Gears of War 4 Review

Microsoft's old but new killer-app for Xbox One and PC is f***ing awesome.

Like sinking into your favorite couch, Gears of War 4 welcomes your butt cheeks into the familiar groove of shooting from behind cover and applying your chainsaw to a hideous creature’s face. The Coalition, Gears’ new developer, has done a marvelous job at retaining the feel of the previous titles while adding just a little bit of their own flair into the mix to keep things fresh.

The New Team
The New Team

Gears of War 4 introduces you to James “JD” Fenix, Marcus Fenix’s son, in the middle of an infiltration mission to steal a Fabricator, a device that creates fuel cells, fortifications, and weaponry. In Gears’ fashion, things go south quickly as a new enemy known as the Swarm attacks a village, taking with them your not-really-but-kinda girlfriend’s mother. What follows is a classic, "save-close-family-member-x" storyline that adds plenty of fan fair and nods to the previous games.

Remember me?
Remember me?

The storyline is predictable, albeit enjoyable, never deviating from the beats of the previous games. The Coalition has made Gears 4 fit into the predetermined Gears of War box so well that it’s almost a detriment to the title. While it’s thrillingly enjoyable, the game never takes too many risks with its story, making it feel a little too safe.

Even the plot points are strikingly similar to Gears of War 2. I can appreciate why The Coalition has done this, though. Gears of War 4 feels more like a stepping-stone for the following sequels than its own entity. This is a safe play from The Coalition as they can, from this point forward, begin twisting the series into something they want without ostracizing the playerbase from the get go.

COG Replacement Soldiers
COG Replacement Soldiers

However, a few interesting changes were made to the universe of Gears using something that was only ever referred to at a single point in the first title. Marcus Fenix was originally in prison for four years at the beginning of the first game for going AWOL. As it turns out in Gears of War 4, James Fenix has done the exact same thing, as the COG is now considered a totalitarian organization and something Marcus and James both could not support.

The Coalition has gone the way of Halo 5 and turned the once fabled military on its head in an attempt to view the system from the marginalized perspective. It definitely works, but it could have been explored more during the story. It’s more likely that this will become a plot point in future titles.

Another significant change comes in the form of the COG soldiers being replaced by a mechanized military. It was a bit confusing at first, as my entire knowledge of the Gears games was quickly nullified.

New Enemy Type
New Enemy Type

In terms of gameplay, these new mechanized units were not exploited to their full potential. Instead of requiring a certain type of weapon to neutralize them, à la Halo’s Flood or Covenant, you simply shoot them with the same weapons that take down the organic enemies.

It helps to keep fights similar, but it ultimately feels like an opportunity was missed to inject more variety and chaos into the mix. Most of the heavily armored enemies just plod toward you in a dreadful, shoot-it-before-it-reaches-you moment that harkens back to the terrible Terminator Salvation fights.

Maybe it was because I was playing on Hardcore, but my shots never felt like they carried any weight, with enemies barely reacting to being shot in the knees or limbs and only showing a sign of damage when they either went into the revive mechanic or exploded into chunks. It made enemies feel like bullet-sponges. The enemies are somewhat predictable when they appear, with the smaller creatures being the quick ones that rush you and the large enemies holding the powerful guns. It’s rather uninspired, but it does allow you to quickly assess the situation and react accordingly.

Cover-System Done Right
Cover-System Done Right

Despite this, Gears of War 4 brings with it one of the best cover-systems in third-person shooters and a variety of weapons that all offer visceral feedback. The Lancer’s chainsaw is still a li’l ripper and the Torque Bow a terrifying weapon to encounter, making you question just where exactly the arrow landed.

There is a host of new weapons like the Buzzkill, a heavy weapon that fires off saw blades that ricochet, or the Dropshot that fires a hovering bomb that moves in a straight line away from you, allowing you to take out enemies that are behind cover. Every new weapon feels like it belongs in the Gears universe, though there are some entrants from the previous games that are missing, like the Mortar and the Flamethrower.

Each firefight tends to occur in a small arena or a bend outside, and are filled with chest-high walls. I’ve got to give The Coalition credit for ensuring that each room feels different. I never got bored of entering into a room and fighting amidst the perfectly-placed rubble.

It takes a certain talent to concoct hundreds of rooms where the player can quickly pick out a strong point to hold without making the experience feel stale after the second, third, or even twentieth fight. There’s a natural progression to the areas as you either push forward or even retreat backward when a heavy enemy enters.

Storm Season
Storm Season

To add to this, the game sets up the existence of massive electrical storms that wreak havoc whenever they appear. This mechanic is used a few times in the game either during cinematic sections or combat to add a touch more variety to an experience that could become tedious.

By adding these storms to a firefight, it completely changes how some projectiles function, often sending shots curving away from their target. Aside from pure gameplay changes, the storms also offer a beautiful backdrop that adds to the overall scenic aspects of Gears of War 4.

Elevator Ride
Elevator Ride

In terms of set pieces, Gears of War 4 introduces major set piece after major set piece in what feels like a constant upgrade in the drama and action. You visit massive locations like a dam or a mine shaft where you ride a flaming elevator down while holding off against waves of enemies. These breathe life into encounters and leave the campaign feeling as though it has more variety than the previous titles.

Moonlit Fights
Moonlit Fights

Graphically, the game is astounding. The Coalition has done a tremendous job at lighting and creating environments that evoke emotion. A few times during the quiet walk-and-talk sections, I’ve simply stopped and looked around at the dilapidation. Areas remind me of the quiet times in The Last of Us that flaunted rundown locations and scenes. Every element comes together to create truly breath-taking vistas and explosive cinematic sequences.

On-rails moments like these are littered throughout the game
On-rails moments like these are littered throughout the game

Gameplay is frequently broken up into on-rails sections to help with any repetition that might occur during the firefights. I often laughed at how outrageous the scenes would become. One sequence involved riding a Tarzan-like swing through an exploding chasm as you shoot and dodge enemies. It’s outrageous fun that never takes itself too seriously. One fault of the previous titles was definitely how seriously they took themselves.

Despite being full of quips, the previous games often felt like they were trying to be too stoic and manly. In Gears of War 4, the banter remains, but is often self-referential. I often found myself laughing at the way the characters talked with one another, offering gibes here and there without devolving into B-grade 90's movie one-liners. If a character ever said a one-liner, another would offer a well-timed retort. It was amusing to hear the characters discuss the fact that stating, “It’s all clear,” is a good way to jinx themselves. 

Card Systems Are Everywhere
Card Systems Are Everywhere

Horde mode is back as well and better than ever with a few major changes. Each player must now take on a certain class that allows them to specialize in a specific area. The Engineer is able to purchase tech at a cheaper price, while the Scout can increase their health regeneration and shotgun damage.

All of these abilities are unlocked through a new card system that has become commonplace in modern shooters. You earn credits by playing and then use those credits to purchase card packs that go toward leveling your stats. While it can be frustrating to not have immediate access to everything, it helps give the Horde mode a sense of progression and purpose while also helping focus each player into a certain role.

The Fabricator from the campaign is also used during Horde mode and allows players to create fortifications or weapons at a price. Each enemy drops a currency which the Fabricator uses to generate these items. Instead of holding up in one location and killing enemies from afar, it creates a sense of urgency to quickly move around and collect as many credits as possible before the next wave starts. Hopefully Horde mode will be popular for a long time to come because there’s currently nothing like it in competing franchises.

Horde Mode Coop
Horde Mode Coop

Personally, I cannot wait to dive back into the campaign and play it again with a friend on Insane. The game offers split-screen co-op (a feature that is quickly becoming a rarity) in all aspects of the game, from the campaign and multiplayer, to the aforementioned Horde mode.

Gears of War 4 is an excellent return to form for the Gears franchise, and its new developer, The Coalition, has nailed the feel of the original games while introducing a few changes. There’s very little to complain about when it comes to this new entry, with everything fitting into place. Even the new card system isn’t offensive.

Keep on fighting
Keep on fighting

Gears of War 4 is one of those titles you will return to countless times, either for the solo experience or the carnage that the multiplayer and co-op introduce. Any concerns you might have had about a game company taking on a beloved series (343i *cough*) should be dispelled, because Gears of War 4 delivers again and again with the excitement and fun that the series is known for. Now it’s back to Horde mode for me.

Gears of War 4 Review

900
/ 1000
The Good
  • Impressive visuals
  • Excellent gameplay and mechanics
  • Visceral weaponry
  • Cheeky banter
The Bad
  • Doesn't push the envelope
  • Predictable story

Sam Chandler

Australian writer who has a penchant for Souls games, an addiction to Destiny, and a love for the indie.

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