Gears of War 4 is, in many, many ways, a true throwback to where it all began. It’s as close to Gears 1 as any of the other games in the series, outside of Judgement because of the lead character difference. This is both good and bad, and each side of that statement will be affected by what you thought of the first Gears, in the first place.
As far as series knowledge goes, it’s okay to start here because the game does a pretty reasonable job of letting you know what came before, but it’s slightly disjointed from the outset purely because it throws you into a ‘tiff’ with the COG and makes you fight hordes of robots, pretty much for no real reason. It’s only when the Locust return that the game regains that spark from the first Gears outing, and the gameplay loop of progress, emergence hole so fight, back to progressing, rears its oft satisfying head throughout most of your journey.
What’s different is the ragtag group of people at the fore of this installment, which sees son of Marcus Fenix -- JD Fenix, at the helm. Unfortunately it’s in the characters area the game falls way too short of what it could have been, because The Coalition do a sweet job of expanding the Gears of War universe here with rich visual history and great set-pieces. JD and co, however, are more like a handful of college students on break -- there’s nothing memorable about any of them, and the banter between all three of them -- especially when there’s some seriously heavy shit going on that should require higher levels of urgency, is laughable and borders on silly. It’s like the game was holding back from taking itself too seriously, but got the balance wrong in how to properly execute lightening the heavy mood.
Moreover, as the son of Marcus Fenix, JD simply doesn’t stack up to the character made famous by John DiMaggio (Futurama, Adventure Time). Marcus was a scarred and deeply insular individual. He held secrets he didn’t even share with the player, but wore his heart on his sleeve. Gears of War, arguably, was not a “thinking person’s game”, but there was a lot of depth to Marcus, and a lot of that was brought to the character by DiMaggio’s portrayal of him, and while I’m proud that JD is voiced by Aussie actor Liam McIntyre, he’s simply too vanilla.
So what stems from this is a game that goes to great lengths to capitalise on what made the first outing so enjoyable -- from a gameplay perspective -- but ignores its arguably equal selling point in the game’s characters. I know, I know… it’s just Gears of War, but if the mindless shooting about the place needs to be tethered to somewhat mindless characters, rather than the likes of Marcus, Dom or Augustus Cole (aka Cole Train), then you might find yourself and intervals wondering what it’s all for.
There are new enemies to face, which does freshen the experience, while a bit of mystery around why the Locusts (now called “Swarm” in this instalment) are back at all is a nice carrot dangling from the developer’s guiding stick. You also feel progressively backed against a wall as your journey deepens into territories that almost feel like there’ll be no way back. But this cadence can also be tracked back to the first game and the more you look at how it’s all structured, the more you realise Gears 1 is ultimately Gears of War 4’s blueprint. Other differences include newer weapons, specifically those pulled from the robots you fight at the start -- though they become somewhat redundant the further you get into the game. And on your own, it can be a slog to get through the five act campaign, which is why Microsoft has been pushing the co-op experience so much in their marketing.
Similarly, again, to Gears 1 Gears of War 4 is better experienced with friends, and because these new characters are so vanilla, no one will be fighting over exactly who gets to be Marcus Fenix, which is sort of a win, I guess. There are also a few instances throughout the campaign where the studio not-so-subtly throws in a Horde mode experience where you have a short amount of time, and resources, to create impediments and strategically placed turrets and such to help fight off the incoming, err… horde. These stray between easy and very hard with no real sense of progressive balance, and while they break up the gameplay a little, often having to do these from the very beginning of a handful of waves each time can become cumbersome and frustrating.
Again, this leads players to seek out friends for co-op and thankfully anyone playing on either PC or Xbox One can team up, which is also part of Microsoft’s clear cross-platform play directive. The Windows 10 platform might not be as perfect as Steam, but it’s still great to see this initiative finally coming to working fruition. Moreover, the game’s separate Horde mode 3.0 is a great place to really enjoy competitive co-op and to essentially practice for the campaign if you’re finding some of the in-game Horde sections a little challenging.
The meat of the product is multiplayer though, and The Coalition is sitting on one of the more unique eSports games out there in the world. The barrier of entry is just how violent and gory the game is, so you’ll probably come across fewer non voice-broken pre-teens giving you a hard time, and some of the new game-mechanics -- such as being able to grab any enemy on the other side of cover from you for an execution, or to leap over said cover and kick them -- creating more execution room because they’re stunned -- does build a new level of tension and tactical play not seen in previous games, so it’s actually pretty fun. But if you’re new to Gears of War multiplayer, you’re probably going to get owned for a while because the game is highly rewarding to skilled players aware of frame-data and the like for evades, sticky cover and more. But the plus-side is, multiplayer here is anything but run-and-gun.
It’s also going to be the most supported part of the game post-release, a strategy that has clearly worked over the years for Microsoft with Halo, so if MP is your bag, you’re going to be wading through bags of content for the next little while, with everything set to be heavily supported for the community moving forward. And, ironically, it’s arguably the most balanced part of the whole package, as far as gameplay is concerned. In all of my battles, I also had very little trouble with connection, and being on Xbox One, I couldn’t help but be impressed with Gears of War 4’s match-making setup.
While not as immediately memorable as Gears 1, Gears of War 4 does a similar job to J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens -- it takes positive and familiar themes from the first game and dresses them up in modernity and pretends it’s an entirely new, and fresh start. So it’s not bad, but it’s not groundbreaking either. However, with Horde mode and multiplayer, as well as cross-platform play, there’s enough value here for anyone looking for a decent co-operative experience full of big guns, big explosions and big violence and gore.