This Gears of War 4 review contains minor spoilers.
Release Date: October 11, 2016Platform: XBO (reviewed), PCDeveloper: The CoalitionPublisher: Microsoft StudiosGenre: Third-person Shooter
Gears of War 4‘s main ingredient is nostalgia. From the opening prologue, which not only introduces newcomers to the series’ combat mechanics but also revisits much of Sera’s war-torn history, it’s apparent that the game will spend a lot of time looking back. Developer The Coalition isn’t as concerned with reinventing the wheel or creating something fresh for Gears of War 4 as it is returning the franchise to its roots. Gears of War 4 does a commendable job of celebrating the original’s dark tone and sense of mystery, and it’s absolutely a worthy sequel in terms of the gameplay, which is more refined and fun than ever. I just wish this new era of Gears didn’t feel so completely familiar as a result.
If I had to compare Gears of War 4 to another highly-anticipated sequel, it would have to be Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was tasked with both continuing a 30-year-old story and reminding viewers why the original Star Wars was so spectacular. And like The Force Awakens, Gears of War 4 is almost nostalgic to a fault. This is most evident in the game’s narrative, which deals in familiar story beats from the original – there’s a monstrous new species attacking the people of Sera and a group of heroes must figure out how to stop them in the span of a few hours. Along the way, the heroes lose some friends and gain others, all while shooting down monsters above and below ground.
Of course, narrative has never been a particular strong suit for Gears of War, which has always been more about the big action setpieces and cover-based firefights, but The Coalition tries very hard to make its new story and characters compelling. In fact, the story is much more intimate than in past installments. The new heroes aren’t exactly soldiers in the typical sense, even if they prove to be capable warriors, and the factions aren’t so pronounced. The story isn’t as simple as COG vs. Locust/Lambent. Main characters J.D., Kait, and Del are 25 years removed from all of that, and therefore what motivates them and sets them on their adventure is a bit different from what we’ve seen before. Where we start with these characters is completely unexpected, although they slowly inch closer to more familiar conflicts as the story proceeds.
As characters, J.D., Kait, and Del are interesting, although the team lacks a particular standout character reminiscent of Cole or Baird. The Coalition doesn’t quite flesh the new characters out as much as hint at their backstories – which I won’t spoil here. J.D. is lightyears ahead of his father, former series protagonist Marcus Fenix, in terms of charisma. He’s not a grunting meathead, and even has a bit of a sense of humor. Watching J.D. interact with his dad is particularly hilarious, and might remind some older fans of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Of course, having Marcus in the game slightly distracts from J.D.’s story, which is almost completely overshadowed by his much more recognizable dad. I wouldn’t call J.D. the heart of Gears 4.
That’s a position largely held by Kait, whose search for a loved one – along with the appearance of a new enemy faction known as the Swarm – really drives the game’s narrative. Everything the team does in the story is largely in service of her personal mission. It works well, although it’s still ultimately reminiscent of Marcus’ search for his own father in Gears 3.
The Swarm is a formidable “new” faction that will immediately remind you of the Locust in almost every single way, down to appearance, although The Coalition finds ways to introduce some differences. In general, the Juvie and Drone enemies are pretty much the same as their Locust counterparts, with a couple of variations in weapons. Pouncers, Carriers, and especially Snatchers are much more interesting. The appearance of Snatchers in later firefights really mixes up the way you approach setpieces and involves a ton of teamwork. Overall, Gears 4 lacks the extensive enemy variety of Gears 3, which included many unique Locust and Lambent enemies.
J.D. and his crew also spend an early chunk of the game fighting security droids known as the DeeBees, which are infinitely less interesting than the familiar Swarm enemies. While fun to shoot at first, their setpieces get a bit repetitive as you progress. They’ll make you wish for the much more vicious Swarm, which take way too long to finally show up in the game.
I can’t really lodge any complaints at the gameplay, which perfectly captures the essence of what makes Gears‘ trademark cover-based action so great. IT’S JUST SO MUCH FUN to carry a Lancer again, as I saw my way through enemies from stage to stage. While the weapons have largely remained the same, there are some new additions, like the wonderful Buzzkill, which shoots buzzsaws at enemies. It’s a particularly gruesome killing machine. There’s also the Dropshot, which is death disguised as a construction tool. It shoots aerial mines that travel to your target as long as you hold down the trigger. There’s a lot of variety in terms of weaponry for those looking to experiment, although I still prefer the Lancer and Gnasher combo. Don’t worry, there are also Torque Bows.
The cover system is as responsive as ever, and quickly switching from barrier to barrier is still a vital part of surviving any firefight. The Coalition has even added some new ways to slay your enemies while in cover. Players can grab enemies from the other side of a barrier and quickly execute them, or vault kick them out of cover with the press of a button. These new mechanics make firefights a bit more fluid and fast-paced. Along with the addition of Snatchers and environmental hazards such as windflares, Gears 4 demands that you do more than take cover and shoot in its best moments.
I do wish Gears 4 had offered a few more quiet moments in the campaign as an opportunity to really showcase the game’s creepy locations. The Coalition is almost relentless when it comes to firefights at points, not allowing the player to take a breath. At times it seemed like every new room triggered another fight, which not only made the game lose a bit of its element of surprise but also prevented it from ever being as scary as it could be. That said, there are moments during the early Swarm levels that are truly spine-tingling, and exploring their caverns provide some particularly grotesque visuals. In fact, the third act of Gears of War 4 is one of the best collections of stages in the entire franchise.
Of course, Gears of War isn’t just about the campaign mode. Versus Multiplayer and Horde modes return for this installment. Unfortunately, I haven’t spent enough time with these modes to really evaluate them fairly. When the servers are up and running later this week, I’ll update this review with my thoughts on the online modes.
So far, Gears of War 4 is a worthy new installment in the franchise. While it’s not quite innovative and doesn’t take the risk of ushering in any revolutionary changes to the gameplay or story, it’s still a lot of fun – which is most important. Chainsawing through your enemies with J.D., Kait, and Del is as enjoyable as it ever was with Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird. I think The Coalition really focused on making sure their first entry in the series truly felt like a Gears game, and they passed the test with flying colors/dismembered limbs. The studio has definitely shown that it can make a good Gears game. Now it’s time to make the franchise their own.