The Gears of War series is very well known for its ludicrous machismo, stereotyping, cheesy writing and unnecessary profanity. Gears of War 4 – the fifth entry to the series – is none of these things (well, at least a little less of the machismo) and the best instalment yet.
Microsoft’s dedicated Gears of War development studio, The Coalition, has taken what’s worked best in the Gears franchise (like slick cover-based gameplay, amazing visuals and over-the-top action) but given it new life with a story that isn’t entirely nonsensical or filled with caricatures. In fact, most of the main cast have a depth to them that doesn’t feel shoe-horned (I’m looking at you Dom+Maria).
The game is set 25 years after the events of Gears 3, and features Marcus Fenix’s son JD and his two friends Kait and Del. The locust have been defeated but after a day of plundering an old COG factory for tech, a new horror shows itself and attacks the village our heroes are delivering the goods to. Kait’s mother and uncle are taken, along with any other villagers who weren’t brutally murdered, and the trio set out to save them by way of asking Marcus to help. The plot then eventually unveils a greater threat while developing our characters in an organic and compelling way.
The game faces the player with two factions of enemies: the DBs (pronounced Deebees), who are autonomous soldiers under the control of the COG ordered to stop JD, Kait and Del; and the Swarm, a new set of monsters who have unearthed themselves and are kidnapping people. Fighting the Deebees is pretty standard fare for those familiar with Gears – fighting the Swarm on the other hand is where things get changed up. For example, there are Pouncers who leap across platforms and fire spikes from their tails and Snatchers who are the twice the size and ensnare downed players inside themselves until rescued by comrades.
Gears of War 4 starts off with our trio, along with Kait’s uncle Oscar, breaking into a COG facility to steal something called a fabricator. It’s here that we learn the COG is an organisation that isn’t favoured among the people despite having Marcus’ squad from the previous games defeating the locust threat decades prior. The COG are now a primarily autonomous army, in an effort by its leader Jinn to preserve humanity and focus on repopulating Sera. JD and Del trained with the COG but have since gone AWOL and are under the scrutiny by the army, now literally under fire for stealing the aforementioned fabricator.
The significance of the fabricator is that it’s the mechanic used for the game’s updated Horde 3.0 mode, in which the player(s) face wave upon wave of enemies. The fabricator is used to spawn defences such as weapons, turrets or fences to fend off the coming hordes. Between waves the player(s) is granted with a short amount of time to set up defences within a budget (the more effective a defensive item is determined by its cost). The campaign on a few occasions incorporates the fabricator and waves of horde mode, allowing players an avenue for understanding the mechanics and gameplay before jumping in to the dedicated mode.
Note: At the time of review, we couldn’t connect an online Horde 3.0 match or any other competitive multiplayer. We’ll update this review with full thoughts closer to release when services are operating more smoothly.
This entry to the Gears series is the most vibrant and visually striking experience yet. It transitions beautifully between cutscenes and gameplay, and pushes forward the graphical capabilities of the Xbox One. It might not quite be at the same level as Uncharted 4 on PS4, but it’s pretty damn close. Unfortunately the game’s framerate does sometimes dip below 30FPS during intense moments, but never to the point that it’s unplayable. This is likely to be addressed in a software update, so do bear that in mind.
While the game does its best to improve upon the series’ familiar formula, some of its more obvious tropes do remain. A room full of chest-high walls will always tell you that a firefight is about to break out, and you should use grenades to blow up enemy spawn points. However, the things that makes Gears great are also here: Meat shields, curb stomping, chainsaw executions, active reloads… There’s even a great titanic battle in the game’s final act. In fact, Gears 4’s final act is probably its best, with the game reaching two emotionally charging moments for completely different opposite reasons.
However, the campaign’s biggest problem is its ending. The game does so well to set up its characters, sense of place and story, yet cuts itself short of any sort of resolve and leaves on an infuriating cliffhanger. This would be less of an issue if story-based DLC was in the pipeline, but alas, there isn’t.
Speaking of DLC, The Coalition is trying something different with its season pass: all of the game’s multiplayer DLC maps will be available for everyone for free – but with a catch. All maps will become available to play upon release (outside of the standard 10 maps bundled with the main game), however they will only be playable in a public rotation unless paid for in the season pass. If you pay, you can elect to play your favourite maps whenever you’d like. Sounds dodgy right now, but we’ll have to wait and see how this system will play out when the first pack releases in the coming months. Additionally, this the third AAA release under Microsoft’s new Play Anywhere initiative, meaning regardless of which platform you buy a digital copy of Gears of War 4 on – Windows 10 or Xbox One – you’ll have access to the game on both.
Gears 4 is an amazing game that takes the best parts of its predecessors’ formulas and improves upon them in almost every way. Despite the disappointing ending, Gears 4 is an incredible effort that triumphantly slots itself into Microsoft’s trifecta of Xbox One exclusives: Quantum Break, Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4. The Coalition has taken an established franchise from a huge developer in the shooter genre, and made it their own for the better. Gears of War 4 is the game all shooter fans need to get their hands on.
Check back closer to the launch of Gears of War 4 on October 11 for our thoughts on online multiplayer and Horde 3.0.