…But not quite like a phoenix, Gears of War returns.
From the very first day of trudging through the endless night, battling horrors from beneath the surface to actually traversing the molten chasms of Sera and warring with the subterranean Locust, culminating in a tower-high boss fight of epic proportions, Gears of War has always been something special. The cover-based third person shooter wasn’t the first game to introduce its numerous innovations but it sure as hell popularized them. An entire generation of cover-based shooters owe a lot to Epic Games’ franchise, even if the concept has evolved significantly since then.
Which is funny to think of because for all intents and purposes, Gears of War has remained ostensibly the same. This was most apparent in last year’s Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, a shinier and more polished version of the first game that wasn’t expected to significantly further the franchise’s future. Expectations were naturally higher with Gears of War 4. Does The Coalition exceed them?
"JD Fenix is a more-than-acceptable new protagonist – he’s more Nathan Drake than Marcus with his witty comebacks and generally likeable personality."
The setting and world building are certainly on point as we travel several decades into the future. The Pendulum Wars and E-Day are a thing of the past, celebrated by the new COG (Coalition of Governments) as something to bring about a new generation of peace. However, beneath the lack of crime and enduring peace lies a sinister agenda, aided all the more by the COG’s advancement in robot technology, propaganda and forced security. As JD Fenix, son of Marcus Fenix, you’re outside of this new world purview alongside your friend Del, having joined up with a group of outsiders led by Reyna. Reyna’s daughter Cait is your other bosom buddy and uncle Oscar is around for the not-so subtle comic relief.
Banter between squad-mates has always been an important part of the series – it’s amazing how much it builds the world and sets the tone for Gears of War 4‘s story. JD Fenix is a more-than-acceptable new protagonist, more Nathan Drake than Marcus Fenix with his witty comebacks and generally likable personality. Despite a gruff side inherited from his father that thankfully emerges at the right times, JD tends to be more flippant. His cohorts display the same attitude but it’s interesting to see characters in Gears that respond to potentially world-threatening scenarios with such sarcasm. Most of the times, it’s fun and helps scenarios like the initial infiltration of a COG fortress all the more intriguing.
Other times, the characters can tend to be a little too off-the-cuff, especially when Cait, JD and Del are left to banter back and forth between gunfights in beautifully destroyed settings. For all the times the characterization stumbles, it does succeed in making everyone feel human – Oscar may be annoying and Reyna tough but they’re also caring individuals who don’t back down from a fight to save their loved ones. Marcus Fenix makes his return and old age has done nothing to dull his cynical, bad-ass appeal. If anything, it’s enhanced all the further, which will be necessary when you’re battling the COG’s robots, dubbed the “DeeBees” and the Swarm.
Everything, from the opening prologue missions to the first infiltration with JD and his crew, are meant to reinforce one key facet – this is a new Gears of War, even if it feels a lot like the older games. You still traverse from cover to cover, battling foes by peaking out and unloading with ADS fury when you’re not blind firing hopefully. Gears of War 4 punishes you for ignoring cover, though your teammates will generously revive you on the lower difficulties when you go down.
"Friendly AI is better with revives and actually killing things but they can still get in the way on occasion."
The transition to cover feels faster and less “tankier” than before but suffice to say that it’s still significantly slower than your average third person shooter (sprinting is somewhat less unwieldy though the camera still sticks uncomfortably close to the ground). This focus on cover further emerges during key scenarios when turret nests must be flanked and Windflares avoided. The series’ signature co-op leanings also play a role, encouraging each player to choose a direction and working together to clear obstacles. Sliding over cover to knock back enemies is all the more important here and it’s an aspect your enemy will generously use against you. However, you can now reach over cover as it were to snatch your enemy towards you, prompting a quick execution.
Despite the addition of more proximity weapons (the Enforcer will be extremely common in the early going) and battles with the robotic DeeBees and their Terminator-like durability, Gears of War 4 still offers a healthy variety of engagements. Large hulking DeeBees force you to focus-fire and slowly retreat back to avoid full-auto shotgun fury. Sentinel-like drones will also make life miserable with their rocket salvos, shields and gatling guns while Seekers will home in on your position like Tickers.
The variety in engagements becomes all the more apparent when the Swarm enter the picture. Though the Juvies are essentially Wretches, they change things up with their added agility and unpredictability. The new Drones are much like the old ones but seemingly more aggressive, risking a quick knockback over cover to create openings. The Pouncers can be nightmarish, forcing you out of cover on several occasions and prompting button mashing QTEs when attempting to eat the faces of you and your squad.
Friendly AI is better with revives and actually killing things but they can still get in the way on occasion. There was nothing rage-inducing like Dominic Santiago’s antics, thankfully. Your foes are suitably smarter as well – they’ll actually move away from the edges of cover when taking fire as opposed to simply soaking up the pain, unawares. They still have some odd moments – a Swarm drone being cornered and simply accepting death by shotgun, for instance – but it’s a few steps up from the older days.
"That same gameplay style appeals to fans though and if what you’re seeking is plenty of the trademark Gears action, then Gears of War 4 delivers."
However as noted earlier, despite all this newness, this is still a Gears of War title and that extends to its mechanics and sequences as well. The game’s Acts are still broken up into chapters, punctuated by a lot of turret sequences, enclosed areas with lots of convenient cover and enemies moving in to engage and the occasional obstacle that must be cut through or crouched past. There’s something to be said about gameplay mechanics – they can be refined but don’t fix what isn’t broken, right?
Gameplay sequences and missions are a different thing and while The Coalition understandably wants to stay within the standard archetype of missions that make a Gears of War game, I couldn’t help wanting something different. The initial missions reinforced this, broken up by occasional niggles like an elevator breaking down or a vehicle sequence or traveling down an alternate path. Even the Swarm have “E-Holes” or nests which need to be sealed with grenades. The game does introduce a new device called the Fabricator which can be used to construct defenses like turrets and barricades but that’s expanded upon more in Horde mode. As a whole, this is still Gears of War and that may wear on players who tired of the same missions when Marcus finished his fight in the third game.
That same gameplay style appeals to fans though and if what you’re seeking is plenty of the trademark Gears action, then Gears of War 4 delivers. It’s just a shame that its moments, tense and strategic as they may be, aren’t all that unique from the older games even with the addition of awesome weapons like the Buzzkill.
Thankfully, the action looks a lot better. The Coalition has done some serious work with the textures, lighting and environmental design in Gears of War 4, crafting a uniquely different Sera that’s more colourful but still dark and grim in its own right. When encountering the night terrors of the Swarm later, there’s a real sense of darkness conveyed through the stormy weather and dimly lit but still incredibly visible atmosphere. The alpha effects are also incredibly impressive when Windflares emerge, plunging the battlefield into disarray with lightning and dust flying. A lot of the environment is still self-contained and static but destructible cover still plays a significant part in your strategy, forcing you to move about. One particularly neat new mechanic involves cover that can be incredibly hazardous to your life if it’s destroyed. I’ll let you discover that one for yourself.
"There’s no telling where the series can go from here but for all intents and purposes, Gears of War is back, as typical as ever."
While I’m hesitant to really call this the most graphically “beautiful” game of the year, Gears of War 4 is certainly one of the best looking games on the Xbox One. Yes, even with its 30 FPS in the campaign (even without split-screen) and some light stuttering during cut scenes. There’s no doubt that the musical score is still great, as the orchestrated soundtrack rises and dips depending on encounters. The voice work is also suitably impressive and convincing for as cheesy as some lines can be. If Reyna’s actions, for instance, aren’t enough to make her a woman to not be messed with, then her voice acting more than convinces you of the same.
Along with the campaign, Gears of War 4 sees the return of Horde mode. Horde 3.0, as it’s now known, makes the Fabricator a central tool of defense. By defeating enemies and gathering “energy”, new defenses can be created. More importantly, the Fabricator can be shifted around the battlefield, encouraging you to bunker down elsewhere when required and not invest too much in a set location. The mechanic of gathering energy after downing foes and depositing it in the Fabricator also introduces a bit more risk than typical Horde, which can be cool. Rather than simply tack on Horde mode and be done with it, The Coalition actually introduced a ton of different ways to customize your experience. Different classes with varying load-outs and abilities can be selected. You can now pursue bounties, like surviving a set number of waves as a Scout, for experience gain.
Certain cards can be purchased from the new Gear Packs to add benefits like decreased cost of repairs (with more slots for said perks unlocking as you level up) or increased damage for a certain weapon type. All of this influences how you play the mode, adding further replay value when jumping in with your friends. Cosmetics can also be unlocked from the Gear Packs, adding a further degree of customization.
Gears of War 4 in many ways feels like a celebration of what made the series great. It’s beautiful, boisterous but still incredibly serious, explosive and very bloody. The visceral, apocalyptic nature gives way to slight socio-political commentary on city-states (the prevalence of “walls” can’t be a coincidence in this day and age) but this is Gears of War, through and through. Whatever concerns hardcore fans may have had of The Coalition fulfilling that promise can be laid to rest. However, the onus is now on the developer to reinvent the wheel for generations to come. There’s no telling where the series can go from here but for all intents and purposes, Gears of War is back, as typical as ever.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Good cast of characters, especially with JD Fenix as protagonist. Same awesome cover-based shooting that's visceral and violent. Well-designed environments with beautiful textures and lighting. Horde 3.0 offers plenty of great customization with bounties and classes, further aided by Gear Packs. Friendly and enemy AI see improvements.
Mission design is still typically Gears and feels less inspired in 2016. Sequences tend to boil down to shooting turrets, closing E-holes and whatnot. Writing and character banter can get cheesy at times. AI overall can still be a bit spotty. Despite small additions to gameplay, it doesn't really innovate on the series as a whole.
Gears of War 4 is more of the same but that's not a bad thing. The campaign is fun to get through with a decent story and characters while Horde 3.0 offers some excellent action with friends. However, it's all a bit too familiar at this point and we expect a bit more.