From its debut in 2006 as one of the marquee titles on the Xbox 360, Gears of War brought along with it many “firsts” for its generation. As time has passed, the series has become one of the defining franchises of a generation. With its action-packed cover-based shooting and its story of humanity’s fight on the brink against the impending Locust forces, Gears of War became to the Xbox 360 what Halo: Combat Evolved was to the original Xbox five years before it as the console’s big “killer app.”
Flashing forward ten years after has brought us to Gears of War 4, the fourth mainline title in the series and in more ways than one, the beginning of a new chapter for one of Microsoft’s biggest series. Under the tutelage of The Coalition, which has now been tasked with producing all future Gears of War titles moving forward, Gears of War 4 brings with it a lot to live up to.
As the direct follow-up to the trilogy on Xbox 360 (excluding the prequel Gears of War: Judgment), the title also represents the first step forward for The Coalition and having to take over the reins of the franchise. Much like how the Halo franchise went through a similar transition between its original creators at Bungie and moving over to 343 Industries, Gears of War 4 (thankfully) shows that the franchise is in the right hands with the team at The Coalition, and in steering the Gears of War franchise into some exciting new directions.
Taking place 25 years after the events of the third title, Gears of War 4 sets up its trio of main characters while effectively catching players up on the history gap in-between. While the Locust and Lambent were wiped out at the conclusion of Gears of War 3, Gears 4 shows the planet Sera in the process of recovering from its decades-long conflict, though humanity still has its battle scars from the Locust conflict. With humanity’s population having dwindled to a staggering amount, the last remaining communities have banded together under the jurisdiction of a reformed Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG), leading rebellion groups (known as the “Outsiders”) to be at odds with the government’s strict enforcement.
From the opening hour that sets up the current state of Sera (and backtracking through the events of the Gears of War trilogy that lead to this point), players are introduced to the new group that follows (literally and figuratively) in the footsteps of Marcus Fenix and the group that came before them: Marcus’ son, J.D. Fenix, and his two friends and companions, Kait Diaz and Delmont “Del” Walker (with second players able to control either of the two characters when playing in co-op).
Compared to the previous games, Gears of War 4 (tonally) seems to align the most with the original title, with The Coalition showing obvious affection and admiration for the qualities that made Gears of War such a classic from the last generation. However, where the Gears trilogy tended to escalate with each installment toward being bigger and larger-scaled in each subsequent game (to the point of nearly being a bit too “over-the-top”), Gears of War 4 shows surprising restraint and echoes back to the roots of the original game.
As seen from its E3 demo and many of the trailers (which even echoed the iconic “Mad World” trailer for Gears of War), Gears of War 4 infuses the action and bravado that the series has been known for with some darker, almost horror-like elements that feel close to what the original game was tied to. That feeling emerges clearly from the Swarm, the new threat that J.D., Kait, and Del discover and have to find a way to take down before humanity is plagued once again.
From investigating the bowels of the Swarm’s lairs and more, Gears of War 4 manages to strike a fine balance between the cheeky machismo humor and genuine doses of darkness and the struggle that humanity has gone through to survive, even in the wake of its conflict with the Locust 25 years beforehand. Even more so, it deftly balances its reverence for the previous games and exploring new territory, and provides some interesting new insights into the Gears of War universe through the eyes of its new characters.
What Gears of War 4 brings that’s new to the table comes across in many ways both narratively and mechanically. From a storytelling standpoint, Gears of War 4 easily brings forth one of the best stories the series has told yet, with excellent cutscenes and direction making J.D., Kait, and Del feel believable and likable. Even more so, appearances from some old faces like Marcus Fenix (and a few others along the way) feel like more than just fan service, with Marcus in particular being a crucial part of the plot and his relationship with J.D. one of the game’s most interesting dynamics.
The beginning of the game especially brings to life so many new revelations (and even more questions) about the state of Sera in the years since the Locust conflict. While the COG have sought to contain human communities in heavily-guarded strongholds to ensure their survival, the government’s ironclad rules on traveling and leaving the communities has led to raids and protests from the groups of “Outsiders,” while mechanized enforcers (known as “Deebees”) bring a whole new variety of enemies for J.D. Kait, and Del to fight along the way.
Mechanically, Gears of War 4‘s also adds in a variety of new weapons and tricks for players to discover and aid their fight against the Swarm. Old favorites like the Lancer, Gnasher, Hammerburst, and plenty of others return for Gears vets with some slight tweaks (with the Lancer in particular feeling the best balance-wise that it ever has), while numerous new weapons and tricks are introduced in combat throughout the game.
New weapons in the game provide some long-needed variety, like the submachine gun-like Enforcer, and new power weapons like the Buzzkill (which fires ricocheting razor blades) and the Dropshot, which can hit enemies behind cover with a burrowing drill. At the same time, other challenges have appeared both for and against players due to the war-torn Sera environment, with violent “windflares” sporadically appearing that can affect projectiles like grenades or Boomshot rounds, or present ways to take out enemies with debris or destructible objects.
More than ever, Gears of War 4 makes a number of refinements to the game’s bread-and-butter of moving, shooting, and ducking behind cover. Gears of War vets will feel right at home in Gears 4 with the control scheme having been largely unchanged, though The Coalition has thrown in some new options for movement and combat and even greater variety.
The biggest additions come from the addition of new offensive options that greatly encourage players to be more mobile and avoid squatting behind cover. The “Yank and Shank” maneuver proves the biggest reason why, as players can now reach over and grab players from the opposite side of cover for the momentary opportunity to go for a brutal execution move – in return, grabbed players have a split-second window to counter and stun the offending player. Other moves have also been added for greater maneuverability when moving between cover, as players can now vault over cover while in a “roadie run,” rather than entering cover and then vaulting over – also making for a great opportunity to smash into unsuspecting players while on the run.
Alongside its single-player campaign, Gears of War 4 also provides players with a bevy of multiplayer options with its Versus Mode suite. Where the single-player campaign runs at 30fps for a more cinematic presentation (which ranks as one of the best visual experiences I’ve seen this generation), the multiplayer opts for 60fps and slightly lowered resolution for better performance, ultimately working in the game’s favor as a far more stable and enjoyable multiplayer experience than I’ve had in the previous games.
The standard selection of Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and other modes are available in Versus, while this time around some more varied and experimental options are also in play. New additions like Arms Race – essentially the Gears version of Call of Duty‘s Gun Game – allow players to compete for kills with increased levels of new weaponry being made available after each point earned, while the new Dodgeball mode also adds an excellent hook to the traditional multiplayer experience. Armed with one life, Dodgeball has players rotate back in when an enemy player has been eliminated until the end of the round, with the highest scoring team being the winner afterward.
Gears of War 4‘s range of multiplayer options will surely help to keep it in rotation throughout the holiday months (and hopefully) well after, with The Coalition and Microsoft providing a detailed plan for post-launch content, including maps, modes, and more. Modes like Arms Race and Dodgeball also offer some fun and alluring diversions, though the true test of Gears of War 4‘s potential for multiplayer will be the growth of its community and which modes stick, but with the plan that The Coalition has outlined for post-release content (much like the model that 343 Industries has provided for Halo 5: Guardians), hopefully it bodes well for Gears of War 4 to stick around for multiplayer vets long after its release, and it’s certainly off to a good start.
The third “pillar” of the Gears of War 4 experience comes with the return of Horde mode, with Horde 3.0 bringing with it the familiar cycle of setting up defenses, fighting off waves of increasingly difficult enemies, and recovering for the next wave. More than ever, Gears of War 4 proves that Horde is just as addictive and challenging as ever since its introduction in Gears of War 2, with multiple new features and options having been added to the fold in Gears 4.
The biggest addition in Horde 3.0 comes with a new Class system, where players can choose from a variety of different roles (such as the Scout, the Engineer, etc.) that make it feel like a mash-up of the traditional Gears of War with a class system from something like Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch. Each of the various roles provides players with their own unique job, making for an even deeper level of strategy in Horde mode for players to experiment and play around with team compositions that will let them last the longest and (hopefully) survive the Horde experience.
Alongside its economy system and the defensive equipment options that were introduced in Gears of War 3, Gears 4‘s take with Horde 3.0 offers many new options and levels of strategy for one of the series’ best features (and still one of the best cooperative experiences around). However, the Class system introduced doesn’t feel completely fleshed out just yet and may need some balancing or tweaks down the line. Classes like the Scout (who can pick up twice as many resources as other classes) and the Engineer (who can build defenses more quickly and cheaply than other characters) become also required for any Horde team, while the rest of the classes feel less defined (and less essential) in the greater context of the mode.
Much like the way that J.D. Fenix has to follow in the footsteps of his legendary father Marcus, in many ways The Coalition seemed to be in a similar position with Gears of War 4. As one of the defining series of Microsoft’s last generation of console, Gears of War 4 had plenty to live up to in bringing the series to the Xbox One generation.
Despite that pressure, The Coalition have proved with Gears of War 4 that the team is more than capable of providing an experience that falls in line with the titles that came before it by staying reverent and faithful to the original games (sometimes to a fault), but with enough layers of intrigue and new additions to make Gears of War 4 an admirable continuation of the Gears story. Like with the relationship of Marcus and J.D. throughout the game, Gears of War 4 sticks close to the legacy of its predecessors, but along the way is on the way to writing one of its own.