“Tomorrow, Marcus. We’ve finally got a tomorrow.”
The final words spoken by Anya Stroud at the end of Gears 3 have stuck with me with for five years. Now, with a new studio at the helm, Gears is back and sets outs out to depict life after the Locust infestation. Gears of War 4 exudes strong ties to family and it quickly becomes the driving force behind tackling a new enemy, The Swarm. In the midst of hope comes hostility and destruction, and this new Gears shows shades of the original, where dark forces from several fronts blanket that all-important light at the end of the tunnel.
Gears 4 is set 25 years after the third instalment and follows JD Fenix – son of Gears veteran, Marcus. An in-depth prologue details key events in the franchise up to the present day. But not all is as it seems, and the public profile of the Coalition of Ordered Governments has taken a turn for the worst.
JD Fenix is a former-COG soldier that travels as a free man with Gears newcomers Del and Kait, who also reveal family connections to the continued survival of the independent Settlements. Unfortunately, a substantial plot fails to materialise here, and is instead replaced by back-and-forth nonsensical dialogue and heaps of explosions; conversations are used as a prelude to confrontation rather than a way to flesh-out the relationships of the new characters. The biggest downside to the latest Gears entry is the lack of emotional connection shared between a near-extinct people rebuilding from Gears of War 3’s catastrophic events.
That being said, the sheer landscape of these survivor Settlements is pretty breathtaking, with healthy, colourful trees showing signs of life, while wooden structures carved into mountainsides depict a society coming back from the brink. On the whole, Gears of War 4 is a beautiful-looking game and has abandoned the series’ tendency to use consistently drab, grey environments.
The title’s core gameplay has been revamped in a number of small ways, too, and goes some way to make up for the lack of engrossing plot within the campaign. There are now more alternatives when it comes to moving around the battlefield, with the option to perform a slick ‘running vault’ over cover without needing to slam up against it first. You can still kick enemies on the opposite side of cover, but the new Yank mechanic, which grabs baddies and pulls them over – prompting the use of a huge combat knife – adds more flexibility to the gameplay.
Abandoning the four-player co-op from Gears 3, The Coalition has opted for a traditional campaign for two players this time around. This works to Gears 4’s advantage, due to the game taking place in a lot of tight spaces – as well as the erratic nature of those Juvies (reminiscent of the Wretches) – making easy manoeuvrability a necessity. Whereas the original Gears managed to slide into the horror genre, the pacing here feels slightly off: spurts of action are juxtaposed with segments of walking through empty courtyards and hallways; Gears 4 likes to take a breath now and again with nothing to fill the void.
There’s a lack of creativity when it comes to the game’s actual combat scenarios, too. Despite being able shoot down bulbous pods for cover or to squish incoming Swarm, JD and co. are frequently pitted against ridiculous odds. Battlefields often feel over-populated with groups of spritely Juvies slashing in your vicinity. On the whole, Gears of War 4 keeps you occupied with packs of mindless enemies and awards a simple checkpoint for your efforts. There’s a certain predictability and monotony to it all.
Where previous Gears entries successfully – and frequently – provided respite and variety by allowing you to pilot a vehicle or creature of some description, The Coalition has substituted these scenarios with the introduction of Windflares, a recurring natural event left behind by the Lightmass Bomb. These shroud the area in a peach-coloured haze and come with severely strong winds and abnormally huge lightning strikes; they’re an awesome sight. While some Windflare scenarios signpost areas of interest to use to your advantage in firefights, others offer up a gauntlet with slabs of cover to reach an objective; the latter becomes quite tense.
While the old-faithful Lancer, Gnasher and Hammerburst have remained in production, there’s also the Dropshot, a two-handed gun that fires player-controlled artillery shells; the Buzzkill, a large unit that rapidly fires giant saws; the Tri-shot, a rapid-fire gun that can be ripped out from enemy turrets; an Embar, a sniper rifle, of sorts, requiring a charged shot in order to be fired; and the Enforcer, a handy sub-machine gun that also has a Shock variant.
The Hammerburst has been tweaked and now empties a magazine with burst fire instead of single shots. The recoil has been largely eliminated, which allows for more accurate firing, and the gun finally feels like the back-up primary weapon it should be.
The Dropshot is by far the most difficult weapon to master. Players must hold down the trigger button long enough to reach an enemy player, who are signified by a hovering red line. Releasing the trigger will lead to detonation, and pinpoint aiming may even lead to an extremely satisfying headshot.
All weapons – both new and old – can be used to their full extent in Gears of War’s flagship game mode, Horde, which pits a maximum of five players up against 50 waves of enemies. Gears 4’s Horde replaces Command Centres with a Fabricator, a portable station that manufactures weapons, fortifications and allows you to place them in a spot where you see fit.
Instead of getting cash from each kill, Horde 3.0 uses Power instead. The Power icons hover above fallen enemies, forcing the team to briefly abandon the safety of their defences and scavenge as much Power as possible before the next wave begins. All collected Power is then pooled into the Fabricator to use on weapons and fortifications, like sentry turrets and razor wire. It’s important to always pay attention to your team’s balance, especially during the Boss Waves, because allies can be revived at the cost of some Power if they happen to perish.
There’s also a class selection, which adds another dimension when deciding which duties go to which player. While Soldiers have a buff that gives increased damage to assault rifles like the Lancer, only Engineers can repair and reload team defences like turrets – at the cost of Power. Snipers dish out extra damage from sniper rifle variants and Scouts are awarded with double the amount of Power from every pick-up. It’s fun co-ordinating a seemingly bullet-proof game plan and even more fun trying to recover from it when things go wrong. Yet again, Horde expertly hits that co-operative sweet spot, and has managed to surpass Gears of War 3’s offering by a fair margin.
The pre-game card crafting system is a surprising edition and one that gels well with both Horde and Versus multiplayer modes. As well as upgrading your Horde class proficiency in a select set of passive skills, you can also pursue Bounties that grant chunks of experience points towards your overall level, too; the higher your class proficiency, the more passive skills you take into battle. Or, alternatively, you can destroy cards you don’t want to receive some Salvage points, which can go towards crafting a completely new card.
Those more at ease with PvE have been looked after in Gears of War 4, with Co-op Versus playlists against bots of every difficulty. One of the new modes Gears 4 brings to the party is Arms Race, where players must cycle through a kill streak of various weapons – from Boomshot, to Longshot, to the Boltok pistol.
Of course, the usual suspects are still here. My personal favourite, King of the Hill, where teams of players defend various objectives for points, is still a blast to play. There’s also Team Deathmatch which, for better of worse, has manifested into lobbies full of Gnashers and is where the more highly-established Gears players reside.
But the most ingenious of all is probably the Dodgeball mode, where eliminating an opponent tags one of your teammates back into the match after death. The tide of these matches can turn exceptionally quickly, from two-on-four into an ‘all-square’ contest.
Gears 4 is also the first entry in the series to incorporate 60 frames per second into its online competitive modes. In my first batch of matches, it was a real trip and I had to adapt fairly quickly. But it’s great that this has finally been added and increases the fluidity to character movement while complementing the higher graphical quality.
The experience of Gears of War 4 is well-polished, with fantastic visuals from both a cutscene perspective as well as in-game. I had very few drops in frame-rate and no instances where a checkpoint restart was necessary. The absence of Gears of War 3’s enjoyable and breakthrough Beast Mode – a reverse Horde, where players take the role of the enemy faction instead of COG soldiers – is a questionable one, but the extra life given to Horde 3.0 slightly makes up for it.
Overall, Gears of War 4 has breathed new life into an aged franchise. However, the campaign definitely feels like the first entry in a new adventure, whereas the original Gears of War managed to sell itself as a standalone game. The lack of plot, emotional impact and camaraderie between JD and his fellow new-age survivors is evident and drags the expectation of the Gears 4 campaign down several notches. It’s unfortunate that the quality of Gears of War 3’s single-player and multiplayer modes are at odds with each other – proof that this exhilarating shooter still has room to grow.
Finding A New Gear
Gears of War 4's crisp visuals, extensive roster of competitive modes and revamped Horde Mode make up for an underwhelming, slow-paced campaign.