Gears of War is a special series. Perhaps that sounds hyperbolic, as some might make fun of it for being a meatheaded Michael Bay-like blockbuster, with nothing but action, blood and shooting on its agenda. It's hard to argue that the series doesn't have that tone built into it either, but calling it just that, I believe, is selling the franchise short. While it's all do-rags and testosterone on the outside, there is an intelligent core to the story and universe with some genuine emotional depth too.
Oh, and on top of that, it revolutionised third person shooters, much like Resident Evil 4 did when it came out. So, you know, it has that going for it too.
Now, three years after the last Gears of War title, and five since the last mainline one, we get to Gears of War 4. Under new management by way of The Coalition, the series is ready to see if its formula still works in 2016.
And the gifts I come baring after spending a bunch of time with the game is: Yes. It does. Mostly.
If you feel a Gears of War itch after all this time, Gears of War 4 will be a very satisfying scratch. The changes to the actual gameplay mechanics are not big here. This is, at its very core, the same game that came out in 2007. You walk through linear battlegrounds, using cover to pop shots at incoming waves of monstrous enemies, and try to maneuver tactically around enemies. There are of course new additions to spice things up a little, such as a whole host of new enemies from the new Swarm to robots which actually shake up the battlefield in ways not seen before in the series. There are also little mechanical changes like vaulting over a cover an enemy is hiding behind to push him back before stabbing them in the head, more fluid movement, as well as new, rather ridiculous weapons. (There really is something to shooting buzzsaws to cut a member of the Swarm in half.) However, for the most part, be it multiplayer or single player, it's very clear that The Coalition didn't want to rock the boat to much for their first outing.
One of the key questions that surrounded Gears of War 4 was, storywise, where do you take this series after Gears of War 3? That game acted as the topper to a trilogy, more or less tying up the key questions of the series. That's why Gears of War 4 acts as somewhat of a refresh. Set quite some time after the conclusion of the trilogy, we are now thrust into a new world. We no longer are in the shoes of Marcus Fenix, but his son J.D., with Sera now Locust-less and the only real battles going on being between the now almost entirely robotized CoG and the Outsiders who J.D. aligns with. These are just little skirmishes for resources and supplies, with no huge ongoing conflict as previously seen… that is until the very Locust-like Swarm start wrecking havoc. To figure out what is going on, J.D. and his squad of Kait and Del turn to his father, and thus we are off to the races.
That is the basic premise going forward, and for the most part, it really works on its own terms. There is a real thrill in seeing Sera again, especially in how it was shaped after the fall of the Locusts. When everything starts going to hell, the campaign really comes to life. This is every bit the AAA blockbuster it's billed as, with the campaign having a sense of whimsy that feels new and fresh for the series. The original trilogy is quite poe-faced, but Gears 4 is reveling in the fun on display. It's a rip roaring ride, and while it has pacing issues and abrupt ending, it is worth the seven or so hours its takes to complete.
It isn't without issue though. One of the strongest parts of Gears of War was its instantly likeable characters. Almost every character from the original games is great and easily memorable. Marcus, Dom, Baird, Cole, Hoffman, Ana, Dizzy, Raam, Tai, the list goes on because they all had personality. Over the top, one note personalities, sure, but memorable none the less. In Gears 4, it can be hard to even remember the new crew's names. J.D actually shows some promise early on as a fun, roguish type, (granted, maybe just a little too Nathan Drake), but as the game goes on, what made him funny and charming gets lost a little bit. It also becomes entirely apparent when he, and thus us, become passengers to Kait's story, who The Coalition obviously want the emotional core of the new series to rest in. Del is fun and brings levity, but it feels like that's his entire character, and his humour ultimately ends up being a little forced. Add on top of that, the abrupt ending with an underdelivered reveal, and it all adds up. As I said, I had a ton of fun in the campaign and it's well worth the trip as some really AAA escapism, but there just isn't enough going on under hood here to really make it stick with me like previous entries.
Luckily, there is a lot of value in the Online play of the game. Horde mode revolutionised wave based defence modes when it first debuted in Gears of War 2, and The Coalition has cemented the series again as the king of the castle. Setting your defenses with turrets, electrified poles and spikes, as you take on ever evolving waves of enemies until you finally die, is as sharp as ever. It really remains a great time for five people to get together and spend an hour or two.
Online matches are also strong, with a new sense of pace to them. The new weapons introduced into the title are utterly silly ways to take down oncoming players. Hitting a dropshot onto another player will never not be satisfying. For me, the series has moved away from the modes like Warzone and Execution a little though, which always struck me as the 'true' online Gears expierence. The one life tug of war is what made the series unique, so it is sad to see the game starting to prioritise other more generic, multi-life modes. However, those classics still exist and are playable, so it isn't a massive issue. Everything here is mechanically sound and if you liked Gears of War online play, this won't disappoint.
…except when you get out of the actual play and to deal with the pretty wild, microtransaction based loot system. There are so many cards and packs now, for all kinds of different modes that improve your EXP and power in certain online activities, it can feel pretty unwieldy. It's something you can largely ignore, but if you want any of the game's garish customization options, it's something you'll be forced to interact with. It's hard to grasp what every card does, what modes you can use them for, and, honestly, it all feels pretty obnoxious. It's a weak system to hinge online progression on, and if you want to maximise your work, expect to get involved in a pretty horrid system.
That being said, Gears of War 4 is a title of serious quality. If you are coming in to get a taste of what made the series great, this will provide it in spades. This rejuvenation reclaims the third person shooting genre as possibly the best in the field. The story is seriously fun with just enough new enemy types to mix things up, huge action set pieces and answers to how this universe is evolving. This is paired with strong online elements that, if you wish, could keep you and a squad of your friends around for some time. While the loot and card system that surround those modes are abrasive and the campaign ultimately feels less substantial both in terms of scope and narrative depth, there is still so much fun to be had here. If you want Gears of War, Gears of War 4 delivers it with a punch to the face.
Or perhaps a Chainsaw to the face, if you must have a Gears based pun.
Buy it if: You want to play some new, quality Gears of War. It's that simple.
Avoid it if: You are looking for a complex action narrative or want the series to evolve past the core. Also, if you dislike cards, loot boxes and microtransactions in online play.
Note: I played through the game on PC. I had no issues and it seems like an excellent version.