Gears of War 4 Developer: The Coalition Available On: Xbox One, PC
The Gears of War franchise has always held a special place in my heart. It features iconic characters, intense action, addictive multiplayer modes, and a compelling (if not cheesy) story. And while those features have kept gamers coming back for nearly a decade, there’s another hallmark of the series that has brought me back again and again, the couch co-op.
My wife is a casual gamer, and by that I don’t mean that she only plays games like Candy Crush or Angry Birds, I only mean that there aren’t a great number of games that she spends a considerable amount of time with on consoles. There’s Ratchet and Clank, Left 4 Dead, the Super Mario series, and probably a handful of others. But near the top of that list is the Gears of War series which we have played through cooperatively since the beginning (even the sub par Gears of War: Judgement). So when Gears of War 4 arrived I was not only excited to get back into this world and see how new developer The Coalition handled things, I was excited for another game that I could sit down and play through with my wife.
Gears 4 picks up 25 years after the climactic events of the previous game, and after a prelude that serves as a history lesson for those that may not recall the events of the original trilogy, puts players in the shoes of J.D. Fenix. If the name rings a bell it’s because J.D. is the son of legendary war hero (and original protagonist) Marcus Fenix. Like his father, J.D. served as a COG under the newly formed government before deciding to abandon his post along with his friend Del and live among the Outsiders, a group of survivors who have chosen to live life outside of the massive walled off cities built by the new government. There, along with new friend Kait, they survive by raiding COG territories to gather food and resources.
The main arc of the story revolves around the mysterious disappearances of citizens which the COG blames on the Outsiders, but after the Outsiders camp is also attacked it becomes clear that a new, darker threat is behind the disappearances. J.D., along with his friends decide that they must seek out the help of his estranged father to uncover the mysteries behind this new threat and attempt to rescue those who have been taken. While the story might not win any awards, it’s filled with an intriguing plot, fun characters, and a mystery that kept me invested until the end.
Gears 4 is a textbook example of the right way to create a sequel to an established series. It both honors the original title by refining and polishing the mechanics that made those games so great, while also introducing enough new elements that it doesn’t just feel like a recycling of old ideas.You’ll still be snapping into cover, performing active reloads, and chainsawing fools in half (they even kept the same guitar sound when a battle ends). But they’ve also added a few fun new weapons like the Buzzkill (which launches a barrage of saw blades at enemies), the Dropshot (shoots an aerial mine that explodes when you release the trigger), and the Overkill (a 4 barrelled shotgun) to add some new variety to the combat.
There are also plenty of new enemy types to keep you on your toes throughout the campaign. The Swarm are a new but somewhat familiar enemy that behave similarly to the Locust from previous games, but the real surprise to me were the DeeBees. They’re a new robot enemy type which come in 4 varieties. The Shepard and DR-1 are your more standard soldier types, while the Guardians are flying drones that can erect an energy shield for protection, and the Trackers which are essentially round land mines that roll towards you and explode when they get up close. The DeeBees also behave differently in that they are more likely to come at you directly (Terminator-style) without regard for taking cover or getting shot. It’s a nice variety of enemies that keep the battles interesting.
Another thing that I really appreciated about this new game is the return to the horror elements of the first game. While there are still plenty of the AAA set piece moments and massive explosions that you’ve come to know and love, they’re balanced by plenty of quieter, darker and creepier moments that the series seemed to get away from in later games. While I wouldn’t call the game outright scary, it might send a chill or two up your spine.
Visually the game is also quite attractive. Although it’s less impressive when in splitscreen mode (which is how I played primarily), when you aren’t sharing your screen it is quite a looker. From the rays of moonlight and dark shadows of the night levels, to the sparks that fly as your Lancer slices through a DeeBee, the game is full of graphical touches that make it stand out. There are also some fantastic weather effects as Sera is now afflicted my massive storms called Windflares which wreak havoc on the planet. When a storm hits, dust can affect your visibility and lightning strikes provide a considerable threat. The weather can also work to your advantage though as you can shoot loose explosive barrels and other materials that the wind can pick up and blow into your enemies.
After the 10 or so hours it takes to complete, the Gears of War 4’s campaign is pretty much exactly what I had wanted and hoped it would be. A familiar but fresh new look into a world that I’ve loved for years that both continues the story that began a decade ago, but also stands on it’s own as the beginning of a new saga. Tight mechanics, interesting enemies, and a compelling story all add up to a fantastic entry in the series and proof that under The Coalition, the franchise is in very good hands.
The other side of the Gears coin is the multiplayer modes. For many people, this is what Gears of War is all about and it’s what will keep people coming back to the game for months on end. The Versus Multiplayer features familiar modes such as Warzone and Team Deathmatch, but they’ve added a couple of interesting new ones to give people a new way to play. Arms Race starts each team with the same weapon and when one team reaches a certain number of kills they move on to the next weapon to use. It’s a fun twist that allows players to get to know some of the weapons they might not normally use on a level playing field.
Dodgeball is another new mode that takes the classic gym class game we all dreaded (maybe that’s just me) and replaces the pink rubbery balls with assault rifles with chainsaws attached to them. The matches play out similarly to a regular team game but when players make a kill they are allowed to bring one teammate back from the dead. I have a feeling the PTA would not approve of this change. Personally Versus Multiplayer has never been a big draw for me, I understand what draws people to it and I think that this is incredibly well done, but it’s just not my thing. My time spent with Versus was definitely fun, but it reinforced what I already knew, and that is that I completely suck at competitive multiplayer.
Horde 3.0 on the other hand is more my speed and I had a fantastic time with it. It takes the familiar gameplay of surviving waves of enemies that Gears pioneered and adds a few new upgrades. You now have a mobile fabricator that you can position wherever you like on the map. This serves as your base where you can purchase weapons and defenses using the power you gather from fallen enemies, you can also grab the dogtags of a dead teammate and bring it there to revive them. They’ve also added different classes for you to choose to add perks to your fighter and card packs to earn that give you things like XP boosts and new skins for your weapons and avatar. It’s a nice upgrade to an already fantastic game mode that will bring a ton of replay to a game already chalk full of ways to play.
I should also mention that this is another game in Xbox’s Play Anywhere initiative meaning that you get the Windows 10 version when you purchase the Xbox One edition and all modes are cross play between PC and Xbox. While some may cry that this new policy means the Xbox doesn’t have anymore “true exclusives”, I love that it opens the game to a bigger audience and hopefully ensures that the multiplayer audience will remain active for a long time.
Gears of War 4 really is just about everything you could want in a sequel. The campaign is satisfying and feels aimed at both new players and veterans alike, the versus mode is jam packed with different modes and maps, and Horde 3.0 is the icing on the cake that will keep me coming back. While a few tiny hiccups like an abrupt & lackluster ending were a bummer, I’m excited to see where The Coalition takes us next and I have every faith that this new chapter will go down as a classic just like the originals.
Oh….. and my wife thought it was awesome too.