of War title to date, putting an emphasis on positioning, flanking, and prioritizing danger instead of resorting to the Whack-A-Mole style third-person combat of a lot of other shooters and previous Gears titles.
Besides the changes to the A.I. and some new armaments, the game also includes a new violent weather system as a force to be reckoned with. The windflares that occur while you’re in the thralls of combat aren’t simply used as superficial environmental effects meant to generate awe the first time you witness their sheer force and devastation. Instead, they’re designed to force the player out of their comfort zone once again, either through their intimidating and scattered lightning patterns or by completely destroying the safety cover typically provides. What’s nice about these storms, though, is that they can also be turned against your adversaries. Shooting weak, waist-high walls will leave members of the Locust-like Swarm faction often exposed and disoriented in gusty winds when their cover disintegrates or, alternatively, the player can break barriers sending debris crashing into enemies. These instances are rather infrequent, but they’re often smart diversions that keep the gameplay feeling rather fresh throughout the campaign’s eight or so hours.
Even if you don’t appreciate some of these new attempts to freshen up the Gears formula, this is still quite possibly the most responsive and precise cover-based shooter available. The fact that the same design blueprints still work so well a decade later is a testament to how ahead of its time the original Gears of War was. That sticky snap of taking cover, the crunch of bullets, the moment-to-moment joy of vanquishing foes into a pile of blood, bone, and sinew — there’s still nothing else quite like it. The game is also still a mature rated title if anyone was wondering.
This gameplay continues to translate over to the multiplayer quite well, new weapons and all. While players will still need to be accustomed to the shotgun ballet Gears of War multiplayer is well known for, power weapons prove more vital than ever this time around. Maps typically offset important weapon spawns with vantage points, meaning the best teams will find a way to get their extra firepower to higher ground. What’s nice, however, is that if you’re still a surgeon with that iconic Gnasher shotgun, you’re never completely without hope.
Modes across the multiplayer check all the correct boxes. Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Execution, etc. are all here. New additions include Arms Race and Dodgeball. Arms Race will be familiar to anyone who has played Call of Duty’s Gun Game mode. Three kills unlocks another weapon tier for your entire team, and so on and so forth until you reach the final stage, the magnum pistol, to achieve victory. Dodgeball is basically the same as the hallmark Warzone and Execution modes except each enemy kill will spawn one of your deceased teammates waiting in the wings, à la dodgeball. It’s an immensely fun mode, as is Arms Race, but it’s doubtful they’ll overtake any of the more traditional playlists.
If competitive multiplayer isn’t your jam, and for many it isn’t, Horde is back! Beast mode is not, and neither is that thing from Gears of War: Judgment (Overrun), but I doubt there will be much of an outcry. This is just plain old, fan-favorite, pal around with your besties Horde mode. Okay, well, not entirely, but it’s pretty similar to what was in Gears of War 3, which is just fine. The main difference here is that there are now classes to choose from, each with a particular set of skills not unlike Liam Neeson. The Engineer is good at building and repairing fortifications constructed with the fabricator (the magical box that generates barriers, turrets, weapons, decoys, etc.). The Scout will boost the amount of currency pick-ups that enemies drop after being killed, which are necessary for building anything with said fabricator in the first place. Then there are the Heavy, Medic, and Sniper classes, which do exactly what you think they would. The bottom line here is that Horde mode is still as good as it ever was, possibly even better, and that’s something to celebrate.
Another nice inclusion is cooperative multiplayer, which is basically just a glorified bot mode. Scratch that, that’s exactly what it is. While it’s doubtful a bot mode will be considered an enticing addition to most, it’s apparent that The Coalition is well aware of all the complaints out there regarding the competitive modes in Gears being too difficult for casual fans to keep up with. This is their attempt to rectify that situation, even though it’s a bit unfair for people to ridicule. Performing well typically requires a thing called practice, but let’s just leave it at that. Nevertheless, whether you just want to hone your skills or switch things up, the cooperative multiplayer does include multiple difficulty settings so that players can familiarize themselves with maps, strategies, and weapon placements before going online. The attempt to provide players with a little bit of extra-assured footing is a nice gesture but let’s face it, we all love to complain.
With its smattering of modes, Gears of War 4 is as solid as any other game in the franchise, if not more so when it comes to multiplayer. The Coalition seems to understand exactly what makes Gears competitive and cooperative modes work, and they don’t exactly try to change what has made the game so unique for its fanbase in exchange for more mass appeal. Now, that won’t please people who want this newest game to be more tailored toward them, and that’s too bad. But maybe, just maybe, it’s better for games to feel different from each other instead of chasing the aforementioned Call of Duty series like so many other games. Gears of War 4 understands what makes for good cover-based shooting and doubles-down on it, providing the appropriate weapons and maps to ensure its core fans remain happy with these early offerings. The matchmaking itself could still use a little work, but once you’re into a game everything feels pretty fantastic thanks to the new engine.
Speaking of which, this is by far and away the best-looking Gears of War game, and these aesthetics also have an impact on gameplay. Competitive multiplayer runs at a smooth 60 frames per second no matter your platform of choice, and given the mechanics that have already been described ad nauseam (sorry), this all feels fantastic during those fast online firefights. Not only does Gears 4 make for a nice showpiece for Unreal Engine 4, but it’s also one of the most fantastic looking games to come out on this generation of hardware as well. Destructible cover, the windflare effects, gorgeous lighting, and detailed character models make the game’s story a real treat to play through just for its sheer spectacle. Whether you’re chasing a plane on a motorcycle, destroying an infected Brumak goliath, or racing for shelter through bursts of lightning, Gears 4 is frequently downright breathtaking.
And, not to save the best for last, but it’s in the campaign where this newest entry pushes itself furthest beyond any of its predecessors. Now, while the latest Gears does not take storytelling to the heights of its most lauded contemporaries — that mostly means Uncharted 4 — by Gears standards this narrative is almost nuanced. Sure, that bar is somewhat low, but previous games have certainly contained their fair share of memorable, iconic moments even if subtlety wasn’t always their strong suit.
This starts with the Coalition’s decision to push the series out 25 year into the future, or the future’s future, after Marcus Fenix and his “bros” destroyed all those bad Locust dudes by blowing up all the fuel on the planet Sera, or something. It’s probably good there’s been some distance from whatever the previous story was, because it’s provided Gears 4 with an opportunity not only to reset the series, but to filter previous events through a historic lens and almost make them seem, you know, good. And that’s not meant as a backwards compliment to this new game, but mostly intended simply to point out just how smartly crafted this new storyline is. It’s a narrative with a purpose, that strengthens the narratives of previous games, and avoids slipping into the somewhat cynical trappings most franchises find themselves in after carrying a story beyond its logical conclusion.
The premise here — ripped right out of the J.J. Abrams playbook of “member berries” — is a great one. Our new protagonist, J.D. Fenix, son of the aforementioned legendary COG war hero Marcus Fenix, lives in a world that has also been reset, so to speak. Without ample amounts of Imulsion fuel lying around, the citizens of Sera live in a somewhat scaled-back society. The population has also been devastated due to the war with the Locusts all those years ago, which has caused the COG themselves to form a military dictatorship. Martial law has been declared around the more populated areas of Sera, leaving some, like J.D., to fend for themselves on the outskirts, off the grid, in small villages.
What’s neat about the new storyline is that Gears of War 4 has the player fighting against the COG in its opening acts, which is an appreciated change of pace that is also meaningful given J.D.’s father’s own colored past with the military on Sera. However, since one enemy faction isn’t enough in most video games, the Locust are also quickly reintroduced as the Swarm. Surprise, surprise, they’ve mutated again, and this time they’ve killed and kidnapped J.D’s friends, most importantly the village leader, Reyna, who also happens to be J.D.’s girlfriend’s — or maybe just girl-space-friend’s — Kait’s mom.
With the COG already breathing down J.D.’s neck for stealing a fabricator from one of their facilities, now it’s up to J.D., Kait, and Del (his black BFF) to fight through the swarm and save Kait’s mother. Of course, they will probably need some extra firepower to do so, and that’s where familiar faces start showing up.
Now, it’s better not to ruin too many surprises, but let’s just all agree right now that old man Marcus has aged as gracefully as Old Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4. While the newer characters possess a healthy dose of arrogance, bravado, and charisma, they’re written rather carefully. J.D. doesn’t feel all too dissimilar from Nathan Drake, and Kait isn’t too far off from Daisy Ridley’s Rey in The Force Awakens. That’s a good thing because the Gears of War series could stand to be a bit more grounded. Old man Marcus, though? Well, his brow never unfurrows, he’s always yelling (mostly about his tomatoes), and he’s still every bit the badass you remember from the first three games. He’s juxtaposed to everything happening around him, a blast from the past so to speak, and dammit if it isn’t just the most wonderful thing.
That’s in large part thanks to the excellent script writing that always manages to balance a healthy amount of lore, with self-aware humor, and solid character development. Many relationships are set up throughout the campaign quite well. It’s easy to get the sense of who these characters are without loads of exposition. The loyalty and camaraderie between J.D. and Del is easy to spot given their light-hearted brothers in arms dynamic. J.D. and Kait have a similar sort of bond, but one that possesses a bit of mutual adoration lying just beneath the surface. Meanwhile, J.D. and Marcus have perhaps the most interesting relationship of the bunch — one that has its own history of rebellion, angst, disappointed, and understanding in a way that speaks to the “like father like son” checkered history the two share. Again, it’s nuanced, it’s subtle, and it sets up enough to make me excited about where the Coalition plans to take the franchise in the future.
If we’re going to be negative — and really why not? — it should be noted that Gears 4 does fail to provide any real closure by the journey’s end. There is an end to be fair, but one that doesn’t resolve the larger conflicts in the story, which is disappointing. That’s par for the course when it comes to franchises these days, but video game developers should consider taking a page out of the MCU playbook. It’s fine to leave a few threads dangling, but providing so much conflict without much in terms of any payoff whatsoever is a bit frustrating. Worse is that we’re likely not to get any closure until the third game in a trilogy judging by other examples in this format. What makes this stick out a little bit more in Gears 4 is that the setup itself is legitimately interesting this time, and coherent.
Return Of The King
There will likely still be a wide array of opinions about Gears of War after this latest installment, no doubt. Many will say that not enough has changed, and that’s fine, but considering that Gears 4 is the best looking, best playing, and best scripted of the bunch, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the new high mark for the series. It nails the staples fans have come to appreciate over the years and proves that when it comes to third-person shooters—well, there’s nothing quite like Gears of War. At the same time, The Coalition pushes the series forward and justifies telling a new story in this universe. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities for the franchise going forward knowing that Gears of War’s future is in thoughtful hands.
TL;DR: Yes. Yes it is.
The best third-person shooting mechanics return refined
Established legends, endearing new leads
Smart and fun(ny) storytelling
Tons of multiplayer options
The king of coop
Could have used another act
An improved storyline, an onslaught of features, and the best third-person combat make Gears 4 a must for shooter fans.