Gears of War 4 is about knocking down doors and shooting things. It does this very well, surprisingly well, in a gorgeous package that lives up to and in some places exceeds the Gears legacy set down on the previous generation Xbox console.
There’s a lot riding on this game. Purpose-built studio the Coalition need to step up and prove themselves worthy of taking on Epic games’ mantle, built over three much-loved games while at the same time differentiating themselves by striking out in a fresh direction for the series. So although it’s the fourth in the series, it’s actually a game of firsts: first on Xbox One, first by developers the Coalition, first with a new narrative, first using Unreal Engine 4. There’s no doubt this was a tough call for any developer, so has the Coalition been able to deliver?
After four Gears of War games, the key question when considering the single player is ”is the story successful in starting a new narrative with characters that I care about?” These are people that we will presumably have to live with for at least another two games. And they have been successful. Well, partially. Sidekick Del is forgettable and Kait seems interesting but tends only to speak when there is a need for a bit of story to move things along. Marcus I feel is criminally underused, and a bit more of his cynical attitude would have been a welcome foil to the knight in shining armour role that main character JD takes on.
As for JD himself, well he is a Mario. A chirpy, bland, white male who seems to have no discerning characteristics whatsoever. The game valiantly tries to make us care about his backstory and to make it mysterious but we’re never really given enough to give it any emotional punch.
The main campaign is fairly rote, if enjoyable. Set over the course of a 24-hour period you will be running and gunning just like before. Gears 4 breaks these sections up with some scripted moments where the standard run and gun is absent, such as an exhilarating motorcycle chase fighting a bomber or piloting overpowered robots. There are also some horde, wave-based sections that give you a basic introduction to the full mode.
I completed the main campaign in less than eight hours. While on the short side, if it were any longer I felt it would have overstayed its welcome. That said, the ending was a little unsatisfactory; the Coalition are obviously setting the story up for another (at least) trilogy of games. Ending the first of a trilogy is always difficult, but I felt they could have done a better job of it here.
At least the entire time you’re in the game it’s gorgeous. The new Unreal Engine is used to great effect, with intricately-animated areas looking delectable – the best in any shooter that I’ve seen to date. It’s hard to overstate the technical accomplishment that has been achieved on the Xbox hardware – a real credit to the Coalition and an exciting indicator of what we can expect going forward.
The single-player is only the beginning of Gears 4 – indeed the achievement you get for completing the game is “ready for more.” Horde mode makes its return in a new and improved 3.0 mode. The most significant change is that it is now class-based. Having both an engineer and a scout are essential, though I found it hard to differentiate other classes, which are all small variations of the combat role. Moving the fabricator (where you get your tower defence items) around is highly strategic – do you want it safe at the back or on the front lines where’s it’s easier to access, but exposed to damage? Horde mode also now has cards, just as in the original Titanfall (and pretty much every other game that seems to come out these days). You earn them through play (though you can buy them as well – every game needs their microtransactions) and they can be fun modifiers to the experience.
One disappointment throughout Gears 4 was with the gunplay. I kept the same gun setup of the Lancer and a shotgun for almost the entire length of the campaign and rarely felt the need to change. The standard Lancer is powerful enough to get the job done in nearly every situation. More specific guns such as the semi-sniper EMBAR seem to have very little ammunition so I was always wary about swapping that out for my shotgun. There are occasions where you can retrieve the weapons off fallen enemies and these mix it up but they are only, sadly, temporary.
For the first time a Gears game has been released on PC alongside its Xbox counterpart. And The Coalition have done a magnificent job. While the Xbox version is an extraordinary technical achievement, with the right hardware the PC version is miles ahead. The PC version boasts an enormous assortment of sliders and options to mess around with to get performance exactly right for your rig. There are only very minor issues – 1080p/30 FPS videos are an unusual oversight for such a polished PC version. Overall however this is a very strong foundation for both the Coalition and Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative more broadly, and bodes well for any future releases.
It’s hard not to compare Gears of War 4 with the other Microsoft-owned shooter, Halo. While Halo 5 tried in small part to reinvent itself and concoct something we never quite ended up caring about, Gears 4 takes less risks yet it more successful for it. It’s true there is no real revolutionary gameplay or specific X factor that it will be known for, but considered as a whole it is a masterful package, and one that successfully restarts the franchise on modern console (and for the first time PC) hardware.
I sincerely hope that with the solid foundation that Gears 4 has laid down, the next entry in the series feels comfortable to experiment in the areas that Gears 4 feels a little too safe and repetitive. But that’s quibbling. Gears 4 is fantastic, and easily enters the pantheon of one of the Xbox’s must-play games.
Released: October 2016
Platforms: Xbox One
Developer: Black Tusk Studio