Gears of War 4 aims to be something more than just a retread. The fourth installment, which is also the first original Gears endeavor from developer The Coalition, delivers not just something "new", but something relevant too.
Yes, there's a new story, characters, weapons, and a ton of multiplayer modes, but in the first 120 minutes, what's most refreshing about the single-player campaign is how of-the-moment, how 2016, it feels. Gears of War 4 is set in a world where, with the Locust War is nearly forgotten, Old Sera's citizens are more distrustful of their government than foreign invaders. Just as Gears of War was steeped in the 9/11 era, Gears of War 4 seems focused on the last eight years of modern America.
Let's remember that the very first Gears, which debuted a decade ago, was a product of its time; 9/11 by way of gritty science-fiction. Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad were shaken, war ravaged people (okay, maybe not ex-football star Augustus "Cole Train"), survivors of Emergence Day, the moment that changed the world of Sera forever. ‘E-Day' would be remembered, symbolized for years to come. Epic Games, intentionally or not, took the cultural feelings of the early 2000's infusing all that fear and anger into a campaign with massively engaging stop-and-pop firefights. Some gameplay elements might seem dated today, but at its heart, Gears of War resonated because of the way it melded addictive gameplay with our nation's feelings.
There might almost be too much ambition in the first half of Gears of War 4‘s seven-hour campaign, and for sure, too much of a feeling of falling back on what's worked in previous entries in the second half, but that's okay. The result maybe a campaign with an identity crisis but Coalition should be commended for attempting to break the mold, even if by the end, that mold looks an awful like the previous entries.
Chapter 4 Begins
Set 25 years after the events of Gears 3, Sera has changed. A lot. In an era where the Locust threat has ended, the tide of war has receded. But for the residents of Old Sera peacetime has brought about suspicion of the Coalition of Ordered Governments. It doesn't help that the current Prime Minister, Jinn, is a calculating sort.
As a result of their mistrust, many citizens opt out of COG military life. They are known as "outsiders" and live in Settlements (read: 'Districts' in The Hunger Games). One of these outsiders from Settlement 5 is a woman named Kait Diaz, who's good with weapons but resents the Maternity wing of her town. The hallways of this complex are littered with propaganda posters encouraging women to have babies for the good of the state. So yeah, there's definitely a Big Brother thing going on here.
At the start of the campaign are four characters: ex-COG J.D. (whom the player controls), his pal Del, Kait, and her uncle, the eccentric Oscar. Together, under the orders of Minister Jinn, they must leave the Settlement 5 to investigate the disappearances of some locals, one of which is Kait's mother. Unlike Delta Squad, who has been through hell together, this new pseudo-squad is not made up of life-long pals. This gives the team a different kind of chemistry, which is a good start.
The first two acts are terrific with the art direction sporting a much more colorful, less muted look than the series is known for. It can be jarring to inhabit a world so clean in Gears, but I dug it. One of the earliest missions involves J.D. and crew stealing a device called a Fabricator from an official automated COG facility. During this heist is quality banter between the distrustful Kait and the cocky J.D., who can't believe sophisticated military-grade tech can be undone by a tree hugger like Uncle Oscar. There's also gorgeously lush forests and strikingly chaotic firestorms and other natural catastrophes that make navigating the environments tricky. Such storms can even throw off the aiming of your trusty Boomshot. You would never get a moment like these in any previous Gears game and Gears of War 4 is all the better for it.
The Fabricator, that item they were stealing, is a box that can engineer all sorts of tech, like a turret or an explosive barrier. This leads to the first wave-based assault. Players must fortify their base of operations in a timed period before three waves of baddies attack. It's a simple, but an effective way of breaking up with normal gunplay. Think of it as a mini-Horde moment.
Eventually, (minor spoilers for those who haven't seen any trailers) Marcus Fenix shows up. His return to the series is more than welcome as voice actor John DiMaggio is still gruff in the best way ever. His complaining that robots are trashing his recently planted tomatoes is a small but funny highlight. Turns out an older Marcus is actually quite cranky, like one beer away from "get-off-my-lawn!" cranky, which is all sorts of awesome. Also amusing, his son J.D. exclaiming “don't mind if I do!”, which was the tagline of Futurama‘s Bender, whom DiMaggio also voiced.
Still, as much as Marcus showing up in Gears of War 4 is a welcome return, his presence thwarts any kind of new developments between the new characters. An attempt at a brimming romance between J.D. and Kait reeks of storytelling desperation. I liked Kait, J.D., Del, and Oscar just fine, but once Marcus shows up they feel put in the background.
Repetition Thwarted By Great Weapon Design
What becomes apparent after about the midway point is that most of the level design gets reused too often; enemies always come in waves of three, and electrical storms areas also feel like a pattern. The Gears campaigns have always had a tendency to pad their length, so this isn't too shocking.
It's a good thing—a great thing, actually—that the gameplay, new weapons, and moves are so much darn fun than in prior games. Early on, you learn to Roadie Vault, which is done by hitting B while holding down A to jump over cover posts. This single move takes a while to master but goes a long way to navigating the heavy-as-stone J.D. in a much quicker fashion. Learn it. Love it.
While the classic Lancer assault rifle with chainsaw, and other arsenal mainstays return, I was way more into using the new weapons like the Embar railgun that needs to charge before delivering head-shattering blows.
Nearly all the new weapons are taken from robots called DeeBees. These "peacekeepers" are controlled by the COGs to maintain civil obedience from outsiders, and in fact, the first few hours of the campaign is spent dealing with these non-Locust enemies They even have their own brand of taunts like "help us, help you.”
Yet as the campaign wore on, the repetitive gameplay and all too familiar hostile territory began to take shape. And just like that, Gears of War 4 seemed to abandon its new ideas and gameplay, in favor of being just another mindless shooter. There's even, for some unknown reason, a level that takes place in a "belly of the beast"-like setting. Does anyone ever like these levels? I certainly never do.
There's a lot of good stuff here: the DeeBees, the Fabricator, the weird new monsters that eat you, but by the end, we're back to Marcus and the Locust. All of this makes the back half of the campaign feel uninspired, and worse, irrelevant to the world we live in now. So much potential in the game's first few acts gets undone by Act V's conclusion. The ending, by the way, is so abrupt and unsatisfying I really thought it would cut to black with a title card exclaiming, "Next time on Gears of War 5!"
Locked at a stunning 60 fps at 1080p and with the added support of HDR for owners of the Xbox One S, Gears of War 4 is one the best-looking games for the current generation of consoles. If you have HDR on your television there's an additional brightness level in the game's menu that uses a white image as opposed to the standard black one for tweaking. The results on my Samsung 55" 7000 LED were solid though not at all the ‘wow' factor some may have been expecting to get on their new 4Ks. Then again, a Gears game running at 1080p/60FPS with rich color depth is pretty great regardless. I also didn't experience any frame rate hiccups, even in the multiplayer sessions.
Get Your Competitive Gaming On
Alongside the standard competitive multiplayer modes like Execution, King of the Hill, and Warzone, there are some cool new ones too: Dodgeball, Arms Race, and Escalation.
Dodgeball is like the classic game we all had to suffer through in elementary school: a crazy back-and-forth where getting killed respawns another player on the opposing team. Arms Race begins with both teams using a Boomshot, the game's most powerful weapon, but each weapon gets replaced with a lesser one after three kills on your team (there's nothing like losing my trusty Lancer with the dreaded Torque Bow.) Of course, weapons preference is in the eye of the beholder but the main idea is that as you keep dying, the weapon you get is less powerful. Both Dodgeball and Arms Race are terrific quick 10-15 minute matches.
The best of these new MP modes is Escalation, a massively long thirteen rounds session with teams racing to control areas by standing in specific ring zones. If one team captures all three rings at once, the round is over, but otherwise, it's all about running down the clock. This is the mode that The Coalition hopes to be their eSports ringer. Escalation was also my favorite time playing any of the MP modes in Gears of War 4. It's a blast.
There's also the newly dubbed "Horde 3.0" mode. Horde is a wave-based challenge, which now includes with this latest edition, a class system where each teammate has a specific job. At the center is the fabricator, that chest that makes weapons by spending in-game energy pellets. As one might guess, Engineers are in charge of using the Fabricator, while Scouts quickly move about the map collecting dropped energy to return to them. Soldiers are the normal shooters while Heavies are the muscle with power weapons. Lastly, snipers are the ranged masters. The class system works great to balance out different players strengths although what the Engineer makes with the Fabricator still feels like job numero uno. The main goal of Horde is to survive each wave assault of NPCs. That basic outline hasn't changed.
Gears of War 4 is a surprisingly successful continuation of the franchise by a new studio. I might have my issues with the second half of the campaign, but I did like the return of Marcus Fenix. I look forward to spending more time with Kait, J.D., and the rest of the new crew in future installments. Gears of War 4 also has my favorite selection of multiplayer modes for the series, which ultimately carries the experience. This is a safe release that is best designated for Gears fans as well as anyone looking for a satisfying multiplayer third-person shooter.
Xbox One review copy provided by publisher. Also available on PC.