Reviewed on Xbox One. Copy supplied by publisher.
Drink some protein shakes, dust off your chainsaw and strap a car chassis to yourself, we’re heading to planet Sera. It’s been five years since we last checked in on Marcus Fenix and friends in a core Gears of War title, and a lot has changed in that time. The latest offering, Gears of War 4, takes place 25 years after Gears 3, putting the player in control of Marcus’ son, JD Fenix, as he combats a new threat along with a new generation of protagonists.
To address the title for this review straight up, Gears of War 4 is equal parts disappointing and compelling, a mediocre campaign that delves heavily into the absurd is elevated by the fantastic multiplayer and horde modes, resulting in a mixed bag for this flagship title.
To get the nasty parts out of the way first, let’s put a chainsaw to the campaign and dissect what happened there. Starting with a fantastic prologue that takes you through key battles in the history of Sera, where you fight alongside a young Dom Santiago. Spanning the pendulum wars, emergence day and the eventual defeat of the Locust horde, it’s a thrilling introduction, but sadly it’s the highlight of the entire campaign, which quickly nose dives into a string of cheesy one liners and ludicrous action. Yes, ludicrous even by Gears’ standards…
From the get go I despised JD, he’s essentially Nathan Drake fused with Chris Pratt and pasted into a disgusting one liner vomiting frat boy. Joined by fellow COG deserter Del, and Outsider (people who live outside of COG society) love interest Kait, JD and friends spend more time working their way through amateur stand up comedy than fighting enemies. I’m not sure how the writers envisaged the pacing of jokes, but when the characters are cracking lines that would make Schwarzenegger dry heave every five minutes, something feels truly wrong. But, hey, maybe you’re not a cynical fuck like me and enjoy that sort of thing, unfortunately there are plenty of other flaws to pick at.
In the 25 years that transpired since the last game, Sera has gone through quite a few transformations. The COG are now focused on protecting the war ravaged population, but in a dystopian way… because sci-fi. Led by First Minister Jin, the COG armed forces now mostly consist of bright blue robots known as DeeBees, which you will spend the first few hours of the game fighting, and spoiler alert, they aren’t fun to engage. The joy of Gears for me is a primal blood fueled desire to make mincemeat of lizard men with chainsaws, something which doesn’t translate well with robots. They also sound like assholes and have these shitty little rolling bombs that shock you out of cover. Fuck them is basically what I’m trying to say.
After the first few hours of gameplay I soon realised that I was in for a painful robot wave fighting game, padded out with jokes that made my ears bleed. As a massive Gears of War fan, this felt like a fair curb stomp, so I made the decision to switch the game to casual mode (the easiest setting) and smash through the story as quickly as humanly possible.
The good news is that after the robot sections the game does improve. The first silver lining was a defensive section (there are a few throughout the campaign) where you have to hole up, much like in horde mode, and survive waves of enemies whilst purchasing turrets and defensive structures from a fabricator. In the first defensive segment you have to protect Kait’s Outsider tribe against a COG assault. It’s a great addition to the game, and I loved having some freedom to shape the battlefield in my favour. Shortly after the COG are repelled the game shifts in tone quite heavily, as a new threat, The Swarm, makes their presence known, storming the village and kidnapping Kait’s people. Oh, and shortly after this a familiar face graces the screen.
Fighting alongside Marcus Fenix picks up the pace of the story, yet it also feels surreal to hear the former protagonist take on a “too old for this shit” role. The excellent voice work from John DiMaggio helps bring back some familiarity to the game that was really lacking up until he arrives. It’s around Act III where the campaign truly picks itself up as you chase after The Swarm to rescue Kait’s mother. For all intents and purposes, The Swarm, are Locust 2.0, and finding out where they came from is relatively interesting compared to everything else that happens in the story. Yet, at the same time it’s let down by the new cast, as their time in the limelight is mostly forgettable.
Fortunately enough the gameplay is very much unchanged from past titles. Sure this means there’s been no real innovation, but it works dammit! A few new sparkling additions flesh out the way you play, such as the ability to grab enemies from behind cover, but more or less you’ll be sprinting weirdly low to the ground and turning enemies to pulp with a few boss fights thrown into the mix. Friendly AI isn’t the sharpest, and trying to maneuver tactically to instigate a flank can be dicey, but with co-op play this isn’t really an issue. At around 10 hours of playtime, the game feels just long enough for the rinse and repeat mechanics without them becoming overbearing.
As you fight through the wilderness of Sera and through a network of abandoned mines, a few new weapons present themselves, some of which are absurdly good. Starting with the less impressive, the DeeBees drop off new variations of assault rifles, SMGs and shotguns. The real gold is the new weaponry inspired by mining equipment, which includes an automatic circular saw launcher known as the Buzzkill. Seeing a circular saw blade bouncing around a room full of monsters is weirdly therapeutic… unless that’s just me and I’m the real monster.
New weather features make for an interesting twist in gameplay, as Sera is hit by wind flares (storms… but sci-fi storms). Not only does this look pretty, but the chaos of having shit flying everywhere as you battle enemies adds an extra dimension. You can shoot objects loose to crush Swarm grunts and fighting your way inside and away from the wind becomes a hectic battle for survival. It’s just a shame they didn’t appear more, as they are definitely the most interesting aspect in the game, and one that isn’t really addressed enough plot wise. I feel something has gone pretty wrong with your planet if pillars of lightning sprout out of the sky every few hours.
As fun as the gameplay may be, and as pretty as it may look, for me context reigns supreme, and Gears of War 4‘s poor story choices with lack of explanation seem bizarre. Look at Gears of War 2 for example, that game was great because the context was so real, you were battling to find Dom’s wife Maria, and we gave a shit about Dom because he was a fleshed out character who had more of a role than cheesy joke generator. I’ll gladly admit *SPOILERS * I cried when you eventually found Maria and she died (watch here for maximum emotions), because it was a deep and context heavy experience, and the way the scene was presented through Dom’s eyes initially, with his wife looking beautiful and young, before switching to Marcus’ view where she is emaciated and suffering, was powerful for a video game about killing underground lizard men.
On the flip side Gears of War 4 has none of this going for it. Without giving away too much, the very last shot of the game was so mind blowingly without context, I genuinely wondered if I had fallen asleep through large chunks of plot and missed something. The grand finale in general felt like a misfired joke, where the script for Pacific Rim (anyone for giant mech suits?) found its way muddled into the game, leaving the player on a note that should have had them screaming for more, but instead encourages awkward laughs and raised eyebrows.
Now, I hope that hasn’t left you cursing Gears of War 4, because the game is saved immensely by the depth of its multiplayer and horde mode. Considering we got our hands on the game prior to launch, the majority of my experience in these modes has been with bots and in fluke matches with other journalists, however from what I’ve seen so far, it’s very very promising. With a variation of 10 maps, eight match types, and the always solid horde mode, there is plenty to keep players around.
Strangely the game looks a lot nicer in multiplayer, as the frame rate jumps from the measly 30FPS we get in campaign to a glorious 60FPS, and that difference is so so noticeable. When chewing through strangers online you’ll appreciate those extra 30 frames as their blood splatters across your screen.
Considering there are eight match types, I won’t talk about each, but I will say they offer plenty of different styles of play based on classic online shooter fare. Horde mode as always offers strategic gameplay, as waves of enemies come crashing towards your defenses. Different classes with tailored loadouts offers defined roles for your team, and the addition of consumable bounty cards gives you tasks to complete for bonus XP. It’s enough to keep you going. And if you tilted your head at the mention of consumable cards, we have plenty to discuss my friend.
Gears of War 4 does indeed have a loot box system that plays out an awful lot like a fruit machine in look and feel. Operation packs (containing consumable and cosmetic items) cost $2.95 for one pack, $11.45 for five packs and $29.95 for 15 packs. If that seems awful, operation packs are just the tip of the iceberg, as Elite packs, which are guaranteed to contain one rare or better card, cost $7.45 a pop or $37.45 for five. It’s an ugly thing to see, especially in a full priced game, but sadly it seems to be the way of the industry at the moment. Gone are the days of earning cosmetic items with skill and hard work.
Ultimately Gears of War 4 is a really divisive game. It delivers in certain aspects, but severely under delivers in others. As a multiplayer outing it’s great if you can look past the awfulness of microtransactions, but as a single player story driven title, it feels rushed and underwhelming. Were I scoring this solely on the campaign it’d sit around the five mark, but fortunately it’s carried by the fantastic multiplayer options, even if they are littered with trashy microtransactions.