Gears of War 4 takes place 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3. The world has been ravaged and is slowly recovering from the grip of war and the unstable power source called imulsion. The COG have reformed, but keep a close eye on their people in gathered colonies. You play as JD Fenix, the son of Marcus Fenix, who along with his friends Cait and Del must investigate an attempt by a new unknown enemy to take the people of your colony.
It’s a fairly typical Gears of War story – a conflict between humans and creatures, a hollow death or two and a cliff-hanger that leaves more questions than answers. It sounds like I might not have enjoyed Gears of War 4’s story at all, but on the contrary, I really did. Taking it for what it is and what it sets up, it kept me going through the game’s five acts and weirdly enough I want even more.
Gears of War 4 is a game that had a lot to prove coming off of Judgment, which was not as well received as the original three games were. It’s also from a team who has yet to provide us a Gears of War game, much like Judgment was. But that’s where the similarities end. Gears of War 4 is what you’d expect from a mainline Gears of War game, but it’s got a few new tricks up its sleeve to make it feel new yet familiar – whether it’s from a gameplay perspective or a narrative one.
Gears Of War has always been a cover based shooter, controlled from a third person perspective with fast and intense gunfights that almost force players to utilise cover whether it be a wall, a barricade or in more recent games a moving non hostile creature. There’s always been a place to cover in Gears of War, but 4 completely flips this on its head. Not only is cover essential, but moving from cover to cover is essential. The cleverly designed new enemies, new weapons and even shifting and constantly evolving arenas means that no one position in cover is viable anymore.
As an example – one of the areas in the game is comprised of chains in a dilapidated tower. The chains are constantly pulling and pushing so the makeup of the level you’re fighting in is changing constantly. Couple this with weapons that are designed to fire over and under cover and you’ve got a pretty intense, dynamically balanced battle. And while it sounds like it might be a tad overwhelming from time to time, Gears of War 4 isn’t. It feels fair. It feels right. And it feels like a marked improvement from the original trilogy of Gears of War games.
Such a design philosophy carries over to the enemies as well, who have been retuned to be much more aggressive in flushing you out from cover. Some even jump from cover to cover. While you can now pull enemies from cover and stab them in the face (in true Gears fashion, of course), your enemies can do exactly the same to you. They can sprint at you, stick you with a grenade. They can even jump over cover to stun you and kill you that way. The enemy AI is on the whole a lot more intelligent; as is the squad AI, who will almost always jump to your need efficiently in the heat of battle.
The big new inclusion in Gears of War 4 is the new weather effects, which add another layer to the game’s combat. Essentially an electrically charged cyclone, the windflares affect the way projectiles travel – whether thrown or launched – in battle. Movement is also affected – running against the wind will slow your speed while with it will heighten it. During these moments, players can also shoot certain objects in the environment free and watch them whirl violently through the air, cleaning up enemies (or players) they come into contact with.
Enemies you take down even get whisked into the air and eventually torn apart by the violent winds – a viscerally spectacular sight. Add to this the lethal electricity bolts (known as stormwalls) cascading throughout the arena and you’ve once again got the make-up of some pretty crazy and over the top battles. While these moments are a great way to create some pretty epic set pieces on-the-fly, sometimes they do feel a bit scripted. On repeat runs, certain enemies would almost always step in front of the same steel pipe I could shoot free. Regardless, both the windflares and stormwalls appear enough that they are fun but not so much that they become boring.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the wave defence segments which make their return from Judgment. While nowhere near as prevalent, they represent a disappointing lull in the pacing of the otherwise fantastic campaign. Horde mode is fine, but it’s a separate mode, don’t force it on players in the campaign. The developers presumably wanted everyone to see the Fabricator, a spiffy military grade 3D printer that can spit out weapons and fortifications. But seriously guys, the first three games were great without them, leave the wave defence modes to the Horde mode.
With a renewed focus on capturing the eSports market, Gears of War 4 also features a very comprehensive suite of multiplayer options. Whether you want to play against your friends or play with them, there’s an option for pretty much everyone in Gears of War 4. The competitive multiplayer mode runs at a much appreciated 60 frames per second, and feature the fairly standard range of game modes. But on top of this are some pretty fun modes which were great in the beta but even better here – Dodgeball is a match of attrition where the team gains a fallen member back for every kill.
But the newer modes I didn’t know much about prior to release are also fantastically realised concepts. Arms Race requires your team to get a certain number of kills with each of the game’s weapons – rotating them for the entire team every three kills. It’s a great way to step out of your comfort zone and not just stick to the same weapons. Escalation is apparently geared more for eSports viewers – and given the way the action crescendos it’s totally easy to see why. I couldn’t get a round of this mode during our time with the game pre-release but I can’t wait to jump back in.
Horde mode also makes a return after it’s noted absence in Judgment. All the bells and whistles are here – Horde can be played on every multiplayer map and it’s still approachable with up to five people against fifty waves of progressively difficult enemies. But the new Horde mode has two new additions; the Fabricator and character classes. The Fabricator is powered by “power” which is picked up from fallen enemies. Using this power, it’s possible to build fortifications and buy new weapons to take on the relentless horde of enemies. Fallen players also drop their power for other players to pick up, so even if a team member is crap they can still help after a death. The new system is, once again, a great way to make the battle more active and encourage jumping from cover to cover rather than static camping.
Some of the newer additions are sure to be controversial. First off, there is now a class system which lets players select a weapon loadout in order to fit a certain role in the team attacking the horde. It’s a great idea and definitely one that encourages a greater thought about the synergy of your team, but some might not appreciate the lack of freedom. But as with almost every major Microsoft release, there’s a brand new Gear and Cards system. Cards give buffs or cosmetic upgrades during Horde and while we couldn’t just yet we’re almost certain can also be purchased with real money. It’s, once again, a reasonable trade-off against paying for maps, but something that should be mentioned.
In terms of presentation, Gears of War 4 is visually quite spectacular. As we touched upon before, the windflares and stormwalls lend themselves to creating some pretty incredible set pieces. But there’s other great locales and an especially foreboding atmosphere in the game’s campaign. It’s definitely a step above the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition but at the same time quite subdued. There’s nothing as decoratively intricate as the locust buildings in Gears of War 2 and 3 but we’re sure The Coalition is keeping those more outlandish designs for later games. The sound design is just as gruesome as you remember – bone cracks, blood flows and guns boom with a level of authenticity that’ll make you wince. The soundtrack is similarly well , sounding familiar yet foreign especially during battles.
Gears of War 4 represents the next level of classic Gears of War gameplay. All of the hallmarks are there – you’ve got an epic battle against an unknown threat, some absolutely gruesome weapons and a combat game entirely designed around moving in and out of cover. But what Gears of War 4 gets entirely right is moving this gameplay in a different direction – cover is no longer a lazy crutch – and the way that Gears of War 4 is designed is in a way that keeps players moving from cover to cover. New and almost gravity-defying weapons, more aggressive enemy intelligence and dynamic environments in windflares and constantly shifting cover spots keeps Gears of War 4’s classic combat fast and fresh.
Although there are perhaps a few things that Gears of War 4 does that’s narratively almost too safe. For starters, it’s clearly setting up a new trilogy of events with the advent of the Swarm enemy, but in the process it perhaps steps a little bit too close to the original game’s storyline. There’s no discernible villain figure, everything is really just being set up and the cliffhanger ending is going to leave everyone wanting more. But these are all minor issues in an otherwise very exhaustive and complete package and a truly worthy successor to Gears of War 3.