There is something special about Gears of War. Or at least there used to be. Past the second game it feels like the wider gaming world has lost interest, and so we felt it was good that the franchise was given a rest after Judgment.
And here we are, after celebrating an anniversary (sort of) with the Ultimate Edition last year, we're now getting our first new Gears title in years. New developer, but everything should feel very familiar to fans. There's a certain weight to the series you simply don't find in other third-person shooters. That cover-to-cover, in your face, brutal, bloody and gory action is what Gears has always done best, and when Gears of War 4 wants to it delivers in this area.
As you'd expect with any major release these days you're getting the full package here, campaign (playable with a friend), the original wave-based co-op mode Horde, and a healthy helping of multiplayer (5v5). For some multiplayer will be the main course, but we suspect most players are focusing on campaign and to some extent Horde. Gears has always been co-op friendly and it's the perfect sort of game to sit down with a friend and play for an evening - be it online or offline.
The campaign kicks off with a couple of flashbacks to wars of yesteryear - a great way to make a tutorial interesting while it introduces players new to the franchise to some of the background as well as some characters of note. After that strong opening the campaign struggles a bit, and it isn't until the third act out of five that things really get interesting. This is largely tied to your main enemy as you start out an Outsider fighting against the new fascist regime, only to later rediscover the true enemy in the form of an evolved and lethal strain of Locust.
The rather weak new cast of characters are made to feel even weaker as for much of the campaign we're towing along Marcus. It feels a bit like that recent Die Hard that sought to pass the torch to a young McClane, but even if we don't play as Marcus here it feels like he's still the man and we're just some clean cut rookie in charge of kicking in doors (you kick in a lot of doors in this game... ridiculous amounts). Kait is the one we like the most and like J.D. she's got a parent (in this case a mother) who is rather tough to be around. Not quite on the level of Marcus' grumpiness, but approaching it. Del certainly feels like a third wheel, even if he's got a long history with J.D. and knows Marcus. His role in the squad is to crack jokes and point out the obvious, often long after the player has figured things out.
It's easy to critique Gears for its rather clichéd approach to storytelling. Part of it is actually something we like about the series, much like a good action flick it doesn't often stray from the surface of things. But Gears of War 4 makes the mistake of feeding us too much of the narrative, and too much dialogue. When you first meet Marcus it feels like they've crammed an hour's worth of his dry wit into the first five minutes. We don't mind a cheesy story and underdeveloped characters, but the game pushes these factors to the front a bit too eagerly. Particularly in the early goings. No doubt an attempt to establish the new cast, but perhaps we would have liked them more if the focus had been elsewhere.
Guns have always been an important part of the Gears package. The iconic Lancer is of course there again, both in retro shape and in a more modern take, but we took the most joy out of some of the heavy weaponry. The buzzkill is a new favourite, and while it is enjoyable to mow down juvies (basically half-baked Locust that will rush you and don't use guns), perhaps the funniest part of using them where outside during windflares where you had to take the wind into account, but in doing so were able to land curveballs on unassuming victims. The Dropshot is immensely powerful, and sends a potentially instant kill projectile above the battlefield in a straight line and you pull the trigger a second time to make it come down - if you're skilled it'll take out an enemy or two. It is difficult to get to grips with, as we prefer more traditional weapons like the Boomer, the Mulcher, the Longshot or the new DeeBee sniper rifle, and it is by far the most annoying weapon to come up against in the hands of the enemy as if you don't get out of the way it will one-shot you. However, what's nice about this is that it drives the action and movement in a way that not all firefights do in traditional Gears which can get a bit drawn out. Strangely enough we also enjoyed the "spray and pray" stylings of the Enforcer, while for some reason we never took a liking to the shotguns on offer, at least not for campaign purposes (they do come in handy at times in Horde and particularly in Versus).