It’s been over three years since we last experienced the world of Gears of War, the swansong on the Xbox 360, Gears of War: Judgment and quite a lot has changed since then. New hardware has come to the fold, to the point where this first current gen outing will debut on the second iteration of the new console, the Xbox One S. As well as the shiny new hardware, quite a lot has changed behind the scenes in the world of Gears too. Epic Games, creators of what is arguably one of, if not, the Xbox franchise are now out of the picture having sold the rights to Microsoft and in comes The Coalition, previously known as Black Tusk Studios along with (and as part of the rights deal) Rod Fergusson to head up development having previously worked on Gears one through three with Epic. With all this change behind the scenes, along with the shift to new hardware and with Microsoft relying so heavily on the franchise to continue to sell units as well as pushing the Xbox brand in general, it would be so very easy for this new iteration to fall flat on its face. It is with delight and a pinch of glee that we are able to report that Gears of War 4 absolutely does not do this and is a fantastic entry in the franchise.
Gears of War 4 explodes onto Xbox One bringing to the stage new characters (mixed in with a few familiar faces), a sharper tongue, improved visuals as well as performance and a wealth of content to sink (hole) your teeth into. There’s a definite feeling of The Force Awakens with Gears of War 4, it’s new and damn sure looks it, yet tries hard to not feel totally new, bringing back some old friends and sticking with a lot of the things that made it a huge success.
The new saga begins around twenty five years after the events of Gears of War 3 and our new breed of heroes include Marcus Fenix’s son, along with his friends Del and Kait. Following a rather neat prologue you realise that your squad are known as outsiders, accused by the now Robot-driven COG (the Government’s army) of ‘stealing’ people from settlements. For many of the opening chapters you will find yourself up against this COG army of bots and they are a refreshingly intelligent enemy to come up against. Quick and smart they can bog you down a little as you familiarise yourself (possibly again) with the tried and tested Gears cover shooter mechanics. As interesting as they are though, they are just robots and there is a moment early on when you will think, "oh no is this just robots again now?!" Luckily whilst they are present a lot early on, in time they fade into the background as the main enemy of the tale comes to the fore.
As the story progresses we are reunited with some old friends and our heroes embark on saving Kait’s mother from this new terror. The swarm, bearing a striking resemblance to the locust are taking people, including the aforementioned mother, and your now squad of four (no spoilers) set off to retrieve her and learn more about this new enemy.
Overall the story and writing are a mixed bag, witty banter brings the franchise more into the modern videogame blockbuster world with the character interaction and overall writing resembling more Uncharted than the earlier Gears offerings and it’s as a result of this that the roughly ten hour or so campaign struggles at times with tone. It’s not a huge issue but the characters do seem to maintain a level of humour even after the most horrific events which doesn’t always fit well. The short, focused campaign is a breeze on the normal difficulty but ramps up considerably on the higher difficulties; for these adventures it is best to take advantage of the now two player co-op. Drop in drop out co-op for just the two players is a bit of a throwback to the original as we’ve become accustomed to larger numbers in co-op but it works flawlessly and it is always nice to get a buddy involved when the going gets tough.
The presentation of the entire package is up there with the best you will find on any console or PC and it is clear to see the love for the source material is strong amongst everyone involved. Huge set pieces are littered in-between the standard if a little sharper and quicker Gears of War gameplay with the particle effects throughout being a particular delight for the eyeballs.
Performance-wise it’s a fantastic achievement on a console that has come up against an awful lot of flack for its technical capabilities post-launch. Graphically the entire thing is slick, polished and ultimately runs smoothly throughout, even when the screen is awash with chaos, multiple enemies, crazy weather conditions and the guts of a swarm member splattered across the camera lens - the framerate maintains solidity. Some other changes will be instantly noticed by veteran players, such as character models being smaller, allowing for slicker faster movement; in turn the minute to minute controls are snappier, quicker and generally easier to use. The game also has a handful of new tricks to show you, specifically around combat. Hand to hand combat with a knife is now a thing, as well as quick vaulting over cover, drop kicking an enemy while vaulting as well as dragging and executing an enemy in cover. All work fairly well although will take a little bit of practice.
There are of course some minor issues with the campaign itself, it’s not overly exciting in the early stages, the quick witted banter can be a bit jarring particularly if you have been a part of the Gears world since the original and whilst it is cool to have an awesome mini cutscene every time a door needs opening, or a button needs a push, there are far too many instances of this. There are also mixed emotions around the horde like moments in the campaign, on one hand it actually gives you a nice introduction to the mechanics of Horde 3.0 but you sense when playing through that this wasn’t the intention, it’s tough to think it’s anything other than padding. Finally the campaign ends rather abruptly and while it ramps up spectacularly through the later acts and is a joy to play, the end feels a little hollow.
One thing that absolutely is for sure is that the gore level ramps with the story and keeps going even when you expect it has hit its limit. Early chapters start light with the odd robot arm being ripped off and oil splashing the screen, as you progress this is overshadowed by some fantastic camera splashing, no messing chainsaw, shotgun to the face gore...and it is glorious.
As with all Gears games before multiplayer returns and in keeping with the rest of the package, there is plenty to do and it’s all very high quality. Five modes are available and can be played out across a number of maps which are a mixture of old classics and new locations lifted from the new campaign. There is plenty of variety. Putting all these together with the quicker gameplay, more reactive controls and general polish of the gameplay (ignoring that shotties will always be overpowered) there is a ton of fun to be had online here. Also for those a little terrified of the online experience, they’ve introduced a co-op online mode which allows you and friends to take on AI online players. This mode is really useful to learn the maps and tactics as well as improving your rank before venturing online as a n00b.
As well as the campaign and the now fairly standard online offerings the package contains the newly upgraded Horde mode, entitled Horde 3.0. As upgrades go it’s worthy of praise - a template which has been so popular in the industry that everyone describes it in their games as ‘horde mode’ returns. Up to five players can work together, utilising one of the five new classes (Soldier, Sniper, Engineer, Heavy or Scout) to take on wave after wave of enemies - boss waves roll out every ten waves, and the difficulty ramps at this point also. This mode really is where Gears of War 4 excels, the mixture of tower defence, strong team work and the further you get the more chaotic it is, all adds up to being one of the best co-op experiences for some time. Best played in a five that supports each other, rather than playing for themselves and you’ll find there is a ton of mileage here.
Gears of War 4 is the real deal - gorgeous to look at, smooth to play and packed full of content. The team at The Coalition have done a fantastic job and deserve the praise coming their way for this one. A wealth of content which includes a gory, often amusing campaign is backed up by the return of the excellent Horde mode along with a number of fun multiplayer modes - getting your money’s worth is not an issue here. Gears of War 4 is a big hitter, and it sure hits hard.