The Coalition’s first foray into the storied Gear of War franchise franchise bears many similarities to last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We’re introduced to a new cast, some golden oldies are brought back for emotional tugging, but ultimately the game you’re playing feels like the same one you played in 2006, bar a few polishes here and there. And that’s perfect for Gears of War 4, granted you’re already in love with what Gears of War is dishing out.
Gears of War 4 takes place a full 30 years after the events of the last numbered entry. With the Locust gone, the people of Sera have fallen into a strange time of peace, ushered and protected by the same Coalition of Governments (COG) that ended the war. But like any harmonious society there are always unseen cracks. The COG, determined to maintain order, have segregated citizens into camps. Flee those camps or disregard COG order, and you’re a fugitive. The COG rule by dictatorship.
Playing as JD Fenix, son of past protagonist Marcus Fenix, this setup is crucial to your motivations at the beginning of the game. After deserting the COG with fellow squad mate Del, and linking up with outsider Kait, you quickly form a rag tag group of soldiers just looking to survive. That leads to some friction with the COG in the first Act (easily the game’s weakest), but it soon opens up to a much bigger mystery. The Swarm lie at heart of this – a new sort of enemy that embodies the best and worst traits of this sequel.
The Swarm are The Coalition’s attempt at innovation and their disappointing slump of unrealised potential. Although different at first, the Swam embody many of the same roles the past Locust do, for narrative reasons that are so blatantly obvious it’s a wonder I’m not allowed to spoil it right here. Swarm Drones, Scions and and Elites all act identically to the Locust brethren they’re named after – down to their movements, weapon choices and weaknesses.
At one point you’re left to fight what looks and acts identical to a Brumack, but instead is named a Swarmak because…it’s part of the Swarm now? It’s a little too on the nose to be taken seriously at times.
A Fresh Coat of Bloody Paint
But on the flipside The Swarm offer some of the game’s more notable differentiation too. It’s more monster-like ranks, such as the incredibly fast Snatchers and hulking Carriers, change up the Gears formula in a way that reinvigorates it. The Pouncers, for example, force cover to be a non-option. They quickly jump around an area, firing high damage quills at you just before they pin you to the ground for a killing blow. They forced me to always keep moving, as I aimed for the glowing red spot on its belly – the go-to mark for a swarm weakness.
The same could be said of Gears of War 4’s new robot enemies, if not to the same degree. These DBs form the COG’s new autonomous policing force, and make for some nice visual change if nothing more. They do act a little differently without any real need for self preservation, marching directly into fire on a whim. Shielded hovering drones and rolling balls that detonate at your feet again forced me to change up the way you play if ever so slightly, making the DBs almost overbearing introduction during the game’s first two (out of five) acts forgivable.
Their weaponry is probably their most notable aspect however, as are all the new toys that Gears of War 4 allows you to play with. The DBs introduce some ridiculously powerful weapons across all classes, especially true in the case of the Overkill shotgun. Firing one round on a trigger pull and another on release, it’s a destructive weapon that I just couldn’t resist picking up whenever given the chance. The same could be said for the more mining styled Dropshot, which launches an airborne explosive in the air that drills down when you let go of the trigger.
A delight to use against the Swarm, and an utter nightmare when you’re on the receiving end.
Tapping On Tradition
The Coalition introduces these small changes smartly too, allowing them to co-exist in a game that embodies some of the best lessons learnt over the past three great (and one not so great) games. The lengthy campaign (overall a nine hour one for me on Hardcore) has its fair share of climatic set pieces and decidedly eerie downtimes, all of which make a sort of best hits series from past games.
The tone offers up its own darkness with some lightness from the cast of three (and four), with the banter between them slotting right into what you’d expect from franchise. Some of its best chapters though hark back to Gears of War’s more horror centric roots, with Act 3 being a particular standout. A gloomy castle plays host to a fantastic introduction to some of the worst the Swarm has to offer, and the immediate flashback to Gears of War’s Emulsion Factory sent shivers down my spine.
But Gears of War 4 is realised in a way that past games could only hope to be, with The Coalition really pushing the bar in terms of what the Xbox One can produce visually. Lighting is outstanding in dark chapters, with puddles shining in the moon light and luminescent Swarm blood painting the cobblestones beneath my feet. Massive lightening storms called Wind Flares shake the visual variety up frequently too, plunging the environment into an orange swirl while massive arcs of gorgeous lighting strike the ground in an attempt to roast you in place.
The audio design in these sections is top notch too, and is a facet of Gears of War 4 that impressed me from start to finish. Whether it be the familiar roar of a Lancer’s chainsaw or the clever audio cues used to signal different kinds of enemies, Gears of War 4 mixes these with absolutely brilliance. It’s all set back to a great soundtrack produced by Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), which swells and soothes at perfect times. Gears of War 4 is a treat to the eyes and ears – just like a console exclusive should be.
Bringing a Lancer to a Gnasher fight
For some though, Gears of War and its campaign has always been secondary to another half – online multiplayer. It’s the real draw of the series for some, and Gears of War 4 does the series proud with a strong, familiar brand of tight, brutal online gameplay. You can party up with friends and form your own private matches (which are still hosted on dedicated servers), or take things to the more serious ranked online play. I only really dabbled with the former, but even with its overseas connections the game managed to do an admirable job masking the delays. Just like the Ultimate Edition, online play is still a real treat.
But as for the feel of multiplayer, there’s even less to worry about. It’s the same case as the campaign, in that fans of past Gears of War multiplayer experiences will feel right at home with the healthy map and mode offerings The Coalition has going. There’s some traditional call backs to classics like Gridlock, while new entries like Harbour maintain the same maze like, close quarters combat you’ve probably grown to love or hate.
Online play also bumps up the game to 60 FPS, while losing some visual detail here and there. It’s paramount to split second decision making, such as pulling a Gnasher on a rushing foe, or lining up that Longshot for the perfect kill. The usual sorts of Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill are present, but it’s the newcomers that make more impactful impressions.
The first team to use all of the game’s weapons wins in a new game mode called Arms Race, while Dodgeball puts a surprising twist on classic team deathmatch. Killing an opponent grants a respawn for your own team, making “turning the tables” a very literal term. They’re mixed with online classics, and produced some of the most fun during my online sessions. Even if ranked play will take on a more serious tone.
Horde Makes It Rain
Multiplayer is encompassed by microtransactions, which manage to permeate many facets of Gears of War outside of the campaign. Players can purchase packs of cards that scale in rarity, using either real-world cash or in-game credits. These cards unlock new characters, weapon skins and numerous perks that can be used across both online multiplayer and Horde 3.0. In terms of multiplayer, players can burn bounty cards for a shot at specific experience point boost. It doesn’t change your abilities or the balance of gameplay, but it will help you scale your player level far more quickly.
Cards play a much bigger role in Horde 3.0 however, and are somewhat integral to your progression. In this new version of Horde players take on class roles, whether it be a Sniper, Heavy, Soldier or Engineer. Each has their own slight pros and cons, but each class also determines which cards you take with you into the game. Cards that amplify headshot damage as a Sniper, or increase damage on tagged enemies as a Heavy. The Engineer can get discounts on items built with the new Fabricator (a box that lets you deploy base defences), while Soldiers might get helpful buffs to weapon magazine capacity.
Your progression within Horde determines how many of these cards you can equip at a time, and also allows you to grind for in-game currency to purchase more. It’s important then to understand that Horde 3.0 is Gears of War 4’s long game. It’s a mode that I haven’t been able to pass wave 30 on yet, playing on Normal difficulty with some seasoned Gears of War players. Simply put, it’s probably the toughest the survival mode has ever been, placing a huge emphasis on your patience, time spent with it and the new class system.
Does this mean that you’re able to buy your way through progress? Definitely, but the way Horde is balanced makes it so that actual play time and progression trump that. Without actually engaging in Horde, you’re unable to progress your character level – making the thousands of cards you could potentially purchase rather meaningless. It is however offset by the randomness that cards are dealt out, and you could no sooner blow 4000 hard earned credits on a crate that doesn’t really change your play style at all.
It’s an example of the to and fro Gears of War 4 finds itself sometimes having to engage in, as The Coalition attempt to balance modern videogame tropes with the formula that made the series so great in the first place. And while often that sounds like a recipe for disaster, Gears of War 4 comes off relatively unscathed. Despite its sometime frustratingly obvious direction, Gears of War 4 is consistently an entertaining package that offers a lot of content for a Gears fan to slowly chew through. But if you were looking for a reason to change your mind on the franchise, you’re unlikely to find it here.