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Gears of War 4 marks the return of one of gaming’s big franchises and the start of a new storyline that developer The Coalition and publisher Microsoft hope will lead to a new generation of fans.
The game debuts on Xbox One and Windows 10 on October 11 as Microsoft’s major exclusive title for the fall season. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition owners get it early on October 7. It’s a whole new campaign with new characters who are a generation younger than the heroes of the past wars. I think that the developers at The Coalition did a great job creating a new adventure with new faces and new monsters while remaining true to the Gears of War franchise, which has generated $1 billion and reached 45 million players over the past decade.
Gears of War 4 is a brutal game with gallons of blood spilled, as if red was the favorite color of the artists. You can chainsaw a Swarm Drone in half or completely behead a DeeBee with a head shot. Such violence is a staple of Gears of War games, and you get used to it. But the mature-rated game is not for the faint of heart. You can turn the profanity on or off and bypass some other difficult scenes if you wish.
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This Gears of War accomplishes what a full reboot did for Lara Croft and the once-failing Tomb Raider franchise. It is a fresh take with a mysterious story, an urgent rescue mission, and some scary-ass monsters that are very difficult to kill. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of serious emotional angst interspersed with moments of laughter.
You can play the single-player campaign with friends in co-op mode. I played it solo, always as JD, and I emptied a lot of clips. Now when you’re going from one firefight to another, it can get tedious. I thought The Coalition had the good sense to realize that the core gameplay wasn’t broken, but players needed a new reason to pick up another Gears of War title.
Editor’s note: This review has some minor story spoilers, but we’ve avoided the big ones.
What you’ll like
Its story balances drama and humor
Microsoft says the theme of the game is “father’s legacy, a son’s fate.” That’s not a bad description. Every once in a while, between the firefights, Gears of War 4 pauses long enough to give you some emotion and meaning. Its story tells you why you’re fighting.
The main character of Gears of War 4 is JD Fenix (played by Liam McIntyre), the son of Marcus Fenix, the hero of the first three Gears games. The story takes place 25 years after Gears of War 3. After the last battle with the Lambent in Gears of War 3, only hundreds of thousands of people still live on the entire planet of Sera. In a nine-hour single-player campaign, we find out what the younger Fenix is made of, and why he has a hard time getting along with his father, who grudgingly and grumpily comes out of retirement to help to deal with a new threat.
It turns out that wiping out the Lambent and the Locust wasn’t enough in Gears of War 3. The new threat, dubbed the Swarm, has taken the place of the underground monsters from the previous games. On top of that, the human leader Jin has an army of mechanical drones that she uses against JD and his squad over a dispute over the theft of a Fabricator, which can be used to make weapons and defenses. That dispute escalates to the point where Jin sends an army of mechanical nightmares to chase down JD’s squad.
Besides JD, the game has other good characters in Delmont “Del” Walker (played by Eugene Byrd), who provides some comic relief with his wisecracks. Kait is a strong female character, but she’s wounded by the kidnapping of her mother by ugly beasts. She’s full of hatred and urgency as she fights to get her mother back, and when JD’s father is also taken, the two share a bond in hoping to retrieve their elders. And then we have Kait’s uncle, who is the clown of the group.
You have to spend a lot of the time hopelessly chasing after the kidnapped mother of Kait and someone close to JD. This part of the story was tense and serious, and it reminded me of the hopeless state of humanity in the first three Gears of War titles. At the same time, the banter of the squad mates can be amusing, and Kait’s uncle is a hilarious addition to the cast. You’ll want to make sure that you watch the credits all the way through, as you’ll be impressed with the way that The Coalition chooses to end the tale.
A lot of cinematics in the story keep it moving along, and I feel like they do a good job balancing the story and the action. On the other hand, this is not the kind of masterful storytelling you find in games like Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.
Plenty of weapons to choose from, and new monsters to kill
The basic Lancer with the chainsaw bayonet is still a great assault rifle, but it feels like a pea shooter at times when you’re taking on big monsters. The Gnasher shotgun helps in close quarters, but it still takes multiple hits unless you are really close. But the satisfaction in Gears of War 4 comes from picking up some heavy weapons such as the Mulcher, a gatling gun, or the Buzzkill, which fires circular saw blades that slice an enemy in half. Of all of the weapons that I used in Gears of War 4, the Buzzkill was the most satisfying.
These kinds of weapons are useful against the plus-sized monsters that you run into, as well as the mechanical beasts from the DeeBees. The Juvies are fast little Swarm monsters that can be killed easily but are hard to hit. The Swarm drones are like the Locust, big creatures that take a few blasts or a clip full of Lancer bullets to bring down. But then you’ll face tough enemies like the flying drones and the helicopters of the DeeBees, as well as bigger and bigger Swarm monsters. The Snatchers, which swallow their prey and take them away from the battlefield, are truly menacing. You’ll also encounter some other really big beasts that we’ll leave to your imagination for now. It’s just too bad that the humans on Sera didn’t have nukes.
Using the Unreal Engine 4 and Direct X12, the developers created one of the most technically ambitious Gears games to date. The special effects include “wind flares,” or violent wind storms that blow sideways into the faces of the Gears. It makes for cool effects, like bodies that fly through the air after you shoot them, or debris that comes crashing into your face as you try to move forward. In multiplayer, the game runs at 60 frames per second, and I didn’t experience slowdowns, glitches, or bugs during my playthrough. From time to time, when tons of things are happening, some of the Juvies become transparent, but this doesn’t result in bad frame rates.
Horde mode is intense
The co-op mode, Horde 3.0, allows up to five players to fight off hordes of monsters and mechanical drones. If you survive a wave, you can use the Fabricator to create defenses that will help you deal with the next wave. You can drop barriers and create auto-turrets that will change the approach that the enemy takes to corner your squad. Your squad mates can revive you, but sometimes they can’t last. As the enemies get tougher and tougher, your weaponry multiplies as well. But it’s a tough thing to survive 50 levels. You’ll spend many hours dying and trying.
The mechs are a blast
I enjoyed many of the intense firefights in Gears of War 4, from the defense of the village to the last stand in the demolished city. Some of these were simply single-player expressions of the Horde mode. But after many hours of running and escaping from big monsters, it felt good to step into a giant mech that made those monsters seem like ants. Turning the tables like this was very refreshing, though it seemed a little out of place to have Pacific Rim-sized mechs in a Gears of War game. They don’t really fit into the story, but they’re a lot of fun to play.
What you won’t like
Cynics may suffer from Gears fatigue
Gears of War 4 fans who are not among the faithful may get tired of this kind of game. You’ll encounter several familiar tropes in this story. A father who spurns his son. A mother who needs to be rescued. A squad of four brothers (and a sister) who develop a camaraderie. Plenty of banter that keeps the tone from getting too dark. And above all, you’ll see plenty of blocks in the terrain in Gears of War 4 that tell you you’re about to be in a very big firefight.
These are the things that Gears of War fans want, but they may also feel like the game has become formulaic. I didn’t mind this myself, but I can see cynical gamers saying that they’ve played this game a few times already. As an example, I really didn’t need one of the bosses in the game to be a helicopter. I’ve done that enough in many other games.
I also felt the design of The Swarm was a creative failure, particularly in the characters that bore too much resemblance to the Locust grunts. That could produce some serious Gears fatigue. I have to say that I didn’t mind this all that much, as I saw some nice variety between the DeeBees and the Swarm. But I could see those prone to negativity getting angry about this.
Sometimes the story gets silly
When the giant mechs come into the story, you get some serious payback against the Swarm. But while I was gleeful when blowing up the tiny monsters, the developers lost a little bit of their control with the storyline. Not only did some of the scenes become unbelievable, they shook off some of the effect of the drama around Kait and her lost mother. If you pack too much humor into a dramatic story, you get some tonal dissonance.
I enjoyed a joke or two when Marcus Fenix complained about the loss of some of his heirlooms at his estate. But the game spends an awful long time at that estate, and that joke gets old. It only takes one or two such transgressions to make you feel like the developers crossed a line in trying to insert one more joke or funny scene.
I also had some questions about the plot, like why it takes so long for Jin to figure out The Swarm is a really big threat and that she should really be fighting with JD’s squad, not against it. It tests your patience, particularly if you really want a story to go with all the fighting.
Gears of War 4 is a very well-executed, bug-free game with awesome technical effects. The single-player campaign is on the short side at nine hours, but it gives you everything that you want and expect in a Gears of War game. The Coalition does a decent job walking the tightrope of providing something that fans want and giving them something different at the same time. The Horde mode has taken the co-op play in a very good direction, and I expect that fans are going to enjoy multiplayer quite a bit as well. If I had to pick one flaw, it’s that this game has too wide a range, with a lot of humor and a lot of terror all at once.
But I’m confident that this won’t be the last Gears game, and it will be a much-needed boost for Microsoft’s fortunes in the console war.
Gears of War 4 comes out on October 11 on the PC and Xbox One. The publisher supplied GamesBeat with a copy of the game on the Xbox One for the purpose of this review.
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