Gears of War is a great little series that indulges in goofiness, thrives on insanity and holds it all together with a foundation of extremely solid gameplay. But things have changed.
The series has moved to a new developer, the attitude is more Uncharted than ‘dead lifters at the gym at 5 in the morning’ and there is the smell of a whole new collection of games in the air, dare we say reboot?
But Gears of War 4 gives and takes in equal measure; what didn’t make it in from the last few games is replaced by something new and inciting. However, no matter how you approach this new entry in the collection, there is no denying that it all feels very familiar, but not exactly in a bad way.
Gears of War 4 puts you in the shoes of the next generation of the Fenix family, J.D Fenix, who has joined an anti-government group and escaped society after the big wars were won. But would you believe it, something is stirring deep under the earth!
Gears of War 4 throws a lot at you very early on, not really stopping to let you catch your breath, and new players may find themselves scrabbling to find their footing. But to long term players, it’ll feel like walking right back into where you left off.
The campaign is a little different from the past, stepping away from a large scale war and instead creating a kind of murder mystery, where you slowly fill in the pieces as to what the hell is going on. The new cast is serviceable, but lack the gruff charm of the old group. That said they are more human and less miserable gits, so it does add a refreshing attitude to often dour proceedings.
And that’s about where the new separates from the old, because Gears of War 4 revels in its own past, doing little to shake up the formula. The gameplay is a prime example, and you’ll find yourself entering rooms full of chest high walls and know a fight is about to pop off. You’ll spent a lot of time staring intently at rocky services, chainsawing bad guys and popping off skills shots with a variety of returning weapons. That’s not to say there isn’t some new treats to enjoy, such as a number of highly unusual weaponry to play around with. The Buzzkill was a particular favorite, a giant saw blade launching tool that can rebound shots into the backs of previously untouchable enemies.
You now have a few extra abilities to try out, such as grabbing and pulling foes over adjacent cover and opening them up for an instant kill execution. You won’t use it very often, but it can save your skin if used correctly.
Enemies have received a bit of an overhaul too, and now come in two major varieties. Oppressive robot COG forces and the locu…sorry…the SWARM! Both have very similar unit breakdowns, shooty cover using gits, fast moving low health melee buggers and big dudes with big guns who avoid cover altogether. If this all sounds pretty familiar, that would be because it is.
But in practice, this isn’t really an issue, as there are just enough small tweaks to the formula to prevent an overwhelming sense of Déjà vu. The swarm bring some new enemy types that shake up traditional tactics, such as squad buffs, area of denial units and even equipping the biggest of foes with instant kill weapons that punish you for staying still.
There is no denying that whatever small changes have been made, this is still undeniably a Gear of War experience down to the core. But the satisfying nature of a Gears game is still very alive and well here. Popping off heads, make or break melee charges and the variety of odd weaponry still offers enough many thrills that the familiarity doesn’t weight too heavily on the overall fun.
This remains true for the multiplayer game modes, but most significantly in Horde 3.0. Gears of War multiplayer has always been a very strange experience, which relies on old school FPS ideals, such as power weapon drops, to carry the experience. Everyone has so much health that using the games basic arsenal is almost pointless, and instant kill tools are king.
New players will find the online battleground an ordeal to say the least, as the old Gears of War veterans are back in solid form, using the gnasher shot gun exclusively and pinging of walls so fast it feels like they just dropped in from an especially odd Sonic the Hedgehog sequel no one heard of.
The competitive multiplayer can be a great laugh, as you rush through the map to find weapons and execute particularity annoying foes with a boot to the face. But if you have no experience previously, prepare for frustration as you go up against a fan base that knows every exploit in the book. Without that knowledge and how to counter it, multiplayer can be kind of an alienating experience. That said, there is a great deal to appreciate about the effort that went in to designing the maps, which are still some of the best in the business.
Horde 3.0 is the main attraction for most, allowing players to go against waves of increasingly difficult enemies, inter-spaced with numerous boss waves. It provides an extremely challenging and fun gamemode where setting defenses and moving your weapon generating replicator into chokepoints provides a more thoughtful approach to the gameplay. Again, nothing new, but but still excellent.
In the end, Gears of War 4 is a comfortable, if unsurprising reentry into the series, and will do little to change your option. If you love the franchise, you should absolutely check out Gears of War 4, but don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.
Unless adding chainsaw blades to it suffices.