Many people are quick to name Halo and the Master Chief as the marquee franchises of the Xbox brand. I disagree. For me, the Gears franchise has been more deserving of that role. Much like Microsoft's foray into the world of gaming, the Gears franchise has been gritty, unrelenting, and unapologetic in nature. The franchise's story is one of despair, pain, and sacrifice, with just the smallest sliver of hope included to keep it's heroes moving forward. The developers have clung to this formula for nearly a decade and it has worked well for them thus far.
Nearly a decade after it all began, the franchise is beginning anew. After briefly revisiting the initial game with a remastered Ultimate Edition, the series is moving forward with an entirely new chapter in the hands of a new developer, all built for a new generation of Xbox. Usually, seeing a hallowed franchise in a position like this is a scary one for long time fans; there are lots of things that can go wrong and lots of things that usually do. I am here to assure you that isn't the case with Gears of War 4. Despite all of the opportunities for things to go wrong, things have gone in the right direction.
If you need a little refresher in the history of the franchise, Gears of War 3 ended with Marcus and his squad, along with the help of his father, delivering a deathblow to the locust invasion. With the threat against humanity gone, everyone was left wondering what was left for mankind. War and despair had become all that they had known; humanity would have to learn to be human again. However, along with the rebirth of humanity comes the return of human problems.
Gears 4 takes place 25 years later and Sera has come a long way in returning to the way it was prior to Emergence Day. The world still has a long way to go though; the effects of the war have left the planet ravaged and civilization is in the midst of both rebuilding itself and dealing with new environmental threats such as horrible electric- and windstorms. It looks the same in terms of its foundation, but things are starting to look a bit less "apocalyptic". Greenery is starting to return; urban landscapes are building upwards rather than decaying and being torn the the ground. Sera is coming back to life. Society is seeing a major shift as well.
The COGs, who were once the saviors of mankind, have let their power and the dependency of mankind go to their head. Sera has evolved into a bit of a police-state; the COG now rule with an iron fist and claim to have humanity's best interests in mind. Settlements have been formed, repopulation programs have been started, and new laws have been established to govern the people of Sera. They aren't doing so with the same force that got them through the war though; the human Gears that brought humanity through their darkest days have been abandoned in favor of automated soldiers and workers. As you would expect, this doesn't sit well with everyone, and many citizens have resorted to forming independent cities and settlements and ever resorted to opposing their new COG overlords. Among those are COG-turned rebels JD Fenix and his best friend, Del. What these two will soon discover is that in addition to the human problems they find themselves battling day in and day out, a new threat is going to emerge.
I won't spoil much more of the story than that, which should give you an idea of where things are starting off. Overall, while I thoroughly enjoyed the campaign portion of the Gears 4 experience, I really felt that it was too brief and a bit self serving. I was able to finish the story in a little under 6 hours. What it succeeds at is establishing the goals and status of the franchise under the direction of the new developer, The Coalition. While the story and characters are fresh, it feels very reminiscent of the original adventure. It really gives the feeling that they are playing it safe in kicking of this new era, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but also leaves players with a sense of longing for something new.
The gameplay strengths of the franchise are displayed from the outset, right down to classic features such as the cover based mechanics, active reloading, and of course, the patented roadie run. The run is the one aspect that has seen a bit of improvement, with new options added such as being able to vault barriers and maintain your momentum and leaping over them with a kick to enemies in cover, leaving them in a stun state and ripe for an execution. yes, it is safe, but you don't need to fix what isn't broken.
The weapon variety has grown drastically, nearly doubling in size compared to the previous offerings. It has done so by taking a nod from the Halo franchise. Just as we have seen human COG and Locust weapons in the past, that almost mirror one another in terms of their various weapon-classes, Gears 4 sees the introduction of a new line of weapons from the new robotic COGs. They have their own brand of sniper rifles, shotguns, and assault rifles. They feel different enough to provide their own unique tactical advantages in battle, but at the same time allow them to feel familiar to those picking them up for the first time.
There are numerous attempts throughout the solo (or cooperative) campaign experience to mix things up a bit without completely abandoning the established formula. Vehicle sequences and non-traditional action scenes such as an escape from a mining site via a high-speed vertical climb of sorts work wonders to break up the pacing. You can only spend so much time in consecutive duck-and-cover situations before you get tired; the game displays a good understanding of that and makes numerous attempts to break up the monotony.
The evolved environment also does a bit to change up things a bit. The random wind and electric storms can really alter the flow and pacing of a battle. The windstorms in particular can wreak havoc on the trajectory of your bullets and artillery, not to mention create a variety of environmental hazards with large objects being strewn around in unpredictable manners. It is also worth noting that these moments are when the game really flexes its visual muscles. Don't get me wrong, Gears 4 looks fantastic as it is, but once these things start up, total chaos results and it is as beautiful to see happen as it is hectic to function within.
In reference to calling the campaign "self serving" that it is clear, very early on in the experience, that this is intended to lay the foundation of a new run for the series. Roughly two hours into the story, I found myself getting the feeling that many of the questions and anticipation that was building would be left on the table. It was clear when the end was drawing near, and it just so happened to be when things were starting to peak.
While the campaign may feel a bit short but the multiplayer suite shows that the Coalition knows exactly where this game's longevity lies. There are tons of multiplayer options included to keep players playing long beyond the few hours they will throw into the story. Competitive multiplayer types return, allowing teams of 5 to face off against each other in different ways. You will of course see the traditional match types such as Warzone and Team Deathmatch, as well as a variety of new offerings such as Dodgeball and Escalation. Dodgeball, in particular proved to be one of my favorite modes, as it is an elimination styled deathmatch game. The catch here is that you can respawn your teammates by eliminating opponents. This means that the tide of the battle can turn at any given time, which provides some intense and entertaining experiences with your friends and other players online.
The game includes nine brand new maps at launch, all of which are designed to mimic the new environments on Sera after 20 years of recovery. They all still feel like patented Gears-warzones. There are clearly defined battle areas thanks to the cover system, evident by pillars and boxes that provide cover for you and your enemies. The classic Gridlock map also returns unchanged, rounding out a great set of maps that suit the gameplay types perfectly.
The cooperative focused Horde mode sees perhaps the biggest changes for the new era. The Horde concept has been fleshed out quite a bit with a much heavier focus given to fortifying your teams chosen base. This all happens thanks to the introduction of the Fabricator as well as five intricately designed character classes. The five included classes are Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Sniper, and Engineer. Functionally, they are all the same, including the ability to use all of the same equipment and weapons in the game. The differences come into play when combined with the game's skill and perk system.
As you play, you will earn coins that can be used to unlock packs of cards that represent gear, skins, and class perks that can be equipped to your characters. These will give them stat and ability bonuses, XP bonuses, and even bounties to complete. As you level up each class, you will see more slots open. Some may improve your reload time or weapon accuracy, while others may improve clip sizes and battle abilities. You get to tailor each of the classes to your liking, both in terms of your gameplay style and weapons of choice. It becomes it's own meta-game of sorts in terms of collecting and implementing these abilities, one that really adds some serious depth to the experience.
The Fabricator is a whole different story, as it is now the focus of the entire Horde experience. Think of it as a 3D printer of sorts, one that can be moved around the repositioned on the battlefield as needed. As you and your teammates defeat enemies, you will earn "power" that can be spent within the Fabricator to construct weapons and defense items to assist you in tearing through the 50 waves of enemies. The more you use the Fabricator, the more options that you will be given as it levels up as your progress through the course of a match. You can use it to build weapons and ammo for your team, or things such as turrets and physical barriers that you can use to fortify a base-area.
Horde mode is really a world within itself now. It's deep and challenging, and something that provides a different experience pretty much every time that you boot it up. This is where the longevity of the game lies and undoubtedly where I will be spending ridiculous amounts of gameplay hours until the next entry in the series launches.
The online play worked very well, with the game appearing to re-sync all players between rounds. This includes players on the PC platform, as you can battle it out with others regardless of your system of choice (at least in unranked and cooperative modes). Even when paired with Pc players, everything felt smooth as silk for me (granted, the servers weren't exactly being taxed prior to launch). The foundation is certainly here to the game to take a run at the title for The multiplayer game of choice on the Xbox One, and perhaps even the PC.
In many ways, Gears 4 reminds me a lot of last year's Star Wars movie, A Force Awakens. The game is a solid and there is no denying that it is an enjoyable adventure from start to finish. This doesn't stem from them doing anything particularly groundbreaking or new with the series but rather from demonstrating an understanding and reverence for everything that made the franchise great from the start. It is a lesson in dichotomy in the manner that it feels both fresh and familiar at the same time.
The campaign leaves me wanting more, albeit a bit disappointed that there wasn't more to be experienced. It's clear from the start that this is intended to be the foundation for a new era in the Gears' lore. However, the legs of the experience are rooted firmly in the multiplayer which will keep fans glued to both the competitive and cooperative modes for years to come. Fans will be making their own experiences with their friends and the world thanks to the robust multiplayer options that are there at launch and the many more that are coming in the next year. Gears is back and it is here to blend the old generation of players with a new one.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
If you have been here before, you know the basics: lifelong gamer, father, and of course, certified news monkey. I have been blogging on the industry for close to a decade now, in some form or another. It wasn't until I landed here at Gaming Nexus that I really dove in head first. Now, writing about games has become what I do for fun (and sometimes work) and something I intend on doing until the day I die.
I'm a huge fan of just about everything you can interact with using a controller, no matter how old or new, good or bad. If you put it in front of me, I will play it... end of story.