This is a review solely for the main campaign of Gears of War 4.
More so than I realise sometimes, the Gears of War series holds a special place in my heart. 17 year old me was introduced by my at-the-time girlfriend to an Xbox 360, Viva Pinata, and Gears of War (I’ve decided to exclude Sonic ’06 from this list because reasons) and within two weeks I owned the console and both games. For a few years I had fallen out of the loop with video games, so Gears of War was my reintroduction to the medium.
The original trilogy was a benchmark series for the Xbox 360, featuring a simple but effective plot that arched over each game, enjoyable over-the-shoulder 3rd person shooting, and some incredible character models, really showcasing what the unreal engine was capable of.
The flow of gameplay follows several beats that are repeated: shoot some things, press x to interact, avoid environmental hazard, shoot things that are bigger than the previous things. This is how the Gears series has always played out, and though familiarity is not necessarily a bad thing, by the end of the third installment I was feeling tired and ready to put the series to rest, as did many others by the reaction to GOW: Judgement.
5 years removed from saving Sera, and with The Coalition (formally Black Tusk, the team behind GOW: Ultimate Edition) taking the reigns, Gears makes its debut on the Xbox One. The first thing of note is that GOW4 does not make any great leaps graphically. Sure, it looks pretty, but so do the other games. The original was a massive leap for character models and facial movement on the last gen consoles, but since then, other games have raced ahead in that department. The same can be said for level design and environments: they look good, and the level of debris and chaos is presented well, but Gears just feels like part of the pack now, instead of leaders in this area.
Gameplay is, well… it’s a Gears game. If you see a chest-high wall, get your guns out. The movement does feel quicker, which should be expected, if only because the two main playable characters are half the size of Marcus Fenix, but it is also needed, as the enemy AI has made a significant step up from the previous installments. Your regular grunts are far more aggressive and will flank you without previously scripted sequences informing you so. Sitting behind a wall popping off heads with a longshot is a thing of the past, which is a shame, as that was my favourite thing to do, but it does change up the combat.
The new enemies also change things up; the robots are slow moving bullet sponges that pack a punch; pouncers are small creatures that hop from platform to platform and jump on you if you get too close; snatchers are absolute bastards that knock you down quickly and gobble you up in their stomach, leaving a limited amount of time for your allies to shoot you free. Finally there are juvies, that act the same as wretches from the previous games, which is good, because blasting them with a shotgun is still as satisfying 10 years later.
There are a couple of news toys to dismantle limbs with; the buzzkill in particular can slice through large packs of enemies and comes handy in the tower defence sections. A lot of these new weapons feel very gimmicky, though, as they only tend to last till the end of the room you pick them up in, plus the variation on the longshot is an absolute pain to use, meaning long-distance combat is out of the question for most of the game. It’s s shame as The Coalition made great strides in varying the gameplay through the AI, but for most of the campaign I felt no need to look past the shotgun or lancer.
It’s still very much Gears of more, but enough tweaks exist that the 8-hour campaign should hold your interest. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the new cast of characters. You take the role of JD Fenix, an absolute blank slate of a protagonist who I think is meant to straddle the lines between cocky, freewheeling, gob-shite and the macho, but somewhat self-aware characteristics of his dad, yet manages to achieve neither. The voice acting is inoffensive, but the charisma that Lester Speight brought to the Cole character, or the sarcastic and amusing quips of Fred Tatasciore’s Baird are nowhere to be seen. Combined with an uninspired script means that these new characters are wholly forgettable, with the best performances coming at the start and at the end, leaving a large middle section of blandness.
The story takes places after the events of GOW 3, with the humans split between the COG (the authoritarian coalition you fought with before) and the outsiders who decided to build their lives again elsewhere. Without giving away too much, there are enemies that look and act like the locust and it all turns into the The Matrix around the halfway point. Both JD and other main protagonist, Kait, have their motives for fighting that are standard fare for the series, but it keeps the plot moving along. The final boss is a bit anti-climatic, and the ending, though a cliff-hanger, feels weak – an inherit problem of building a game with intention of creating a trilogy, but it gives a strong lead to continue the story in the next installment.
Gears of War 4 is an enjoyable entry in the series, though it lacks the – admittedly brownish-grey – sparkle of the Xbox 360 trilogy. It gets by on a worn out script and average plot that come close to dragging the experience down, but is still a solid enough shooter that it overcomes these flaws.