Believe it or not, it has been five years since the Gears of War trilogy brought Delta’s adventure to a close. Sure, we were given 2013’s one-off, Judgment, and last year’s remake of the original, but the actual story has sat dormant. That all changes with Gears of War 4, which is Xbox One’s signature release for 2016 and the first game in the series not developed by Epic Games.
Turning development over to The Coalition was a risk, one Microsoft took before when it grabbed Halo’s reins from Bungie and handed them to 343 Studios. It worked for Master Chief. Now, will it work for the Fenix clan?
Nearly everything from the original trilogy has been retained: popping in and out of cover, the active reload system, switching weapons with the d-pad and so on. Minor tweaks have been made with your movement as you can now spring over objects without breaking stride, allowing you to make quicker escapes or knock back unsuspecting foes in cover. You can also reach over objects, grab enemies and execute them with a knife.
While the vast majority of the game takes place on foot, there are a couple of vehicular sections to help mix things up. One, a bike-based escape, is on rails and easy to navigate. The other, which we won’t spoil, essentially apes the control scheme you’ll use when on foot. It works well, even if taking cover in that scenario felt a little silly. Bottom line, this is all classic Gears, which is a good thing.
As the first true next-gen installment, Gears of War 4 continues the series’ proud tradition of being a visually impressive beast. It’s hard to not explore every nook and cranny just to see the excellent attention to detail in creating this world. If there’s a complaint to be made it’s that the game largely takes place in a concentrated area, and as such the variety isn’t as strong as previous titles.
All of the familiar sounds are back — like nailing active reloads, popping an enemy’s head, completing an objective and so on — which is nice for returning fans. Enemy hisses and wails don’t have anything nearly as sinister as the Theron, but they’re still very well done.
Voice acting is pretty good, though J.D. Fenix sounds (and looks) too much like Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, to the point that we were surprised it wasn’t Nolan North.
It has been 25 years since Marcus Fenix and Delta annihilated the Locust. Marcus’ son, J.D., and his friend Del recently deserted the COG. Although the reasons are never explicitly explained, there was an incident at Settlement 2 that is ominously hinted at, which led to the pair breaking with First Minister Jinn and joining the Outsiders.
As part of a four-person team that includes Reyna, the daughter of their village’s leader, and Oscar, her uncle, they raid an uninhabited settlement in search of a fabricator used to create materials, weapons and the like. After surviving clashes with the robotic security forces, the village itself is raided by a group of unidentified creatures. With everyone else abducted the survivors strike out to find Marcus in hopes he can help them unravel the mystery.
Compared to the original trilogy, Gears of War 4 tells a more intimate, focused story. There’s no war, no grand plan to wipe out the Locust threat and the stakes feel smaller as a result. You could draw some comparisons to The Force Awakens in that much of the time is spent resetting the chessboard with Marcus serving in the Han Solo role of bridging the trilogies.
While the game does a good job of blending old and new, not all of the changes are for the better. Many enemies are simply updated versions of previous Locust foes — e.g. “juvis” are wretches — and some of the new, more exotic creatures end up kind of annoying, like the snatchers and their supernatural ability to down you with tail spines regardless of your evasive action.
Frustrations aside, the campaign lays a lot of important ground work for the future, and outside of parts of Act IV where things bog down to a degree it keeps the action intense and enjoyable. It’s classic Gears of War fare, through and through, and if you liked the previous games there’s no reason to think you won’t enjoy this as well.
Multiplayer has never been our favorite with its gnasher-heavy action punctuated by tons of rolls and slamming into and out of cover. That approach once again permeates the 10 adversarial maps, many of which are lifted wholesale from previous games in the series. There are some new modes, highlighted by Arms Race where you’re required to use different weapons to win, but it all feels very familiar.
On the other side of the spectrum is Horde, which has been among the best co-op experiences in any game since its inception. Up to five players can select from various classes and team up to beat back wave after wave of enemy interlopers.
Again, Gears of War 4 isn’t making massive changes to the formula, but their tweaks seem to be most effective here. The class system allows for role specialization, which means more options for combating the odds. Also, the mobile fabricator now serves as a de facto base of operations that can create new weapons or fortifications but is powered by energy collected from defeated foes. It’s great fun.
Packed with an intense campaign and the best iteration of the series’ signature Horde mode, Gears of War 4 is a strong first step into a new, post-Delta world