It’s quiet, too quiet as we move through an abandoned factory. Suddenly we hear a high pitch scream; Juvie’s. The thin framed and agile creatures start running at us. I roll to the left and rev my Lancer’s chainsaw, its blood soaked blades are hungry and rip through the soft flesh of the creature, cutting it in half. Another one charges at me, but Kait, my friend and ally, fires a round from her Longshot and takes its head clean off. As the horde of Juvie’s swarm around us, a Scion enters the room with a few Drones by his side. He reaches for the sky and orange mist surrounds him. This causes the Drones around him to power up and become even more deadly than they were before. My other ally and close friend Del, lobs a grenade at the feet of a Drone, causing him to explode in a flash of red. I swap to my Torque Bow and fire a well placed bolt at the leg of another one, causing him to drop to the ground and crawl away. I sprint up to him and perform an execution, brutally ending its life. All that’s left was the Scion, or so we thought, when suddenly a Snatcher slinks in from high up and joins the battle, as does another group of four Drones. Three-against-six, I liked those odds.
Gears of War has always been a bloody good time, and Gears of War 4 is no different. I’ve always enjoyed the Gears games, even the critically panned Gears of War: Judgment, the unofficial fourth entry in the series starring Damon Baird and Augustus Cole. Gears of War 4 takes place 20 some years following the events of Gears of War 3. You’ll start the game actually playing a few critical moments throughout the lore of this series, and fans of the franchise will be a bit giddy with the location of its first flashback mission. Once the game catches back up to the present, you’ll be introduced to JD Fenix, better known as James, the son of series protagonist Marcus Fenix. He is joined by Kait Diaz and Delmont “Del” Walker. James and Del are COG deserters, going AWOL during a classified mission.
Meanwhile, the COG is run by First Minister Jinn. She is in charge of the Coalition of Ordered Governments in a post-Locust War era. Jinn comes across as harsh, but follows that of her predecessors in protecting humanity at any cost. She uses a force of robots, called DeeBees to handle any and all dangerous tasks. Jinn spends resources tracking down JD and Del, as well as Kait, thinking the group is responsible for disappearances of several COG colonies outside New Ephyra. What is behind those disappearances? Well, that is exactly what the game is about.
First off, I rather enjoyed the new tone of this Gears of War. While it plants its feet firmly in the past, it also extends itself to the future by giving us something fresh and new, while also being something very familiar. Gears of War 4 is a throw back to the original Gears of War, as a group of soldiers explore and discover strange new creatures and discover a brand new mystery. Gears 4 offers much in the way of fan service, as Marcus Fenix joins the fight, but this time as a supporting character. I was also happy that Kait and Del weren’t related to other previous characters, as I felt that would have been a bit much. Kait’s family consists of her Uncle Oscar and her mother Reyna. The first time we meet Reyna is when the trio needs a place to hide out from the COG, and it’s during this section of the game were Reyna just flat out impressed me. I thoroughly loved her character and felt she was vastly wasted overall. Oscar, however; is generic and two-dimensional, but still a fun character in small doses.
As for the trio, the characters are fun, well written, and especially in the case of Kait, very well designed. They chatter back and forth on missions, cracking jokes and other interactive moments like screaming at me for shooting the Swarm pods that can result in creatures being hatched from them. “Why are you still popping those??” They would yell at me, which I found rather amusing. It’s when Marcus joins the team a little bit into the game that the dynamic of what made Gears so much fun becomes very apparent. Hearing Marcus yell “DAMMIT!” never lost its charm then, and it doesn’t lose it here now.
Gears of War 4 plays identical to that of its prior entries, possibly more in line with the smooth and fine-tuned Gears of War 3. Sprinting, active re-loading and everything else that makes Gears feel like Gears is here in spades and feels more polished than ever before. There are a few new weapons to take for a spin like the Dropshot, Buzzkill, Embar, Overkill and the Combat Knife. The Dropshot launches aerial mines that have drills attached to them. The shot will go in a straight line until you release the trigger and then will drill straight down into an enemy or explode upon making contact with the ground, it’s very satisfying. The Buzzkill fires off saws that can ricochet off walls and if you are not careful, you can cause friendly fire damage with it. The Embar is a no-scope rifle that is a bit easier to use than the Longshot. The Overkill is a super powered shotgun of sorts, packing a pretty huge wallop. The Combat Knife is pretty self-explanatory and can result in some brutal executions. You can grab enemies on other sides of cover and pull them close to you to execute the brutal take down.
There is a wide array of new enemy types for Gears 4 that offer some familiar but new ways to explore combat. First up, the Swarm; Juvie’s are fast moving and agile creatures that when attacking in packs, can be very deadly. Drones, which are vastly more intelligent, can also use rifles and tend to hide behind cover far more than the Locust ever did. These Drones come in a few types; Imago’s which are plain with no armor, and then Sniper’s and Hunter’s that are clad in different styles of body armor. Tougher versions of Drones are called Elite’s and they can pack a punch. There are then Scions that are big bruiser sized foes and these can also grant buffs to any Drones on the field. Snatchers are incredibly fun and frustrating depending on how the battle fares as they can collect downed players and haul them off to force a checkpoint reload should you not free them in time. Pouncers jump from spot to spot and have a dangerous tail whip attack, and should you not pay attention to them, they can pounce right on you, hence the name. Lastly, there are Carriers, which are giant hulking creatures that open their vulnerable rib cage to unleash projectiles that seek you out. There are technically a few more Swarm enemies, but I’ll leave those to your own discovery as they are just beyond cool.
Then there are the DeeBee’s, the robotic forces of the COG. Their forces, like the Swarm, get stronger through each tier. Shepherd’s are basic robots with guns and then there are larger, bulkier versions like the Deadeye and DR-1’s that can explode upon death. There are also smaller robots called Trackers that will charge you and explode, and should you time it right, you can kick them away. There is also a flying drone called a Guardian that has a front-facing shield. You can take it down with sheer force, blasting the gun below the shield or from flanking it. Rounding out the DeeBee’s is the Kestrel, a COG helicopter, which you’ll encounter a few times through the campaign and during some boss waves in Horde mode. The range in enemy types and the sometimes mixing of these two forces makes this Gears of War rather refreshing and new while also making us feel a bit nostalgic.
There is quite a bit of variety to shake up the constant shooting you’ll do through the 8-10 hour campaign. There is a bike chase, a daring escape through a mine and the final chapter of the game lets you cut loose as.. well.. you’ll just have to see, it’s amazing. You’ll also be treated to a few sections of the game where you’ll mimic the game’s new version of Horde mode. You have a Fabricator to retrieve and place in your base. This Fabricator uses points to purchase items like barricades or turrets. You can also craft guns from it should you have the points to do so. Usually you have enough points each round to craft a turret and a barricade. I found placing turrets near the Fabricator helped a lot, especially during the elevator section. I had two turrets placed in the small room and once any enemies entered the room, they were paste. There are several of these moments in the game and are worked into the plot in convincing and well-planned ways.
The game also has a few new mechanics to throw at you. First there are the electrical wind storms. While these are scripted moments and not dynamic systems (which I wish they were..), they are still thrilling and a lot of fun. You can shoot certain elements in the background to cause barrels to explode, pipes to fly into enemies, or cars to roll over them. The weather will also affect weapons like the Buzzkill as the winds are strong enough to cause them to fire a bit off. You’ll need to take this in to account when firing a large weapon near the end of the game. There are also Swarm pods that hang from the ceilings of indoor areas. These can be shot down and then used as temporary cover. If they explode, they can cause a Juvie to hatch from them. You’ll also find weapons hanging around in what the game calls ‘Snot Bubbles’, no, I am not making this up.
Visually the game is anywhere from decent to gorgeous. The first few dark areas are alright, but the game shines when it is bright and colorful, taking full advantage of high-end TV’s that support HDR. Should you have the new Console S and one of those HDR compatible TV’s, then you are in for a treat. The Swarm, which is the name given to the new enemy race, have pods and various gooey elements everywhere and anything related to the Swarm is given a very red aesthetic. It looks really striking and when you are in a room just filled with Swarm pods, it looks incredible. Characters are hit and miss as characters like Marcus, JD, Del, Kait and Reyna all look fantastic, while other characters that don’t have a lot of moments just look ok. This is especially apparent early on in the game when it speeds through the first few missions to get us on our way. Some levels have some poor detail and texturing to them, while some sections can almost drop your jaw.
Horde mode is back and better than ever. Each Horde map centers around holding a checkpoint. You’ll use your Fabricator to fashion turrets; both mounted and automatic, barricades, mortar strikes and other offensive elements like gun lockers and ammo cache’s. As you kill the waves upon waves of enemies, you’ll collect power tokens. These tokens need to be brought back to your Fabricator to purchase those items and upgrades. Each token will disappear from the battlefield once the next round starts. Each Horde map lasts up to 50 rounds and every ten rounds will see a boss take the field. In the 50 rounds I did at the Dam, each tenth round was a Carrier. I was sort of disappointed that the boss waves didn’t change it up and offer new bosses each tenth wave. We set up numerous automatic and manual turrets and blasted through all 50 waves with only a few dire moments of near death. Horde mode this time around feels more intense and more focused than previous entries.
During the first few launch days I had numerous problems finding a game. It took nearly 25 minutes to join my first round of Dodgeball. I am sure that servers will be better further down the road, but for its first official few days, it was not impressive, especially for it being a first party title. It would also sometimes bring up a menu saying I needed Xbox Live Gold to play and then boot me to the offline menu, despite the fact I did indeed have an active Gold Membership. After I was able to actually connect I played a few rounds of each of the modes offered and the results were fairly good, depending on your view of the whole PVP experience.
Dodgeball has a neat trick in that when you die, you respawn only if another teammate kills one of the opposing forces. It’s a neat concept that unfortunately rarely made its way into the game as most rounds were usually clean sweeps. There is Arm’s Race where you earn better guns the more your team kills other players. There is your standard team deathmatch which is ok, but can come off a bit bland given its simplicity. Then there is Guardian, where each team has a leader that causes your teammates to respawn, take out the leader and the other members of that squad cannot respawn. King of the Hill has some intense moments trying to secure and keep your zone as does Warzone, where you only have one life per round. Rounding out the multiplayer offerings here is Escalation and Execution. Escalation has you hold objective rings to score enough points to win, or capture all three rings to win instantly. I found this mode to just be too long, packing it with too many rounds. Execution has you eliminate all members of the opposing team using executions, and you get one life to do it in.
Gears of War 4 also brings with it the most common component of modern multiplayer design, micro-transactions. Love’em or hate’em, they are here and just far too expensive in this instance. There are various ‘packs’ that you can buy, each containing cards. Cards have specific things like new characters, new weapon skins, buffs, skills or experience. You’ll buy these by either spending real money or earning credits for completing various multiplayer events. I felt that the credits weren’t rewarded as fast as I expected. I understand that you shouldn’t be swimming in credits after a few rounds of multiplayer, but the amounts you are rewarded is just ridiculous. I had enough credits to buy an Operations pack after completing 50 waves of Horde, which is a very timely investment. Going back to the cost of the packs, you can drop nearly $65 bucks on a Deluxe Airdrop which contains 40 packs. Now, that’s a lot of cards that can make your multiplayer experience a bit more fun, but at the cost of a whole game? That’s a bit much.
Within the card packs are also Bounties. These are cards that allow you to earn more exp at the cost of a task like killing 100 enemies with an assault rifle or beating 50 waves on Hardcore difficulty. There are versus bounties and horde bounties that more or less act the same. Each either have an experience payout for completing them or a credit payout which you can use then to purchase more packs. Last, there are Class Skills. Gears of War 4’s multiplayer now works within a class system; Soldier, Sniper, Engineer, Heavy and Scout. Each class has its own starting weapon set and perks. You can set and upgrade cards to boost effects like reload speed, ammo capacity and taking less grenade/melee damage. While the system for Bounties and Class Skills are really engaging, I wish you could change these between waves as the time it takes to burn through 50 waves on Horde mode can take quite a while to just devote to one card. As you level up, you can equip multiple cards, but that can really take a while depending on your skill level. I also wish you could see other player’s class levels in the lobby screen, it’s a small gripe, but one I had none-the-less.
Overall, Gears of War 4 is a fantastic trip down memory lane, sharing a lot of similarities with that of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A whole new studio tasked with re-inventing a classic, introducing us to a whole new cast of characters while also mixing in franchise favorites to pass the baton over to a new generation. Gears of War 4 does give us a lot of what came before it, but also mixes in enough new material to give us something fresh for the series. Its gameplay variety and story is some of the series best, falling in line for me just behind Gears of War 3, my favorite of the series. The Swarm and DeeBee’s offer enough new ideas behind them for the typical Gears of War player to change up how they approach the iconic combat, and that’s a pretty cool thing. Multiplayer, when it connects, is fun and intense, should you be into PVP, and if you are not, then there is the stunning Horde mode to fill your time with.
Gears of War 4 isn’t a reboot or refresher for the series, but it didn’t really need to be. It just needed to be fun, enjoyable and bring with it enough new scenario’s to grab your Lancer, rev that chainsaw, and rip those creatures a new one.
Also, should you download Gears of War 4 digitally, you’ll unlock cross-play access for using the title on both Xbox One and Windows 10, complete with cross-play between platforms. So if you know someone who has it on Windows 10 and you’re on Xbox One, you can both play campaign, horde and everything the game has to offer, together.