“'Gears of War 4' features fresh takes on some modes, but plays it safe for others.”
- Endless Horde mode is addictive and strategic
- Competitive multiplayer features fresh new modes
- Controls still feel mostly great
- Good weapon variety
- Campaign is brief, repetitive, and poorly written
- Some control issues nag
- Feels too safe in some areas
You shaky-cam-run through another linear tunnel, debris strategically scattered to block any would-be alternate paths. The corridor opens to a slightly larger room filled with improbably placed waist-high walls and crates. Enemies pour into the room and you duck behind cover, your foes’ fleshy bullet sponge bodies whack-a-moling in and out of view. You shoot them forever. Eventually they die.
A muffled guitar signals the fight’s end, and just in case you missed that someone points it out, saying, “well that’s over” or “that’s the last of ‘em.” You jog to the next hallway, emerge into the next room, and do it again.
Gears of War 4’s brief campaign does feature some creative flourishes, including points where you build defenses like in the game’s “Horde” mode, and more interesting set pieces in the game’s second half, like a massive platform that plummets downward as you scramble for the emergency brake. But the vast majority of the campaign is unimaginative, at least in terms of structure.
Gears of War 4 is not subtle.
It’s easy to understand why The Coalition, Microsoft’s studio in charge of the franchise, played it safe. The series has always been praised for its level design, and Gears 4 is nothing if not archaic (those who enjoy it will likely call it “classic”). Why curbstomp what isn’t broken?
The answer is that, after almost a decade of Gears of War, this campaign structure doesn’t hold up that well. Gears 4 plays it safe in its story missions, rarely deviating from the formula established a decade ago in the original. Luckily, the same can’t be said about the game’s ample versus multiplayer and Horde modes, which feature enough small improvements to feel fresh and will likely provide Gears 4’s long term appeal.
Like revving a rusty chainsaw
Gears 4 takes place years after the end of the Locust War portrayed in previous games. The Coalition of Ordered Goverments (COG), which players fought for in the original Gears trilogy, finds itself in conflict with bands of “outsiders” who’ve chosen to live outside its rule. Those issues become moot when a new threat emerges: The Swarm, which look, sound and act suspiciously (read: exactly) like humanity’s old enemy, the Locust.
Gears has never been lauded for its clever writing — the old protagonist was literally named “Fenix” and he started the first game rising from the ashes of a prison cell, I mean come on — but fans have come to care about its world and characters over the years, brotastic as they may be. Without spoiling anything I’ll say a series favorite returns in a big way, and a refreshingly diverse cast of new characters rounds out the world nicely. The slightly tyrannical COG leader Jinn, for example, is an Asian woman who most often appears as a holographic face projected sternly onto the body of a gun-toting robot.
The writing remains puerile (sample dialogue: “I think we’re gonna have to redefine our definition of ‘clear’”). Your squad is ever jocular — they literally never stop cracking jokes, even in the face of the most extreme likelihood of violent death, or when one character is kidnapped by a mutant shrimp thing with a kangaroo pouch made of tentacles.
Gears 4 features a brand new enemy force: The Swarm. Unfortunately they look, act, sound, fight, absorb unholy amounts of lead, and probably smell exactly like the Locust, the series’ classic foes. This prolonged déjà vu is yet another way in which the game feels stale, and it reveals a disconnect in the writing: the characters fail to make that incredibly obvious connection, one every player will realize in the game’s first chapter, until late in the story.
Other new enemies, like the soldier droids employed by Jinn, are even worse bullet sponges than the Swocust (I came up with that), though they’ll occasionally do something interesting like charge at you and self-destruct when they take too much damage. Considering how repetitive the stop-and-pop gunfights can get, being forced out of cover by a lumbering kamikaze robot is almost a welcome change.
Competitive multiplayer made for work, not play
Gears of War multiplayer has always felt chunky and plodding, a stark contrast to faster-paced franchise shooters like Call of Duty. For the subset of players who revel in lunging circles around each other trying to blow opponents into bloody chunks with a shotgun, Gears of War 4 multiplayer has a lot to offer.
The Coalition is pushing Gears 4 as an esports contender, though its success or failure as such will ultimately be determined by the community. Some might call it “tactical,” which it is. Others will call it boring, particularly when respawn timers stretch upward of 20 seconds or longer, depending on the mode. While not constantly gratifying, such heavy consequences create tension, even if those long stretches of downtime will prove more compelling for spectators and viewers than the players who are dead.
Matches generally pit squads of five against one another in a surprising variety of truly inventive modes. “Dodgeball,” for example, knocks players out of the running when they’re killed, but sends them back into the fray if their team kills an opposing player, creating opportunities for incredible comebacks. “Escalation,” which tasks players with capturing three points on a map like Call of Duty’s Domination or Destiny’s Control modes, is designed for dramatic sweeps: holding two zones gives your team more points, but managing to capture all three instantly ends the round in your favor. Do you play it safe and defend the two you hold, or go for total domination?
“Arms race” on the other hand takes teams on a tour of Gears 4’s arsenal, requiring a certain number of kills with each weapon before your team’s loadout is upgraded to the next. Teams race to earn the final weapon. Opportunities for comebacks may occur along the way when the two teams’ weapons become unbalanced. Try being stuck with snipers when five opposing players are charging you with Gnasher shotguns.
Gears 4’s competitive offering was designed with balance in mind. Its maps are symmetrical and players start on even ground, cosmetic upgrades like zombie versions of characters and rainbow-hued guns aside. Power weapons are scattered equidistantly around the map, making the start of most rounds a mad dash to control them. There’s cover everywhere, so if stop-and-pop is more your style than running around with a shotgun you can roll tactically with teammates and overwhelm anyone who tries to get close. Or you get blown to bits, but either way you can’t say it wasn’t fair.
Gears 4 makes some missteps in its controls, which become more clear (and problematic) in competitive multiplayer than other modes. There are now three different ways to scramble over cover: by point the control stick forward and tapping “A” when you’re already in cover, by holding “A” and “B” (which is just the worst) simultaneously as you run toward cover, or by tapping “A” to slide toward cover, then quickly tapping “B,” the timing of which is extremely tricky.
Plus, no matter how long I play Gears 4 I always find my aiming reticle snapping just a little bit off from where I want it to go whenever I pop out of cover, maybe because it doesn’t snap your aim to the center of the screen, or possibly due to the perspective problem of your character being off to one side. No matter the cause, having to take a second to adjust your aim after you pop out of cover is irksome at best and fatal at worst.
Rejoining the “Horde”
If the story leaves you bored and competitive multiplayer isn’t your thing, there’s always Horde mode. Introduced in Gears of War 2, Horde in Gears 4 pits teams of up to five players against wave after wave of enemies.
The largest change to “Horde 3.0” is the addition of character classes. Each player picks a class, which confers a certain set of special skills, such as the heavy, who gets bonus damage with heavy weapons; the engineer, who gets a discount when building or repairing defenses; the scout, who gets a bonus when picking up energy from dead enemies (energy used to build, upgrade and repair defenses); and others.
The defenses, also brand new to Horde, add strategic layers to the already intense mode. Between waves you have about 30 seconds to construct spike and barbed wire traps, automatic or manned turrets, and gun lockers where you can stick power weapons and let them regenerate ammo. That’s best left to the engineer, while the scout runs around picking up stray energy and other teammates scavenge for dropped weapons or prepare in other ways. Meanwhile enemy waves move in cycles, so the tenth round is harder than the ninth, but the eleventh is easier than the tenth; while the twentieth is twice as hard as the tenth. Like a symphony, Horde waxes and wanes and crescendos and tests every skill you possess as a player.
The appeal is simple: how long can you last in the face of this onslaught? Given the new defense-building mechanics, your team in Horde 3.0 is less mobile than in previous versions. You’ll generally establish a “base” area in each map and attempt to fortify it as well as possible.
With the impressive variety of enemies the game can throw at you (including both the Swarm and the game’s new robotic foes) it really is a challenge to fortify for every possibility. Luckily, being less mobile does not necessarily make your defenses less dynamic. You can set up anywhere on the map and can even pick up all your defenses and move around between waves.
The Coalition is pushing Gears 4 as an esports contender…
We do worry that dedicated players will develop a single “ideal” or “perfect” strategy for each map, with defenses arrayed in such a way that the balance is tipped unfairly in players’ direction. But as always, the toughest Horde waves throw as much at you as possible, and boss enemies are so powerful (and require so many bullets to defeat) that they’ll often overrun and destroy whatever meager defenses you’ve set up.
Both the Horde and competitive multiplayer modes have a confusing paid ecosystem grafted on top of them, which lets you spend real money to open randomized booster packs that contain cosmetic items like character and weapon skins in addition to modifier “bounties” that can earn you more experience.
Because of its various character classes, the system seems to affect Horde mode in particular. Each class levels up separately (and slowly), and avid players will likely find themselves tempted to buy a boost or four to help them earn upgraded class abilities more quickly. That may or may not rankle you, but the most hardcore Gears players will quickly figure out the most efficient routes to the highest echelons of play, no matter the mode.
Even without microtransactions, though, Horde 3.0 can be surprisingly forgiving. If a teammate is killed you can pick up their dog tags and revive them, and you can retry the same wave over and over if you keep failing (though energy you spend on defenses isn’t returned to you even if the defenses are destroyed). It also lets teammates drop in and out at will, including both online and splitscreen players or a combination thereof. Those features combine to make the whole thing more welcoming and, for those who want to seek for those perfect defensive formations, allow players to experiment until they find a strategy that works.
Gears of War 4 is not subtle. Any game where you shoot a plane down with a submachine gun from the back of a motorcycle couldn’t possibly be referred to as such. But it does have an interesting duality: The old and familiar gameplay and campaign structure against the fresh modes and features of multiplayer and Horde mode, and the progression and microtransaction systems that tie them all together.
If you come to Gears 4 looking for a classic Gears of War campaign, you might enjoy that aspect of it. If you want something fresh, you might be disappointed. If you’re only in it for the “Versus” or “Horde” modes, you’d likely be happy with no campaign at all, so who cares? It will also one of the first games to support 4K on the Xbox One X when the upgraded console launches in November, 2017.
Is there a better alternative?
With the absolute wealth of incredible shooters available now (Destiny 2, Titanfall 2, Overwatch, and Battlefield 1 all come to mind) Gears of War 4 feels like a niche product packaged to delight existing Gears fans and few others. That said, unless you’re determined to stick with the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition remaster of the original game released in 2015, Gears 4 is now where it’s at for fans of the series.
How long will it last?
Given that Gears is a flagship franchise for Xbox, Microsoft and The Coalition will likely support Gears 4 until the next Gears game in the series comes out. Its focus on esports should keep it competitively fresh, while Horde mode’s infinite waves can theoretically provide endless hours of enjoyment. The campaign, however, is short and uninspired.
Should you buy it?
If you’re in it for the competitive multiplayer or the endless Horde mode, by all means enjoy the carnage. If you want a story that makes sense or a fresh-feeling campaign, look elsewhere.
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