Gears of War 4 on Xbox One
Gears of War 4 is the rare opportunity to start anew in a long-running chronicle, putting no small weight on developer The Coalition. With a critically acclaimed lineage behind it, Gears 4 not only marks the series’ first chapter in a new saga, but the first time that a new title in the franchise was handled solely by a team other than Epic Games. Despite the tall expectations laid out by fans and its predecessors, I’m delighted to say that Gears of War 4 is a fresh, yet familiar step for our new band of heroes.
Set 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, with the Locust threat finally put to rest, Gears 4 bids farewell to the larger than life characters of Delta Squad and introduces players to a new team. J.D. Fenix (son of the legendary Marcus), is accompanied by Del, Kait, and Oscar as they track down and investigate a series of disappearances from a settlement far from the capital cities of the supernational global alliance known as COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments). Right out of the door there’s a sense of tension between the COG and these Outsiders, with a new threat – the Swarm – rising between these factions.
Compared to the Delta squad, this new group of combatants is fresh-faced and not quite prepared for a threat against humanity. In turn, they are more emotionally varied and open. That’s not to say that Gears of War 4 has lost a drop of the sarcastic quips and banter among the team. Oscar and J.D. will still pass comment on each other’s ideas much like that of Baird and Marcus, and Kait and Del aren’t afraid to put J.D. on blast for saying “All clear” when past experience has proven that it’s anything but.
The differences between the now senior Delta squad and J.D’s team are further accentuated with Marcus’ cameo. His comments are short and to the point; when you’re down, his grumbles as he heads over to pick you up are a stark contrast to the supportive lines of your other comrades. While Delta squad were certainly lovable, their emotions seemed limited to angry, sarcastic, or very occasionally, angry sad. However, there’s often times in Gears of War 4 where The Coalition allows players a greater insight into the pasts of its new members, concurrently putting them in more emotionally vulnerable moments.
It’s not just the stars of the show that have changed in Gears of War 4. Following the years of Imulsion damage and emergence holes, the planet of Sera is in a state of slow repair and oft suffering from Windflares, huge storms that affect projectiles, people, and the environment. Thanks to their powerful winds and fatal lightning strikes, your visibility and maneuverability are greatly limited at times, creating some of the more tactically demanding scenarios you’ll encounter. Navigating the environment is often a slow and more cumbersome affair, blowing you off course making every step a palpable battle against the forces of nature. Weapons such as the new Buzzkill or your trusty frag grenades will be no use during a Windflare. In fact, your projectiles are more likely to get blown back and kill you rather than your enemies.
That doesn’t mean Windflares are necessarily a complete hindrance. With a small push from your weapon, nearby environmental elements can comically clear out the battlefield. Although, while it’s plenty fun watching a couple of huge steel pipes do the work for you, it doesn’t quite match up to the Gears 4 combat.
Gears of War has always been about adrenaline-pumping, gruesome third-person action, and Gears 4 keeps this close to heart. Whether you’re battling either of the new enemy types – the DeeBee robots or the monstrous Swarm – you’ll find yourself smiling maniacally as your Gnasher Shotgun tears an enemy’s head clean off, or your chainsaw bayonet makes light work of a torso. Weapons are still incredibly satisfying to use, and trying out each one is a treat.
However, it’s actually the enemy AI that is Gears 4’s most notable improvement over Delta squad’s adventures, with the DeeBees and the Swarm a lot more clued in than the Locusts were. DeeBees will use their sheer damage resistance and numbers to march toward and outnumber you up close, whereas the Swarm utilize cover and move around to find the best angle from which to take you down. And if they can’t get you from cover, they aren’t afraid of some close quarters combat, sneaking up on you when you’re distracted and unloading a shotgun to quickly drop you. And that’s just the Swarm Drones! Juvies, the Wretch-like creatures of the Swarm, leap over obstacles in such an unpredictable manner that a wave of them can quickly become overwhelming. There’s a number of other enemy types, each with their distinct traits, strengths, and weaknesses, and it’s these different styles of combat that helps Gears of War 4’s gameplay stay fresh throughout the 8-10 hour adventure.
You’ll be pleased to know that Gears 4 lives up to the series’ fondness for huge set pieces and particularly memorable moments. But for every new memory, an old one shows face. The Coalition has taken the time to consider the story so far, and how Delta squad’s actions, as well as the relationships between human factions, may affect the fight that lies in store for J.D, Kait, Del and the rest of humanity. Deliberate and intricate details placed throughout preserve the series’ rich history without feeling out of place or tacked on.
That said, admittedly I was a little disappointed when I came to the campaign’s conclusion. The final fight felt a little too easy and spelled out in terms of what was required of players mechanically. In its outstanding closing cutscenes, however, Gears of War 4 perfectly encapsulates the team’s ethos and marks a solid end to the first chapter of this new saga. It’s one thing to introduce likable characters to a series of Gears’ stature, but creating ones that stand toe to toe their predecessors is an impressive feat.
To keep players entertained once the story is over, Gears 4 brings the return of Horde mode, a 50-wave onslaught now featuring a number of improvements, additions, and refinements. The Coalition has spiced up the challenge, and Horde 3.0 provides a more intense and in-depth co-operative experience than before. They’re not going to leave you completely high and dry, though. To help you fend off the waves of DeeBees and Swarm is a huge console known as The Fabricator.
Your Fabricator serves as a base and a vital 3D printer. Here you’ll spend Power earned from downed enemies to build all manner of helpful items, such as automated turrets, barriers, and decoys. Strategically placing these, as well as the Fabricator itself, is incredibly important. Leaving a vulnerability in your defenses will soon lead to your demise.
Every 10 waves, players will have to survive a Boss Wave which pits teams against the toughest enemies that both enemy factions have to offer. Some of the most entertaining moments in Gears 4’s Horde, these are where all of that Power you’ve accumulated, all of the defenses you’ve placed, and any tactics your team has schemed all (hopefully) pay off. If you do manage to make it through several Pouncers and a giant DeeBee warship, it starts all over again, but with your enemies benefiting from buffs that increase their numbers, health, and damage output.
One of Horde’s biggest changes is its five classes, ranging from an Engineer with the ability to repair your defenses, to a Heavy focused on dealing huge damage to the enemy forces. While these archetypes certainly change Horde up from previous times around, most of them – excluding the aforementioned Engineer and the Scout who can pick up Double Energy during combat – felt too similar in terms of their significance to the team. In fact, their passive abilities, a slot typically used to fundamentally define the class, are simply the different weapons they start with. Considering you can pick weapons up off the floor or purchase news ones from the Fabricator at any point, it’s difficult to sell these three classes’ unique benefits. They may alter the way the first few waves play out, but when it all gets hectic, many will have long abandoned their starting weapons and wish they had opted for the Engineer or Scout classes and their more useful abilities. A class system works in some games, but it doesn’t feel like the right fit for Horde.
Each class also has a set number of Skills which you’ll unlock through Skill Cards found in Gear Packs. You’ve only got a limited number of slots for Skill Cards, so ensuring you pick the ones that compliment your style of play and those of your teammates is important when taking on the tougher rounds.
Despite the lackluster classes, if you get a group of friends together, Horde 3.0 is just as fun as ever. Building fortifications in perfect places, ensuring they don’t get destroyed, and taking down enemy forces makes for one lively experience, and one you’ll burn through hours at a time.
Rounding off the Gears of War 4 experience are the three modes of Versus multiplayer – Dodgeball, Arms Race, and Escalation. Dodgeball adopts the same kind of rules as the sport: you die, you’re out; if an ally takes down an enemy, they can bring you back in. This results in hectic flip-flopping of matches and the mode is one I can see becoming a fan favorite. Arms Race, on the other hand, is essentially Call of Duty’s Gun Game brought to the Gears of War world. When your team reaches three kills, the game will automatically put a new weapon in your hands and task you with grabbing another three. Victory goes to the first team to get three kills with all of the different weapons.
Escalation is The Coalition’s game mode for competitive play. There are three rings on the map that award its controlling team with points. The first team to 210 points wins the round, and first to win seven rounds wins the match. The twist in the tail comes at the end of each round. The highest scoring player on the losing team gets to place a power weapon of their choice at a certain position on the map and forcing a choice. Do you go for the rings to get more points, or pick up the weapon and have more stopping power to take and defend them?
At the halfway point, the ring positions are moved and the power weapons are wiped from the map, ensuring the same tactics can’t be used to dominate an entire match. Out of all of the modes I played, Escalation was possibly my favorite and will most likely be the one that players spend most of their time in thanks to its potential to rack up huge scores and XP.
In order to keep you coming back, Gears 4 adopts the Re-Up system from its predecessor. Players will climb up 100 levels before Re-Up’ing to earn some unique rewards and starting again. You can Re-Up 10 times, and each time you’ll get better and rarer rewards for doing so. It’s a tried and tested formula for retaining a healthy player base, and one that’s likely to work well with the help of Bounties, which challenge you to complete additional multiplayer objectives in exchange for bonus XP. Again, a familiar mechanic considering Call of Duty’s ‘Challenges,’ but one that will help the slog of reaching level 100 feel far less daunting.
From the time I spent with the Versus multiplayer, Gears 4 was a smooth and enjoyable experience. Though performance may vary upon release, I didn’t come across any substantial lag or hiccups, and twitch response times certainly felt improved over even Gears of War: Ultimate Edition from last year. This all in part comes down to the dedicated servers The Coalition is using to host a majority of Gears 4’s online features. If the series is your online shooter of choice, then Gears 4 looks set to provide the smoothest and most comprehensive multiplayer experience to date.
As a complete package, Gears of War 4 is everything I could have asked for and more. Yes, I’ve got a few slight gripes with the lackluster final fight in the closing moments of the campaign and Horde 3.0’s class system, but as a whole, this is one game that every Gears fan needs to own. If Gears of War 4 is just the beginning of a new saga for the franchise, I am incredibly ready for what’s to come next.
Score: 5/5 – Exemplary