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Gears of War has come a long way and I can’t say there’s been any bad games up to this point. I would say Judgment is the weakest, but even still, it’s not really a bad game. When looking at all four Gears games released before Gears 4, I would say 3 is easily the best but 2 is still my personal favorite. I like the focus on the Locust war, I enjoyed shooting my way through Locust territory, I like the atmosphere and tone and it introduced some cool mechanics that have remained staples ever since. After Judgment, the Gears saga would continue with Gears of War 4. Developed by The Coalition and published by Microsoft Studios, Gears of War 4 was released for PC and Xbox One in October, 2016. For this review, I played the Xbox One version. I would have played the PC version but I forgot it existed until after I beat the campaign. From what I read, development of Gears 4 was started by Epic Games and after Microsoft purchased the franchise rights from Epic, development duties were handed over to Black Tusk Studios which was later renamed to The Coalition.
Set years after the events of Gears of War 3, the reformed Coalition of Ordered Governments established walled-off cities to protect citizens from outside dangers. The story follows J.D. Fenix, son of Marcus Fenix, and his friend Del who have deserted the COG after disagreeing with their policies. Accompanied by their friend Kait, they help defend their village from an attack by COG robotic DeeBee forces before the village is raided by creatures referred to as the Swarm who capture all the villagers. The group then seeks help from Marcus to find their people. The plot of Gears of War 4 does kind of feel like a new beginning for the series. Although, some aspects are a little cliche. Overall, I do like the plot and the human elements. It’s about conflict and not just between the humans and Swarm.
The main characters are fleshed out pretty well but the younger generation clashing with the older generation trope becomes tiring. Throughout most of the campaign, it’s made very clear these young new faces are just that. Young new faces, green, the new kids, the new generation of heroes and it’s not hard to see how things are going to play out. Nevertheless, the campaign takes you on a fun action-packed adventure but I do think it ends rather abruptly. The voice performances are good and the cast is made up of both returning and notable talent including John DiMaggio, Laura Bailey, Justina Machado, and Jimmy Smits.
Gears of War 4 is interesting because it feels great and plays it safe. Not to sound like a broken record, but this is yet another entry that fails to innovate. It’s more of the same. It doesn’t take any risks or dabble in many new ideas. It features the same cover-based third-person shooter action you would expect from a Gears of War game. There are some new mechanics like yanking enemies from behind cover and vault kicking but nothing that really makes the gameplay feel fresh or different.
Gears of War 4 is enhanced for the Xbox One X and you can choose to favor visuals or performance and I chose performance. That said I was able to play through the campaign at a smooth sixty frames which might be one of the reasons why the game just felt so good. The controls and movement are responsive, the gunplay is satisfying, and everything just feels snappier than what was experienced in the previous games.
As expected, the campaign can be played solo or cooperatively, the game does come with competitive multiplayer modes and the Horde mode also returns. I don’t know if the multiplayer is still active since the release of Gears 5 but I was unable to find any matches. I also had problems starting private sessions against bots due to “server allocation failed” errors. I was able to play the Horde mode in a private session and play Versus matches against bots via LAN. But if I tried any other way, I ran into a problem.
Multiplayer has always been a big part of the series and from what I can tell, Gears of War 4 features all the expected multiplayer components. It also comes with a card system. The cards range from characters to skins to bounties. It’s more or less like a “loot box” system, however there is a lack of card unlocks in-game which is my biggest disappointment with it. That, or it simply takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort to unlock cards. In fact, outside of the initial cards I was rewarded with for what I guess is simply buying the game, I didn’t unlock or earn any others during my time. From what I saw, you can buy different types of boxes containing certain cards and the cards, themselves, will be randomized. You can also destroy and craft cards and level certain ones up. But because I didn’t feel like spending all kinds of money and because I couldn’t even get into any online matches, I didn’t bother digging too deep into the card system.
Luckily, the campaign is pretty beefy, comes with multiple difficulty modes, and you can even play through it in Ironman mode which means if you die, you have to restart the campaign from the beginning. I do think the campaign starts out a little slow. Well Act I to be specific. Not in the sense that there’s nothing to do or shoot but because the enemies you face aren’t that interesting. You will get to fight some Locust forces in the prologue but Gears of War 4 primarily features two new enemy factions; the DeeBees and the Swarm. The DeeBees are robots and the Swarm are the Locust reborn. The first act of the campaign primarily has you engaging DeeBees and you see everything they have to offer very quickly and as result, battles with them start to get a little boring.
When I encountered the DeeBees for the first time, I thought to myself “this actually isn’t bad. I like robots. Binary Domain is cool. Seems like a good idea.” But as I progressed and realized the enemy types were slow-moving and lack variation, I started to worry if the whole game was going to be a bore. There’s only a handful of types like Shepherds which are the most common, DR-1s which are big tough types, Trackers which roll towards you and explode and Guardians which are flying types. I also realized that engaging them just isn’t as cool or as satisfying as engaging enemies like the Locust. DeeBees will explode and their parts will be littered all over the battlefields which is neat but part of the charm of Gears of War is the gore. I want to spill some blood and see body parts and bloody chunks go flying.
The Swarm make up most of the enemies you’ll face throughout the game. You’ll get to rip them to shreds, slice through them, beat them and paint the environments with their blood in typical Gears of War fashion. That said, once you are introduced to the Swarm, that’s when things start to feel more familiar, like your typical Gears of War experience. Some Swarm types are either a reflection or combination of certain Locust. For example, the Drones are almost exactly like Locust Drones. A Scion is basically a combination of a Boomer and Kantus. And then there’s Juvies which are like Wretches. They don’t really resemble them in appearance but they’re small, quick-moving, rush the player and usually appear in numbers. In addition to all of this, enemies like Drones will sometimes emerge from nests in the ground similar to how the Locust would emerge from Emergence Holes. And you close them the same way.
The plot does flesh out how the Swarm came to be, making for a decent explanation but it does sometimes feel like the developers just didn’t want to stray too far from the familiar. You’ll primarily face three main Swarm types; Juvies, Drones, and Scions. One new type that appears every so often is the Pouncer which does exactly what its name implies. It can pounce on its enemies and unleash quills from its tail. The other new types I would consider bosses or sub-bosses and the Snatcher is one that appears numerous times. It’s a big creature that will jump around and can take you down but not out with one shot from its tail. And much like the Pouncer, its weak point is the stomach. It can also consume incapacitated players and carry them away to their death and when playing solo, this makes them very annoying foes because you can’t always rely on the friendly AI to free you which is done by inflicting enough damage.
Other than friendlies not always being capable of saving you from a Snatcher, they do alright in most other situations. Their AI is basically on par with that of the previous two games. They will run around, take cover, shoot at and kill enemies, revive you and each other if necessary, and you can use the spotting mechanic to direct their fire at certain foes and I was able to utilize their fire to flank and get the jump on foes in certain situations. As for the enemy Al, Juvies just rush you so the real showcase of the Swarm intelligence is primarily the Drones. One thing I did notice is that Drones also like to rush you. You can be behind cover firing away and the next thing you know a Drone starts charging towards you and they can be dangerous because they can put you down pretty quick with certain weapons like shotguns. The DeeBees, on the other hand, aren’t as interesting to engage mainly because most of the types just kind of slowly move towards you. Shepherds will take cover but DR-1s will walk and shoot and then run after taking enough damage.
You’ll get your hands on some classic Gears firepower and Gears 4 adds several new weapons to the arsenal like the Enforcer submachine gun, Embar Railgun, shock grenades, and one of my favorites, the Overkill shotgun which features four barrels and will fire two rounds with each trigger pull, gloriously obliterating certain foes. I also like the Dropshot and Buzzkill weapons. The Dropshot fires an aerial drill that will drop to the ground and explode after the trigger is released. The Buzzkill is a heavy weapon that fires buzzsaws that will rip through enemies and ricochet off surfaces. All weapons seem to have excellent feedback and the gore effects help make each shot and kill feel impactful. You can blow off body parts and enemies can explode into a shower of blood, or in the case of DeeBees, robot parts. The game also features a some decent environmental destruction. Gunfire and explosions can destroy objects and rip through structures, resulting in debris flying through the air so a lot of the action and firefights look cool and intense.
Gears of War 4 features a lot of the typical third-person cover-based shooting the series is known for but, unfortunately, not too many exciting moments beyond that. There are a few set pieces and scripted sequences but nothing that reaches the same highs as some of the previous games. The best is easily the mech sequence at the end. You get to control a giant mech and use it to decimate foes and call in airstrikes. You’ll also get into skirmishes during Windflares, a weather phenomena where the wind speeds are so high it affects the trajectory of certain projectiles and you’ll see bodies and objects flying around and can utilize the environment to your advantage. There’s also a neat bike sequence where you get to ride a bike and avoid fire bombs and shoot down enemy aircraft.
The campaign has you primarily going from one firefight to another. There are some traditional boss battles thrown in and even occasional sub-boss types like Snatchers and Carriers to mix things up. Most of the time, you’re objective is to move from A to B and kill all the enemies in between. Then there’s the defense objectives. At certain points in the campaign, you’ll gain access to a device called the Fabricator and whenever one appears, that’s when you know you’re about to defend the area. The Fabricator can produce weapons and defenses like barriers and turrets and producing something consumes power which does regenerate after each wave. Enemies can destroy your defenses so it is wise to think about what you want to buy and where to place defenses.
The defense objectives feel somewhat tacked onto the campaign as kind of like a reminder that there’s a Horde mode because that’s what these objectives essentially are. Brief glimpses of the Horde mode. They’re are not as creative or flashy as some of the defense objectives in Gears 3 for example like when you have to defend a fort from an incoming army of Locust or defend a submarine. Sure, these are scripted set pieces but they’re designed to be exciting and memorable. That’s not the case here. You’re simply fending off waves of enemies but there’s nothing really exciting about it.
As expected the environments are linear with a mix of narrow paths and more open-ended areas to support encounters. Exploration will lead you to pickups like ammo, weapons, and collectibles. There’s plenty of structures and objects that can be used as cover and many areas also contain pods that can be used as cover. However, the pods can be destroyed to reveal Juvies, adding an additional layer of danger to battles. Only a few encounters really stood out to me as exciting like the series of firefights at and around an estate and there’s a segment where you’ll see DeeBees and the Swarm going at it which is pretty cool. The Swarm Hive areas are some of the more interesting locations in the game and you’ll also shoot your way around a settlement, factory, catacombs, and a mining facility.
Gears of War 4 is enhanced for the Xbox One X. As mentioned before, you can choose to favor visuals or performance and I chose the latter. Gears of War 4 is an obvious visual improvement over its predecessors and the presentation does appear more colorful which I really enjoyed. The environments are extremely well detailed, the lighting is good and the texture work is excellent. Visual and gore effects like explosions, sparks, muzzle flashes, and blood gushing look great. The audio work is also solid with satisfying sounding weapons and squishy sounds when enemies are blown to bits and executed, helping make kills feel extremely gratifying. Gears of War 4 is another entry with a good orchestral soundtrack to back up the gameplay. I particularly enjoyed the main theme. The tunes will range from dramatic to more intense and ambient stuff, depending on what’s happening. On the technical side, the game ran smooth and, excluding the errors I faced when trying to set up multiplayer matches, the only bug I encountered was an objective that did not trigger.
I enjoyed my time with Gears of War 4 but I couldn’t help but think the campaign could have been better. It’s the same Gears gameplay we’ve grown accustomed to and it’s running on more powerful hardware and looks better. I will say actually playing it feels great. That’s the best thing about it in my opinion. That’s not to say Gears 4 is a bad game, I just expected something more. Something a little different and fresh. The worst thing about it is that it doesn’t feel as exciting as its predecessors but it’s a well made third-person shooter and Gears title. It just doesn’t aim high enough. It feels like its being held back. The game introduces new characters, new enemies, new weapons, and some new mechanics and yet it doesn’t really feel all that different. It doesn’t take any chances or risks.
Ultimately, I would recommend Gears of War 4 because it’s a good action title. It’s certainly not innovative and it’s not groundbreaking. It doesn’t really do anything interesting with the formula. It takes what has always worked and been enjoyable and gives you more. It’s another well made third-person shooter. It just looks and feels better than its predecessors. That said, you can get copies for pretty cheap now and since it’s not really a bad Gears game, just more of the same, I would say give it a shot. I can’t speak for the multiplayer but the campaign is fun and can be enjoyed with friends.