Gears of War 4 Review – Just Another COG In The Machine?

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Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft
Singleplayer: Yes

The original Gears of War was paramount in my decision to get an Xbox 360 way back in 2006. Coming from a Playstation 2 I was facing a choice between continuing with Sony and their new PS3, or jumping ship to Microsoft’s Xbox 360. Money was tight, so both wasn’t an option. Of course Gears of War wasn’t the sole factor in my decision to go with the Xbox 360, but it was a very large part of it. I can’t remember how many videos I watched of it, or reviews I read. Regardless, I became enthralled with Epic’s cover-based, horror shooter. Skip ahead a full ten years and we’re on to our fifth game in the series, and a new developer.

Being a developer taking the reigns for any big series cannot be easy. 343 Industries are a prime example, having taken on the Halo franchise. With this new power comes a hard decision to make: do you stick closely to the original template to sate fans but risk derision for a lack of innovation, or do you attempt to radically alter the tried and tested formula, potentially angering the existing fanbase who just wanted more of the same? In this case the Coalition have opted to do both, creating in the process a handing of the torch, so to speak.

Gears 4 picks up some 25 years after Gears of War 3, and follows one J.D. Fenix, son of everyone’s favorite grizzled badass Marcus Fenix. Accompanying the blonde-haired J.D. is his best friend Dell and outsider Kait. Having served with the COG previously Gears of War 4 picks up six months after J.D. and Dell have abandoned the COG forces and are now working with the outsiders, groups of people who refuse to live in the COGs designated towns. In other words although it isn’t stated outright in Gears 4 the COG have perhaps become a little too big for their boots.

It’s a beautifully paced, intense, fun campaign that sadly trips at the final hurdle, delivering a crap ending that so focused on setting up the new trilogy that it forgets to give us a satisfying finale. The last level is quite fun but then you run into a dull boss that’s beaten far too easily, which is followed up by a very brief sequence that riffs too heavily on a moment from Gears of War 2 and then…it just ends. There’s no suitable build-up, it happens far, far too quickly and it simply falls flat. Hell, by the time I’d reached this point in the campaign I honestly thought it was ramping up nicely and that there was going to be at least another couple of hours to go. It’s sloppy writing, to say the least. It also points to a problem with length. I’m not opposed to games being short if it feels right, but in the case of Gears of War 4 the runtime of around 6-hours didn’t feel correct at all.

But hey, the rest of the narrative is quite, if basic, amounting to two rescue missions across the six hours or so of gameplay. While the previous games had an attitude that could only be described as “bro-dude” which created a strangely compelling aura of cheesiness Coalition have attempted to shift Gears 4’s J.D. toward the realms of Nathan Drake. He and Dell are much more about quipping than being grizzled hard-asses forged in the flames of war. And to be completely honest, I sort of miss the tone of the original games. They were incredibly cheesy and so pumped up on testosterone that even the Hulk would take a step back, but it worked. Gears of War was all about the bombast mixed in with some surprisingly touching moments, even if they were handled with all the tact of a toddler have a tantrum because you wouldn’t let them stick their fingers in a socket. Compared to them J.D., Dell and Kait are quite different. I liked them, and yet something is missing. They aren’t as funny as the writers seem to think, and the quippy dialogue feels like it’s trying too hard, whereas Marcus, Dom, Cole and Damon’s banter felt natural. With that said this new team does have good chemistry and I’m comparing them to a group that I spent three games with.

Now we enter minor spoiler territory. I say minor because this was shown in the trailers, and the only reason I want to talk about it is to bring up a little bit of meta-commentary going on, or at least what I perceive to be meta-commentary. Still, if you want to avoid any sort of spoilers whatsoever, no matter how predictable it might be, skip to the next paragraph. Still here? Okay then. Unsurprisingly Marcus Fenix joins the crew fairly early on in the journey, and he’s gruffer than ever, now with an added layer of surliness. Putting aside the sheer pleasure of seeing the iconic soldier back his presence creates an interesting dialogue on the new Gears vs the old. There’s a rift between Marcus and J.D., you see, one that mirrors the bad relationship between Marcus and his father. What this creates is an interesting commentary that can be viewed as the new Gears of War (J.D.) vying for the approval of the old guard. It’s also a very clear  signal of intent from Coalition, indicating that while they want to appease the old fans they do very much intend on passing the torch.

This is still a gears of War game and that means incredibly tight cover mechanics, active reloads and fun firefights. Not too much has been tweaked here, leaving the basics intact.  Tapping A will still slam you into cover with much more grace than J.D.’s big frame would imply, nailing an active reload still brings a smirk to your face and chainsawing a foe to death is still freaking awesome. But that isn’t to say Coalition haven’t add a few things here and there. Take the new cover-based combat mechanics, for instance; now you can reach over cover and grab anybody on the other side, hauling them over for an execution unless they counter it. This is fun in the singleplayer, but is much more interesting in the multiplayer. There’s also new weapons, like one that launches richocheting blades of death or a shotgun that fires when you pull the trigger and again when you release the trigger. It’s small changes, but to be honest I didn’t find myself caring because I was too busy slipping back into the sleek combat.

There’s been a lot of cover-based shooters over the year. It’s become a staple of the gaming industry, and yet somehow despite it being some ten years since the first Gears of War chainsawed its way onto store shelves nobody does it better.

As for the enemy, it’s a case of what’s old is new again as the writers have found a way of bringing back the Locust horde, albeit in modified form thanks to some shenanigans involving that old standby Imulsion. Now they’re a bunch of tentacle monsters named the Swarm that look like they’ve been ripped out of some hentai movie. Don’t worry, though, while you may be facing off against standard grubs in slightly different garb there’s quite a few new enemy types as well, like a leaping beast that shots quills and shambling ape-things that launch living missiles from chests, and not one of them is going to try to insert their tentacles in anyone’s nether regions. Hentai can be scary, people. There’s quite a bit of emphasis on foes that force you out of cover, too, mixing in with the regular grunts to create some great scenarios where you’re forced out of your hidey-hold and straight into a barrage of enemy gunfire. And then there’s the new Scions who are big lads wielding equally big weapons, but more importantly they can also buff their friends, making them harder to kill. Naturally that makes Scions an immediate threat worth focusing on first.

There’s also robotic COG foes who get dropped off in cool pods before trying to introduce your face to heavy metal. They’ll be your fodder for the first while and frankly just aren’t as interesting to fight as the Swarm. Still, with both them and the Swarm in play there’s quite a lot of enemy variety to be found here.

Frankly the harder challenge is just making sure you don’t constantly get distracted by how damn good Gears of War 4 looks. This is a beautiful game with amazing lighting and a good eye for environmental design, capturing some of the classic gloominess from the first game and mixing it with the more vibrant palette of Gears of War 3. Everywhere you look there’s something awesome to cast your eye on, and the level of detail is impressive.

The campaign follows the traditional pace of the previous games, so it’s a case of moving from area to area, clearing out the enemies and occasionally enjoying a few moments of slower movement where exposition gets delivered. Excellent pacing serves to keep the entertainment flowing as you move from fun battle to fun battle, whether it’s the simple joys of a nice arena and a good enemy mix or one of the more intense set piece moments. Speaking of which there are a number of sequences where you fight through an epic storm that ravages the planet’s surface. Insane winds will whisk grenades and other projectiles away, while lightening creates a moving obstacle course. It’s an expertly judged thrill-ride that’s only let-down by that sloppy ending.

Well, maybe one thing. Possibly two things. I’m quite torn on a few segments where horde mode suddenly gets introduced into the game, asking players to defend against waves of enemies. You’ll be given a fabricator that can generate defenses like turrets in order to prepare yourself for the oncoming onslaught. The fabricator feels like something jammed into the campaign solely to then cram Horde moments into campaign as well, and so while I did enjoy these segment their presence is ultimately jarring.

If the campaign attempts to pass the torch the multiplayer refuses to hand it over at all, sticking squarely to its chainsaws and Gnasher shotguns. This is still the mad, barmy game of bouncing from cover to cover like some sort of possessed pinball that’s managed to grow hands with which to wield a shotgun. A couple of new modes do help spruce things up quite a bit, however, starting with Dodgeball. Despite its name there are no balls being tossed about, rather the name comes from the idea that in dodgeball if you catch the ball an eliminated player can reenter the game. In other words in Dodgeball every time you kill one of the five enemy team members one of your own eliminated crew can get back into the fight. This creates some great comeback moments when the last member of a team manages to kill a few enemy in quick succession, evening out the odds.  The other mode is Arms Race which riffs off of the Call of Duty mode wherein getting X amount of kills with a weapon moves you on to the next gun. Here the idea is that everytime three kills is achieved the entire team is shifted over to a new gun at the same time. It’s an intriguing idea, but its also highly annoying. Lining up a shot with a sniper rifle only to jump over to a shotgun just as you pull the trigger is hardly fun. Escalation makes up for this mistake by introducing a simple mode where you battle for control of three zones. Each zone will gather points for the team that holds it, but the kicker is that if all three zones get captured by the same team it’s game over. This provides a good emphasis on teamwork, especially since zones are near spawns, making getting that final area under control difficult.

There’s also now a Competitive multiplayer list  that tones down weapon damage and removes auto-aim. Aimed at the more player who considers themselves more elite it’s quite enjoyable, although personally I didn’t find myself spending much time with it.

We finish up with an expanded Horde mode, which is fitting since the Gears series popularized the idea, even if it didn’t create it. Coalition have built on the foundation laid by Gears 3 and Gears of War: Judgement, expanding on the classes by giving them skills in the form of cards that can be bought via real money (boooooo!) or earned in-game. The more you play with a class the more cards you can equip, and that’s important because they can really, really increase your abilities. A sniper can massively boost headshot damage, for example, and Scouts can nearly double their health. Using the fabricator and power gathered from the corpses of fallen foes you create defenses and deploy them, setting up shop where you think is best on the map, which means one map can actually feel quite different depending on where you dump the fabricator. Toss in a bunch of modifiers that do things like making you kill enemies in a certain amount of time and you’ve got the recipe for something truly special. Horde was already addictive, and this just ups the ante.

Although it’s something of a copout opinion it has to be said nevertheless; if you love Gears then you’re going to love Gears of War 4. However, if you weren’t a fan of the series this may actually be enough to sway you thanks to the lack of dudeness. Of course if you found that dudeness strangely endearing J.D. Fenix and chums may not be as fun as Marcus and his cohorts.

Does Gears of War 4 manage to match that awesome moment when you chainsaw a Locus in half for the first time in the original Gears of War? No. It’s a pretty safe sequel which is hardly surprising. Coalition have been handed the reigns to one of Microsoft’s biggest selling points and they clearly didn’t want to upset the ‘ol applecart. Still, what they have done is taken an already superb formula, polished it a bit and then tossed in a couple of little things here and there, like some fun new multiplayer modes and an improved Horde mode.

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