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).
While the gunplay remains largely the same (blind fire, active reload, lean out from cover, etc), some additions have been made to close quarters combat. You can now yank an enemy out from behind cover and kill them with your combat knife in a one button QTE. You can also roadie run towards cover, vault over it and kick an enemy and stun them before you deliver the killing blow. We're not huge fans of button prompts to break up the flow of things, but it's a good fit with the rather measured and weighted feel of Gears melee and cover mechanics.
We mentioned that there is a tad too much narrative and that the characters are a bit too chatty in the early goings, but the calming down of exposition is not the only reason why the campaign picks up after the first two acts. At the start of the game you're fighting robots. And while they act fairly similarly to Locust and there are even some interesting flying robotic enemies, there is just something that leaves you feeling rather unsatisfied when you turn a robot into an exploding pile of scrap metal. At least when compared to emptying a clip into a meaty drone. It's not until the real enemy rears its head that Gears of War 4 reaches its potential.
At times Gears of War 4 is absolutely stunningly beautiful. It's not perfect, there are little blemishes here and there. Reflections and lighting that's off, clipping, and the odd texture pop. The increased reliance on physics, particularly in windflare sections also makes for some funny or odd moments. It's all very minor, however, and for the most part the game is very polished. The attention to detail is tremendous in places, so it's disappointing that some of the early environments come across as uninspired and bland. As you progress there is more rust, metal and vile flesh, and along with this it seems the environmental artists have been more inspired adding detail and flair to the surroundings. We'd also like to point out the brilliant work that has one into presentation, menus, and pause screens. The packaging here is some of the best we've seen in any game to date and very much in line with the predecessors.
These days action games rarely offer campaigns that last more than ten hours or so and Gears of War 4 is no exception. In fact, in spite of set pieces that are basically a few rounds of Horde and some slow walk and talk sections, you could easily blow through this in a weekend with a friend with plenty of time to spare. Solo progress, naturally, is a little slower as some bosses and set pieces clearly have been designed with co-op in mind. As you'd suspect certain acts and chapters are longer than others, which makes for a nice roller-coaster ride where you don't quite know how long each frantic descent and slow ascent is going to be. There's a nice pulse to it, something that Gears of War has always been good at. But while there are some atmospheric moments, we'd never go as far as saying that there are any moments resembling survival horror here. This is an action game, and one where your enemies for the most part come straight at you. The new breed of enemies are good at this, forcing you to do more than just sit in cover and pick off enemies in safety. There's a good balance of needing to flank, fall back at times, and pressing the action.
Overall, we're happy but not ecstatic with the campaign of Gears of War 4. It's only part of the package and while off to a slow start, it picks up and delivers the sort of action we've come to expect from the franchise. More towards Gears 1 and 2 perhaps. Don't expect to be blown away by the new cast, but you can rest assured that there are oldies and enemies with character enough to make up for any rookie failings of JD, Kait and Del.
Aside from the campaign the Horde mode is where you'll hone your skills dealing with AI enemies. There's a mix of enemies, ranging from the most basic robots you face early on in the campaign to far more potent members of the swarm as the waves progress. There is a fabricator and you'll use credits to buy things to aid you like sentries and barriers. The maps are quite open so you'll need to think a bit about where to dig in and fortify. Horde is rather well crafted and offers a rich progression that ties in with the REQ pack-esque system the game uses. In Versus it only seems to be cosmetic, but in Horde you'll be able to equip perks as you level up the five classes. We quite enjoyed our brief spell in Horde during the lead up to this review and we could see ourselves spending a lot of time here in the company of some good friends.
We mentioned the Versus mode - and here you'll find 6 modes including standards like Team Deathmatch, Warzone and King of the Hill, with some more unique stuff like Arms Race where every three kills switches the weapons on your team. It's all very intense and if the campaign is fairly measured and Horde ramps that up, then Versus takes it even further. We mainly got to play Team Deathmatch due to limited amounts of players on the servers, and will reserve judgement on Versus as a whole until later when there's a community there enjoying the game on live servers. Then we'll also have a chance to see what the matchmaking is like, even if there's no reason to assume to anything is wrong with it. We suspect some will take Gears of War 4's team-based 5v5 multiplayer to heart as it offers something a bit different, but for our part we don't see it as the main course of what's being offered here.
As it stands at the time of the review, Gears of War 4 does a lot of things right, but it also falls a bit short on some counts. We are however left with a decidedly positive feeling about the latter part of the campaign, and towards the end we actually cared about the cause. The ending may not be as explosive as in some of the other entries, but it held some emotional punch.
As alluded to we're holding off on posting our final impressions of Horde and the multiplayer until the servers are live and we've gotten a bit more time in with the various modes.