Gears of War 4 succeeds in its mantra to simultaneously evoke the ambient dark campaign of Epic’s original, whilst progressing the highly lauded multiplayer with direction from the community and a rising esports presence. Across the board, it’s an updated Gears of War that not only looks, but also feels, like a current-gen trendsetter; and yet, it’s retained the exuberant caricatures amongst its cast and mildly infuriating clunky controls that inherently make it Gears. If The Coalition’s primary objective was to create something that feels like Gears of War on Xbox One, that’s what it as achieved on all fronts.
The campaign is positioned as Gears 4’s pièce de résistance, and I thought it was when I played about a quarter in a lavish preview session last month. However, the complete package reveals the story component of Gears of War 4 to be the weakest of its three pillars – albeit three strongly reinforced pillars on the whole. Despite being heavy on action, with deeper character development than any of the previous entries, the opening two of five Acts accomplish little; as newcomers JD Fenix, Kait and Del fight through legions of feeble robots, operated by the new Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG), to reunite with series veteran Marcus Fenix. Updated mechanics are introduced and the story is set in an attempt to give credence to the mysterious reemergence of what appears to be the Locus, 25 years after the end of the war; but it drags on for too long and fighting bots isn’t in Gears of War’s DNA. A new dynamic, yes, but there’s no escaping the feeling Gears of War 4 doesn’t start proper until Act III, when the Swarm arrives.
When that happens, expect everything you want from a Gears of War saga. The corridors of the level design are minimalised with the reduction to two-player co-op, which enables hectic chokepoints and, frankly, tighter gameplay. It was easy for player three and four to be carried in Gears of War 3, but with just two of you in allegiance, both have to be significant contributors. Emergence holes becoming nests and swarm pods containing juvies littering the battlefield — both of which can be used as cover — creates an interesting dynamic for the infamous spawn closets. They can either be the saviour or breed disaster, depending on how each scenario plays out (hot tip: don’t shoot the pods).
It’s clear Gears 4 has been designed with co-op at the forefront, and from where I’m sitting, ideally couch co-op, which so many games have omitted this generation. With two players, you’ll always have at least one A.I. buddy floating around to provide critical revivals, but otherwise is merely a pretty face – especially on Xbox One S on a HDR TV, where Gears of War 4 is stunning. Playing solo, there are a few moments reliant upon an A.I. teammate to provide cover or assistance, and when they don’t, you’re doomed to fail. Particularly when up against a snatcher, a recurring enemy that consumes and flees with its live victim, there’s a notable difference between playing with someone who can strategise in real time and an A.I. minion that focuses on the wrong thing. It’s still perfectly playable alone, but if there’s a campaign this generation that’s meant to be played co-op, it’s Gears of War 4. With offline, online and even cross-play with Windows 10, there’s no reason not to grab a mate and smash through the campaign on hardcore difficulty over a weekend. Plus, cross-play doesn’t end there; Windows 10 and Xbox One players can play Horde Mode together, as can private competitive multiplayer (although, players with a mouse will have a clear advantage over their controller brethren).
The Coalition has exemplified the essence of Gears of War gameplay, and the minor additions suit to a tee. Close cover combat, being able to yank and shank or mantle into an enemy using the opposing side of shared cover, fills a gap in the core mechanics that’s been crying out for a solution. These new manoeuvres feel a little clunky, and they don’t always work, and whether that was intentional design or not, it’s why they fit into the world of Gears. Wild wind flare storms strike the powerless landscapes with strong gusts and deadly bursts of lightning that need to be avoided and accounted for — with wild storms and a lack of imulsion as a power source, Sera is the videogame incarnate of Adelaide on the night of September 28, 2016. J.D. and his buddies must adjust their aim for the severe wind conditions, especially with frags, which injects a small element of forward planning into the Gears bullet barrage.
For all that it does right as an excellent and punishing co-op shooter once the Swarm arrives, the Gears 4 campaign awkwardly shoehorns a poor man’s Horde Mode on a couple of occasions; and it sucks. The proper five-player Horde Mode is excellent. But those same mechanics — in an underdeveloped state, piled onto an objective for no apparent reason, other than to extend an otherwise short chapter — just isn’t fun.
I actually cringed the second time it came about because the first was so bad and out of place. It’s an odd design choice and I’m not surprised The Coalition conveniently avoided showing this during a preview session which otherwise presented everything Gears of War 4 has to offer.
It’s a shame the Campaign wave segments are so infuriating because Horde Mode 3.0 truly is excellent – I’d go as far as to say it’s the best team-based wave mode I’ve ever played. The foundation follows the established playbook: 50 waves of increasingly challenging enemies, with a boss wave every 10. But it’s a combination of five distinct classes (soldier, scout, engineer, sniper and heavy) and how defences are spawned that makes it so intriguing.
Each of the five units is genuinely unique, despite sounding run-of-the-mill on paper. They’re customised through Gear Card unlocks, which are earned through playing or bought as DLC to change weapons, abilities or bonuses. That’s where it might become a little complicated for the casual player, but the importance of each of the five classes reigns supreme above the potential plague of microtransactions. I don’t mean to say you need all five – you could double up on snipers and scouts and be super successful – but the mix of classes has a significant impact on how you’ll deploy as a team. To echo an old Aussie sport cliché it conjures a reliance on everyone playing his or her role, rather than trying to be the team’s super star; but unlike an AFL player who knows he’s likely to be awarded three Brownlow votes from the men in green, I actually mean that.
The concept of the Fabricator — an indestructible military 3D printer used to fortify defences — centralises the bond between players. Power (the currency) is earned as a collective, but buying weapons and fortifications is an individual purchase for team gain out of the communal kitty. It instills a desire to validate your choices, and minimises reckless spending on items that aren’t aiding the cause. This is why is works so much better in Horde Mode compared to its fleeting appearance in Campaign, where you cannot earn additional Power or upgrade items to their full potential.
On the Versus front, all the classic modes return through Warzone, Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and Guardian. New to Gears of War 4 are Arms Race and Dodge Ball. The former has instantly become my favourite multiplayer mode. What it lacks in originality — it’s a team variant of Gun Game — it makes up for with the purity of a perfectly balanced combat loop. Everyone begins with the explosive Boomshot and cycles through 13 carefully selected weapons to enable the final showdown with the Boltok. The lure of being part of a team removes the possibility of becoming bogged down on a weapon that doesn’t play to your strengths. The weapon switches when your team reaches three kills with each, irrespective of your personal stats. It’s tense when the scores are tight and both teams are matching weapon progression kill-for-kill; and it’s also a blast when one team is charging for close combat kills with the gnasher shotgun, whilst the other is retreating to pick off headshots with a longshot. It’s basic, clean multiplayer shenanigans.
Dodge Ball speaks for itself: it’s a 5v5 match where the first team to eliminate all enemy players wins. Once you’ve been killed, you sit out as a spectator until someone on your team gets a kill, emulating catching a dodge ball, tagging the first player eliminated back in. It’s a less stressful version of Execution, as there’s a possibility of respawning, which returns as one of the two modes promoted for esports.
The tried and true Escalation won’t be given the spotlight on the global stage at launch, however. That honour has been bestowed upon the new mode designed with esports in-mind, Escalation. It’s by far the most complicated of the multiplayer modes, as the team that appears to be trailing is never completely down and out. The premise is based on a Domination mode, where the first team to score 212 points wins the round; a total of seven round wins are required to win the match, and to increase the tension, respawn wait time increases by two seconds each round. Half time resets the respawn timer back to 10 seconds and relocates the three capture points after six rounds. Here’s the twist: regardless of the score, if either team controls all three points at once, they immediately win the round. That element intends to keep spectators intrigued whilst watching professionals, but I’ve found it to be equally compelling as a social player, knowing the result isn’t decided until the preverbal Gears fat lady sings.
I’ll tip my hat to the DLC concept, which on the surface has struck a fair balance between having all maps both free and paid. There are 10 maps available at launch, all of them quality, but none that have stood out as especially memorable just yet. In 12 months time, Gears of War 4 will have offered 34 maps over the course of a year. But only 12-14 will ever be playable at any one time, with a couple added and a couple removed from public playlists each month. If you wish to keep playing a map that’s been benched, choose to buy it for use in private matches, where only one of the participants needs to have put down the cash. While my initial opinion would prefer permanent free maps, this should work much better in practice, and still avoids the unforgivable DLC transgression of recklessly dividing the community. Imagine having to learn and choose between 34 maps; it would be daunting and most would go underutilised. With a Netflix-inspired ins and outs system, Gears of War 4 will keep its maps fresh without becoming overbearing. At least it should — we won’t know for sure until this time next year.
The Final Verdict
Xbox One is only now getting its first taste of a signature franchise as it approaches its third birthday — and it was worth the wait. The campaign falters at times with a slow story that isn’t as strong as it believes and some poor design choices, but otherwise is a fantastic exhibition of co-op gameplay. The fantastic Horde Mode continues down that path, and Versus multiplayer is stronger than it’s ever been, finally given equal billing with co-operative gameplay. New developer The Coalition undertook a mammoth task when it assumed control from Epic Games, and I’m glad to say Gears of War is in safe hands, as the new generation of Gears joins the fight.