Gears of War 4 Review
New console, new studio, familiar Gears
In January of 2014, Microsoft announced that it had bought the rights to the Gears of War franchise from creators Epic Games, and hired former series producer Rod Fergusson to oversee development of the next entry at Black Tusk Studios, later renamed to The Coalition. The studio was rebranded to be totally devoted, the same way 343 Industries is to Halo, describing themselves as a team “...who are united in their passion for Gears of War”. This passion for the series is definitely on display in their debut release Gears of War 4, and The Coalition has crafted a game that will assuredly resonate well with fans. However, the team seems so wholly devoted to the original trilogy that they fail to do anything fun or new with the well-worn formula. That wouldn’t be a big deal if the mechanics of the game still felt fresh, but with new hardware and a new generation of game design, Gears of War 4 can seem painfully archaic at times.
But we should kick off with the positives, and I’m happy to say that the story does a good job of rejuvenating the series' lore. This might be the most enjoyable Gears of War narrative for me, so credit must go to Lead Writer Tom Bissell. In place of four “bro’s” who crack wise jokes and grumble gravely while shooting the endless masses of Locust and Lambent, we now follow three friends who look and sound like they jumped out of Joss Whedon movie. And while they’re still shooting their way through hordes of enemies, their goals are not to set off a bomb or use some super-weapon. Instead, this next generation of Gears is trying to save people close to them - a much more relatable, human task.
The story begins with JD Fenix, the son of the series’ previous protagonist Marcus Fenix, who has been living as an outlaw and conducting raids against the COG (Coalition of Organized Governments) for equipment, required to run the settlement which he is a part of. After one such successful raid, JD’s settlement is attacked by an enemy reminiscent of the Locust and everyone is captured, except for himself and two friends, Kait and Delmont. The strange attack also leads JD to reunite with his father, as they look for answers. The mystery of who the strange new enemy is and how they came to be is interesting enough to tantalize as you shoot your way through the umpteenth chest-high-wall arena, even if it doesn’t pay off in the end. Instead, in the final acts, the game quickly switches out the original mystery for a cliffhanger ending that feels oddly placed - as if The Coalition just ran out of time to tell their story.
Problems in pacing and narrative design constantly bubble up in the campaign. The Coalition are so excited to show you how faithfully they’ve recreated Epic’s shooting mechanics, they hardly give the heroes a moment to breathe. There’s no time for world-building or character development because you’re so often being pushed ahead to another round of ducking into cover and popping up to return fire. Even in Gears of War 3, there would be short intermissions from the action for narrative purposes, and even attempts to add another cellophane layer to the thin characters. Gears of War 4 has a nice trio of protagonists - again, I think they are more likeable than the previous crew - but their relationships never develop. At one point, Marcus grumbles about Kait being JD’s girlfriend even though such a relationship was never established between the two characters; it was never earned or put to the test.
The same problem lies in the setting. The game takes you to seemingly interesting locations - old mansions and grand fortresses - but it consistently fails to add any depth to the nice art design. At one point Del tells Kait that kings, warriors, and wizards were buried at the museum you’re currently rooting around in. JD starts making fun of Del for saying “wizards”, but the game spends so little time explaining these locales that having “wizards” doesn’t seem like a crazy stretch. It’s as if Gears of War 4 is worried about making Sera (the fictional Earth-like planet where the game takes place), the COG, or anything else too interesting, because it might distract players who are just looking to slice up enemies with a chainsaw.
Gears of War 4 definitely has more color than the washed out aesthetic of the original trilogy, but it is still dark and gloomy. Even when the game does buck the trend and becomes a little more visually varied, the environments often feel like you’re walking through museums. With potential wizards, no less. I joke, but very little of the world can be interacted with - leaving locations feeling artificial.
If there’s any element that makes Gears of War 4 definitively next-gen, it’s the visual tech. The cutscenes are certainly impressive. The animations are expressive and combined with strong voice acting, which makes JD, Kait, and Del that much more believable as characters. The animations are at their best at the touching climax of the game, cutting in close to share an intimate moment between two heroes - easily most emotional moment the series has ever had.
As I alluded to earlier, gameplay-wise there isn’t a ton that separates Gears of War 4 from previous entries in the series. The majority of the game is spent ducking behind cover and popping up to shoot at enemies, like the modern equivalent of a carnival shooting gallery. Mostly, the gameplay design plays it safe, and almost attempts to tap into nostalgia instead of offering something wholly new. It's as if The Coalition were concerned that opening levels up for more exploration, or allowing the characters to move like normal people instead of lumbering robots, it would somehow disqualify the game from being Gears of War. For fans, these are probably weak complaints, elements that have become second nature to their beloved franchise, but for anyone else it may feel like Gears of War 4 is stuck in the past, failing to innovate in any way that would warrant a fourth entry – on a new console generation and from a new developer, no less.
I don’t mean to be reductionist; there are times when you can weave your way around the combat arenas, flanking enemies and giving your squad the advantage. The biggest changes are close-cover combat kills, where you can reach over cover and grab enemies, then execute them; as well as windflares, which are powerful wind and lightning storms that affect combat encounters. Also to their credit, later in the game you can feel the developers trying to come up with ways to liven things up. There’s a couple of sequences where you drive a motorcycle, or use elevator cables to quickly ascend a cavern, but these are largely on-rails sections with very little input required by the player - except shooting. Even when The Coalition try some the new, they can only help themselves for a few minutes before saying, “Okay! Now back to the cover-based shooting!” The new mechanics are a nice touch, but not nearly enough to shake up the gameplay formula.
When I talk about the gameplay being stuck in the past, that encompasses most of the mechanics. The controls to run and duck in / out of cover still feel clunky and sticky. It’s very similar to the original games, which didn’t detract from the experience, but you’d think The Coalition could have made these mechanics feel more natural since we’re on the fifth installment in the series. The lack of refined mechanics are a missed opportunity for The Coalition to make Gears of War 4 their own, instead of copying what Epic already did.
The same is true of the weapons, as you'll be using relatively the same arsenal as before. It’s fair to say that no Gears of War game would be complete without using the Lancer to chainsaw through an enemy’s torso - and you're likely going to be spending most of your time with the classic Lancer, Hammerburst, and Gnasher trio. There’s some new guns like the Enforcer, EMBAR, and Overkill, but most of those guns are only used in the early acts - and once I could get my hands on the Lancer, I found myself opting for that anyways. Heavy weapons like Tri-shot and Salvo Rocket Launcher are new in name, but have similar functions to weapons in previous games. Buzzkill is another new heavy weapon, which appropriately fires buzzsaws that can rebound around the environment and dismember foes, Dead Space style.
Similarly, new enemies behave like the familiar Locust and Lambent. The Drones of the Swarm take cover the same way the Drones of The Locust did and both use the Hammerburst. There are some new enemies, but I never felt like I was forced to rethink standard Gears of War combat strategies. Mostly when you see enemies, whether they’re Drones, Carriers, or Snatchers the strategy is just to pump bullets into it. It’s hard to care about what the narrative mystery surrounding the Swarm is, when the game’s solution to every encounter is to shoot the creatures until they stop moving. In the first act you start off fighting an army of weaponized robots, and then the game peppers in the Swarm. At the end the two armies are mixed together and it hardly feels like there’s a difference between the two.
Like previous Gears of War games you can play the campaign alone or co-op. I didn’t get a chance to play the whole thing in co-op, but it’s not hard to imagine it is more enjoyable having friends to coordinate your attacks with. The friendly AI is still pretty lacking, and will usually follow your movements instead of providing cover fire or the necessary distractions as you attempt to flank the enemy.
While the campaign offers some new tricks, the more invigorated part of Gears of War 4 is the multiplayer - and it’s here that The Coalition seem to take some ownership of the franchise. The matches tend to be on the longer side, but they’re still rewarding and fun throughout. I found the new Dodgeball mode to be the most fun - an elimination mode where players who are killed cannot return to the match until a player for their team gets a frag. It leads to a very back-and-forth experience, where a single kill can swing a match, or an unfortunate ambush can mean defeat.
The next new mode is Arms Race where each team starts with the best weapon in the game - the Boomshot - and after a team gets three kills they move on to the next weapon in descending lethal order, ending with a pistol. These matches don’t swing in momentum quite like Dodgeball does, but they succeed at creating an interesting tension as you desperately race to the worst weapons in the game. While this mode has existed in the likes of Call of Duty and Counter Strike previously, it’s fun to play it in a Gears game.
Lastly, there’s Escalation mode, which is much like Call of Duty’s Domination. Teams must compete to capture three objectives around the map; if you can hold all three objectives you win. The game moves in rounds, and deeper into the match respawn times increase; at halftime, the capture objectives change locations. This is Gears’ e-sports focused, purely competitive mode, and it was also my least favorite. The familiarity of the setup works against what felt so new and exciting in Dodgeball and Arms Race.
There are more familiar multiplayer modes, like Team Deathmatch where you eliminate players on the opposing team. In King of the Hill you capture and hold points on the map. Guardian has you eliminate the enemy team leader to prevent respawns. Lastly, Warzone has you eliminate the opposing team with one life per round. Ten maps are included at launch.
These modes along with Dodgeball and Arms race are in the “Core balance” playlist, meaning the weapon tuning is similar to the campaign. Escalation and Execution are the "Competitive balance" playlist, where weapons tuning is a little more even to create a pure competitive experience, such as reducing down damage and lessening the effects of Aim Assist. Again, this is where The Coalition is putting their e-sports focus, while the Core balance modes are where you can experience a more casual multiplayer experience.
Players kick off their multiplayer experience by play a series of placement matches to determine their skill level, similar to Halo 5. Unlike previous Gears of War games, leveling up doesn’t earn you ways to customize your character. Instead, performance in multiplayer earns players credits that can be used to purchase packs of cards. These cards are what you’ll use for cosmetic customizations, for instance a Day of the Dead Kait card will give you access to that character in multiplayer. You can also purchase packs with real money. If there’s something you specifically want, you can destroy cards to earn Scrap which can be used to make desired cards.
Gears of War 4 also contains the fan-favorite Horde Mode, with up to five players going against 50 waves of enemies in co-op, but adds a new layer of complexity with fortifications that include turrets and barricades with the Fabricator. You’ll get a taste for this mode in the campaign as well. The fortifications add a new layer of strategy and it forces players to choose between freelancing around the map or sticking by their turrets and barricades - for better or worse. You can also assume the role of a specific class in Horde Mode. These classes are Soldier, Scout, Sniper, Engineer, and Heavy; each has unique abilities and usable Skill Cards, and all classes can use any weapon/fortification as well as any of the general skills. These fresh mechanics in multiplayer are the exact kind of changes one would have hoped for in the core gameplay.
If there’s a fault with Gears of War 4 competitive multiplayer it is that it’s rather uninviting, mostly due to the gameplay. The lumbering character movements and reliance on cover mechanics seem dated when compared with the speed of most modern shooters. In Arms Race in particular, it isn’t always well-communicated what weapon you’re using unless you’re good at deciphering the intricate details of the gun icons in the upper left-hand corner - which series veterans are likely able to do. Again, those who have loved the originals are likely to flourish - these flaws will hardly stand out - while those who are new to the scene will have a hard go of it. Much like everything else, the multiplayer seems to gear itself (see what I did there?) towards the existing fan base.
This title is the latest arrival in the Xbox Play Anywhere program. This means buying a digital copy grants you access on both Windows 10 and Xbox One, with progress seamlessly carrying over between the platforms. It also supports cross-play for the cooperative campaign and horde mode, as well as multiplayer - but only against bots, in an apparent desire to keep the playing field balanced and not pit mice against joysticks in competitive modes.
Gears of War 4 is a game clearly made for the fans that have made the franchise a $1 billion property. Microsoft and The Coalition seem certain that safe, and perhaps outdated, gameplay design can be propped up by a new cast of characters mixed with a fun and varied online experience. For series devotees, it almost certainly will be - and I enjoyed most of the campaign and multiplayer. But just note that those looking for a gameplay evolution might be expecting too much. Gears of War 4 represents the franchise you know and love, returning to the Xbox for a new generation of players.