Gears of War 4 is launching on the 11th of October and I’ve had a copy for a few days now. There’s a lot of multiplayer action on offer but the servers were pretty sparsely populated so it’s been hard to find a game. In the meantime, here’s my take on the single player side.
The Gears series has always retained an admirable focus on the story mode, and Gears 4 presents a robust addition with up to 10 hours of tearing through enemies.
It also might have the best actual story of the franchise so far, mainly because it’s really just a tale of a small group of people who are trying to find folks they care about. Other stuff is happening, and there’s a whole lot of death and destruction along the way, but the core is about family and friends and doing the right thing.
It’s 25 years after the Locust were destroyed you’ll play as J.D. Fenix (voiced by latter Spartacus Liam McIntyre). He’s a COG soldier who has defected with his friend Del (Eugene Byrd) and now lives with the Outsiders - people who have removed themselves from the militaristic society of the time.
Together with one of the Outsiders called Kait (Laura Bailey) you’re on a routine scavenging trip when an attack comes out of nowhere, and suddenly you’re on the run from multiple enemies. Kait’s family gets into danger, and J.D. has no choice but to seek help from his father, the legendary Marcus Fenix.
From there, it’s a fast paced fight to find the people who are missing, figure out why the COG bots are attacking and also get to the bottom of a new mysterious enemy which is threatening to destroy what remains of the human race on Sera.
That sounds like a lot of setup but it’s handled pretty deftly by all concerned, leaving time to develop some relationships between the characters. The game is also big on banter, with J.D. and Del doing some serious bro-bickering throughout.
It’s mostly charming enough, even if the endless sarcasm starts to drag- it seems to be the only characteristic which Del is allowed to have. McIntyre does his best energetic Nathan Fillion impression (to decent effect) and Bailey continues to be one of the best voice actresses around, after working on everything from Uncharted 4 to Tales from the Borderlands and even Gears of War: Judgement. There’s also John DiMaggio as Marcus, who is just the embodiment of the character at this point.
The pacing is generally good too, though there’s a serious lag for a couple of hours in the second half. Things heat up again nicely before the ending, in one of the better set pieces.
As for the ending itself- there will be no spoilers here but it definitely could have used a little more time in the oven. There’s an emotional climax with little enough pay off, and a frankly confusing final image.
On the gameplay side, this is definitely a Gears game. There are additions- J.D. feels a little faster and more agile, able to run and leap over cover in an unbroken stride. He also has a fun shoulder charge move, as well as the ability to drag enemies over cover for a melee kill.
This last attack is hilariously introduced as a kind of stealth move, a situation which is totally against the spirit of the series and never appears again. The Coalition adds a few more wrinkles like Fabricators which allow you to create items like turrets to prepare for a siege, which is an element which comes back in the Horde 3.0 mode.
These pitched battles add a little more variety, along with the presence of a short vehicle excursion, but those familiar beats from the series are soon back. It does become a little repetitive in the second half but the final sequence does something totally new which pretty much had me whooping in my seat.
The Gears gameplay is a finely honed thing at this stage and fans will be pleased to see it’s totally intact here. Meaty soldiers attempt to turn meaty enemies into smaller chunks of meat. Guns rattle, chainsaw blades roar and there’s a lot of dashing around in a half crouch.
A decade on and this formula is still fun, especially once muscle memory magic gets those active reloads humming as you strike and flank and form up for another assault.
The couple of new enemy types are welcome, like the robotic foes of the opening acts. They work quite differently to the Locust swarm and also shatter in all manner of sparky ways. Small ‘Juvies’ are a fast and light addition on the monster side while ‘Pouncers’ and other larger types will cause you trouble and explode into many ludicrous gibs.
With four soldiers for most of the game, chewing through these foes isn’t very tough. Your AI team-mates are aggressive enough (and good at reviving you) but you’ll still be the focus of attacks. Veterans will want to push past the Normal difficulty to really feel challenged.
Gears 4 also introduces some colossal storms called Windflares which look absolutely spectacular, and break out into lightning charged Stormfalls which are especially deadly. During these moments you can shoot out parts of the scenery to kill enemies and dodge around to avoid strikes but they always end up feeling scripted and don’t really add much to the overall experience.
You’ll also see a lot of Windflares and their impact lessens over time, like many elements of Gears 4. The cycle of running into a new room and shooting and hacking til the chime sounds starts to get seriously repetitive after the first few hours, with most engagements only stopping long enough to press another button.
It’s a shame that The Coalition didn’t take a few more chances with the gameplay, or look to introduce more branching moments or opportunities for alternative strategies. Apart from a few placed turrets it’s all the same flavour. It’s big on taste and calorie rich but ultimately without any contrast it’s hard to enjoy after awhile.
It sure is pretty though, with the developers pushing the Unreal Engine to incredible new heights. The world has a good sense of scale, with plenty going on in the backgrounds, and the character models have more subtlety than ever before, with the faces looking amazing in the higher quality cutscenes.
Gears of War 4 has a lot of heart, and it’s simple story is a definite strength, complete with touches of humour and drama that manage to be sometimes emotional. The new additions to the gameplay are welcome but ultimately conservative, leaving the familiar patterns of the series to take over and occasionally turn the thing into a ponderous slice of bombast.
Fans will be right at home then, which has to be the major aim of any sequel, but maybe there’s hope for a little more experimentation with this overly familiar formula in the future.