Gears of War 4 review

Game Info
Platform Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer The Coalition
Release Date Holiday 2016

Note: portions of this review previously appeared in our pre-review check-in with Gears of War 4 in September.

Gears of War 4 is about home and family.

That might sound weird. Gears of War as a series has dealt with accusations of hyper-masculine excess and an emphasis on gore and violence since it was first announced more than ten years ago. And it’s not that those observations are wrong, exactly — the characters have always been larger than life, the men in particular wide and heavy, and the violence of the series has always been extreme and enthusiastic. But beneath or even in parallel to that aspect, there’s always been consistent themes of friendship, of relationships of support and camaraderie that would seem corny in most other games but, somehow, work in Gears of War for a passionate fanbase.

New Gears developer The Coalition’s job with Gears of War 4 is many-fold. To bring the series back to relevancy five years after it last had an impact; to serve as a standard-bearer for the Xbox platform; to legitimately lay claim to a property started by another studio. And, maybe, to do something fresh with a series that seemed to reach its logical endpoint.

Oh, and to make a great video game.

The Coalition doesn’t succeed on all fronts. Gears of War 4 at times seems to have more ideas than it has time or bandwidth to explore. This often results in a game that feels like a refined reboot rather than something truly new or different. But Gears of War 4 serves as an effective statement of intent, bringing Gears forward and competing with the modern vanguard of competitive shooters.

It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

As Gears of War 4 begins, decades have passed since the human race narrowly survived the Locust War (with a tight, playable history lesson that gives a brief timeline of events). After the events of Gears of War 3, the Locust threat was over, and humanity began to rebuild.

The line running through Gears of War 4 is family

The survivors of the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or Cog, live in cities closely supervised by a government with a tight grip in place. This is partly to ensure the survival of a human race almost snuffed out by the Locust War — the world is full of propaganda that tells its story, like books and posters espousing the heroism and service of breeding for the future of the species. However, some survivors live outside the walls of large, robot-built cities at odds with the Cog, engaging in raids on certain Cog storehouses for supplies and living in a state of cold-ish war.

Sitting somewhere between these factions is J.D. Fenix and his best friend Del Walker, who have gone AWOL from the Cog and joined an outsider group with their friend Kait Diaz. But when a mysterious new threat invades their settlement and steals away their friends and family, J.D and his companions go to the only neutral party they can think of to find help — J.D.’s father and Gears of War protagonist Marcus Fenix.

Gears of War 4 is a more focused, less sprawling story than the last few entries, following the three friends through the forests and ruins of Old Sera as they try to find their friends and family. It feels more action-horror than action sci-fi, and it can be as enthusiastically violent as previous games — sometimes even more so, as there’s even more combat chatter than before and J.D. is a less morose lead than Marcus ever was. But the line running through Gears 4 is, as I mentioned before, family. A lot of time is spent exploring the strained relationship between Marcus and his son, with a lot of perspective on both sides of the equation.

gears 4 screen 1

Meanwhile, Kait’s relationship with her mother Reyna and uncle Oscar gets some space to grow and develop as well. And J.D., Del and Kait’s relationship also gets a lot of room to develop and grow — it’s not a two-way street the way it often was in previous Gears games. If anything, my main character disappointment is Del, who gets little in the way of any character backstory or history, other than being childhood friends with J.D. and having a less contentious relationship with Marcus.

The game’s overarching story is more effective than its predecessors or even most other action games in recent memory, in part because it’s comparatively simple. J.D., Cait and Del want to get their friends back, and they’re following breadcrumbs to do it. I also appreciated minor touches elsewhere, like small story moments that are optionally triggered that in turn affect later conversations slightly. It’s not game-changing, but it was a nice touch.

gears 4 review 2

Gears of War 4’s story and character time works as well as it does for several reasons. The writing is matter-of-fact, avoiding over-stoicism and also overwrought fluff for the most part. It also helps that Gears of War 4 is stunning. It’s easily the best looking game on Xbox One, and a number of brightly lit daylight environments in addition to a flood of color everywhere else, particularly deep reds and greens, remove the "muddy" and "monochromatic" qualifiers that were often flung at the original Gears of War and its sequels. From kinetic setpieces that feel ripped from action adventure franchises like Uncharted to quieter moments often pierced by brilliant storms in the distance, Gears of War 4 stands next to any other release this year.

But unlike many other action games, Gears of War 4 allows you time to explore spaces without fighting. Encounters can often be spaced apart by minutes, rather than seconds, and not usually by cutscenes. The Gears of War series has always been good at this, but The Coalition takes things a step further, often throwing red herrings your way about when a fight might break out. Previously, cover objects placed strategically always meant a fight was about to start. In Gears of War 4, the game might just be fucking with your head. It leads to a more refined but clearly present sense of combat tension.

gears 4 tall kait

When that combat breaks out, Gears of War 4 strikes a strong balance of familiarity and experimentation. If you’ve played other Gears of War games, then the basics should be easy. You’ll need to rely on cover-based gunplay and smart, strategic positioning throughout each combat scenario. Movement is incredibly smooth, and Gears of War 4 feels like a natural evolution of the series that began modern in-game cover systems as we know them — even if Gears of War 4 is a clear step back from its immediate predecessor in one notable regard, as campaign co-op play only supports two players.

It was easy to fall back into old muscle memory and appreciate how sophisticated Gears’ combat is. The active reload system is a subtle but constant consideration in firefights with real effects in-game, for example. Companion AI is greatly improved from previous games — I rarely felt screwed or boxed in by my computer-controlled teammates, which is such a common problem in games with AI partners that its minimal presence here is worth noting.

Gears of War 4 also refines and expands on the sense of push, pull and defend at work in combat scenarios. I felt less safe sitting in any one spot for more than a few moments, because there are so many enemies with means of overwhelming a position, whether through raw physical violence or weapons that circumvent any site-specific protection.

The new antagonists in Gears 4 underline this. DBs, automated robotic enforcers commanded by the COG government as a pacification force, are markedly different than previous Gears enemies. Their patterns of aggression are very different from the wilier Locust of previous games (and the time I spent shooting at the new monstrous antagonists the Swarm). They fight in waves and have little sense of self-preservation for the most part, which they make up for by taking a lot of hits and, in the case of larger foes, suicidal rushes once they’ve hit a certain damage threshold.

The Swarm has their own sense of give and take, and their biology has interesting effects on the battlefield. Many are born from fleshy pods around the world, which can be used as cover — but if the pod takes too much damage, it will burst. If you’re lucky, that pod will be empty. If you’re not, things might get a lot more interesting in a hurry.

As a result of all of this, Gears of War 4 feels more active than other third-person shooters, including its predecessors. Environmental factors are also a much bigger element this time around. In the aftermath of the previous Gears games’ campaign against the Locust and the near destruction of the planet of Sera, the atmosphere is in a state of revolt, resulting in powerful and destructive windstorms. In-game, this has various effects, from the cosmetic — i.e., lots of rustling of vegetation and foliage, which looks great, but doesn’t do much — to the more dramatic in terms of its effect on game mechanics. Wind can grow violently strong, which in turn affects projectile weapons like Boomshots and grenades. In stronger weather, you can actually destroy some support structures to trigger environmental violence on your enemies (or yourself, if you’re not careful).

Not all of Gears 4's ideas are successful

All of these factors are woven together into a game that is, at a basic level, a joy to play. The guns are differentiated and interesting, each with its own quirks and use cases, and the feedback loop of shooting and hitting your target and nailing an active reload and shooting more is incredibly strong. Gears of War 4 could be far less complex in its environment design and enemy behaviors and it would still be fun to shoot things. There are even multiple boss fights in the game that are not miserable guessing games punctuated by death, which almost every other shooter beats its head against.

But not every idea is successful. The huge battlefields that often defined Gears of War 3 are replaced by smaller arenas. This doesn’t make the Gears of War 4 less fun — there are a lot of great firefights waiting to happen, and big, fun moments. But it can’t help but feel scaled back, which, in a sequel, can be a hard thing to reconcile.

I could also see spots where The Coalition seemingly thought about adding major new mechanics and enemy dynamics but drew back. For example, later in the game, there’s one scene where DBs are fighting the Swarm, and when you get involved, it becomes a three-way battle. But this never happens again. Similarly, a cutscene shows a bizarre interaction between a particular kind of Swarm creature and a certain type of DB, but the thread is dropped and never picked back up again. And at a few points in the game, attempts are made to fold in elements of Horde mode, Gears of War’s wave-based survival staple, but these are arguably only successful half the time, and account for around 30-40 minutes of a game that took me eight-and-a-half hours to play to completion on the second-highest difficulty setting.

gears 4 horde mode The Coalition/Microsoft Studios

The Horde hooks in question are directly related to the mode’s movable construction unit, called the Fabricator. The fabricator is part of The Coalition's play to re-take the crown for best cooperative mode in an arena Gears franchise is arguably responsible for creating. The ability to build emplacements and a new economy aspect add a great opportunity for experimentation and improvisation by teams.

Horde 3.0 (because it’s the third iteration) is almost everything I could think of wanting from this kind of mode by virtue of its economy and building. That said, I’m not totally sold on Horde 3.0’s new class system. It’s full of good ideas, but the dynamics feel off. Engineers are extremely useful, scouts (who get double points for energy collected from fallen enemies when it’s deposited before a wave is cleared) are required, and everyone else feels like a mishmash of overlapping roles with different weapon spawns. The absence of support classes outside of the engineer prevents other players from having a means of success that isn’t linked directly to the enemies they kill, and also an absence of variety of player capability in a mode where a single session could last hours.

Hours long sessions aren’t a bad thing. It’s going to be easy to dump time into Horde, both because it’s a naturally fun iteration of a game with really strong mechanics and enemy design, and because of the player progression systems in place. The card upgrades are also interesting, though I’m not sure how the involvement of in-app purchases will effect them — The Coalition doesn’t seem overly concerned, since Horde isn’t a competitive mode.

But most importantly, Horde 3.0 offers what so many cooperative modes in other games — and even the campaigns of many other shooters — often fail to provide: breathing room. And not just the 30 seconds between waves, either. Horde 3.0 escalates, but it also resets somewhat after each boss wave, allowing the game to ramp back up after moments that feel especially climactic. It takes a break from kicking the crap out of you, and that keeps Horde’s tension from tipping into exhaustion, at least until you fail a wave a few times.

gears 4 mp screen 2

As for competitive multiplayer, as always, it will take time for Gears of War 4 to show whether or not it has the legs to keep an audience and build a community. But the ingredients are there, and it feels like The Coalition is off to a great start. The decision to bump Gears of War 4’s frame rate in multiplayer to 60 frames per second, over the campaign’s 30 fps, offers specific improvements to the game’s controls and responsiveness (which were already pretty great). In return, Gears 4 is the best-playing multiplayer in the series. Twitch response is dramatically improved, and there are fewer moments where death feels like it came because you couldn’t turn in time.

The maps I’ve spent time with so far have a good mix of cover points and line of sight, and there almost always seems to be an opportunity for strategic movement and positioning. I’m more concerned with the number of modes Gears of War 4’s multiplayer is trying to focus on. It’s not that anything in particular is badly implemented. Arms Race is a fun gimmick for people who liked Gun Game in the Call of Duty games. Dodgeball — where each player has a single life, but is "tagged" back into the match when a member of the other team dies — is inspired, and leads to some great back-and-forth stories. But I wonder how many of those modes will be alive a few months after the game launches, and whether that variety might hurt the community’s ability to coalesce around specific game types and grow from there.

Microsoft and The Coalition have also committed to an ambitious, if confusing, DLC plan where new maps will be free of charge for all content in most circumstances — offline being the exception. It would appear that Gears of War 4 and the Coalition are following Halo 5 and developer 343’s lead with an aggressive post-release update schedule of new content, which should bode well for the game’s longer-term prospects.

Wrap Up:

Gears of War 4 is a remarkably complete package.

When I was finished with Gears of War 4’s campaign, I remember wondering why it didn’t do more. The next morning, I was playing the game again, not out of obligation, but because I wanted to. Taken all together, Gears of War 4 doesn’t completely reinvent the genre, and it’s not always "bigger." But it’s a remarkably consistent, complete package with the kind of refinement and focus few other games can manage, providing excellent solo, cooperative, and competitive options that rank it as one of the best action games of 2016.

Gears of War was reviewed in part at an event held at The Coalition's Vancouver offices over the course of three days in September, as well as time spent with a pre-release "retail" Xbox code provided by Microsoft. The game was played alternately on a Windows 10 PC and Xbox One S. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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