GEARS OF WAR 4 Review
It’s been five years since the Gears of War trilogy reached its conclusion, and now Microsoft has brought the game back out for another rodeo, tasking in-house dev team The Coalition with bringing the series into the new generation with its fourth numbered title. GEARS OF WAR 4 more or less wipes the slate clean, presenting a new cast of heroes, enemies, locales, and mechanics. Yet despite all of this, Four feels like home. If you were looking for the same, massive genre overhaul seen in the first GEARS OF WAR, you will be disappointed. Beyond the risks taken with the narrative, GEARS OF WAR 4 plays it pretty safe. There isn’t much here that will entice gamers who didn’t enjoy the original trilogy. But what is here is beautifully-crafted, gorgeous to look at, and an exemplar for the franchise.
Picking up years after the conclusion in GEARS 3, the planet of Sera has changed drastically, and life is a little odd without a global war against the Locusts. Most of human society has been divided between the militaristic COG, who pressure humans to procreate and build massive strongholds for safety, and the Outsiders, frontiersmen who want to rebuild their world on their own terms. It’s in this setting that players take on the role of JD Fenix, son of Gears coverboy Marcus, along with his two friends as they run away from the COG and uncover the existence of a new threat that feels all too familiar. Along the way, they’ll receive help from a few old faces in what amounts to an eight hour rescue mission.
I’ll come out to talk when you stop flinging orange spikes at me!
As expected, the plot isn’t mind-blowing or thought-provoking in the slightest, but just like the original series, the strong cast manages to carry it along. I was worried I might hate this new group of kids, designed to replace Marcus and Dom, but thankfully they avoid becoming baby-faced clones of the old archetypes, as the excellent voicework gives them legs of their own to stand on. While the intrigue of the new setting and the mystery behind the emergent Swarm is enough to tide players over for this title, it’s the possibilities of where The Coalition will take these characters that really excites.
Graphically, GEARS OF WAR 4 is a serious looker. In many instances, the game takes the series out of its trademark assortment of gritty greys and browns into brighter, more vibrant settings. The lighting in particular brings a new dimension to Sera than we have seen previously, as the largely subterranean predecessors were as dim as they come. Of course, when things get violent in dark caves and blood starts flying, the game maintains the same brutal tone you’d expect from a Gears game. Character models still look beefy and jacked, but with the new technology comes never before seen expression. The new cast can emote subtly, especially during their mid-mission banter, as well as frantically convey their feelings during some of the more tense segments. But the greatest display of graphical fidelity is seen during the Windflares, massive electrical storms that might be some of the most impressive weather effects yet rendered in gaming. As the air swells and massive gusts start tossing debris and electrical discharges every which way, you might find yourself staring a bit longer than you should.
You sure we can’t be friends?
GEARS OF WAR has always been the Big Daddy of cover-based shooters, and that tradition continues on to this day. Moving from wall to wall is intuitive and seamless, and the arsenal at your disposal is endlessly satisfying. GEARS OF WAR 4 has a tangible weight to its gameplay, each step taken and bullet fired feeling heavy and powerful. Coming back to the series after a five year hiatus, I couldn’t help but smile at how familiar it all felt. The Coalition kept what worked, and even made a few improvements, like pulling enemies out of cover for a brutal execution, or using wind flares to curve the trajectory of your shots. New enemy types mean new weapons, like the Enforcer SMG or double-shot Overkill cannon, which each quickly secure their places as go-to guns. All of these additions to the arsenal are unique and fun to play with, even if I still favored the Lancer and its chainsaw bayonet over some of the more bizarre newcomers. (Old habits die hard.)
The campaign is great fun and an action-packed romp, but the real king of the castle is the returning Horde Mode, which is so good that the developers even saw fit to find ways to put it into the main campaign. In this new iteration, teams have access to the Fabricator, a wonderful 3D printer that can build turrets, barricades, and the like to help increase the odds of survival. But these defenses require power, which can only be earned by killing enemies, so choose your tools wisely. Every ten waves conclude in an epic boss wave, and you might regret not building that expensive mounted turret.
We should’ve built another turret…
On top of Horde mode, GEARS OF WAR 4 offers its own suite of competitive game modes like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag, as well as some newcomers like Dodgeball, which works like Last Man Standing with team revives. On Xbox One, these competitive modes all run at 60 frames per second, unlike the campaign’s 30fps. It’s something you can immediately notice, as GEARS OF WAR 4 turns into a much more frantic and fast-paced game as a result. In my opinion, it practically changes the entire dynamic of the game, reflecting the frenetic environment of online lobbies. Most of the innovations to competitive mode, however, feel largely uninspired, and much like the armory, it was the series staples that I found myself returning to the most.
GEARS OF WAR 4 is a perfectly crafted, if unambitious, new start for the series. It doesn’t do much to alter the franchise as a whole, but with such a seminal background, it didn’t really need to. The Coalition have proven that they can make an awesome Gears game, keeping what makes the series great while even throwing in a few spins of their own. GEARS OF WAR 4 is already one of my favorite games in the entire series, and I can’t wait to see where The Coalition takes it in the future.
Reviewed on Xbox One, also available on PC