All tease and no climax.
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Format: PC, Xbox One (reviewed)
Released: October 11, 2016
Copy provided by publisher
It’s been many years since Gears of War 3 dropped a vague cliffhanger on us with the promise that life on Sera wasn’t peachy just because the Locust were destroyed.
After an underappreciated prequel in Gears of War: Judgment, things have been dark for three years while The Coalition took over from Epic Games to craft Gears of War 4. After an exciting announcement and promising previews, it’s finally here, and I have to say…
… I’m just a little bit disappointed.
Gears of War 4 evolves its multiplayer features with some well executed twists and a robust Horde 3.0 mode, but despite positioning itself as a “new era” for the Gears series, this is very much a case of business-as-usual with a campaign that can only be described as a letdown.
To get the campaign out of the way first, players control J.D. Fenix, the son of former Gears stars Marcus Fenix and Anya Stroud. Joined by Delmont Walker and Kait Diaz, he is one of the “outsiders” – a group who abandoned the authoritative COG to illegally live outside the militant government’s city walls.
There’s a lot of implied world building that’s never explored as the narrative hurtles toward an inconclusive conclusion at breakneck speed. The rise of the COG as a friendly-faced oppressor, the elimination of Imulsion as a fossil fuel, and the circumstances under which J.D. abandoned the COG are lightly touched on, but never detailed.
Instead of giving us a look at a brand new Sera with an all-new breed of heroes, Gears 4 is instead content to rapidly breeze past crucial events with an introductory chapter before settling into a vague retreading of familiar ground.
Mostly taking placed in underground caverns and abandoned cities outside of COG jurisdiction, the environments are as desolate and wartorn as they ever were. We rarely glimpse a world rebuilt after the Locust War, instead wading through wastelands that could belong in any of the previous games.
These wastelands house an emerging threat, The Swarm, who are little more than vaguely reskinned Locust. They look the same, they sound the same, and they come to serve the exact same narrative purpose. These wannabe antagonists also serve as one of Gears 4‘s biggest disappointments.
Chief among their problems, the Swarm share a dismal trait with Gears 3‘s Lambent Locust faction – they’re boring.
The real Locust had personality, as well as rich visual evidence of their alien culture and a diverse array of castes and animals. The Lambent stripped all that away, and the Swarm do the same – they’re barely more expressive than zombies and most of them are indistinguishable from each other.
There are no Theron Guards, no Kantus Priests, no Beast Riders. Hardly a shred of variance and character, barely any of the chatter and banter that gave Gears of War a truly expressive enemy.
Outside of the larger Scion soldiers and a handful of generic bug-like monsters, Gears 4‘s opposition is made up of Locust knock-offs with none of their grotesque charm.
In an attempt to add a little more diversity, players do face off against another faction – the robotic “DeeBee” soldiers of the COG. Presumably to avoid human-on-human violence, The Coalition opted to replace the COG’s Gears soldiers with robots who bring an assortment of new weapons, such as the extremely powerful Overkill shotgun and the Enforcer SMG.
They have a little more going on than the Swarm, but their monotone voices and polite threats are nothing we haven’t seen in dozens of other media where robotic enforcers try to keep the peace while slaughtering everybody. It’s an old trope, and the DeeBees do nothing special with it.
4‘s story has some high points involving familiar characters but they arrive all-too late thanks to the campaign’s sudden and unceremonious finale.
Ending on a vague cliffhanger that has all the impact of wet toilet paper, the whole story feels like it’s part of an episodic series rather than a fully realized plot in its own right.
It’s clear this game is being positioned as the start of a new trilogy and The Coalition has done nothing to mask that fact. For all intents and purposes, this is an episodic series – with the caveat of each installment costing $59.99.
As a result of this, Gears of War 4 is all setup and no payoff.
The final battle is against a totally random monster that bursts from the ground without warning and serves no other purpose than to provide an arbitrary weak climax. It’s even referred to simply as “that thing” by the game’s own mission text. It’s the showdown we’ve all been waiting for!
We never get to learn the reason behind pretty much anything that happens. The Swarm arrive, we briefly uncover their origin (it’s a “spoiler” to tell you, but your guesses won’t be far from the mark), and that’s about it. Motives, character development, even an overarching goal is left missing as we head into an inevitable Gears 5.
Gears of War has always loved teasing sequels, but at least each game had some sense of completion – an antagonist to bring down, a resolution to a problem, something. None of that’s to be found here.
The gameplay itself is solid, if unremarkable after four previous games that have incrementally changed. The usual cover-based shooting is all in place with the same old assortment of weaponry coming back. Lancers, Gnashers, Longshots, they all join the newer weaponry and remain the most dependable guns.
Gears 4 does add one neat feature, cover-based melee combat. Enemies behind cover can be pulled over it and stabbed to death using the Yank & Shank move, as well as tackled and rendered vulnerable by a player sliding across the cover itself. While it’s not revolutionary, it’s fun to do in both solo/co-op and competitive multiplayer – provided the moves aren’t countered or the player doesn’t fall victim to them first.
Some of the fresh heavy weapons are quite interesting, too. Joining the classic Mulcher is the Dropshot, a modified mining tool that acts similarly to Gears 3‘s Digger Launcher – sending mines that float toward targets and explode when the trigger is released.
Another mining tool, the Buzzkill, fires circular saws that can bounce off walls, allowing for instant kills against enemies hiding behind cover. Enjoyable to use but infrequent in their appearance, they provide some much needed empowerment between entrenched firefights.
Oh, and there’s weather now. Sometimes there are storms and you have to avoid electrical surges. Sometimes the wind makes grenades hard to throw. So that happens.
Gears of War 4 benefits from the three-year break between its release and Judgment. Despite so many pretenders, there’s nothing quite like Gears on the market. The sense of weight, the meaty impact of combat, the gruesomely satisfying way heads pop and bodies burst, any given Gears game has a baseline quality even at its worst thanks to its undeniably unique style.
The Coalition’s work piggybacks off the series’ established positive traits and plays it safe, doing very little to rock the boat and making minor improvements and evolving where needed. Such a tactic provides a game that’s decent just because it’s Gears of War, relying on the groundwork established across four older games to maintain the baseline.
And that’s most certainly what Gears 4 is. A maintenance of the series as opposed to an injection of fresh blood.
Competitive multiplayer hammers that idea home, feeling the same as it ever did. From Deathmatches to Guardian to King of the Hill, all your old favorites are there.
To The Coalition’s credit, it did create three clever modes that line up well with the gallery of returning matches.
Dodgeball is a match type based around respawns. If a teammate is killed, they can only respawn when an enemy player dies, creating a tug-of-war in which two sides attempt to whittle down opponents and regain their own numbers.
Arms Race forces players to constantly adapt as their weapon loadouts change every time their team scores three kills – a good mode to play if you hate the overuse of shotguns everywhere else.
Finally, Escalation is a capture-and-hold game consisting of twelve rounds in which the first team to win seven claims victory. Losing teams get to place new weapons on the map while the respawn timer increases each round, leading to messier and riskier combat over time.
The new modes are good and the old ones are as solid as always, but familiar problems with multiplayer remain.
The Gnasher reigns supreme once again, victory in combat decided overwhelmingly by whoever rolls toward an enemy and blindfires their shotgun first. A lot of the new weapons manage to emulate the Gnasher on larger scales, with Dropshots and Overkills spawning for plenty of one-hit kills.
As is custom with Gears, using cover is often deadly in a game that is supposed to be cover-based, while rolling around and blasting at things incessantly is superior. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
Finally, Horde 3.0 rounds out the gameplay with five-player wave-based cooperative battles.
Players place a Fabricator anywhere on the map, determining their base of operations, and use it to build various defenses and weapons. Slain enemies drop energy that can be collected and brought to the fabricator for building purposes, and a new class system gives players extra advantages.
Engineers can equip skills to build things cheaper and repair fortifications more efficiently, while Scouts can make themselves faster or get extra energy when depositing. Soldiers and Heavies are combat-focused with skillsets based around damage or defense, and the Sniper is… a sniper.
While each class has its own weapon loadout, there aren’t major differences between them. Additionally, class skills are determined by cards randomly unlocked via Gears of War 4‘s fee-to-pay microtransaction system. Only a handful of cards can be equipped, so class variation isn’t particularly dramatic.
It’s a nice effort to make things more intricate though, even if it isn’t too noticeable.
Horde Mode itself is, once again, a showstealer in my book, and the primary reason to check out Gears 4. It continues the game’s theme of only slightly adapting the series’ existing structure, but it’s a ton of fun regardless and the mixture of DBs and Swarm can make for some damn challenging fights.
Map design and the ability to place a Fabricator anywhere on the map conspire to craft a more dynamic Horde, though I’ve little doubt players will soon suss out the optimal spots and codify the experience post-launch.
As noted, Gears of War 4 is yet another game to succumb to the fee-to-pay model, supplementing its premium price and season pass and DLC with microtransactions. Various “packs” can be purchased with credits, unlocking new multiplayer characters, weapon skins, and player emblems, as well as skill cards for Horde mode.
Bounty cards can also be uncovered for both Horde and competitive multiplayer, offering combat challenges in exchange for credits or XP boosts. Such challenges might include surviving twenty Horde rounds on a certain difficulty or scoring a set number of weapon kills.
Duplicate cards may be combined to improve their benefits or destroyed for scrap. Scrap serves as the game’s obligatory “bullshit currency,” the free stuff that players can use to craft cards without relying on random unlocks – but of course there are cards that cannot be crafted due to developer-mandated scarcity.
As one might expect, you’ll need a lot of scrap to craft anything worth crafting, and the destruction of cards doesn’t yield an impressive amount.
While premium credits can be earned in-game, it’s naturally quicker to spend real money on obtaining them. From what I’ve gathered playing thus far, it’s quite the grind to earn credits without inviting Microsoft to rifle through your wallet.
Gears 4 has some fantastic character skins, I have to admit. The “color splash” models are fun as hell to see in a game, and there are plenty of ways to make weapons look amusingly tacky. It’s just a shame it’s all gated under an unlock system that isn’t particularly rewarding when trying to earn it by actually playing the videogame that was purchased… to be played.
Such is the way of the game industry now.
I’ve done a lot of complaining about Gears of War 4, but my complaints come from a position of love. I have a deep fondness for Gears of War as a series, even if I’m an atypical fan who loves it for the campaign rather than the multiplayer. I’m aware this may color my personal perception of the production since the campaign is not up to par and weaker even than Gears 3‘s, but I certainly consider the perspective a valid one.
Is it a good game overall? Sure.
The combat of the campaign is fundamentally sound, the multiplayer is well crafted as always (despite the usual shotty problem), and Horde mode is great entertainment. As a complete package, the game is worthy, if only for the fact it’s a Gears game and the true heavy lifting was already done by Epic in 2006.
Nevertheless, the campaign is flimsy, and despite claims of signifying a new generation for the series, Gears of War 4 is ultimately an upholder of the status quo.
And Beast Mode, the best thing Gears ever did, has been completely forgotten.
And I hate that the Therons are gone.
And J.D. is boring.
But like I said… it’s still pretty good.
Bring back the Therons.