Three weeks out, 14 hours in: pre-review impressions of Gears of War 4

This isn’t a review, but it’s not exactly not a review either.

Last week, I played around 14 hours of Gears of War 4 over the course of three days at the Vancouver offices of developer The Coalition.

With many games, that would be enough to review it. Fourteen hours with most games is enough to get a pretty good idea of what they’re doing, to see their stories and know where they go, where they take their gameplay ideas. Most developers wouldn’t give press that much play time with their game prior to a review scenario.

But this situation is different. For one thing, Microsoft and The Coalition aren’t quite ready for Gears of War 4 to be reviewed yet, as the game seems to be in the final stages of certification and bug-fixing a few weeks out from release. There’s not an officially reviewable version of the game.

gears 4 marcus face

As importantly, I’m not ready to review Gears of War 4, even after 14 hours. This week I played a few hours of competitive multiplayer — which is in addition to what I played of the multiplayer beta earlier this year — and I played around nine hours of Horde, give or take. I’ve only played around 2.5 hours of the game’s campaign — from act 2 to about the halfway point of act 3, which I estimate is roughly 20 percent of Gears of War 4, give or take. Altogether, this isn’t enough to render final judgment on the game.

But it’s enough to have a pretty good idea of Gears of War 4’s foundations, how it plays. And those foundations are very, very strong. So consider this a pre-review, if you like, in advance of something final before the game launches to its Ultimate Edition customers on Oct. 7, and everyone else on Oct. 11. In fact, some of this text will likely end up in the final version of my Gears of War 4 review.

Gears of War 4 (thus far) strikes a strong balance of familiarity and experimentation. If you’ve played other Gears of War games, then the basics should be easy. As main character J.D. Fenix — and one of his companions Kait Diaz or Del Walker, if you’re playing cooperatively with a friend — 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.

The section of the game I played introduced DBs, automated robotic enforcers commanded by the COG government as a pacification force. This was the first truly new-feeling bit of Gears I’ve played in ages. Some of the robots fire from cover, sure, but 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.

gears 4 tall kait

That last part seems particularly indicative of design sensibilities in Gears of War 4. In my time with the game so far, more than ever, there’s a sense of push, pull and defend at work with Gears 4’s enemies and 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.

As a result, Gears of War 4 feels more active than other third-person shooters, including its predecessors. Destructible cover is also a much greater consideration in some parts of the game, in part because of environmental factors.

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). There are also lightning storms to navigate, which was a simple task in the section of the game I played but seems ripe to be integrated into a firefight at an inopportune moment.

All of these factors are woven together into a game that should remind anyone who plays it why Gears became as big as it did. At a basic level, Gears of War 4 is 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. But in the two and a half hours I played, there was a strong, subtle evolution and progression to everything that made me sad when I had to stop.

gears 4 robot chainsaw

The biggest question at this point is, what don’t I know about Gears of War 4?

There’s the story, for starters. I only got a basic taste for the main conflicts of Gears of War 4’s world in the aftermath of Gears 3 — that most survivors live in cities closely supervised by a government with a tight grip in place partly to ensure the survival of a human race almost snuffed out by the Locust war; that some survivors live outside the walls of the large cities at odds with the government, and that a new monstrous enemy has been preying on those outsider settlements. I know that J.D.’s relationship with his father Marcus is strained well past a breaking point, and that the performances seem much more developed than they have in previous Gears games, and that the sense of camaraderie between J.D. and Del and even Kait is strong in part because of a lot of in-game dialogue and combat voice-ver.

HDR and 4K

Note: I played Gears of War 4’s campaign on both Windows PC and Xbox One S, the former at a native 4K resolution and the latter in a special demo in HDR on a very, very expensive LG OLED television. The number of customization options on PC is, frankly, ridiculous. It has everything you’d expect, from frame rate settings to anti-aliasing options and ambient occlusion to less conventional options for PC. This includes the ability to enable the same dynamic rendering resolution tricks the Xbox One version uses, which will reduce the game’s rendering resolution when needed in order to maintain a consistent frame rate.

Gears of War 4 looks stunning at 4K, especially up close on a computer monitor, but there’s something to be said for running the game on an HDR-capable television on an Xbox One S console. The difference in contrast and brightness in the game with and without HDR is often jaw-dropping. The lightning arcing out of DBs when they’re chainsawed is a brilliant flash, and fire can be a little hard to look directly at for too long. It’s stunning, though I wonder if my eyes will get a little tired by it in practice.

HDR aside, Gears of War 4 still looks fantastic on Xbox One, and it may even set the visual benchmark for the console in the system’s fourth holiday on the market.

But I don’t know where those relationships go yet. I also don’t know how Gears of War 4 plays with its component parts. I don’t know how it escalates and iterates from the great building blocks of its basic mechanics and systems. Will the game keep coming up with new interpretations and combinations of those things?

Gears of War as a series has been both more and less successful at this. The first Gears of War game didn’t run out of gas but it eventually seemed to exhaust its vocabulary by halfway through its fourth (of five) acts. Gears of War 2 bogged down in some monotonous setpieces and on-rails segments in its last third. Gears of War 3 kept its momentum best, introducing new stuff and more wrinkles into its combat ecosystem through to the end, though, admittedly, it was really, really long. Maybe even too long.

This is always the question for campaigns in games with really strong basic mechanics. Do they run out of things to say? Or do they keep finding new territory to mine with the tools at hand?

There are fewer questions remaining with Gears of War 4’s multiplayer options. Horde seems poised to seize the crown for best cooperative mode in an arena Gears 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.

That said, I’m not totally sold on Horde 3.0’s 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.

Hourslong 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 kait horde

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.

Elsewhere, 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.

A few weeks out, that’s where I’m at. Everything I’ve played so far of Gears of War 4 suggests a game that may help the series find its spark again. It’s all good news so far. The question I have then, is simple: can it stick its landing?

Gears of War 4 is out Oct. 11. Customers who pre-order the Ultimate Edition will be able to play the game four days earlier on Oct. 7.