It’s been 25 years since the Locust War, and the scars of that conflict are still very apparent. Humanity is rebuilding, both within the confines and security of COG governance, and outside of its militaristic regime.
The latter – "Outsiders" – live on the fringe, in townships almost completely devoid of the advanced technology the COG is built on. They are forced to resort to scavenging and occasionally outright stealing from the COG in order to survive. It’s not an easy or all that safe lifestyle, but it is how life is lived if you want to be free of the COG yoke.
It’s also where we find our Gears 4 protagonists: COG deserters JD (son of Marcus) Fenix and his best friend Del Walker. The pair are the typically burley human tanks that Gears games love so much. The third is Kait Diaz, an Outsider by birth. She's not as beefcake, but she's no less deadly than the massive slabs of meat she chooses to associate with.
After a mission to "retrieve" a fabricator from a COG site goes awry, COG First Minister Jinn sets her sights on the trio and their settlement, blaming them for the disappearance of some of her citizenry. After fighting off waves of robotic DeeBees and tending their wounds from the battle, the Outsiders discover the real culprits of these disappearances – The Swarm. And thus, another typically Gears of War story mode begins in earnest, filled with corridors aplenty, numerous convenient walls to hide behind, and even more numerous monstrous bad guys to perforate.
The Coalition has very smoothly stepped into the large combat boots left vacant by Gears creator Epic Games. Hell, based on how familiar Gears 4 feels, I would guess they took the socks too, and have chosen not to wash them! That familiarity works both for and against the game. Fans of the series will instantly feel the well-oiled Gears vibe, but to some, the Gears grunt-and-hide shooting mechanics might taste a little stale.
The same goes for the Swarm, which apart from a few new additions feel very Locust-like, even going so far as to have a 1:1 replacement for emergence holes. These Nests and the Drone Swarm enemies are essentially just Locust reskins, and for a while really irked me. I wanted something new, and that was not really on offer. The monsters that are new are a welcome addition, but don't do enough to really differentiate The Swarm from The Locust. There is a lot more to say here, but that might cross into spoiler territory. In the scheme of things these apparent copy/paste enemies are actually a minor concern, but a very obvious one.
Thankfully, the game has been peppered with a lot of charm from our protagonists, who are far less gun-bro than prior Gears heroes. JD is a little stiff, but Del and Kait give Gears 4 a welcome injection of personality. And while there are times where dialogue might be a bit heavy on the cheese for the first time in the series, these are characters you can actually relate to, and the friendship the three share feels genuine throughout.
The overblown machismo and grim self-seriousness that had previously bogged down the series has been pared back. We still get snippets from time to time, but these are usually near pitch-perfect nods Gears’ Epic legacy.
When it comes to the nuts and bolts, gears, and cogs, the game just works. The gunplay is tight and responsive. The typically broad spread of fire from the main weapons feels more dialed in, and has all the punch you’d expect. The most welcome change those is for those playing with a keyboard and mouse.
You can finally exploit the true potential of the long-range precision weapons and nail those headshots! It feels fantastic! The only real problems are the very familiar issues when faced with multiple close range and/or flanking enemies. The reliance on cover leads to a degree of clunk when meeting an enemy face-to-face or to the side. The polished mantling mechanics and grab-and-execute moves help to a degree, but you can never quite get away from the fact that outside of cover, the combat is demonstrably less enjoyable.
All irks aside, and that is really all they are, Gears 4 is a great game. It’s also a darn pretty one. Built in Epic’s Unreal Engine 4, it's easily pound-for-pound the sexiest Gears we've seen. Detailed textures and smooth animations coupled with the third-person view highlight the artistry of the character and creature models. The architecture and landscapes are beautifully rendered, and are all lit by astonishing lighting and post-process effects. Calling a Gears of War game "beautiful" feels a little strange, but there is no better word for it.
Lush graphics and great game-play are only part of the equation. In gaming, performance is king, and that is something that has been a problem for a lot of games released this past year – especially on PC, and even more so for games released on the Unified Windows Platform.
Fear of a repeat of the despised Games for Windows Live is common among PC gamers, and sadly up until this point Microsoft has done a poor job of putting these fears to rest. That is, until now: Gears of War on PC is fantastic! On my admittedly rather beefy rig, I maintained well over 100 frames per second on the highest settings at 1440p resolution.
Pair this with precise and responsive controls and more graphics options that I actually know what to do with, and Gears 4 is a delight to play! Alt-tabbing works perfectly, and I’ve not experienced a single crash or freeze. There is even a built-in benchmarking tool and performance overlay for those wanting more detail when playing, or for fine-tuning their settings.
I’ve experienced zero stuttering, and apart from some minor jitters when playing co-op with Matt on his Xbox, it’s been a smooth ride. Games for Windows Live is Dead! Long live UWP! It’s still going to require developers making the most of the system, but at least it is no longer causing trouble.
So, whether you’re on PC or Xbox I only have the following words of advice: strap on your COG armour, oil up your Lancer’s chainsaw, and massacre some Swarm!
The campaign mode is barely half the story though; the competitive and cooperative really modes are the meat of the game.
As a relative newcomer to the Gears take on multiplayer, I was initially overwhelmed with the number of options presented to me. With six “Core” versus modes, two “Competitive” modes, Horde, and co-op, it felt like there was a lot going on. However, after playing over 45 hours in these modes, it became obvious that despite having the greatest number of modes, the versus modes are for the most part aperitif and palette cleanser.
This is not to say that these modes are not fun or lack polish, because that certainly is not the case. But none of them feel deep or satisfying over the long haul. Team Deathmatch is a solid take on the competitive staple, but it feels a little clunky when compared to its first-person brethren on PC. The other core modes provide enough variety to keep your player killer desires satisfied. The standout is the Arms Race mode. The combination of frantic gunplay and the requirement to rotate through all the game’s weapons as kills are accumulated always keeps things fresh and forces players to alter their tactics on the fly. It’s a great way to change things up and easily the best versus mode in the entire game!
Of the two competitive modes, Execution is the superior experience. The 'kill the team' requirement and limited revives keep things tense and the action fast. Escalation does not fare as well. Gears’ Domination variant is what you would expect, but the games drag on for far too long and become tiresome as a result. Both modes are solid enough, but neither are as compelling as I would like.
The only significant issue I experienced with any of these modes were some extremely lengthy wait times during matchmaking. I don’t know whether this is an issue for the game in general or a PC specific thing, but it did lead me to abandon the game a couple of times as the timer continued to click on with no apparent match in sight. It also must be mentioned that there are micro-transactions, and while they are not required and items can be unlocked by grinding, the inclusion of real money purchases feels at best greedy, and at worst predatory.
As solid as the versus modes are, in Gears of War, co-op is king! I’ve never been a fan of cooperative campaign modes, but Gears of War 4 has convinced me of their value. The ability to share the load and work tactically adds another layer to the combat, which for the most part elevates the entire experience while providing some great comedic moments when you’re continuously put through the meatgrinder at higher difficulty levels.
Co-op also offers the catharsis of being able to call out your teammate for failing in some daring frontal assault attempt and vice-versa. PC players can now even do this face to face (or is that cheek to cheek?) with the welcome addition of split-screen.
As I was very quick to learn, the real reason people love Gears is the Horde Mode. I had no real experience of this mode prior to Gears 4, but I am a convert! The tower defense aspect and escalating danger as more and more powerful waves assault your team was nothing short of transformative for me. It could be argued that the classes are too restrictive, leaving players a too narrow role to play in each match, but this is a small issue. There is plenty of breadth to each class when in the midst of combat, and nailing your role is infinitely satisfying. The kill, protect, and collect game dynamic is executed perfectly, and it alone is almost worth the asking price.
The Coalition has made an extremely confident first step with its Gears of War debut. A solid campaign, meaty multiplayer, and best in class co-op action make Gears of War 4 an easy recommendation. My main hope is that the team can add a little more of their own voice for future titles and rely a little less on what came before.