TL; DR(eview) - Gears of War 4 still feels like Gears of War, for better and worse, but a more likable core team and the experience of learning about a new threat alongside them left me much more engaged than I was with the first two entries in the series. It even does a good job getting me interested to go back and see how Gears of War 3 plays out.
My original plan in experiencing the Gears of Wars series was supposed to be more complete. When I first bought Gears of War Ultimate Edition last year, one of the biggest selling points was the inclusion of the rest of the series via the Xbox 360 Backwards Compatibility program on the Xbox One. I figured I would play through the remastered original and then work my way through Gears of War 2, Gears of War 3, and Gears of War Judgment in advance of this year’s Gears of War 4.
But Gears didn’t really hook me when I first dove in late last year so the whole thing got thrown on the backburner. Eventually, when looking through my backlog for something to play a few months back I started to reignite the original plan, going so far as to publish my review of the original Gears of War on the Gears of War 4 release date during another one of my “review weeks.” The overall takeaway though was that I was somewhat lukewarm on the series. I didn’t have the urge to jump right into the sequel, but I went ahead and installed the rest of them on the Xbox One so they’d be there when I was ready.
I eventually dove into the second game and played through it over the course of a week or so. The issues I had with the first were largely still intact but the pacing of the sequel seemed to really miss the mark for me. It felt hours too long and I just found myself bored and going through the motions probably three-quarters of the way through the game. So once again, I wasn’t too eager to jump right into Gears of War 3.
But I came up with the idea for this Shooter Week of reviews and determined that Gears of War 4 would be one of the most relevant options for the season. So I decided to skip Gears of War 3 and Judgment for the time being and jump straight into this title. People had been pitching it as a soft reboot with a somewhat standalone story anyway so I figured “what the hell?”
Gears of War 4 picks up a generation after the previous games. After a flashback prologue to early key battles that serve as the game’s tutorials, the present-day action picks up with J.D. Fenix, son of war-hero and protagonist of games past Marcus. J.D. and his friend Del have deserted the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) and aligned themselves with a group of Outsiders. Their trio, and your core party for the game, is rounded out by Kait, the daughter of the Outsider village leader.
While raiding a COG settlement for supplies, the group faces off against robotic DeeBee soldiers under the command of COG leader Jinn. Jinn accuses J.D., Del, and the Outsiders of kidnapping settlers. They escape to the settlement where the real perpetrators, a new threat dubbed the “Swarm” steal or kill everyone save our trio, who were locked away in hiding by Kait’s mother during the attack. J.D. reluctantly leads his team to his childhood home for aid from his father Marcus, despite the two of them having some clearly unresolved family history. With a desire to rescue the kidnapped and identify this new enemy, they unite to investigate.
Entering this title as I have, missing the key events of Gears of War 3, the game did an adequate job bringing me up to speed where it needed too. Obviously, there was a big, war-ending victory for the COG over the Locust in that title, but this game suggests perhaps things weren’t wrapped up as neatly as the COG led everyone to believe.
Overall, I find the characters and tone of this game a lot more likable than the overly gruff and serious Marcus/Dom partnership of the previous games. Cole and Baird added a bit of humor and levity to those titles but I found them used too sparingly to effect the overall tone. Here, J.D., Del, Kait, and even Marcus are cracking jokes with noticeably more regularity, even in spite of the horrors they’re facing. A particular series of jokes about deeming a situation “all clear” despite the fact that time and again, things obviously aren’t “all clear” or that somebody was “jinxing” them by saying so comes across as inherently more relatable and accessible.
Unlike, the original Gears’ decision to start Marcus’ story in the middle of a war, the choice here to introduce all of the new elements to the new war at the same time as the character is also a smart move. There’s certainly enough history to get filled in over time, but with the mystery of the “Swarm” as an adversary being the same for both the characters and the player, it helps further drive home the connection between the two. There are certainly familiar story beats here compared to the original games, but that’s a fairly common staple of the sequel/soft reboot dominating media these days with examples ranging from The Force Awakens and Jurassic World to something like the 2016 Ratchet & Clank. The game effectively sets up a new era of heroes and enemies to face-off against, while still providing enough touchstones for fans of the series to remain engaged with what they love.
The gameplay of Gears feels largely in line with the other games I’ve played: heavier and slower than all of the other titles I’ve looked at this week. But with two other Gears titles under my belt this time out, I had a much better handle on the mechanics and the “just shoot shit until it’s dead” strategy.
The four-weapon load-out remains with one slot reserved for grenades, one for a pistol, and the remaining two for a rotation of other two-handed guns like the classic Retro Lancer assault rifle/chainsaw, or assorted submachine guns, shotguns, etc. The new enemy often behaves just like the enemies of games past (as the story alludes, perhaps with good reason). With one of the most common enemies of this game being a metamorphized human labeled a “Juvie” that rushes you and focuses on melee combat, I often found myself hanging out to a Lancer for easy chainsaw kills when these things tried to overwhelm me.
One of the new experiences for me, was the way the campaign incorporated an abbreviated version of the popular Horde mode. Throughout the campaign, J.D. and his team come across areas where they have to effectively fortify the grounds and fend off multiple waves of enemies. Each site has a fabricator on hand where fortifications like turrets can be constructed as well as ammunition or guns. Using the limited power that replenish a bit after each wave, the game becomes part-strategy, part-shooter as each wave typically brings with it a diverse set of enemies and challenges. I certainly can appreciate the appeal of the Horde mode after this sampling, but probably still got enough of a taste of it without needing to dive into the full-blown experience.
While I had a fun enough time overall there were certainly a pair of frustrating experiences that I repeatedly ran into playing solo with the AI for support. The first was with the recurring “Snatcher” enemy. This enemy is able to grab you or your allies and carry you off within their body. If the character is not freed in a timely manner, the Snatcher escape, triggering a game over. Multiple times I wound up getting snatched up and more often than not, just had to sit there helplessly watching the enemy flee while my teammates focuses on a less game-ending threat, cursing until the eventual Game Over screen appeared. Similarly, if one of my companions was captured, there seemed to be not rhyme or reason to how much damage I had to do or where I had to target the enemy to free my friend. So the Snatcher managed to flee in these cases as well leading to an immediate Game Over.
The other frustration came nearly anytime I faced off against an enemy with a Dropshot weapon. The Dropshot effectively launches out a projectile that, when triggered, will drop where it is, drilling into an enemy if it connects and explode. And despite my abhorrently terrible accuracy with the thing, it seemed pretty much every enemy who shot it at me managed to time the drop at me perfectly, drilling into my head for an instant death, unless I was aware enough it was coming and able to roll out of the way.
These types of deaths feel cheap. Semi-unavoidable instant-kills aren’t fun in my book. With the former, these moments are the only times I really hated the AI I was playing with because it was really the only time they just proved entirely worthless in saving my admittedly bad at games dumb ass. And with the latter, I would understand the enemy occasionally being able to perfectly line up that shot from across a battlefield or maybe moreso at close range. But every single time, regardless of the distance? On the Normal difficulty setting? Nope. Not for me.
These minor gripes aside, I ultimately had a lot more fun with this game than the previous two installments I’ve played. Based on my observations, I think that’s a mix of appreciating the characters of this story a bit more alongside just generally having a better grasp on how to play a Gears game. And weirdly, having heard some of my friends identify Gears of War 3 as their favorite in the series, this game (and knowing somewhat how that game will end) did a much better job getting me excited to play Gears of War 3 than Gears of War 2 did. I’m equally interested to jump back in time to see how Epic Games closed out their initial trilogy as I am to see where The Coalition takes the series moving forward as the new stewards of the franchise.