While the exact circumstances leading to their situations are different, both The Coalition and 343 Industries have a lot in common. Both have been handed IPs that are the cornerstones of Microsoft’s success in gaming and given the directive to continue them instead of their original creators. Both Gears of War and Halo have enormous audiences and the weight of expectation on these developers was immense. In developing Gears of War 4 The Coalition have gone with an approach that reminds me of J.J. Abram’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens; it’s a sequel that re-treads some ground from the original trilogy, refines and makes small additions, as opposed to wholesale changes and is well-crafted as a whole.
The story of Gears of War 4 takes place 25 years after Marcus Fenix and co finally ended the Locust threat. COG have quickly taken control of the vast majority of the human population, placing them in walled encampments to protect them from the elements and maintaining peace with an army of robot police. Some people refuse to live under COG’s oppressive thumb, instead living outside the walls and appropriately being dubbed ‘Outsiders’. Not much context is ever really given as to why COG is quite so bad, although posters in a hospital implying a woman’s job is to help repopulate gives you an inkling why. Your adventure with JD Fenix, Kait and Del begins as you plan to raid a COG settlement with Kait’s uncle Oscar, only to find that all the people have disappeared. You’re told that JD and Del have gone AWOL from the COG Army and have defected to the side of the outsiders, although you never gain an understanding as to why. If you’re beginning to feel like unanswered questions is a theme, that’s because they are. It feels like The Coalition is using Gears of War 4 to set up future sequels, but they didn’t tell enough story within the game itself to make that feel appropriate.
That said, the campaign is well-presented, full of humour and emotion, and I found myself struggling to put my controller down because I just wanted to see what happened next. The characters are engaging and endearing, their emotions worn on their sleeves and I found myself legitimately caring for them and their plight. There are some amazing set pieces and level designs, my favourite being casually obliterating hordes of the Swarm in a giant mecha. All of the great story telling, character building and level design is ultimately let down by a completely unfulfilling and abrupt ending to the campaign. While other trilogies, like Mass Effect, tell self-contained stories with a larger overarching plot, Gears of War 4 feels like they took a novel and have only given you the first six chapters. When an ending leaves you thinking, ‘Wait, that was really it?’, there are problems, especially when the rest of the campaign was so engaging.
The world itself in Gears of War 4 wavers between the amazing and the mediocre. The wind flares, massive storms of wind and lightning, look absolutely incredible and some of the vistas you will see in the game are exquisite. The environments themselves also generally look excellent, with only the odd bit of questionable texture work or design. Character models themselves are where the real variance comes in, with the surprising part being that it’s not a variance in quality between different characters, but a variance in the quality of how the character looks at different times during the campaign. I’m not sure if it was due to the lighting at times, or something else, but at points during the game the character models looked to be of a noticeably lower quality. This was compounded by The Coalition’s use of pre-rendered cutscenes that use models of a significantly better quality than the actual in-game models. In a world where most AAA developers have moved to using in-game models within cutscenes, it was jarring to jump between different levels of visual quality regularly.
While there may be some questionable decisions around the story and how the game looks, one department where all the right decisions have been made is in the actual gameplay itself. Gunplay is largely similar to the original Gears of War, with a few adjustments to help with ease of use. Guns all feel different, from the quick automatic fire of the Lancer to the slow deliberate fire of the Gnasher, and they all handle well. A number of new weapons were introduced as well, based on the new robot enemies you will face, including a double-shot shotgun that turns you into a wrecking ball of stopping power and a charge-shot sniper rifle that obliterates the opposition. Movement is improved with the addition of the ability to vault over cover while roadie running. The ability to pull enemies over cover and then execute them is another great addition as well. Overall, the game is like the Gears of War you remember, but a little bit better.
While the campaign of Gears of War 4 is a large part of the game, so are the myriad of different multiplayer modes you can play. These range from PVP modes like Dodgeball, where there is no pool of team lives and instead kills revive a team-mate and bring them back into the game, and Arms Race where you change weapons every 3 kills and gradually work your way through a roster of weapons to win. These are all complimented by a brand new ranking system, with your first few games resulting in you being placed in a specific rank filled with people with similar skill levels. It means that players who don’t necessarily the time to hone their skills to the level of the pros are still able to have an engaging experience in multiplayer.
The other big inclusion is the new Horde mode, Horde 3.0. Horde 3.0 has you teaming up with a number of friends and allies to build defences and fight off waves of enemies. You can choose from five different character classes, like the sniper and soldier, cards that give you various benefits and a number of different skins which can be unlocked with currency you earn by playing multiplayer games. Horde 3.0 might start off slowly, gradually ramping up to higher difficulties in later waves, but it will eventually punish you heavily in the later waves. Strategy is paramount to succeeding in Horde 3.0, with your team being quickly overwhelmed if you aren’t communicating with each other. It’s challenging and enjoyable at the same time, even if it can sometimes feel like frag grenades are way too powerful. The only negative I found is that it doesn’t seem to scale depending on the number of players you have in a game, meaning that if you’re unable to get a full team together you can expect some pain. Altogether, the different modes and the quality of them all makes Gears of War 4 one of the most compelling multiplayer experiences in sometime.
Overall, Gears of War 4 is a great, safe Gears of War game. The story is compelling and engaging, but some lacklustre reveals and an unfulfilling ending sully the experience. The game generally looks great, but character models can sometimes look a bit weird and low quality. The level design and set piece moments are excellent, as are the multiplayer modes. The gunplay is extremely satisfying and the new weapons are incredibly fun to use. When all is said and done, Gears of War 4 is an excellent follow up to the Gears of War trilogy on Xbox 360. Whether you’re a returning Gear or a brand new recruit, Gears of War 4 is perfect for both of you.
Story is engaging
New weapons are incredibly satisfying
Heaps of different multiplayer modes
Ending is sudden and unfulfilling
Character models look weird at times