Passing the Torch
With Gears 3 coming out way back in 2011 (quite a while in the world of games) and the original in 2006 (practically a lifetime ago), I’m guessing this is going to be a lot of people’s first title in the Gears series, and it’s a great place to start. The story is certainly going to be more meaningful to series veterans, with numerous callbacks to events and characters from the original trilogy, but everything stands well enough on its own that prior knowledge isn’t mandatory. I can see why some people may be concerned that despite the level of care and polish The Coalition has put into this game, that they didn’t do enough to innovate and move forward from the mechanics and feel already established in previous entries. It's true that Gears 4 certainly isn’t a reinvention of the series, but fans that want it to be must have a short memory. 2013’s Gears of War: Judgment tried to shake things up, and it was pretty poorly received by fans that appreciate the slower, heavier gameplay Gears is known for. Much like Abrams and Episode VII, new creators taking control of an established franchise often times “play it safe” to show fans that they get it. I personally found the familiarity of Gears 4 to be welcome, like putting on a well broken in pair of boots, and expect Gears 5 to build on the developer's experience here to try and take a few more risks.
What a Wonderful World
Contrary to only six years passing in real time since we last left Sera (not counting Judgment, which was a prequel), Gears 4 jumps ahead a quarter century to a much more peaceful, less murderous monster-filled time. Marcus Fenix and his Delta Squad compatriots are legends, and the Coalition of Governments has a tight hold on cities to maintain law and order. Of course things don’t stay peaceful for long, and soon enough Marcus’ son JD (the player character) and his crew are again fighting for the survival of life as we know it. Through its twists and turns the story is satisfying, if not unsurprising. You’ll hit many of the same beats you’ve seen before, but that doesn’t really make them bad, just familiar. The Gears franchise has always had a much more nuanced and touching story than its beefy meathead character design would lead you to believe, and that continues, to a degree, here. Our new protagonists don’t seem quite as interesting as their forbearers, there isn’t a main antagonist quite as compelling as General RAAM was, and the emotional beats don’t quite land as firmly as in Epic’s entries, but getting pretty close to a bar set so high still makes for a darned fun romp.
One of my favorite parts of the Gears franchise has always been its setting, the earth-like planet of Sera. Unlike many sci-fi settings, Sera has a weighty, lived-in feel with its gothic architecture and crumbling cities that is accentuated by the planet’s bizarre, beautiful weather. This continues to be the case in Gears 4. The game isn’t visually head and shoulders above its contemporaries like it was during its original run on consoles, but it’s still a beautiful game, and the weather makes for some of the most breath-taking moments. It’s actually pretty odd to see Sera in a state of relative prosper. Giant (still intact, even!) buildings, clean city blocks, and beautiful scenic vistas burst with color, which are a joy to work through in contrast to the muddled browns and grays of Gears’ past.
Slow and Steady
Of course, you won’t be running through these beautiful environments very quickly, as the name of the game is still tactical positioning and cover. One of the reasons I didn’t care for the last Gears outing, Judgment, is that some of the design changes seemed to be done to promote more fast-paced action. The franchise has never been about running and gunning, and doing so in Gears 4 will get you shot, grenaded, or torn limb from limb before you do much damage. Despite third person shooters with an emphasis on cover hopping being a lot more plentiful now than they were at the time of the series’ birth, Gears is still the best in the business. Very rarely did I slip or jump to a spot I didn’t intend to, and each slam against a pillar or concrete slab is accompanied by a satisfyingly resonant thud. This sense of weight and impact is echoed in virtually every aspect of action and movement. The roadie run, your main method of quick movement, still feels every bit as tense as the camera zooms in and shakes with each step. Guns and enemies recoil with every bullet fired from or into them, and close quarters kills are nasty, destructive, beautiful affairs. The only real drawback is that trying to sprint into melee, something guns like the retro Lancer with its fixed-blade bayonet are designed for, can be difficult with the limited field of view and stunted ability to turn. When attempting to charge an enemy I would miss more often times than hit, and end up eating a melee attack or shotgun burst to face.
Brothers in Arms
If the strong campaign isn’t enough to win you over, Gears of War 4 sweetens its deal with great multiplayer and co-op that make compelling cases for a purchase in their own right. The campaign can (and should, if possible) be played with a friend, and the cooperative Horde mode and online versus are the best they’ve been. Horde mode, in which a team of allied player characters are tasked with facing off against waves of AI enemies to survive and accomplish various tasks is where I’ve spent most of my time, and the addition of character classes with unique skills and weaknesses has put more even focus on teamwork than there was before.
Versus multiplayer isn’t really like anything else out there on the market right now, being simultaneously a slower, tactical affair and a mosh pit of mayhem at the same time. Map control is the name of the game in most cases, whether it’s for a control point, or to maintain power weapons, and taking or holding these spots requires team coordination, misdirection, skill. Unlike the campaign, however, the weapon that’s most used, and most useful, is the gnasher shotgun. With the high amount of health and abundant cover available to players, combined with the relatively low accuracy and high recoil of most standard mid-range weapons available, it’s rare for take someone down with the standard Lancer or Hammerburst machine guns. More often than not, the best strategy is to get close, do a few diving rolls to get out of the enemies established direction of aim, and start pumping shells. I can understand why some people get annoyed with the gun’s dominance, especially when the hit detection against someone moving quickly can seem spotty sometimes, but it’s the way the series’ multiplayer always has been, and at this point it’s just kind of the way it is.
Gears of War 4 is an easy recommend for fans of the first person shooter, and a must-buy for franchise fans that want to see where the Gears narrative goes next. With a good balance of a quality campaign, multiplayer, and cooperative modes, there’s something for just about everyone to enjoy. There are certainly a few growing pains that can be picked out as the torch is passed on to a new franchise developer, but despite its shortcomings the sun still shines bright on Sera.
Beautiful environments and violence, a return to the heavy feel of the original 3 games, Horde 3.0 is the best horde yet.
Hit detection in multiplayer can be iffy sometimes, sprinting into melee doesn’t always work, the campaign doesn’t quite hit the narrative heights seen in the series’ previous installments.