Note: as with my other Gears of War reviews, I’ve not checked out the vast and popular suite of multiplayer options; my thoughts here are based on the campaign alone.
As the first post-Epic Games, post-Xbox 360 and post-original trilogy Gears of War entry, Gears of War 4 had an awful lot to prove. Could it work without Cliffy B’s Michael-Bay-of-gaming style at the helm? Would it feel next gen enough? Would it be able to justify its existence after the finality of Gears of War 3’s climax and the apparent eradication of the Locust, Lambent, Queen Myrrah and even the deadly fossil fuel, Imulsion?
The answer to all of those questions, thankfully, is yes. Mostly.
Set 25 years after the end of Gears of War 3, we are thrust into a very different status quo, with the Coalition of Governments (COG) – who were essentially the good guys the first time around (for the most part) – requiring citizens to live in walled cities in order to protect them. Some citizens reject this, however, opting instead to live in settlements in the wilderness beyond the cities; these citizens – Outsiders – are who our characters associate with at the beginning of the game. Rejecting the somewhat fascistic rule of the COG, JD and Del – ex-COG soldiers themselves – are helping an Outsider community by stealing equipment from COG factories. Along for the ride is Kait – daughter of the Outsider community’s leader, Reyna – and her Uncle Oscar, a veteran of the Locust War.
It’s a much more morally grey, interesting set up than we’re used to. Though we were supposed to see Marcus Fenix as a maverick badass who’d defy any orders to save his men, his own ass and the goddamn world while he was at it, he was only punished for insubordination once, right at the start of the first Gears of War game (and in a flashback in the third, we see this again). He still felt like he was part of the army; part of the establishment. JD and Del, both deserters who are in serious trouble with the COG, along with ‘illegals’ Kait and Oscar, all feel as if they’re operating far outside the law and for their own ends. It’s for the greater good of their community, of course, but the stakes are not pitched as high as saving the world, as was the attempt in the first three games.
It makes for a very refreshing change. Initially, you’ll be going up against COG defenses; robot soldiers and drones, which are brilliantly designed and realised (the way they’re deployed on the battlefield, curled up foetally in dodecahedron-shaped pods, is a wonderful touch). Later, there’s the more traditional adversaries that you’ve come to expect from the series – though even these have seen upgrades and very gloopy, squishy new units that look absolutely stunning from a visual point of view.
The story is well told and things have thankfully moved on from the awkward, unintentionally funny dudebro antics of the first three games. There are emotional moments in the story that really work; the ending is brilliantly handled (with incredible work on the soundtrack by superb composer Ramin Djawadi) and is a far cry from the heavy handed, unearned attempt at tragedy in Gears of War 3. Though it has the sense to end after the sadness of its big, heartbreaking scene – thus avoiding the ludonarrative dissonance seen in Gears 3 (where we’re told a few times that Marcus is completely devastated by what’s happened, yet he’s going about the events of the game in a completely normal way outside of the few brief cutscenes), it does feel like the story is cut short here. It doesn’t outstay its welcome in the way that Gears of War and Gears of War 2 do, but it also doesn’t feel like it reaches a proper conclusion either.
It’s great to see some of the old gang back too; the characters from the original games work far better in grumpier, more aged support roles. One complaint I do have is that main character JD, who you’ll be controlling for the entirety of the game (on foot and also in a giant mech, which is a delight) is pretty dull – though this seems par for the course for the Gears of War series.
Some of the same old issues rear their heads. Despite the expanded scope and massive variety in environments, which really take advantage of the hardware and look absolutely spectacular (particularly on an Xbox One X, which really takes advantage of the upgrade in hardware), most of the time there’s still a feeling that you’re being shepherded from one cover-based battle to the next, with little to distinguish between fights. Many enemies are huge bullet sponges, making some fights – particularly those of bosses – just tedious exercises in repeatedly shooting until they explode in chunks of gore. Some of the biggest bosses have ridiculously drawn out, very mechanical feeling fights that go on for way too long.
There are however, scenes that feel a lot like 3D tower defence games such as Orcs Must Die, where you will be facing off against increasingly tough waves of bad guys while fortifying the environment using a piece of equipment called a Fabricator, which can generate ammo, weapons and booby traps to be deployed onto the battlefield. These are by far the most satisfying parts of the game and rely on an awful lot more creativity than the standard cover based shooting that Gears is known for. On the whole, the game does play it a little too safe in terms of sticking to the Gears formula, but it shines when moving beyond the usual confines of the series’ well worn and somewhat dated mechanics.
As mentioned, though the story ends abruptly just as it seems to get going – and after some very tedious backtracking through dull, underground environments that recall some of the most boring levels in the original trilogy – it does leave you wanting more Gears – and sets Kait up as a more interesting and involving protagonist than the incredibly vanilla JD. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out Gears 5 (it’s dropped the ‘of War’ part entirely, it seems) and will – of course – be back with my thoughts on the fifth game as soon as I’ve played through its campaign.
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