I’ve said it before and I’ll inevitably say it again: 2016’s been a rough year for video games! Companies have taken the hint from the popularity of crowdfunding and Early Access models; they’ve realized that games don’t really need to be finished at launch to make loads of money, so we’ve seen a lot of questionable releases this year.
It’s nice when a game comes along that delivers its promises and does it well. Since such things are becoming increasingly rare, today we’re going to look at just such a game: Gears of War 4.
It’s been awhile since the Locust were defeated in Gears 3; enough time for the humans of planet Sera to get back on track. Cities are being built, re-population is getting done (in pretty much exactly the way you’re thinking) and all in all things are chill without the threat of the Locust hanging over everyone’s heads. Well, they’re chill if you obey the Coalition of Ordered Governments or COG, the governing force of the civilized post-Locust world. If you don’t, you’re an Outsider, and that means things aren’t quite so comfortable.
In Gears 4 we follow the adventures of JD Fenix, son of the previous games’ Marcus Fenix and new Outsider after he defects from the COG’s military. What begins as an effort to help his new Outsider pals rapidly goes south, and eventually JD and his allies find themselves facing both the COG and a new, monstrous foe; that’s on top of Sera not being the most hospitable planet in the first place, what with the nasty lightning-tornado weather patterns that seem to be common.
The campaign is pretty standard for Gears; I didn’t find JD or his wisecracking pals Del and Kait to be quite as interesting as Marcus from the original series, but after the first hour or so that becomes less of an issue for reasons that rapidly become apparent. Gears’ penchant for strong level design and interesting setpieces shines through here, and the new enemies you battle can offer some unique strategic takes on the game’s combat. I especially enjoyed an early chapter set across an Italian-esque estate that took you from one side of the home to the other in a massive running battle. Gears 4 doesn’t really redefine the series, but it’s a solid and polished entry; the campaign does seem to end fairly quickly, though, and it’s obvious that the game is pushing you to buy the inevitable sequel.
You’ll battle whatever comes your way in the usual Gears style. Even if you aren’t familiar with Gears of War, you probably won’t take long to get used to how the series plays; the cover system the game launched to popularity defined an entire era of shooters and is still in use in many games today. Gunfire is deadly in Gears and you’ll spend most of your time in combat hunkered down behind the nearest chest-high object; success in battle revolves around taking shots when enemies pop out from behind cover of their own and by flanking them to get around their defenses. Close quarters battle is even more lethal, with melee attacks and shotguns often instantly killing their targets.
Gears 4 sticks closely to this formula. There are a couple of interesting twists, namely the ability to slide directly over cover without hunkering behind it first and the ability to yank baddies over the other side of cover, but they don’t change up how the game plays in any significant fashion. Patience and maneuvering are still the name of the game here. This also applies to the fast-paced multiplayer, where players who can close in on their opponents without being flanked or taken out by snipers tend to win the day. The other way that Gears 4 innovates is in its weapon selection, including a cover-breaching rocket, a powerful sniper rifle that needs to be carefully charged up and my personal favorite: a shotgun called the Overkill that fires both when the trigger is pulled and when it’s released, which is incredibly satisfying and brutal when used properly.
Along with the campaign, Gears 4 offers competitive and cooperative multiplayer. You can battle other players or run with them through the campaign, but let’s be honest: when you’re talking about playing Gears with friends, you’re probably talking about Horde mode. In this case, you’ve got Horde 3.0, the latest iteration of the baddie-blasting wave-based gameplay that was introduced in Gears 2. Horde 3.0 spices up the action by offering class options and by improving the tower-defense elements we’ve seen in earlier iterations of Horde, but at heart it’s mostly the same classic gameplay you know and love.
Something must be said about the microtransactions Gears 4 is offering, naturally; so far as I can tell, they work a bit like the REQ Pack system seen in Halo 5: Guardians. You’ll earn currency by playing the game and can use that to buy randomized packs of upgrades and cosmetic options. Alternatively, you can just shell out real money to buy packs directly. I’m not particularly fond of microtransaction models like this, but they’re pretty standard these days. At least the setup in Gears 4 doesn’t pinch you too hard, unlike something like Mass Effect 3 where entire character classes and weapons were locked behind packs.
As far as look and feel goes, the last Gears game, Judgment, suffered a bit thanks to the aging Xbox 360 hardware. Gears, more than anything, is about spectacle; the first game was the go-to option for showing off the power of the 360, and likewise Gears 4 looks and sounds amazing on both Xbox One and PC. In particular, the game’s PC version is excellent. If you’ve got the hardware, Gears 4 will blow you away. Scenes involving the aforementioned lightning-tornado storms are particularly gorgeous. It’s good stuff. Also good stuff: the Xbox Play Anywhere concept, which is used in Gears 4 as it was in ReCore. This means that if you buy Gears 4 digitally on either Xbox One or PC, you’ll get the other version of the game as well in the form of a download code, not to mention the two versions share save data and can engage in cross-platform play in non-competitive game modes. The download code thing does NOT apply to physical copies, however, which might influence your buying decisions a bit.
What won’t blow you away is the aggravation offered by the Windows Store app that you’ll need to go through in order to get the game on PC. Xbox One owners are definitely the winners here. The Windows Store app follows the modern Windows design paradigm of ease-of-use-via-obfuscation; in other words, it goes down the Fischer-Price path of rounding out the corners and hiding the details so anyone can use it. This means that if you have trouble downloading Gears 4, for instance, you’ll likely have a rough time figuring out why.
There’s a good chance you’ll have that trouble, too, since the Store app does odd things like redownloading the entire 80GB game if you need to patch it. Yes, seriously.
Those things aside, Gears of War 4 is another classic AAA experience that’s worth checking out for fans of oversized heroes running, gunning, chainsawing and especially cowering behind chest-high walls. It looks and plays great, and wasn’t released in an obviously incomplete state. For those of you rocking Microsoft consoles or operating-systems, you can’t really ask for much more in 2016, folks!