It’s unquestionable that Epic’s Gears of War was one of the defining games of the last generation, hugely responsible for the success of the Xbox 360 and the increased popularity of the third person cover shooter mechanic.
After the conclusion of the resultant trilogy’s story arc though, and what many considered to be a lacklustre prequel, Gears of War: Judgment, many wondered if the series had had its day. To be honest, having played through the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition remaster only recently, I also feared the same.
Even with the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, in once again playing the original Gears of War I found a game with clunky controls, overly macho two-dimensional characters, and perhaps a tad too little gameplay variety for it to stand up as a shining beacon of the current generation of video games. Don’t get me wrong, it was still good, but it felt dated; both superficially, and at the core. Having now completed Gears of War 4’s campaign and spent a considerable amount of time in its various multiplayer modes however, I feel silly for even doubting the series’ resilience one bit. Gears of War is back. And in the hands of new developers, The Coalition, I have a feeling we have a lot more to look forward to in the coming years.
Like with any new entry in this series that I hold quite close to my heart, I began my first foray into Gears of War 4 with its campaign, which although wowing me straight from the outset with its phenomenal graphics, initially had me a little worried. You see, whilst it was no secret that Gears of War 4 would feature new enemies and a fresh cast of characters, I never expected to find myself fighting robots. Yeah, you read that right, robots. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think Gears of War, I think squidgy bags of flesh just waiting for you to tear them a new one with the series’ iconic chainsaw bayonet, blood spraying everywhere including the screen. Suffice to say then, with the new protagonists taking a while to get warmed up to and the new robotic adversaries dubbed DeeBees leaving me cold and gore-less, things were off to a shaky start.
Much to my relief, as I continued to play Gears of War 4’s campaign things fell into place, and I began to realise that actually, it had the potential to perhaps be the best in the series yet. The controls felt more intuitive than ever, teammate and enemy AI was sharper, and the abundance of greys and browns that dominated the screen in past titles were outweighed by bold, bright colours. More importantly, it was clear that steps had been taken to make the gameplay more varied and dynamic by introducing new weapons and features. Despite its throng of mechanised foes, new offensive options and the implementation of Horde mode gameplay into its campaign, Gears of War 4 feels like Gears of War, but better, more refined. You could even say refreshed.
Also helping a great deal is the fact that as progression is made, the enemies quickly become more fleshy, and without spoiling anything, more familiar. Additionally, the traditional Gears of War gameplay frequently gives way to brilliant new set-pieces such as wind flares and thrilling escape sequences that are better than anything Epic has ever tried to do to break up the action. What really surprised me though was how I came to be attached to the protagonists, JD, Kait and Del, who initially struck me as pretty unlikable. Through the hardships they’re subjected to and their interactions with supporting characters both new and old, I gradually came to care about them whilst gleaming a new angle on past protagonists’ personalities. Let’s just say that Gears of War 4 handles fan service in the best possible way, and it truly enriches the characters and their motivations.
Running at around ten hours long, perhaps my only real downer on the campaign is its rather abrupt ending that felt more unfulfilling than any of the previous games’ cliff-hangers. Still, by the time the credits had rolled I’d had my fill of epic boss battles, grandiose skirmishes and scintillating escapes to not feel short-changed or aggrieved. In fact, it just left me excited as to where the story will go next. Gears of War 4’s campaign then, does little to disappoint, but the main draw for many a player will be its suite of online options which are very nearly flawless.
Getting the ball rolling, my personal favourite, Horde mode, is back and better than ever. So much improved in fact, that it is definitely worthy of the 3.0 moniker. At its core it’s the same slog through 50 waves of enemies that gradually increase in numbers and strength, but now there’s much more to it. For a start there’s the class system, allowing players to choose from five specialised roles which they can develop over time to boost their capabilities and better support the teams they find themselves in. Feeding into the class system is then a card-based skill system, granting players the ability to equip and upgrade a number of perks throughout their Horde career.
Adding in yet more depth is a new emphasis on resource management, with energy dropped by defeated enemies being used to create fortifications and weapons at a Fabricator placed at the start of battle to aid your efforts. And finally you have bounties, which are also card-based and reward players for completing set goals as they play. My only gripe with Horde 3.0 is that random players still aren’t able to join mid-session, and with team members often leaving once they’ve satisfied a bounty requirement, attempting to complete all 50 waves is only really viable when you have five dedicated friends at hand.
The bounty system is also carried over into Gears of War 4’s ample supply of versus modes, and when I say ample, I actually mean huge. All of the fan favourites are here: Warzone, Team Deathmatch, Guardian, Execution and King of the Hill, but then you’ve got the new and slightly unusual Dodgeball and Arms Race modes to occupy your time too. A five-on-five battle in which players have only one life, Gears of War 4’s version of Dodgeball is a tense tug-of-war where one deceased member of your team is revived upon eliminating a member of the opposition, whilst Arms Race tasks both teams with achieving three kills with a procession of weapons to emerge victorious. Both new modes offer something a bit different to the usual lineup yet are still violently entertaining in their own right, with Dodgeball skirmishes in particular being wildly unpredictable at times, but only time will tell if the Gears community takes to them fondly.
Whilst the competitive gameplay is assuredly the best it has ever been thanks to improved balancing and smoother controls, one new feature I found particularly welcome in Gears of War 4 is the option to play co-op versus matches against the CPU. Great for those wanting to brush up their skills before taking on real-life opponents, or indeed those that just feel continually outclassed by the community despite the game’s excellent matchmaking, all match types are available in co-op versus and any experience gained counts towards your progression. That alone makes it a worthwhile and lucrative mode for players that want to complete bounties or obtain ribbons without being continuously destroyed by a sweary 12 year old with a penchant for the shotgun.
All in all then, Gears of War 4 is a triumphant return to form for the series. What’s more, it proves that the franchise is more than safe in the hands of The Coalition. A visual spectacle that dials back some of the macho ridiculousness of the original trilogy whilst refining and expanding the gameplay, it’s genuinely a game to own an Xbox One for, and with an exceptional range of online adversarial and co-op modes, it’ll keep you more than occupied until the inevitable next instalment.