It seems like many console franchises have a fundamental choice as they approach new iterations on next-gen hardware: do they go for bold design changes and risk alienating their audience, or do they play it safe and stick to what made them previously popular? In the case of many of the last generation’s popular series, it seems there are plenty of examples of both as they make their way to PS4 and Xbox One.
The new God of War and Mass Effect Andromeda are both examples of the former, with fundamental changes in the structure and feel of the gameplay. On the other hand, we’ve got the new Gears of War 4, which is — for better or worse — a continuation of the same cover shooter mechanics and goofy action cliches that made up its predecessors. I’m leaning heavily on the side of “better,” though, because while not everything may feel totally fresh the fourth time around, the action is appropriately more polished and fun than it’s ever been.
Gears of War 4 picks up a number of years after the third game, putting players in control of J.D. Fenix — son of hero Marcus from the original trilogy — as he and his friends Delmont Walker and Kait Diaz go up against a new threat. Like the other titles, the story here is really on par with a great action movie. The plot itself is mostly predictable, involving shadowy government officials and dangerous alien adversaries, but that hardly matters when the execution is so fun.
It’s easy to get attached to the characters at the center of the action; I thoroughly enjoyed their banter as they experienced one ludicrous trial after another, and they’re given just enough motivation and emotional complexity to keep you invested through all the explosions. It’s also nice to see characters like Marcus return — his reappearance, which comes fairly early on, is one of the more visceral pleasures of the narrative.
As I’ve implied, though, story is hardly the reason to be getting into Gears of War 4. That honor goes to experiencing the newfound polish on the series’ intense cover shooter gameplay, which is vastly improved from previous entries. I’m perhaps in the minority in thinking that the early Gears titles haven’t aged well, but whether or not you agree with me, there’s no denying that this latest version is the crispest and cleanest yet.
Levels go through predictable but gratifying rhythms, taking you from one shootout venue to the next. Your partner characters’ shouts will alert you to the various enemy types as they drop in, giving you a chance to prepare for the next assault and switch to one of the many different available weapons on the fly. Just about all of these are fun to use, from the rapidfire Enforcers and Lancers to the utterly pleasing charge-shot sniper blasts of the new EMBAR. Things only continue to pick up and increase in intensity as the plot rolls on, but suffice it to say that none of the action sequences have a dull moment, and I wanted to replay several of them again as soon as I finished.
Of course, just as important as shooting are your defensive maneuvers, and these are more fluid and easy-to-use than ever before. I still think the A button is used for far too much — it’s responsible for getting behind cover, running, dodge-rolling, moving between cover points and getting out of cover — but it’s now a lot more responsive and intuitive when it comes to interpreting your context-sensitive presses. I really did feel like I was able to strategize and get myself where I wanted a lot easier than I ever did in past installments, which was a real boon when it came to some of the missions — particularly those that involved tight quarters or beating back invaders, tower defense-style, from certain points. There was still the occasional frustrating misinterpretation of my actions, and I do wish there was a bit more fluidity to the movement of the characters, but Gears of War 4 offers far and away the best version of the series’ high-energy combat.
I can direct the same praise to the presentation in Gears of War 4, which is absolutely stunning at points and always perfect in its portrayal of the game’s outrageous action set pieces. It would be a shame to spoil too much about where the adventure’s headed, but you don’t even really need to do that to know that there’s some amazing scenes here — the very first levels you play in the prologue, which recap the events of the previous games, kick off the proceedings with over-the-top action that had me swearing with exhilaration in spite of myself.
I guess it’s a shame to watch so many of the beautiful environments here blow up, but the ensuing carnage is just as much (if not more) of a pleasure on the eyes. Then, on the audio side of things, it’s hard to deny the appeal and effort of the actors voicing the three leads: Liam McIntyre and Eugene Byrd have some nice back-and-forth exchanges as J.D. and Del, respectively, but it’s Laura Bailey as the delightfully unusual Kait Diaz that steals the show.
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On the multiplayer side of things, two great offerings — Versus and Horde mode — return more fast and furious than ever. Versus ratchets things up to 60 FPS for some truly smooth, competitive and intense 6-on-6 action. Taking on either the roles of COG or the new enemies known as the Swarm, your objective is simple: annihilate the other team. Thanks to some excellent map design, these matches can get tense and nail-biting; playing as the Horde in one match on a map called Harbor, a teammate and I nervously walked around the dark, rainy arena back-to-back, looking for the one COG member remaining.
They were, unfortunately, a lot more skilled than us — so when we got separated and I heard the howl of my fallen teammate, I knew death wasn’t far behind for me. It arrived swiftly and devastatingly, with my opponent taking the opportunity to rub it in extra hard with a special “execution” move in which their Kait punched right through my skull. It wasn’t pretty, but the tension and excitement were palpable, and I had fun whether or not I was winning. Tight quarters, a much smoother framerate than the other modes and more limited access to weapons will easily make this the favorite of competitive players.
Horde, on the other hand, is much more my style: a wave-based shooter in which you get to take on all the insane enemies and weapons of the campaign at once. You’ve got COG DeeBees that take on the basic combat roles of tank, sniper, and so on — but it’s the wild assortment of new Swarm creatures that will really make your skin crawl. Slimy, speedy Juvies will sneak up on you just as you’re getting comfortable behind cover, nasty Pouncers will pin you to the ground and stab you with sharp quills… and just wait until you see some of the monstrosities waiting for you when you get to a boss round. Unlike some other cooperative multiplayer shooters, you can really feel outnumbered and outgunned in this mode, and the horror of facing some of these waves is a real blast.
Of course, thanks to a new stable of weapons (particularly the heavy ones!), you can turn things to your advantage fairly quickly as well. My personal favorites have to be the Buzzkill — a gun that fires off ricocheting buzzsaws to the detriment of anyone in the area — and the Trishot, a truly nasty overheating chaingun with a high rate of fire and massive damage output. You’ll also get to build some weapons and defenses for your surroundings using the Fabricator, which is also part of the campaign.
This transportable insta-crafting device can be lifted by two players and placed on any part of the map; by killing enemies and bringing the cash they drop back to it, you can arm yourself with turrets, decoys that attract the attention of enemies and barriers that keep them out of your hair. My only complaint with this mode is that, in the heat of the action, things can get a little wonky — with so many things going on at once, the occasional framerate drop isn’t out of the question, and it’s sometimes hard to get a good camera view of the action in tighter spaces when chaos is at its peak. Still, it’s often too much fun to let the odd hiccup get in the way of your enjoyment.
Gears of War 4 doesn’t evolve the series in the way that many of its last-gen contemporaries have chosen to, but that’s not really a bad thing in the end. The Coalition has created the most fun and polished version of the franchise’s dumb-action-movie pleasures here, and that’s more than enough for me to give it a hearty recommendation.
Folks worried about the new cast should rest at ease knowing that the characters are all fun and interesting to watch and listen to, and it will be a particular pleasure for returning fans to see Marcus and what he’s been doing since the last time we saw him. I still wish the maneuvering was a bit more precise, and it would have been cool to see a few more variations on the cover shooter’s predictable formula, but this is a warm slice of action gaming comfort food that — for me at least — really hit the spot.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
Gears of War 4 is a solid and enjoyable, if overly familiar, entry in the beloved cover-shooter franchise. Veterans will feel right at home, while newcomers will feel welcome.