There comes a time when every great series faces a choice: to continue on imperfectly and tarnish its legacy, or to hang up its boots while it’s still on top. For Gears of War, this point was ‘Judgement’ – a game that, while still receiving generally positive reviews, paled in comparison to the spectacular ‘Gears of War 3’. With Judgement being what was ostensibly a step backwards, the release of another unfulfilling instalment threatened to wreck the series. With new characters and with the original developers, Epic Games, out of the picture, I would have predicted that Gears 4 would do just that. But God, am I happy to admit I was wrong.
Gears 4 picks up exactly 25 years after Gears 3, on the silver anniversary of the locust’s destruction. The prologue revolves around a commemoration service, where First Minister Jinn walks us through the locust calamity. In it, we get to play through flashbacks of the locust war – all of which feature cameos and references to recognisable people and events in the series. Essentially, this prologue brings newcomers up to speed, giving them some historical context. And for veteran players, it works to remind us why we fell in love with the games. It’s a homage, a primer and an excellent opening for the new branch of the series.
In their years of peace, the people of Sera have been slowly repopulating and rebuilding. The planet itself is suffering in the wake of the wars, with Imulsion creating environmental hazards called windflares – which can only be described as lightning filled hurricanes on steroids. The COG has developed walled cities and settlements that are scattered over the planet. Each settlement is thoroughly protected by Deebees, the robots that seem to have replaced overly armoured soldiers as the COG’s primary defence units. Outside of the COG’s jurisdiction, more primitive settlements house residents called outsiders, of which our new protagonists form a part.
They’re not half as disgruntled or violent as characters before, but JD, Del and Kait are excellent protagonists. It’s no secret, by now, that JD is Marcus Fenix’s son. And his rapport with his father and the COG plays heavily into the storyline. JD and Del have that sort of brothers-in-arms relationship that Marcus and Dom had before them, except they’re younger, friendlier and much more reasonably proportioned. They deserted from the COG army, and took up allegiance with a group of outsiders led by Kait’s mother, Reyna.
Without spoiling too much, the initial conflict is between the COG and these outsiders. You’ll have a number of confrontations with COG’s various robots, which introduce new weapons and combat elements to the game. This, however, eventually gives way to the larger issue: the discovery of a new strand of the locust threat, the Swarm. And that’s where the story really takes off.
The opening levels were specific highlights; the outside setting, the daylight and the natural hues of the landscape were distinct deviations from the archetypal decaying, grey Gears of War level design. However, the trip through the abandoned dam is the textbook Gears of War experience. And it’s a welcome one at that. The mystery surrounding the Swarm allows for the return of the thrilling, almost survival horror-esque, ambience of the first two games. The vehicle levels, which have historically been my least favourite parts of these games, were amazing. The controls were simple enough to learn on the fly, yet the levels were still engaging. Fleeing from the Condor on motorbikes has joined the ranks of my favourite moments in the franchise, and knowing that you can do it all in co-op, only makes the experience better.
Of course, I can’t just shower this game in praise, I’ve got to point out two issues with the campaign. The first is thematic. I just cannot believe, on a planet that just recovered from an almost all-consuming war, that the characters would be so prone to violence and insult. You’d think that, in the face of extinction, humanity might have gained an increased perspective on things – at least to the point of talking before going to war within itself. There are more than a few moments where I was shaking my head at how trigger-happy the characters were. But, then again, there are a lot of unanswered questions here. And Gears 4 is very much a scene setter. There’s undoubtedly some reason that the characters acted like they did. Truth be told, their volatility was more intriguing than it was infuriating.
The other issue is to do with pacing. The campaign plays out so well, with the changes of scenery and the appearances of new, and old, characters working to push the series to new heights. But then in the fifth act, you’re wacked in a massive robot suit. I’ll happily admit that it’s a novelty, initially. But it’s a novelty that quickly wears off. That’s not to say that these levels are bad. I wouldn’t even be raising the issue if they were in the middle of the game. But they don’t make for a good ending, especially for a game that’s otherwise so incredible. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of going out on top. And it bothers me that Gears 4 ended at the only part in the game that could be considered a low point. See, the final act, totally changes everything: pacing, mechanics and combat. Sure the final boss fight was stunning. But the end just doesn’t feel like the end. Again, I know the developers are raising our interest for the sequels that are obviously going to follow. But I’d like to point out that there’s a difference between a cliff–hanger and a cliff jump: one of them has you coming back. Again, the ending isn’t bad – it’s actually exciting – but it’s just a bit abrupt.
But those are my only real complaints. And while it may not reach the same storytelling pinnacles as Gears 3, Gears of War 4’s gameplay is the best the series has ever seen. It’s familiar enough to preserve the formula, but there’s enough new content to make this feel different. Make no mistake: this is Gears of War, but it’s very much a new generation. The level design is nothing short of brilliant. New enemies combine with the environmental effects of the ‘wind-flares’ to introduce totally fresh gameplay components. The cover mechanics are so polished that combat actually feels effortless. As well as the usual snapping to, and ducking out of, cover, you can now seamlessly traverse obstacles while roadie running. Gears 4 also introduces a combat knife and cover grappling that allow cover-based executions. There’s also destructible cover in the form of Swarm pods – which, when destroyed, sometimes produce enemies. Like I said: new but familiar. And it all works so well because it’s so damn tight.
The multiplayer is just as perfect. Like always, it’s a big bloody mess, where someone will unexpectedly execute you in some shockingly violent way. And like always, it’s ridiculously fun. Now, there’s the option for ranked play, or more casually for social quick play. Both feature the same exquisite new maps and interesting new game modes. Dodgeball plays out much like the sport, each player has a single life and killing an enemy player will bring a teammate back to life. Escalation is a more complex and strategic game. It works as a round based, capture-point based mode with slightly twisted Execution rules: at the end of each round the respawn time increases and the losing team can choose the spawning weapon. The major change is the addition of bounties and cards. Before a match, you’re able to make certain wages with bounty cards – “make 10 headshots” or “score 1500 or more in execution” – succeeding will yield bonuses in XP or credit. You receive bounty cards, along with customisation options in booster packs, which you buy with credits earned in multiplayer games – or, if you’re a sucker, with real world money.
Rant time: Microstransactions are a pet hate of mine – and are up there with the Kylie Jenner lip challenge as one of my most despised modern trends. I’m a firm believer that adding paid extras to a full-price game is extortion. Alas, microtransactions are spreading through the AAA gaming industry like proverbial wildfire. Truthfully, they’re easy enough to avoid; they’re only a problem if you’re dumb enough to buy into them. And short of customisation, they don’t really impact Gears of War 4’s multiplayer at all.
If the competitive online scene isn’t for you – and I won’t judge: getting your head repeatedly blown off by a dude with a gnasher is a particularly stressful experience – then there’s always Gears of War’s famous Horde mode, which, again, has only been improved. Like Versus, bounties and cards come in to play. And the addition of the ‘Fabricator’ has really spiced up gameplay. It allows you to move your base of operations around the map, to fortify your position and to create certain weapons. This time round, Horde mode also features classes: Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Sniper, or Engineer. Each has specific strengths and duties. I was always a fan of Horde mode, but I can admit that it was a rather brainless sort of fun. These additions have totally changed its pace. To succeed, you’ve got to strategize and communicate. Players must fulfil their designated roles. Horde mode 3.0 is a dynamic experience, and in that way, it’s more playable and more fun than it’s ever been before.
If you haven’t worked it out by now, Gears of War 4 is a must buy. It’ll keep the die-hard fans happy, and it’ll convert the unconverted. Simply put, the level design and mechanics are spectacular. The cameos from familiar characters are a special delight, and the new characters are just as exciting. While this latest instalment may not reach the same storytelling heights as Gears 3, its job was to renew a franchise and introduce a new generation. And Gears 4 did that job magnificently. There are definitely some changes to be seen. But make no mistake this is recognisably a ‘Gears of War’ game. And one the best we’ve seen.