New COG, old tricks.
Fun and familiar. Upon completing Gears of War 4’s 8-10 hour campaign, those two decisive words constantly reverberated in the back of my mind, evoking a rather ineffable sensation. Gears of War 4, in a lot of ways, is the best entry in the series, as it productively enhances existing elements of the established franchise and polishes them off to a crisp, pristine shine; however, its devotion to refine, instead of reinventing the formula can, at times, result in a rather stagnant experience that strikes serious chords of déjà vu. Its parallelism to the original trilogy is a double-edged sword. Gears of War 4 is an excellent, by the numbers, sequel that may have questionable relevance, but is a fun, engaging experience from start to finish. While it does very little to differentiate itself from its predecessors, and archaic design elements which were fostered in the original back in 2006 are still present a decade later, Gears of War 4 still manages to be a great experience that acts as a simple reminder that it can still hold its own in the modern realm of gaming. Its campaign may be brief and lack the nuanced punch that made the original an excellent class of innovation, but it’s an enjoyable piece of modern entertainment that is paired nicely with an excellent assortment of multiplayer components – Horde 3.0 is an excellent highpoint that lives up to the addictive nature of the series’ legacy. Certain balancing issues that have continuously plagued the Gears of War multiplayer scene are, for some reason, still present in this fourth instalment. Although it’s arguably the safest sequel in the history of gaming, Gears of War 4 is a worthy addition to an excellent series.
The Coalition’s first original foray into the established series is set 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3; the Imulsion Countermeasure weapon eradicated every last source of Imulsion on the planet Sera, eliminating both the Locust and Lambent threat. This new world of peace is profoundly questionable as there is now a considerable shift in the structure we’ve come to know. The Coalition of Ordered Governments, or COG for short, have dawned a rather antagonistic role this time around; the very organization that you fought and served with for the past three (four if you’re including Judgment) Gears of War titles is now a dictating force with a fixation on control and management. It’s an intriguing plot element that deviates the predictability that plague Gears of War 4’s innards. Omitted is the one-dimensional testosterone filled bravado that fostered the original trilogy, instead replacing the muscular stereotypes with well written, 3D dimensional characters. After a rather uninspired and underwhelming prologue, Gears of War 4 introduces us to new protagonists JD, Kait, and Del, a dynamic trio that are excellent additions to the established cast of characters and are arguably more charismatic, and downright likeable, than characters of the original trilogy. JD, the son of Gears of War protagonist Marcus Fenix, is a more tangible character his father that surprisingly mirrors the witty nature of Nathan Drake. Kait is the more grounded individual of the three and an integral character to the plot as her mother is snatched away by the new Seran threat, the Swarm. Del is the rambunctious childhood friend of JD who serves as the enjoyable comic relief. After raiding a developing COG settlement and bashing heads against a few dozen Deebees –automata sentinels tasked with enforcing COG order – Kait’s outsider village is attacked by a mysterious new threat, eventually dubbed the Swarm, capturing the majority of villagers, including Kait’s mother, for unknown reasons. Here our three protagonists begin what is a rather familiar but entertaining adventure that never lets up. The rather brief 8 hour campaign is enjoyable to say the least and certain segments are notable highpoints of the entire Gears of War series, but the majority of its parts are too safe and familiar to what we’ve seen already. Gears of War 4’s advertising campaign has focused on two elements that haven’t been addressed properly in the actual final product. Element one is Gears of War 4’s emphasis on this NEW enemy threat, the Swarm. While the Swarm may seem aesthetically different to the Locust that came before them, their gameplay behaviour and structure is nearly identical to the enemies of the original trilogy. The second element is Gears of War 4’s fixation on family; while the primary goal of rescuing Kait’s mother and the amusing banter and poignant moments shared between Marcus and JD are excellent examples of this sense of family, these moments are few and far between and Gears of War 4’s intention on emphasizing family instead of comradery is never fully realized. Gears of War 4 may not pack the same graphical punch that the original did back in 2006, but it’s still a visual treat in the modern era of gaming. Luckily, Gears 4 encompasses a myriad of vibrant locales that easily triumph over the prosaic, colourless nature of the original trilogy. While Gears of War 3 introduced luscious greens into the brown colour pallet of Gears of War, its primitive induction was nothing more than the required stepping stones for Gears of War 4’s visual evolution. Windflares are an unexplained natural phenomenon that provide an excellent aesthetic and gameplay variance, another nuanced element introduced in Gears of War 4. In terms of its audio fidelity, Gears of War 4 is a great piece of work; the cancerous, cringe-worthy voice performed by John DiMaggio is fitting for the character of Marcus Fenix, but has always felt rather forced and one-dimensional. Marcus this time around has surprising moments of tranquility and exudes a rather impressive somber performance, a welcomed change to his typical grungy nature. However, Laura Bailey’s performance as Kait Diaz is an absolute show stealer as her insecurity for her mother’s safety exemplifies Laura’s talents immensely, resulting in some of her best work. Each exquisite performance is further proof to the fact that Gears of War 4 is undoubtedly the most personal and grounded experience in the series. Lastly, the sound effects of Gears of War have always been a highlight in the series and the Coalition’s effort is no exception. Weapons ring bombastically when fired, headshots emit that renowned pop-gushing resonance, and bodies exploding from a gnasher shotgun blast or explosive weapon still send an exquisite chill down your spine.
Gears of War has always been the king of the third person shooter, and Gears of War 4 proudly continues this legacy that was fostered a decade ago. Its core foundation has remained the same but has been tweaked ever so slightly to make this fourth main entry the most resound Gears of War experience to date. Maneuverability has been improved considerably; controlling JD is far less cumbersome as the signature roadie run is more responsive and the ability to quickly vault over cover and other obstacles is exceptionally useful. Combat whilst in cover has been given a slight overhaul as well; just like in Gears of War 3, you can vault-kick enemies on the other side of cover, leaving them stunned and vulnerable to a flashy knife execution. You can also grab the enemy whilst in cover and pull them over to your side to similar results for an extravagant execution. Aside from these minor changes, the core Gears of War gameplay experience is the same, which can be a good or bad thing based on your perception. Certain new weapons compliment the idiosyncratic nature of the Gears of War weaponry that we’ve come to love over the years. The Dropshot is a mining tool that deploys an aerial mine that floats along a straight line upon pressing down the trigger, and digs violently into the ground and detonates upon releasing the trigger. It’s in similar vein to Gears of War 3’s Digger, but requires a skilled sense of player response and interaction. Another excellent addition is the Overkill, which is an exceptionally powerful shotgun that fires once when the trigger is held and again upon its release, releasing immense concussive blasts when rapidly fired. Enemy variance has always been a strong suit of the Gears of War series and I’m happy to report that this remains true with Gears of War 4. While the main Swarm enemies are carbon copies of the Locust Drones you fight against in the original trilogy, certain enemies are profoundly innovative to the series and promote different approaches to ensure their demise. Pouncers are these grotesque frog-like creatures that violently fling quills at you and leap swiftly across the battlefield. Snatchers are capable of instantly incapacitating their target with a single quill, and “snatch” their target by dragging them into their stomach and eventually depositing them into a hive pod, a required process to create the Drone soldiers of the Swarm. Carriers are massive hulking creatures that are completely armored and are capable of spawning parasitic projectiles that home in on their target. Each new monstrous enemy is a force to be reckoned with and requires a different sense of strategy to defeat. The aforementioned Windflares also add a dynamic element to the traditional Gears gameplay, as the violently strong winds affect both projectiles and destructibility. You can use the environment to your advantage during a Windflare; shooting a wooden structure containing a bundle of large steel pipes will sporadically release them, causing them to flail across the environment and wipe out any enemy caught in its destructive path. Slow projectile weapons, such as the Buzzkill, will not follow their straight guided path due to the intensity of the wind, causing the blades to arc, so players must adjust to this change accordingly. Gears of War 4’s pacing bears rather archaic tendencies, refusing to properly evolve and evoking a stagnant design implementation. Its design structure follows a cookie-cutter layout that resembles the formulaic tendencies of the previous generation. Simply clearing a room full of enemies, proceeding to the next objective area and repeating the same firefight eventually becomes trite, and most gamers expect something more given the complexity and versatility of modern game design. Luckily its disappointing and repetitive structure is alleviated by excellent set pieces and certain gameplay changes that fluctuate the overall experience. Gears of War 4 houses some riveting escape sequences and set pieces, that may not necessarily reach the standards of the Uncharted series, but are breathtaking nonetheless. The final act, in particular, is impeccably designed and has one of the greatest gameplay segments in the entire Gears of War series. An element that prolongs the campaign’s rather short length is collectible discovery; finding certain documents and fallen COG tags throughout your journey disappointingly provides little to no weight to the narrative or character relationships, serving the sole purpose of longevity. However, these minute complaints do not detract from what is otherwise a great experience that lives up to the Gears of War brand. Gears of War 4 is filled to the brim with intense and brutal action, and while its repetitive and derivative nature leave more to be desired, its exhilarating set pieces and unique gameplay segments make up for its shortcomings. It is still the king of third person shooters.
An integral part of the Gears of War experience has always resided in its multiplayer and cooperative components. Gears of War’s multiplayer has always been an enjoyable experience that was marginally weighed down by some obscure design and balancing decisions and unfortunately those obtuse implementations are still present a decade later. For one, I strongly believe that there is a weapon balancing issue at play with Gears of War 4; lancers are practically useless at range or up close, while shotguns are so massively overpowered that everyone unanimously uses the gnasher for almost every scenario. In short, Gears of War 4’s multiplayer is one large shotgun-fest. Aside from the power weapons that are found in the map, using any other starter weapon is virtually useless. However, if you can’t beat them, then join them. Learning to accurately fire the gnasher from the hip, landing a one hit kill shotgun blast and watching your enemy’s splattered chunks decorate the currently occupied room is quite the gratifying sensation. My personal favourite entry in the series, Gears of War 3, had a little more variety when selecting a starter loadout. Unfortunately, the retro lancer is no longer a starting weapon and must be found in the map, and the sawed-off shotgun has been removed entirely, so my Gears of War 3 loadout was no longer viable and the realization was a little disheartening. Bizarrely enough, if you decide to play ranked versus, understand that there is no mid-game joining, so if someone on your team decides to pre-maturely quit, then the rest of the match is an uphill battle for your team. It’s rather obtuse and downright unfair that the whole team has to suffer because of the impotence of a rage quitter. Also there were many instances where the game would start with one team not having the full set of five players, creating an unfair disadvantage right from the get-go. All of this, however, is rectified if you play social versus, which allows mid-game joining and bot fill-ins for missing players. One aspect of Gears of War 4’s multiplayer that excels is its fantastic game modes. Alongside an excellently paced Team Deathmatch – with an elimination twist, once all lives have been depleted – Gears of War 4 also introduces Dodgeball and Arms Race, both of which are excellent modes that compliment an already excellent multiplayer suite. Dodgeball is an elimination style mode where each player has one life and the objective is to eliminate the enemy team. However, if you eliminate someone from the other team, it will bring back someone who has been eliminated on your team, creating an intense “back and forth” dynamic that never lets up. Arms Race is similar to Call of Duty’s Gun Game, where each team races to get 3 kills each with every weapon in a particular order. It’s remarkably intense and provides the most variety out of the selection of different game modes. Unfortunately, there is no traditional progression system with Gears of War 4; while there is an experience and leveling system, everything that you unlock is purely cosmetic and attained via randomized loot boxes. While its balancing issues may be frustrating, its addictive and gratifying nature, and excellent new game modes helped transcend Gears of War 4 into one of the best multiplayer games I’ve played all year.
Luckily, Gears of War 4’s entire campaign can be played cooperatively via two-player splitscreen or three players via online. It’s an exceptionally fun experience and it provides a nice challenge for those who decide to tackle the harder difficulties – it also doesn’t hurt that each player can govern their own difficulty level, without it affecting everyone else. However, the cream of the crop of the cooperative Gears of War 4 experience is the fantastic Horde 3.0. In this excellent tower defense and survival hybrid, players must build fortifications and survive 50 arduous waves of relentless Deebee and Swarm enemies. It’s absolutely brutal and requires a profound level of team cooperation and coordination, but it also provided the most fun that I’ve had with Gears of War 4. In Horde 3.0, enemies now drop ‘power’ which can be deposited into the fabricator, your mobile emplacement builder; from here, you spend this team-shared pool of ‘power’ on new fortifications, weapons, and to repair said fortifications. Resource management plays an integral role in your team’s success so communication is absolutely essential. Every tenth wave provides an additional challenge as it also spawns a boss, such as the Snatcher or Carrier, for your team to contend with, on top of the traditional Swarm and Deebee enemies. The Coalition have also introduced a fantastic class system for Horde 3.0 that enforces specialized roles and complements different play styles. Each class has a wide set of skill cards, with the classes’ corresponding ability and effectiveness on the battlefield purely depending on how you arrange and select your class’ skill cards. The scout class is excellent for retrieving power as they have skills that focus on receiving bonus power on top of the normal amount that is deposited into the fabricator and they can also be given a significant health increase, allowing them to scout for power and resources outside of your base of operations for a longer period of time. The engineer class if focused on building and repairing fortifications. Their skills are tailored towards cheaper costs for purchasing fortifications, increased health for specific fortifications such as barriers and sentries, and efficiently repairing fortifications using power. Skill cards can be upgraded for increased results when you have the required number of duplicates for said card. These skill cards, however, are purely attained via randomized loot boxes, hindering any traditional sense of progression. I would have preferred to have an upgrade system based on the specific card’s use and to unlock new cards based on the classes’ level, but unfortunately, randomized loot boxes seem to be the status quo. Even if one decides to use real money on these loot boxes, you’re essentially paying for a chance to get the gear or cards that you want. Aside from this minor setback in design, Horde 3.0 is one of the best cooperative experiences that modern gaming has to offer and it is the best reason to nab yourself a copy of Gears of War 4. It’s just a shame that the Coalition didn’t bring back Beast Mode as it was equally as good, if not better than Horde mode.
Many critics have compared the Coalitions first entry into the Gears of War series to The Force Awakens as they both pay homage to their beginnings but are still enjoyable experiences that, in a lot of ways, surpass their legacy. Upon completing the 8-10 hour experience, I would have to agree that it does bear a lot of resemblance to J.J Abrams’ reimagining of Star Wars, and this is high praise for Gears of War 4 as The Force Awakens was one of my favourite films of 2015. As is with The Force Awakens, Gears of War 4 passes down the torch to the next generation and begins a familiar new tale. It takes little to no risks, and that’s honestly okay. If you were expecting a revolutionary entry to the series, then you will unfortunately be disappointed, but if you are a Gears fan who simply wants more Gears of War, then this will be one of the best purchases of the year for you. Gears of War 4 is profound example on how to make a by the numbers sequel, but still have it be an engaging experience and one of the best exclusives on its home console. Its poor pacing is luckily rectified by some excellent set pieces and its final act is a pure love letter to the renowned series. While its campaign may be brief and lack the originality that some of you might’ve hoped for, its great multiplayer and astounding cooperative components will erase whatever bitter taste that’s left in your mouth.