First Halo and now Gears of War. Microsoft’s most popular franchises have been passed on to new developers, each tasked with crafting the next set of adventures for its familiar protagonists. Unlike 343’s new Halo formula, where Master Chief has been paired as a playable character alongside newcomer Spartan Locke, the iconic Marcus Fenix is merely a background player in Gears of War 4. His son J.D. (voiced by Australian actor Liam McIntrye) does the heavy lifting, expected to show that he’s like his father, but not. After years of hype — and promises from the Vancouver-based The Coalition that Gears 4 has retained the core of the franchise — it’s now time for players to put J.D. and company to the test.
Gears of War 4 has a five act campaign that doesn’t really kick in until you’re two-thirds of the way through it. Pacing issues are readily apparent; in the stretch that could have left on the cutting room floor, you’re thrown up against robotic enemies that are as bland to fight as they are to look at. The aforementioned Marcus makes an appearance and then fades away, until finally – finally – you earn the right to actually get to the meat of the story.
We’ve seen enough marketing material to know the true villains of the game are the Locust-like Swarm. Two full acts are wasted teasing the new baddies, though the many-layered reveal of the Swarm’s true origins afterward is a true delight. Swarm troops that match to familiar Gears antagonists fit the game well, while new additions really drive home the fact that The Coalition wants you to play in co-op. Of the new enemies, most are cheap and samey; the Pouncer will do just that – pounce on you. No matter what. It doesn’t matter if you’re beside it or across the map – once it begins its animation, there’s nothing much you can do but get pounced upon. Rolling doesn’t work. Cover doesn’t work. Rendered inert and quite frustrated, you’ll then need a teammate to rescue you.
The other new enemies – of which your team of rag-tag-COGs-but-not somehow use telepathy to name, mid-battle – act in much the same way. On Normal difficulty, you’ll be able to escape from some of these co-op baddies yourself; in Hardcore or Insane, you’re at the mercy of your fellow soldiers. With large, sprawling maps, that sometimes can be a problem. New Swarm bosses are great to look at, but most are boring to fight. See that orange, glowing thing? Don’t bother really taking cover; just shoot at the vulnerable point as much and as quickly as possible. Rinse, repeat. That said, a couple bosses near its end avoid the Lost Planet vibe and present challenges akin to the franchise greats that came before them. Yeah, you’re still shooting at glowing things, but you’ll also need to take cover and co-ordinate with your allies to do so.
Difficulty… well, poses some difficulty. Normal mode, even running solo with rather useless AI, was too easy. On the flipside, Hardcore mode was too difficult alone. Worst yet are three separate instances of Horde shoe-horned into the campaign. My co-op partner and I recently finished a playthrough of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition on Hardcore difficulty with relative ease, but we simply could not get it together during those instances. While we had troubles in various points in this new campaign – which we should; that’s Gears, after all — we flat out sucked in campaign-Horde. When you and your partner both audibly sigh when you see a Fabricator ahead, you know it’s a problem.
There’s a refreshing humour to Gears 4 that I can only describe as Dad joke-like in nature. It’s self-referential, calling out the fact that the trio of J.D., Kait and Del somehow have managed to name new enemies — and agree to those names — without collaboration, or that certain military speak basically jinxes each new encounter they’re about to embark upon. Most of it works well, despite being a lazy opt-out by The Coalition to address plot holes. I found it easy to let my nitpicking go as the humour helps to solidify the new characters and their bonds. They grow on you quite quickly, in a way that’s genuine and not the dude-bro personification that came from the original trilogy’s groupings.
You need those bonds too, because there’s hardly any story to Gears of War 4. Like most blockbuster films of today, it takes too long to get to the point — and in the end, hardly makes one at all. As the credits roll, you’ll feel cheated, like you just played through a world-building exercise that will pale in comparison to the sequels that will follow it. Still, a strong set of fun final acts – and two of three refreshing vehicle sequences – manage to mainly salvage Gears 4’s campaign offering.
Thank goodness for multiplayer, eh? As you may have discovered in recent betas, multiplayer is as polished as ever. Fast, frenzied and chaotic, shotguns still rule across a variety of modes — though I found great success in a different type of bum rush. Rather than running up and shotgunning someone in the open air, I took advantage of a new cover assassination system. If you’re facing an opponent, each on a different side of the same piece of cover, you can either reach over and pull them out of cover or jump across and kick them in face. Doing so dazes them and opens them up to a gory — and rewarding — assassination sequence. If we’re focusing on the DNA of Gears, The Coalition has nailed it in this respect — and that means people will either love or hate versus modes.
Dodgeball — the 5v5 trade-off extravaganza — is hands-down my favourite multiplayer mode, providing chaotic gameplay via an ever-changing system that revives teammates via killing opponents. Depending on the situation, the way you have to play changes dramatically. Do you hunker down behind cover, or run in with guns blazing? Depending on the numbers you have, that answer will continually change. Once you’ve pegged your opponent’s strategy, though, replies are a bit easier — new weapons like the Buzzkill are perfect to bounce off the environment and get behind those playing it safe. Try as I might, I wasn’t as successful finding a proper use for the Dropshot, but that may be due to the fact I have horrible depth perception when it comes to shooters.
A group three reviewers teamed up the other night to take on wave after wave of enemy in Horde, and I had trouble pulling myself away from my controller. While subtle changes like cover assassinations make Horde fun, the addition of the Fabricator – unlike in campaign – is a brilliant game changer. First of all, you’re able to position the unit wherever you’d like – not that we really did – to act as your base of operations. You get to determine where chokepoints will be rather than the Swarm and DeeBees. From that device, you’re able to spawn as many turrets, barricades and weapons as you can afford. You gain currency by not only taking down enemies, but hovering over their corpses to collect dropped loot.
If a teammate is downed in the process, you can still head over to their limping body to activate a quick revive. If you don’t make it in time, it’s not the end of the world – you can pick up their fallen COG tags and bring those back to the Fabricator to get your mate back into the fight. While still feeling like Horde, these little additions make a world of difference — unlike the card-based unlock system that’s as unnecessary as it is a cash grab.
All up, The Coalition’s multiplayer offerings make up for an inconsistent campaign in Gears of War 4. Even then, and as much as I hate to admit it, what’s been presented has me eager for more – even though I would have preferred some resolution in this title, thank you very much. Gears fans will love it and newcomers should find enough to get them geared up – pun intended – for more.
Gears of War 4 was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.
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