It’s been over five years since Gears of War 3 launched, and if you think about it, that was really the last time the narrative in this franchise was pushed forwards. Sure, there was the flashback-focused Judgement, and we did just get a fancy remaster of the original game last year, but if you’re like me and feel like it’s been a long time since anything new happened with this series, you’re not wrong. Enter Gears of War 4, our first new Gears story this generation, and The Coalition’s first real crack at creating something from scratch.
Gears of War 4 begins 25 years after the defeat of the Locust, but the introductory missions actually take place pre-emergence day. The game uses a couple of flashback missions to get your feet wet in hectic action, while still being able to take its time with the pacing of the current narrative when you go back to the present. Once those first two missions are over, you’re greeted with the new protagonist, J.D. Fenix, who happens to be the son of the franchise’s hero. At J.D.’s side are friends Kait and Del, and there’s a fourth slot on the team filled by different personalities as the plot progresses.
Each of these characters are considered ‘outsiders’, and they’ve drawn the ire of the leader of the COG army, who is intent on capturing them for questioning. This, paired with the defeat of the Locust in Gears 3, means several new enemy types are placed in your crosshairs. Drones sent by COG forces include Shepherds, which are standard infantry types that move slowly but can overwhelm in numbers, Trackers, which are small ground orbs that roll around and explode near you if you don’t shoot them or kick them away, and larger robots called DR-1s, which pack a bigger punch, take longer to kill, and make a last-ditch effort to take you down with an explosion upon their death. These are just a few of the new enemies you end up fighting, but they’re a nice change of pace from the Locust enemies of old.
These new enemy types also bring new weapons with them. Don’t worry, the standard Lancer and Gnasher shotgun are alive and well – as are most of the older weapons – but they’re complemented by a host of new ones. One of my favorites is the Ember, which is a single-shot rifle that requires a charge for each round, but you only have a limited window to fire the charged round before it discharges and you have to start over.
There’s also the Overkill, which is a more strategic shotgun that fires one round when you pull the trigger, and another when you let it go. A little later in the game, new weapons that are a little more akin to what you might expect from Gears of War make an appearance, like the Buzzkill, which fires saw-blades that rip through your enemies in short order.
Unfortunately, the best of these new enemies and weapons are only really around for the early chapters of the game. In the later acts, your foes very closely resemble the enemies you’ve fought in every Gears campaign up to now, even though they go by a different name. Aside from the exhilarating finale, much of the second half of the game just felt like ‘more Gears of War’, which was disappointing after fighting through the fresh and exciting opening acts. As with most games, co-op really helps to get through this section, but it’s still not great.
Thankfully, even during the duller parts, The Coalition tried to mix things up. Wind flares make several appearances, and require you to navigate a hostile storm while dodging enemies and flying debris. They also present a chance to change your environment by shooting large pieces of debris to create new cover or creatively crush your enemies. There are also several instances where you’re put in a defensive mode that’s not too different from Horde. These are nice additions that don’t completely save the campaign from being a tad repetitive, but they definitely help.
Seeing the game through to the end reveals an overarching narrative that remains interesting right up to the final credits. While the witty banter in the face of almost certain death gets a little old by the end, Liam McIntyre (Sparticus), Eugene Byrd (8 Mile), and Laura Bailey (Uncharted 4 and inFamous: Second Son) each do a good job at keeping the dialogue varied and entertaining.
Gears of War 4’s multiplayer, meanwhile, is largely the same experience you’ve already had, but does come in a few new flavors across nine new maps, and for long-time Gears fans marks the welcome return of Gridlock. Amongst the new modes are Dodgeball, which is an elimination-style game that only allows respawns as your team picks up kills, Escalation, which is a new spin on a capture-and-hold variant that allows teams to alternate choosing which power weapons appear and where, and Arms Race, which takes a page out of Call of Duty’s ‘gun game’ book, except that it’s a team-based mode where weapons switch every three kills until one team has gone through all the main weapons in the game. Arms Race was more fun than expected, but the standard TDM, Execution, and Warzone modes are sure to remain the most popular.
As for how the multiplayer plays, it’s still Gears of War. Not a lot has changed in how the characters handle, and even early matches seemed to devolve into the same rolling shotgun battles we’ve had since the first game. That said, The Coalition did add some nice little tweaks that returning players are sure to appreciate. When you die you’re now shown exactly how much damage each opposing player contributed to your death, and how much damage you dished out on them before you died. They’ve also added more entertaining character chatter, like announcing how many kills you’ve racked up if you’re on a streak.
Thankfully, Horde has seen more significant changes, and duking it out against increasingly difficult waves of enemies with up to five human players is more fun than ever. It revolves around the Fabricator, which is where you center your defense and deposit ‘energy’ that enemies drop upon death. You use that energy to buy defensive items like fences and turrets, as well as more powerful weapons.
Horde is also a class-based affair this time around, with each of the five classes offering special perks and abilities. Any class can buy and build defenses, but only an engineer can repair them and make them more durable, for example. Other perks include things such as increased headshot damage, higher energy deposits, increased explosive damage, and so on. The classes have their own ranks, and a higher rank obtained from more experience allows you to carry more perks into battle. This mode feels like it’s been waiting for a class system, and the added strategy behind the perks makes Horde the best it’s ever been.
Something else they’ve added to Horde (and competitive play) is a loot system. As you progress in any multiplayer mode, you’re given in-game currency with which you can buy loot crates. Inside these crates are five cards that range from permanent character and weapon skin unlocks, or perks that can be used for Horde classes. Bounty cards are also found in these crates, and they allow you the option of activating an additional objective in Horde or competitive play, the completion of which nets you bonus XP.
Regardless of what mode you end up playing, you’re in for a visual treat. Gears 4 matches what you’d expect from a current-gen game, and the 30fps campaign/Horde, and 60fps competitive multiplayer both seemed stable on Xbox One. The PC version is a considerable step up in visuals and performance if you’ve got a capable rig, and I was pleased to see that The Coalition didn’t deliver a poorly optimised console port here. A plethora of graphical tweaks are available, as well as a benchmark tool, and the developers took the time to insert an explanation for each of them. Cross-platform play between console and PC is supported for the campaign and Horde, and it worked flawlessly during my time with it.
The Coalition had a tall task in bringing Gears of War to a new generation for their first original game under the banner, and they mostly pulled it off with class. The competitive multiplayer isn’t much of an evolution from previous efforts, and the campaign drags for a bit, but the high points make it worth the ride and the new Horde mode is simply stellar. If you’ve enjoyed this franchise previously or have a few friends looking for co-op, give Gears of War 4 a close look – it’s definitely worth the time.
Version Tested: PC & Xbox One