War Never Changes
Gears of War didn’t invent the cover-based shooter, but it easily became the standard-bearer when the series launched back in 2006, becoming one of Microsoft’s most important and iconic franchises. Now, a decade later, Gears of War 4 opts not to mess with a good thing, keeping the core gameplay relatively untouched, which still holds a blazing candle against the competition. The original trilogy is complete, the war against the Locust menace victorious, and the reigns of the series handed to developer The Coalition, who flexed their programming muscles with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, showcasing their competence before delivering a new chapter in a new saga.
But I am hesitant to call Gears of War 4 a “chapter,” as I am torn as to whether “extended prologue” (to the new series) is a more accurate description. The Coalition and Microsoft are clearly looking to extend the series through the Xbox One’s life cycle and beyond, and by the time the credits roll you’ll still feel like you’re just being introduced to the new cast, and maybe feeling a little cheated by the tasty yet unfulfilling amuse-bouche. There are a few revelations in the five act campaign – a roughly seven hour journey if you simply Roadie Run past all the crumbling and decades-long unattended architecture, but by the end there are certainly more questions than answers.
The cast itself a more likeable, and as such a more uninteresting crew than from the original Gears games. JD has the beefcake build of his dad, Marcus Fenix, but his softer tone is undoubtedly a trait handed down from his mother. He has witty retorts, and his unselfish heart makes you root for his success, but the absent badass persona seems like it could drift the series into monotony. Del and Kait come off as the quintessential team players as well, both prone to a few emotional outbursts, but always falling back to a composed state. By comparison, Marcus’s always blunt and perpetually pissed-off jabs, Cole’s Thrashball showmanship, and Baird’s elitist and snide attitude blended like a B-52 cocktail, i.e. they did not blend at all. But it was seeing those conflicting, selfish personalities placed on the back burner during a Locust onslaught that solidified the importance of their struggle, something just a little less potent in Gears of War 4 ‘s story.
Setting the script aside, the combat is classic Gears of War third-person cover, barely tinkered with, which is absolutely fantastic. Progression pretty much follows the expected formula: walk down a quiet corridor, have a little exposition banter, enter a more open section with conveniently placed cover points, take out a wave of bad guys that arrive right on cue, and repeat. That list may have sounded sarcastic, but its linearity is offset by the fact that every encounter is fun. There’s always an exposed head or shoulder to exploit your marksman skills, some situational heavy weapons like the new Dropshot and Buzzkill to play with, and cojones to show off by charging an enemy with a revved up Lancer or bayonet style Retro Lancer. Or you could yank them over cover and execute them with some nasty knife stabs. It’s Gears combat staples and they never gets old, although the first two acts are a little less thrilling as your enemy targets are robotic soldiers called DeeBees. There’s something about oil splattering on the screen and dismantling a tin can with wires that just lacks a certain visceral quality you expect in a Gears game. But once the opposition gets a little more fleshy, you’ll feel right at home.
Most of your hours spent with Gears of War 4 will likely be in the robust online modes. The Coalition has checked off every must-do when it comes to multiplayer offerings. The competitive Versus mode has many different match types. Apart from the standard Deathmatch and King of the Hill, there are interesting variations like Dodgeball, where a kill respawns an ally; the weapon locked Arms Race; and the ring (area) holding and point building Escalation. The variety fits casual, social, hardcore, and even professional eSports gamers alike. Cooperative selection is equally bloated, supplying an open partner slot for the entire campaign, and house rules-style Versus matches. The biggest co-op draw, though, is the upgraded Horde 3.0. This tower defense, fifty wave survival fest can be played on any multiplayer map. Not only that, it also includes five unique classes to choose from, each with specialized skills that can be leveled up and tailored to complement the 5-person squad. Everything is customizable, from player and weapon skins to Booster cards and optional Bounties for bonuses. It has all the digitally tangible loot you crave, and it helps that the action is fast-paced and enjoyable, especially with friends.
I was impressed with the visuals right from the menu screen. With massive head profiles of JD, an aged Marcus, Kait, and other characters, the physical details such as battle wounds and imperfections, as well as subtle facial expressions, really gave the characters… well, character. I also paused here and there to scan the well thought-out designs of both the modern and historical architecture of the fictional world of Sera. Most of the dedicated cinematics and quick time event scenes are rife with explosions and plenty of action, yet still maintain a smooth framerate. Some of the in-game cutscenes, however, offer a distinct graphical counter, with character models noticeably poorer in quality. Also, something just wasn’t pouring properly with many of the liquid effects. Things like blood spewing from odd places and sawing through a wall of “snot” just aren’t given much treatment in the way of lighting and shaders, and it shows.
You likely won’t remember any of the music score, and maybe even question outside of the game whether there was much music at all. The Coalition apparently opted for subtlety with the orchestration, but it works. With only ambient noises and the occasional distant reverberation from an approaching enemy, there is a constant unease as you navigate through claustrophobic hallways and around shadowy corners. Every door that gets kicked open offers the chance of a lunging surprise from a snarling beast, sure to make you keep your Lancer revved up. When your squad is scattered around a room unloading rounds, if you can slice through the cacophony of noises you’ll likely be impressed with how well the audio team nailed the distance and direction of each individual sound coming through your stereo or surround speakers.
Gears of War is a tone-setting franchise for Microsoft, and clearly one they would like to enjoy continued success with as the paragon of third-person cover shooters. Gears of War 4 provides an introduction to a team and a new threat that will hopefully see more rising action in the story as the sequels come. It does, however, stay true to the gameplay mechanics of its predecessors, and provides countless hours of rewarding multiplayer options. The Gears faithful should rejoice, as a new saga is just getting lubricated.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
There are some remarkable visual moments and some stunning backdrops, but then there are some odd liquid effects and redundant environments as well. 4.4 Control
Snappy reloads and sticky cover give Gears 4 an expected thumbs up. The camera gets a little frenetic, though, when your personal space is invaded in melee. 4.6 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The score is subdued but atmospheric, the voice acting spot on and full of the appropriate personalities, and the effects, well, you’ll be tempted to keep the Lancer revved all the time. 4.0 Play Value
The campaign feels like a lengthy prologue to the new series rather than a full story, but the multiplayer modes will keep you coming back until Gears 5 is released. 4.2 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best