After a long wait, Xbox One owners can finally get their hands on the much anticipated sequel to one of Microsoft’s biggest franchises, Gears of War. In 2014 Microsoft announced that they had purchased the Gears of War IP from Epic Games and that a new game would be in development for the Xbox One by a Microsoft owned studio called Black Tusk Studios, which would later be renamed “The Coalition”. As part of the deal, Microsoft hired Rod Fergusson of Epic Games, who served as the executive producer of the first three Gears games, to oversee development of this sequel. So in the hands of new a developer, does Gears of War 4 live up to being a worthy successor to the franchise?
Gears of War 4 is set 25 years after the events of the Locust War, which was depicted in the original trilogy. After firing the Imulsion Countermeasure weapon that defeated both the Locust and the Lambent, there are only hundreds of thousands of humans left on the planet Sera. While the weapon was successful, it created a harsher environment full of windflares, which are large electromagnetic storms. The Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) has created wall-offed cities to protect the dwindling populations and declares martial law which states that nobody is allowed to travel outside these cities. The humans who rejected this law and live outside their jurisdiction are called the “Outsiders”, and they conduct raids on COG territories for their resources.
Gears of War 4 features a variety of new faces. The protagonist of the game is J.D. Fenix who is the son of the original trilogy’s protagonist, Marcus Fenix. J.D. used to work for the COG before joining the Outsiders. Together with his friends Delmont “Del” Walker and Kait Diaz, J.D. not only battles the new alien race called the Swarm, he also battles the COG and their robots. These characters aren’t as gritty or as serious as their predecessors since they often make quips and jokes throughout the game, even in the most dire of situations. It makes sense considering they grew up in a different time than their predecessors. These new characters encounter familiar faces that will provide fans of the series with nostalgia while also bridging together the original trilogy with this new saga. This game is basically The Force Awakens of the Gears of War franchise.
If players expect this game to completely reinvent the franchise, they are going to be disappointed. Mechanically speaking this game feels just like any other Gears of War title. Instead of reinventing the wheel, the developers decided to use elements of the older games and mix them with new gameplay mechanics and characters that will satisfy older Gears of War fans while introducing newcomers to the franchise.
Gears of War 4 still uses the typical cover and shoot mechanic the series has always used, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the gameplay still holds up very well and feels more improved. It’s much easier to cover and move the sticks on the controller to aim and shoot. This makes the combat feel far more fluid. Players can do a variety of things in cover; they can mantle over walls to hit their enemies, they can execute their enemies over cover, they can pop out and shoot at enemies, or they can just wildly shoot without looking. This game still uses the same reload mechanic seen in every Gears of War game where players press the right bumper to play a mini game to get a cursor into the white spot of the bar to reload faster and even get special ammo.
It is important to note that the game’s stop-and-pop style needs to be fun because that’s basically the whole game at its core. In its five acts with multiple chapters, the whole campaign of Gears of War 4 is basically getting from point A to point B while taking cover and shooting enemies. Outside of times where players will use a bike or a mech, the game will lock players into an area and force them to fight the enemies until they are all defeated. The game play is a lot of fun, but at times it can feel a bit redundant.
Gears 4 also features a co-op system that can be played either online or via offline split-screen. Teamwork has been a staple for the franchise since the original game so it’s nice to see the new developers have kept the series close to its roots. Players can come up with different strategies in how to handle a situation, and they rely on each other to be revived when things get dicey. For players who want to play this game alone, even the AI controlled characters do a terrific job quickly getting to the players to revive them. This is very important because so many enemies appear on screen and it is easy for players to get downed, especially on higher difficulty. Split screen co-op is not a feature that is done often anymore, so it’s nice to see it done very well here.
Similar to the previous games, there are survival horror elements of the game that involve players venturing into dark areas filled with monsters. The fork in the road mechanic also returns where players have to decide which path to take. This adds replay value to the game as every play through can be different. The plot is also similar to past games as it focuses on Kait’s search for her mother Reyna Diaz, which is similar to how Dominic Santiago of the original trilogy was searching for his lost wife.
There are a variety of new toys for the players to use to mow down their enemies. The EMBRAR is a charge-shot sniper rifle that must hit a target or it will overheat in the players’ hands. The Buzzkill shoots lethal saws at foes and beautifully rips them to shreds. The appropriately named Overkill is a very strong double-barrel shotgun that fires two shots: one when players press the trigger and one when they let go. There’s also plenty of old weapons in the game that older fans of the series will easily recognize such as the Lancer and the traditional Longshot. It’s a lot of fun picking up weapons and seeing what they can do. Players won’t really have a choice but to try out a bunch of weapons because it’s really easy to run out of ammo and often times players will be picking up their enemies’ weapons during combat.
While many of the Swarm enemies look and play similar to the Locust, the campaign also offers a bunch of new enemies that fight players in a completely different ways. The new DeeBee robot enemies aren’t afraid to get shot at so they will get close and personal with players. The Pouncer is a new enemy that shoots quills from its tail and jumps on players if they get too close. The only way to kill it is to shoot it in its weak spot. Another cool enemy is the Snatcher who can grab players and pull them into its body. This will leave a blurry field of vision on screen until the players’ allies rescue them with gunfire. In order to combat the Pouncers and the Snatchers, players need to stay in cover and shoot, and continue to move to different locations.
The game looks great; It is definitely one of the best looking games on the Xbox One. The environments are a pleasure to behold. If players take a break from the action and simply enjoy the scenery they’ll notice there’s a lot going on, especially when encountering the windflares. Players will battle enemies in these storms with debris flying everywhere on screen, and the game still runs smoothly without a problem. This game is full of hyper-realistic gore that looks far more convincing when compared to the borderline cartoonish gore of the past games. It is a lot of fun to blow an enemy’s head off with a shotgun or chainsaw them in half. The deaths of the players can also be pretty brutal with a lot of dismemberment and chainsaw slices. The game looks even better if fans own an Xbox One S and a good TV since this is one of the first Xbox games to support HDR. And of course it looks even better on the PC.
The campaign doesn’t offer the greatest story and the new hero is relatively generic. That’s not to say J.D. is a bad protagonist or that his story arc is inadequate, but there’s nothing unique about him at all. Despite J.D.’s shortcomings at least he keeps good company, as his companions Del and Kait are likable and easy to care about. The story itself isn’t a grand tale compared to the war of the original trilogy, but more small scale and personal. The campaign’s theme is family as it focuses on J.D.’s family, Kait’s search for her mother, and their relationships. Because the campaign is about 7-10 hours depending on the difficulty, it is pretty well paced. There’s a lot of gun fights of course, but the game also gives players time to breathe so they can relax and enjoy the set pieces and characters of this new world. The story plays it very safe and focuses more on kicking the can down the road for future games, but it is still enjoyable. This game is a lot fun so playing it safe doesn’t hurt the game too bad, but this will displease some people for sure. Overall, the campaign offers entertaining brutal and fun combat, cinematic moments, and character banter. It is a true blockbuster.
Where Gears of War 4 really shines is in its multiplayer. Similar to the campaign, The Coalition chose to evolve the multiplayer rather than reinvent it. One of the most notable and noticeable changes is an adjustment to the frame-rate. While the campaign runs at a steady 30 FPS, the multiplayer actually runs 60 frames per second. Given the fast-paced and hectic style of Gears multiplayer, the boost in frame rate is much appreciated.
Gears of War 4 offers a versus mode and a horde mode. In versus mode, there are 10 multiplayer maps and several modes. Compared to the linear areas of the campaign, the multiplayer maps offer players large areas full of brutal tools to defeat their adversaries. This game has the basic modes one would expect to see in the franchise such as Team Deathmatch and Guardian, but it also has a couple of new really fun modes. One of the new modes (a personal favorite) is the Arms Race where everyone is given the same weapon in a round and races to kill the other team three times with this weapon to advance the round. This puts everyone on equal footing and makes it so skill shines more than the weapon. Especially since players usually love to use shotguns in multiplayer. Another new mode is Dodgeball that plays like Team Deathmatch, but in this mode players can respawn. It plays just like a regular game of dodgeball. In order to revive a teammate, players must kill an enemy and then survive for five seconds. If they do, the player will respawn and the next player who died will wait in death queue.
Players are rewarded for playing multiplayer with experience to level up and with credits that can be used to purchase Gear Packs. These packs are full of cards that provide players with a variety of items to customize their multiplayer experience. Using credits, players can purchase characters, weapon skins, emblems, and bounties that offer additional rewards for competing challenges. Players also have the option to buy card packs using real world currency if they want to build their collection quickly.
Perhaps the best aspect of Gears of War 4 is its horde mode 3.0. In this mode, five players survive waves of enemies by building defenses to protect the team. Teams now have access to the Fabricator (the team’s mobile emplacement builder), which allows players to create turrets, sentries, fences, and more as they battle 50 waves of DeeBees and Swarm enemies. Every tenth wave spawns a random boss, such as the Snatcher who steals downed teammates or the Kestrel which is an attack helicopter that attacks the team from the sky. There is also a new class system in horde mode which gives players the option of choosing between the Soldier, the Scout, the Heavy, the Sniper, and the Engineer. Each class of course has a specific strength, for example, the engineer can repair fortifications and the Heavy uses strong weapons. This new class system really emphasizes teamwork since encouraging specialized roles grants specific action bonuses. This makes horde mode is a lot of fun and offers a lot of replay value because there’s so many strategies the team can use to win the mode. Players should expect to play this mode for hours with friends.
Gears of War fans will feel right at home with this new entry. It doesn’t reinvent the franchise and it does play it a bit safe, but The Coalition did a great job mixing in the nostalgia of the original trilogy with a batch of new characters and enemies while improving on its lore and gameplay mechanics. There are very few games that still feel as satisfying to blow an opponent’s head off or chainsaw them in half. But now gamers can enjoy that with even better graphics. The campaign is really enjoyable, but the game really shines in multiplayer and that’s where the majority of the player’s time will be spent. If this is the first step for a new saga in the Gears of War franchise then this series has a very bright future.