There’s something incredibly special about the Gears of War franchise. It’s loud, bombastic, over the top, and for the most part, its characters are fun caricatures of the most dude-bro testosterone-filled grunts you can imagine. But somehow, these specific traits are what endeared so many gamers on the Xbox 360. With new hardware, Gears of War 4 has the difficult task of not only living up to the high expectations previous installments have set, but also revitalizing the franchise with new lead characters. So rev up your lancers, because we’re about to rip right into this mofo.
Things pick up 25 years after the third game, and Sera (the earth-like planet the Gears series calls home) is not the same war-ridden mess that it was the last time we saw it. Nature is overcoming abandoned locations, there’s now a new faction called “The Outsiders” and Windflares (giant wind storm with lightning crashing down) now come crashing from the heavens, ripping apart everything in its way. Even the COG have gone through an interesting change, where robots now replace humans in security and construction.
Unlike his father Marcus, James Dominic (J.D.) Fenix, doesn’t stick with the COGs after he joins their ranks. Instead, he chooses to go AWOL with his friend, Del. Living the life as “Outsiders,” they make a friend named Kait in one of the “Outsider” settlements. These are the three new characters who’ll be carrying the Gears of War torch forward. This is when all hell breaks loose for J.D. and the crew. People start disappearing, and through a twist of fate, J.D. must now continue his father’s legacy—which is a theme that is present throughout the game.
As soon as you pick up the controller, things feel different. The first thing you’ll notice is how vibrant the world is, with added color and brightness. But the difference in color isn’t the only aesthetic change; the first location you visit is full of tech, and shiny metal. Heck, the first opposition you meet are the DeeBees (COG robots). It’s a stark contrast to the previous games, and felt too clean, but it doesn’t last very long. The down and gritty feel of previous games returns once you meet the new foes threatening the planet, but more on that in a bit. The main characters aren’t as colorful with their language or as ridiculous, but as a result, they feel more human than Marcus and his friends ever did. Though it felt weird and unfamiliar at first, this makes sense in the context of the peaceful world these characters grew up in.
Filling this brighter world are the Swarm—fast, nimble, and terrifying new baddies, especially when they belch unnerving screeches. There are Pouncers that shoot you with needles, and jump on you when they’re close enough; and the bug-like Snatchers that are capable of sucking you into their belly, and carrying you right away. The list goes on. Because of their speed, I found myself adapting to it by moving around more, not staying in one spot for too long.
But the Swarm may have met their match in J.D., Kait, and Del. These three kick complete ass, and can handle a Lancer as well as anyone. They’re much more subtle than Marcus, Cole, Dom, and Baird (not that that’s saying much given most video game characters are subtle in comparison to the crazy squad), but that doesn’t mean they don’t get to be silly in dire times. They constantly joke around, and make light of their situation—there are even a couple re-occurring jokes that eventually pay off. Thankfully, there’s also plenty of banter between the group that allows their personalities to shine. Shout-out to the voice-actors for killing it.
It’s clear that one of the focuses in the game was to give the player more melee freedom with the introduction of the yank, vault kick, and combat-knife. Each one of these new additions diversifies the combat enough to the point where I kept being more aggressive. There were too many times during the previous games where it came down to going from cover to cover to shoot waves of Locust down, making for very dull gameplay. As for the familiar running mechanic, that also got a tune-up and feels smoother than ever before. It’s also easier to maneuver when running, especially now that you can hurdle over objects.
New weapons are introduced as well, like the Buzzkill, which shoots out ricocheting buzzsaws. There’s also the Dropshot that shoots off a floating grenade in a straight line that stays in the air as long as you hold the trigger. There are a few more that are actually pretty rad, and most importantly fun with which to use and experiment. A shotgun that shoots twice with one trigger pull? Why not?
The biggest change, however, has to be the dynamic battlefields. Remember the windflares I was talking about earlier? There are a few battle sequences that take place during these insane storms, which means you have to take the wind into consideration during the fight. While shooting down debris can easily take out a group of Swarm, there are other times where the lack of visibility puts your team into tough situations as you’re blindly trying to land a grenade on your enemy’s doorstep. While epic, these action-packed sequences were sadly underutilized. I definitely would have loved to see more in the story mode.
Most importantly though, this game plays like a Gears title. Reloading is the same, ducking behind cover hasn’t changed (still best cover system ever), and out of this world set pieces are present. Sometimes the story feels a bit shallow (go get this, go save this, go kill this), but it makes up for it by focusing the mysteries of the Swarm and our protagonists’ past and adding some fun moments for long time fans.
It won’t take you too long to complete the campaign; it’s five acts long like the previous games. One thing I found myself appreciating most, however, is the cinematic feel. The cutscenes are gorgeous, and the touching moments really hit home. Plus, the game looks absolutely stunning on the Xbox One S and a 4K display, legit gorgeous. There are also those explosive set-pieces that will blow you away, and some really cool “holy-s***” moments that rank up there in the series. There’s an escape scene on a motorcycle that was reminiscent of one of the Gears of War 2 boss fights that still has me reeling.
For a campaign that has to introduce new characters and enemies, while staying true to the series at the same time, Gears of War 4 does a spectacular job. I want to know more about J.D., Kait, and Del, and even want to know what’s going on with the old crew. As you already know Marcus is in the game, and he plays a pivotal role once again, but it isn’t what you expect. He’s here to pass the torch to his son. The way the Coalition handled this transition should be applauded.
I only wish there was more closure at the end of the the installment. I won’t spoil much, but it doesn’t feel complete. I get that Microsoft wants this to be an ongoing franchise,—so we know more are coming—but one of the cooler things about the original trilogy is that all three had a real endings. Once I hit the last cut-scene of 4, I had an empty feeling. While it’s good that I wanted more (meaning I really enjoyed it), the end wasn’t as satisfying as sinking a whole city, or taking out the Locust queen.
I would recommend this game to most (especially Gears of War fans) on the campaign alone, but that’d be doing a huge disservice to the new Horde 3.0 and online multiplayer match-types. Horde 3.0 in particular is a total addictive experience—it’s easy to pick up for half an hour, is crazy intense with friends, and will give you a rush when you get far.
So what makes this Horde mode so special? The most important addition is the Fabricator, an indestructible military grade 3D-printer that allows you to purchase and set fortifications. It almost turns into a tower-defense game, where you choose a corner, set some sentries and barriers to see how long you can last. The furthest I got with another player was to 10 without going down once. But it goes up to 50 waves, with boss stages after every 10 rounds, so it’s a hefty amount of content. There are also classes you can choose before playing to fit your play-style the best, like: engineer, heavy, or soldier. Each class has its perks, so it becomes pivotal to coordinate with friends. It’s five player co-op, and even supports local co-op, so this is the perfect mode to play with friends.
As for the multiplayer, there are three new types: Dodgeball, Escalation, and Arms Race. By far, the most exciting game type was Dodgeball. This is a 5-on-5 mode where you get only one life, but you can be brought back when a teammate takes down an opponent—hence the dodgeball name. It’s like one giant tug of war, and I can already see what kinds of crazy come backs we’ll be seeing online. And the best players will find themselves going back and forth in one match.
That’s not to disparage the other new modes: Arms race is a lot like Gun Game from Call of Duty, but more team based. Each team starts with the same weapon, and must get three team kills to move on to the next weapon. Whoever cycles through the predetermined set of weapons wins the game. It’s best out of 3, so there’s a chance for either team to win the match. It’s also the best way to get a feel for all the weapons.
Escalation is a lot like a domination mode where you must battle for control of three different spots, but you go until a team wins seven rounds. As you can imagine, it will take about half an hour plus to finish a match. But like the other two modes, there’s an emphasis on allowing teams to comeback from behind. If you take all three points of interest, you instantly win the round, so if you’ve fallen behind, you can push to be more aggressive to win a couple of rounds. My team was losing four rounds to two, but forced it to go to the very end for the win.
All three new multiplayer game types are a total blast. And I really appreciate that there’s a focus on team play, and allowing teams all the opportunities to make comebacks. I was also pleasantly surprised by how well the new combat features worked seamlessly in multiplayer. Like every game that includes a multiplayer component these days, there are now Gear Packs that allow you to customize your character, perks, etc. And you can of course purchase them with real monies if you want your shot at getting a golden Lancer (rare loot).
And finally, Gears of War 4 is a play anywhere title, so you’ll be able to play on PC as well. It also supports cross-play on Campaign, Horde 3.0, and multiplayer.
Simply put, this is a great game that both feels fresh and familiar. The Coalition has a winner on their hands. The campaign features the same explosive moments you expect from a Gears game with the same brutal gameplay, while including more relatable protagonists. But Horde 3.0 and multiplayer make this a must own for every Xbox One owner out there. It’s way too much fun to ignore.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Imulsion-free Burritos.
- The action is as good as it has ever been. New weapons, smoother close-combat, it’s as brutal as ever.
- Horde 3.0 is way too fun with friends. The new additions feel right at home.
- New Multiplayer modes keep teamwork in mind, and give many chances for epic comebacks. I absolutely love, LOVE, Dodgeball.
- A new era of Gears of War is here, and it’s fantastic.
- The game is gorgeous. Get yourself an Xbox One S and 4K display.
- The end doesn’t provide enough closure.
This review was completed using an Xbox One copy of Gears of War 4 provided by Microsoft. The game hits shelves on October 11, 2016 for the Xbox One and Windows.
Image: Microsoft, Xbox