Review: Gears of War 4
Gears is a strange series when it comes to horror. The original Gears of War was even billed as a survival horror game at Xbox’s E3 presentation from 2005, and as a whole, there’s a tremendous amount of inspiration taken from the horror genre. The Evil Dead, Resident Evil 4, and much more informed the grisly action of the franchise. With four titles under its belt (counting Gears of War: Judgement) we have a bevy of horror moments to choose from, but I wouldn’t say that horror ever defined a single title in the series. Still, it’s worth talking about, especially from an Honorable Mention in Horror perspective. Gears of War 4, the latest entry in the series, is no different.
Set 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, the world of Serra has changed substantially. Flowers bloom, life flourishes, and the battles of so long ago are but scary stories told to the new generation. Despite winning the war against the Locust, humanity is still at odds with itself. The Coalition of Ordered Governments (or COG) were never a particularly fantastic regime (it can very easily be argued that their actions up to and during the Locust War were possibly the cause of the aggression), and time has not made it any better. Totalitarian and oppressive, the COG now creates walled off super-cities that deny aid (and its suggested they attack) settlements that don’t conform to their way of thinking. Outsiders who reject the COG’s way of life, are forced to raid COG facilities for supplies. Those caught committing crimes have to fight their way through endless hordes of mechanized D-B units – robotic replacements of the COG’s Gears soldiers from the war.
Things aren’t great, but for the sake of drama, they get worse. Conflict is never a good thing, but at least the people of Serra have the standard human reasons for killing each other: politics, socio-economical unrest, etc. But a new threat that lurks just below the surface of the old war begins to stir. J.D. Fenix (son of original trilogy stars Marcus Fenix and Anya Stroud) leads the helm of a new ragtag group of outsiders. This new unit stumbles across something that’s likely to restore the face of Serra back into what it was during the nightmarish days of old. A new species of monster has been growing just beneath the surface, and they’re 100x grosser than the Locust ever were. Trust me, this reaches some Aliens/Dead Space levels of weird grossness.
The story of Gears of War 4 is both significantly darker and more personal than any Gears title before it but is still outmatched by a few key scenes in Gears 2 which were just … ooph. Despite this, the game is also remarkably funny and charming; J.D., along with his friends Kait and Del, are a ton of fun to play through the campaign with. Wit and charm ooze from every inch of the three of them, and I genuinely loved them by the first hour or so of the game. We of course also see a few familiar faces – now 25 years older and with tons of salt – that clash wonderfully with the youths’ outlook. It’s very easily the best-written game yet, and I can’t wait to see more from these characters. As you’d expect, the game not-so-subtly makes sure we know that there’s more to come.
From a gameplay standpoint, it’s yet another obsessively polished Gears game, with some of the best third-person shooting on the market. Gears of War doesn’t get much better than what had already been established in the previous games, but Gears 4 manages to tweak it just a little bit more, adding new “running mantle” and “yank over cover” moves that keep combat flowing in a way that the series never had before. Mantling cover often becomes a slight chore in the original games, mostly because it requires you to stop, take cover, then hop over it – but now simply tapping the B button immediately after tapping A to take cover will let you seamlessly mount and climb over cover without ever breaking your stride. The new “Yank” mechanic is also awesome. Gears 3 introduced the ability to “mantle-kick” opponents taking cover on the opposite side of where you were, but Gears 4 takes it a step further. Pushing up on the left stick with X now gives us the ability to grab and yank these opponents over cover, which disorients them for a moment; leaving them open to another devastating attack. An instant kill with a combat knife becomes available after either yanking or mantle kicking your foe – it’s a deliciously brutal finisher that’s endlessly enjoyable executing on both AI and players alike.
From a visual standpoint, I don’t even know where to begin with Gears of War 4. We’ve been in this generation for a few years now, but for the most part on consoles, there hasn’t been too much that has really wowed me. Batman: Arkham Knight maybe, Assassin’s Creed: Unity (when it isn’t bugging out) definitely, but by and large, most games haven’t wowed me. Gears of War 4 is a game that takes “next gen” and runs with it. Running on Unreal Engine 4, this game is stunning, due in no small part to how amazingly executed the art direction is. Every detail, no matter how small, is crisp and clear, and meticulously designed. Sprawling vistas inspire awe, but I was taken aback more so by the simpler things, like watching rivulets of water stream down my armor as J.D. and crew traverse in the rain. Everything about this game is beautiful, and I have no end of wonder and amazement as each new area opened up to me to explore.
Gears 4, of course, offers more than just its campaign (which, on a side-note, is strangely two-player only – both Gears 3 and Gears Judgement featured four-players), with an assortment of cooperative and competitive modes to choose from. From the Versus side, there’s a collection of different game modes, featuring returning favorites like Execution and TDM, as well as new options to try like Escalation. Multiplayer matches are set in expertly crafted maps where players fight head-on, 5v5, using a sizable arsenal of both returning and new weapons. New weapons include a type of grenade that emits electrical shocks. Another replaces Gears 3‘s digger with a drill that sails through the air, drops down on your targets to either explode nearby or deliciously impale their skulls, and burrow down into their guts in a spray of arterial goodness (if you’re lucky). The Buzzkill, on the other hand, fires spinning saw-blades for heavy damage. If fighting against human players isn’t your style, you can also try to drive yourself mad with the newest iteration of the series’ benchmark Horde mode.
Now featuring a much grander suite of tools with which to fortify your defenses, which includes a new ordinance creator called the Fabricator, Horde 3.0 is more brutal than ever before. Players fight through 50 waves of oncoming Swarm and D-B units with up to 4 friends (or strangers); a new class system additionally gives you buffs for certain actions depending on which class you pick, as well as specialized load-outs. It’s unrelentingly difficult. You can watch me (and my friends) give it our all for over three hours trying to complete all 50 waves before finally being beaten down by the final round. It’s … kind of pitiful to watch. We were on Casual, no less.
Because every game has something like this now, you also unlock points that can be spent on “crates” that are full of random skins (somewhat similar to the way Overwatch handles this), and bounty cards (which can give you substantial bonus XP by completing the required action of each card). While I appreciate the wealth of new skins and characters to play as, I would have much rather unlocked these items one by one as I leveled up rather than be forced into the crap shoot the game gives us. Of course, you can spend real money to get more crates, but it’s still totally random and unappealing.
But by and large, Gears of War 4 is an excellent game, and aside from a very small number of gripes (2 player co-op, microtransactions, very lengthy load times for MP matches), it’s absolutely worth picking up. While I wouldn’t say it has my favorite campaign (Gears 2 has that honor), it is inarguably the best-made Gears game yet. While I’ve felt Microsoft’s other mainline title, Halo, has been floundering under the weight of series fatigue and directionless storytelling since the big finale of Halo 3, Gears feels just as good as it ever was, better even. If you own an Xbox One or Windows 10 PC, this is an absolute must buy, and I don’t say that lightly.
(9 / 10)
A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher for Xbox One. The game is also available on PC.