I wasn’t really expecting to like Gears of War 4 as much as I did.
The Gears series is frequently everything that bores me in modern action games — template-like, gravel-voiced roid bros charging headfirst into military fist-bumps excessive chainsaw-related gore. The series also found its formula from the jump and didn’t deviate far from it over the course of its next two mainline titles (though the character work did improve, thanks to a stellar Gears of War 3 script by sci-fi novelist Karen Traviss). Nevertheless, the series has always had its rabid fans who were enamoured with its tough-guy stories and characters.
Gears of War 4 is the first true title from new series dev The Coalition, who have been placed into very similar shoes as 343 Industries when they were tasked with making Halo 4 a reality. Their job is a rather intimidating one — take a series that hasn’t seen a new title in almost five years, make it the new gold standard for Xbox exclusives, play a convincing cover of a classic tune and make it both fun and good in the bargain.
The Coalition give it a red hot go, and there are areas where they absolutely stick the landing and others where they fall a bit short. It adheres slavishly to the Gears formula and frequently feels like more of a reboot than a fully fledged sequel. Even with this determination to kick it old school, Gears of War 4 proves it can hold its own against other, modern shooters.
The campaign begins two decades after the conclusion of the Locust War, and the game’s tutorial provides a rapid fire history of that period. Humanity, and the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) remnant now dwell within strictly governed cities designed to protect the fragile few human beings that remain. Order, however, tends to create resistance and there are some who now live beyond the COG’s control, instigating raids on robotocised cities for supplies and fencable items.
Poised rather smugly between the COG and the rebels is J.D. Fenix (Liam McIntyre) and his buddy Del Walker (Eugene Byrd), both of whom have joined one of the rebel groups alongside friend Kait Diaz (Laura Bailey). When mystery enemy quickly invades the rebel camp and makes short work of everyone there, J.D. is forced to turn to the only person he knows who might be able to neutralise the threat — his father, Gears of War series protag Marcus Fenix (John DiMaggio).
The thing I really like about the Gears 4 narrative is that it winds the scope back considerably, telling a more intimate story about three people who just want to know that their friends and families are okay. This is illustrated by the dizzying scale of the prologue/tutorial and the relative quiet of Act One. There’s a tinge of horror to the proceedings and the game benefits greatly from it, particularly its love of gore which now feels like it found its place through the application of the right genre. J.D. is also, for my money, a far more interesting and likable leading man than Marcus has ever been, and the game spends quite a bit of time exploring their bizarrely adversarial relationship. Also, I think The Coalition were fans of Guardians of the Galaxy because its Star Lord that J.D. most reminds me of.
Family is the throughline here. Kait gets time to establish her relationship with her mother and her uncle, and our three leads are given plenty of moments to draw a complete picture of their friendship. Everyone gets a moment in the spotlight, unlike the previous Gears titles which were little more than The Marcus and Dom Show feat. Cole Train and Baird When Required. In fact, the only character in the game that seems to get short shrift is Del who just isn’t quite well-drawn enough for my liking. By the end of the campaign, we know quite a bit about both J.D. and Kait but virtually nothing about Del beyond his being friends with J.D. since childhood.
Karen Traviss did not return to write Gears of War 4, but new writer Tom Bissell does a bang-up job of keeping things moving. He never lets the story bog down, nor get caught up in the kind of chest-beating military bravado of the previous games. The script is fairl straightforward, but it adheres to the cardinal screenwriting rule of having everything advance the plot in some meaningful way.
While the script is always moving forward, the game’s pace allows for breathing room. You are always free to explore each area thoroughly before moving on (though you will get your companions trying to give you the hurry on, which can get annoying). In previous games it was often pretty easy to tell when a battle was about to break out because you’d walk into a room full of the Gears staple chest high walls. in Gears 4, there are multiple room just like this but … no fight. They’re just messing with you. And then, when you enter a room where you think you’re probably safe, that’s when they get you. It’s a really smart way of taking some of the areas where the series is starting to show its age and finding a fresh way to come at them.
It’s the combat where Gears of War 4 feels its most familiar. It’s remarkably easy to fall back into the flow of Gears combat, taking cover where you can and picking your enemies off as you change up your positioning to ensure a strong push. The movement feels smoother than it did in previous games (though I still think they put the camera far too close behind J.D. It’s easy to lose track of where dropped weapons are when you’re looking to hoover up ammo).
Your buddy AI is surprisingly strong — they don’t hem you in, but they don’t wander too far either. They’re rarely out of position, and are always on hand to revive you and, and this is the part I really like, they can actually kill things. Finally, AI companions that don’t feel like you’re babysitting deadweight for 12 hours.
Movement is more crucial to combat here than its ever been before. A lot of cover is destroyable, so staying put for more than a few seconds could mean you lose your protection. Frequently, that thin wall of concrete is all that stands between you and being completely overrun and being able to move between them and reposition is critical.
Your enemies this time around are a wild bunch, and don’t have anything like the kind of combat readiness of the old Locust baddies. You’ll battle DBs, which are COG robots designed to shut down aggression, and The Swarm (who are the new series villains). The Swarm fight very differently to the Locust, soaking up damage and then charging directly into your group with fury when hitting a particular threshold. This total lack of self preservation throws a series spanner in the works because it means you’re constantly trying to keep them from getting too close.
Further, the Swarm are being born of biopods scattered throughout the levels and these pods can be used for cover. But they can also be torn to shreds by incoming fire. Eventually the pod will burst open, and if you’re very lucky it will be empty. They are frequently not empty so stack up against them at your own risk.
These environmental upgrades are a big part of what makes Gears 4 feel more dynamic, and it’s not just limited to on-the-ground obstacles either. The recovering ecosystem is generating superstorms that pelt the planet Sera daily. These storms are bad news for a number of reasons — first, its really hard to see where enemies are hiding in amongst all the debris. Second, those who prefer projective weapons like boomshots will find themselves struggling to fire into the wind, and having to once again go on the move to find a better angle.
Everything mentioned above is sewn together in a way that makes this by far the most enjoyable Gears title to date. All of the weapons feel distinct enough that you want to change them up just to see how they affect the flow of battle. The environment design and enemy AI make you feel as though you are under threat. Even the boss fights avoid being the kind of depressing trial-and-error grindfests that many action games tack on.
If you squint, though, you can occasionally spot the strings and stagey-bits that The Coalition maybe thought about but then bailed on. There was one moment in the late campaign that saw the DB’s and the Swarm duking it out, and J.D. and co. throw themselves into the mix, turning the proceedings into an enjoyable chaotic three-way free-for-all. It was great fun, and a real change of pace from the rest of the campaign. But then it never happened again, and I have to wonder if The Coalition were trying out an idea there and then walked it back for next time.
Then there was a cutscene that showed what looked like an important interaction between a Swarm creature and a particular DB, and I’m thinking “Holy fuck, here we go.” The game goes on to never address this moment again.
There were also a couple of attempts to blend the game’s popular Horde mode into the campaign but they just felt like fluff to me, moments designed to halt your progression for a moment and draw the total playtime out a bit longer. They stick out like sore thumbs because the rest of the campaign is so economical with its time, and seems to care so much about not wasting yours.
Horde 3.0, the actual standalone game type, is more or less exactly what it says on the tin. It introduces a new machine called The Fabricator which allows players to build turrets and other battlefield obstacles to slow the roll of the incoming enemies. There’s still a few aspects of it that feel like they could be tightened up — the new class system, for instance, still feels like it needs a bit of work done to it. Engies are invaluable because they can build your emplacements, scouts are a must-have because they can race around the battlefield and hoover up all the energy from fallen enemies for the engies to build with. Great. Let’s keep those. Everyone else feels like they’re completely interchangeable. There’s also no other support class beyond engi which, as a support main, frustrates me deeply. It also means that there’s no other metric for how good of a game you had beyond the amount of aliens you’ve killed. That’s a punishing lack of variety for a game mode where any one match could be running for hours at a time.
That’s not to say that Horde isn’t fun — it is. There’s still a variety of weapons to try, and the progression system works as intended. You can use card upgrades to buff your players and have a grand old time tearing the baddies to shreds. I also found that Horde didn’t wear me out as quickly as some other similar modes because you’re given a couple seconds to breathe between waves. It lets things come back to a simmer before putting you on the slow boil again.
The competitive multiplayer has everything it needs to become a serious multiplayer mainstay in a world full of games trying to do just time. Time’s going to tell if the audience sticks around, but Gears has you covered if you choose to stay. The frame rate jumps to 60 in multiplayer from 30 in the campaign, and also offers even more refined controls. Where I felt a few times during the campaign that I died as a result of J.D. simply not being able to turn around quickly enough (something he seems to have inherited from his lumbering bear of a father), that just didn’t happen in multiplayer. Good form, Coalition. and The Coalition have also committed to an ambitious, if confusing, DLC plan where new maps will be free of charge for all content in most circumstances — offline being the exception. It would appear that Gears of War 4 and the Coalition are following Halo 5 and developer 343’s lead with an aggressive post-release update schedule of new content, which should bode well for the game’s longer-term prospects.
Gears of War 4 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t have to. It is consistently entertaining, lovingly crafted and a surprisingly complete unit. It’s scope is smaller, but that allows it to create a look and feel all of its own. You get an awful lot for your money here — solo, competitive and co-operative play all under the one roof. It’s one of the best action titles of 2016 and it’s well worth your time.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Smaller scale; tighter controls; gorgeous visuals; Laura Bailey crushes
Lowlights: Classes in Horde a bit dicey; Some may find the smaller scale jarring
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release: Out Now
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC (via Xbox Play Anywhere)
Reviewed on Xbox One.