Review: Gears of War 4 (Xbox One)
The Gears of War franchise has cemented itself as one of the premier franchises of the past generation. During a time when cover-based shooters haven’t made their oversaturated march on the gaming world, Gears of War was a revelation. The mechanics of the franchise were seminal for the better part of modern gaming, for better or for worse. It catapulted the Xbox 360 during its formative years as a console and the franchise became a mainstay during the console’s long lifespan. However, faith started to dwindle with the release of Gears of War Judgement and it became increasingly apparent that the community was starting to become somewhat bored of the franchise. Now that we are in a new generation, the time has inevitably come for the franchise to get a fresh curbstomp back into relevancy, but is the iconic formula played out by now? Does it still have that moxie that we came to know and love from the previous entries? Gears of War 4 certainly tries its best to achieve just that.
The old new school
It’s quite clear from the get-go that Gears of War 4 feels like a new experience. In the previous games, we just had a bunch of beefed up dudes with sonorous voices shouting obscenities and saying “grubs” way too often. Now we have a gaggle of diverse young minds and bodies shouting obscenities. The story follows the path of JD, Marcus Fenix’s son, along with his close friend, Del, and their friend, Kait, from an outcast community called The Outsiders. Since the conclusion of Gears of War 3, a significant amount of time has passed since the events of the Locust War and the landscape of the planet Sera has changed pretty dramatically. The COG have exacted complete control and the world lives in a moderate amount of peace, albeit in a much more restricted society.
Things get shaken up within this peaceful coexistence when a new threat emerges that terrifyingly resemble the Locusts that laid waste to the planet decades before. The new enemies are called the Swarm and they bring their own motivations and mannerisms to the table and as luck would have it, your crew gets caught in the genesis of all of this.
It is made clear that the lore surrounding the Gears of War universe has dramatically shifted with new motivations and powers taking the initiative. However, the narrative of the game falters when it comes to world building and filling the player in with what exactly happened during the decades that passed since the previous trilogy. A lot of the lore is hinted at, but never explored. Even the personal relationships between the main cast is never truly expanded upon and throughout the game, you constantly feel like you’re missing out on some vital information.
Instead of breaks between the long line of shooting galleries and fantastical setpieces to give the narrative some room to breathe and give you some much-needed exposition, the game simply ignores it and moves on. I have to be honest and say that the game’s story is possibly its weakest aspect since it is essentially one giant set-up for the new trilogy. At exactly the point where the stories start becoming interesting and you start to feel like you’re understanding the direction they are heading in, it ends. A gigantic cliffhanger, the likes of which can be seen as one of the more egregious examples in recent memory. The lore and exposition is so barebones that it feels like there will probably be a tie-in novel to make up for the empty space the game left behind.
However, aside from the game’s overall narrative, the moment-to-moment events are where it shines. You feel engaged with the new cast of colourful characters and there is some definite chemistry and a new excitement between them. I found them to be endearing, even if the main protagonist, JD, felt slightly like a prototypical action hero. They have established the personalities in these characters and it will be interesting to see what the direction will be with them in future titles.
There is undeniably a new freshness to the franchise. While there are returning characters, this feels like an exciting new journey into the world of Gears of War and this excitement does wonders to keep you playing. It’s definitely a new experience, but you also feel an alluring familiarity to everything, if you’ve played the previous games.
New gears, new generation
One of my principle hopes for Gears of War 4 was that it simply gives us a new generation of Gears with some added spice. That is exactly what it achieved. The gameplay feels familiar to the point where you feel right at home after playing it for just a few minutes, yet it feels smoother, more responsive and even more exciting. The core fundamentals of the game are pronounced and elevated while still retaining that classic Gears of War charm that many have come to know and love. This, however, means that people who do not enjoy the franchise will find absolutely nothing new that will sway their opinion. It is the quintessential Gear of War experience for the new generation and if you’ve grown tired of the franchise’s formula or never enjoyed the gameplay, rather steer clear.
But what does Gears of War 4 bring to the table that can be considered new? There are, predictably, some new weapons. Some are more exciting than others, but they bring some much-needed diversity to the already iconic weapon line-up. For me, they added just enough weapons to breathe some life into the traditional gunplay that the franchise is known for. You get weapons such as the Overkill that functions as a rapid fire shotgun, the Dropshot that drops bombs on your enemies from above cover, and my personal favourite, the EMBAR which is a charge sniper rifle that is much more versatile than the Longshot.
Besides weapons, we also get some interesting new enemy types. The basic enemies have striking similarities to the previous Locust enemies, but the new special enemies are entirely unique. Some require you to shoot weakspots while others change the way you approach an encounter and, like with the weapons, this does just enough to make things refreshing again. The Swarm, in general, have a much more distinct aesthetic than the locusts with their more insect-like mannerisms and methods.
As for mechanics, things still remain largely the same. The traditional cover-focused shooting is still very much intact along with movement and how you navigate the battlefield. There are some minor changes to how cover works where you can yank an enemy out of cover or vault over and kick them in the face (never gets old, by the way) and that’s basically it. The mantra of “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken” comes to mind when I think of the gameplay of Gears of War 4. Tweaks were made, new elements are put into play to keep the action fresh, and it plays like butter. There’s nothing more one can potentially ask for and it still remains a ton of fun.
Unleash the Horde
Horde Mode predictably makes a return with the brand new Horde 3.0. Take what you know about the previous Horde modes and throw that knowledge into the crossfire of a Gnasher duel. Horde Mode now has some really interesting dynamics that elevates the mode to some new heights. The first major change is how you make use of a Fabricator to construct defences instead of being forced to use preset locations. You can take this Fabricator and place it wherever you like and then construct your defences how you see fit.
The defences are along the lines of the traditional ones we already know such as barriers, turrets, decoys and so on, but now you have to accrue power to build these defences. The way you do that is by killing enemies (surprise) and they drop power that you then have to go pick up. The bigger the enemy, the more power, of course. This power is shared among all your teammates so there needs to be proper communication to ensure a good defensive position.
The other major change is the progression system that the mode now employs. You can pick from a number of classes and those classes (Sniper, Assault, Engineer etc.) each have their own unique abilities and functions. Where it gets even more interesting is with the game’s new card based upgrade system. Before you sigh and think that this means you’ll be opening crates and see microtransactions, which you admittedly do, it brings some fun elements to the mode that spices things up really nicely.
The cards you get from crates can be destroyed, crafted and upgraded and each of them gives your class a distinct advantage. For example, you can get a card for the Sniper class that gives much more damage potential for headshots. There’s also some really exciting cards that bring some real flavour to the mix by being these really bombastic powers that can make you incredibly powerful.
There are myriad different ways in which you can upgrade your class to your distinct playstyle and this is what sets the mode well apart from its previous iterations. Additionally, the class system allows for much broader team dynamics and it makes the mode endlessly enjoyable. It’s a shame they went the cards and crates route, but it doesn’t feel as constricting as other games that employ this method of progression.
Versus. Possibly one of the franchise’s biggest strengths. A true battle of skill and running up to people and shooting them with a shotgun in the face. Gears of War 4 not only expands on the traditional formula, it excels in it. The competitive modes are the most fun I’ve had in any Gears game ever and the new modes are genuinely fun and interesting.
You got Arms Race, which is possibly my favourite mode of the lot, where you get massively powerful weapons at the start and the more kills a team gets, the weaker the weapon becomes. You got Dodgeball, a frantic mode where if someone has died, you can bring them back by killing and enemy. I had no idea such a simple concept for a mode would be so engaging. The potential for dramatic swings and frantic fighting was something to be marvelled at. You got Escalation, where you need to capture three points and whoever loses a round can place a weapon on the map to maybe get a future advantage.
Such simple concepts, but with the addition of the classic Gears modes, this is one of the most fun competitive games out there right now. Even I, who has never been too into the versus modes in Gears, want to keep playing and levelling up just because of how fun it is. The smoother mechanics and the frenetic nature just catapults the game’s competitive capabilities to a new height.
All around me are familiar faces
Make no mistake, this is the Gears of War for the new generation and it is coming in with a bang, blast and a chainsaw to the face. It’s fresh, it’s new, but it keeps that original selling point and passion of the originals intact. It is both a refinement of the formula and a new journey at the same time. The campaign will be satisfying to play through, especially in co-op, the Horde and versus modes will keep you playing for potentially hundreds of hours and you will be elated at the triumphant return of the franchise.
It’s a shame about the weaker elements of the game’s narrative where there was definitely some lost potential. However, it doesn’t taint the experience to any major degrees. Thankfully, the story can only get stronger from here as we head into this new exciting chapter in the Gears universe. The potential for this new trilogy is tremendous and I cannot wait to dive into the world of Sera some more.
If you’ve been a long-time Gears fan, you have no reason to worry. This is definitely all you asked for and then some. If you’re a casual Gears fan, I’d still recommend it purely for the fact that it is an incredibly solid package and will last you a considerable amount of time. For those that do not enjoy the franchise, you won’t find anything new to sway your opinion since this is a refinement of the traditional formula and more importantly a continuation of the legacy.
Gears is back, baby.