Think back to 2012 when Halo 4 came out. It was the fourth major entry in a storied series but the first developed by an entirely new studio, one ostensibly existing solely for the development and maintenance of the franchise. We mostly lucked out, though, in that 343 Industries both had a history of working on Halo games and then ended up making a relatively progressive game in regards to that universe’s mythos and the gameplay.
We’re pretty much in the same situation again with Gears of War 4, right down the presiding Microsoft ownership. This is the first of the series developed by The Coalition, though the studio’s work on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition worked as their warmup. It also attempts to push the world forward by taking place 25 years after the original trilogy with the apparent elimination of the Lambent and the Locust.
As for whether or not it succeeds is a different question. The fresh blood mixing with the old guard The Force Awakens-style is an interesting proposition, giving perspective on the changes of both the world and our historic and former protagonist Marcus Fenix. The overall arc, however, is just a tad too familiar to stand apart. Instead of taking its genealogical influences and turning them into something new, it’s just a lot of same-as.
To its credit, that ends up being a perfectly acceptable proposal; this is a game that stands on the shoulders of a series that defined (and refined) a veritable bevy of shooter tropes. And what it does try to do in its attempts to reach beyond the establishment is purely additive in some of the best ways, never (if at all) detracting from the familiar, nostalgic experience. That doesn’t, however, remove the very mild, extremely tepid disappointment that it didn’t reach further.
The entirety of that sentiment can be summed up in our new hero J.D. Fenix, son of the aforementioned Marcus. The promise of a new generation of characters additionally representing a new generation of ideas is thrown to the side as we have an overwhelmingly dull and insipid roster here. J.D. especially is as tiresome as he is boring, engaging in some of the laziest banter possible.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the potential on display here, perhaps the only bit of overt ambition in the game. The world established here is fascinating, as even after the destruction of humanity’s foes, we are still a species divided into the incumbent and the outcast. And once the new threat emerges and we engage in our traditional excursion into the unknown, it’s also greatly appreciated as we explore this strained relationship between father and son in the Fenix boys.
Granted, it gives its best at being a focused narrative, skewing closer to an intimate horror game than a strictly action-oriented sci-fi title, but it at times feels like it has more ideas than time or grasp to execute them all. There are, for example, similarly family/friend-tinged threads that attempt to grow and expand between squad member Kait Diaz and her kidnapped mother as well as the three teammates in general. Much of that ends up being half-cocked deliberation, not so much abandoning the intent as it simply never starts.
The introduction of a new threat, though, is a welcome change to the game. We’ve been fighting Locust and Lambent so much, we already know their tricks backwards and forwards. (Compare again the introduction of the entirely new Prometheans in Halo 4.) With the DeeBee robots and Seran Swarm, we’ve got entirely new tactics to contend with, shaking up a tired formula.
Those robots are a clever combination of abilities that focus mostly on breaking up your reliance on cover in a cover-based shooter. They’ll rocket over walls and try to bum rush you for a suicidal explosion as they die. And some of the Swarm don’t even use cover as many others would; they live on the tops of them like mangy neighborhood cats on in the rain gutters, except they are generally more equipped to kill you beyond adorable little paws.
Keeping up with this fresh opposition are some choice additions to the stock arsenal. None of them are revelatory, but they certainly are welcome to the armory. The Dropshot is a lovely mortar-style weapon that rains explosives down onto foes that might be hugging walls a bit too much for your liking. And then the Buzzkill is straight out of Ratchet & Clank, firing ricocheting sawblades that potentially rip your enemies directly into freshly diced giblets.
It’s unfortunate then that these encounters quickly feel overly repetitive almost immediately. The early parts are fun simply because they’re new, and the later battles are interesting simply because they try new things with the battle designs. It’s the middle stuff—and it seems like an interminable section in the moment—that really struggles to chug along. It’s an incessant slog of enemies that are perfectly content running headfirst into your bullets and chainsaws while you border on yawning.
There’s some much needed shakeup in the way of Windflares, storms that throw nearly insurmountable bursts of wind and electricity at you. Not only do they look incredible (seriously, all the dust and foliage effects are just stellar) but they affect and inform your strategy. All your dependence on reliable firearm fare go out the window with the stunning gales and you have to switch up your thinking. The first time you see the wind totally tear down a volley of Buzzkill blades is as disheartening as it is riveting.
It’s a shame it only takes hold so late into the campaign, but at least it’s there. There’s also some moments that basically turn arenas into Horde mode, utilizing a Fabricator device to allow you and your squad to build defenses against waves of baddies. Some of the boss battles are similarly divergent, injecting a modicum of innovation into the relatively tame proceedings. (The rest of them are just, well, exhausting.)
Speaking of Horde mode, it is once again the highlight of the entire game. Officially labeled Horde 3.0, it introduces enough new ideas to totally earn that new revision marker. It essentially combines and doubles down on Horde mechanics from Gears of War 3 and Gears of War: Judgment where you’ll be building tower defense goodies while utilizing class specialties to get through 50 waves of robots and Swarm with intermittent bosses.
But now you’ll have to actually go out into the battlefield to collect resources from downed enemies to actually construct stuff at the Fabricator, creating a new and exciting dynamic between almost every moment of the hours-long struggle. It’s terrifying knowing you have to brave the horde, lest your team break down completely, but you could just as easily go down yourself. It greatly heightens the need for teamwork, giving a new level of cooperative impetus the mode hasn’t seen before.
The classes are also bolstered here. You’ll play to unlock slots, and in those slots you can equip cards that boost your character, and those cards can be gained through random packs purchased through virtual or real money. That last part is still unsavory to me, though it’s nice to see these card effects are genuinely impactful. Snipers can become unstoppable headshot machines with the right setup, just as Scouts can become mobile tanks.
The balance of skills, however, doesn’t mesh all that well. It’s pretty much Engineers and Scouts that are necessary due to their abilities and latent bonuses, but everyone else sort of fades into an indecipherable gray mass of bullets. Perhaps more support classes would help, but the problems feel more foundational than that.
And then there’s the competitive multiplayer, which feels the same as it ever has, namely you’ll continue to get blasted in the back with elite players rolling around with shotguns. If that’s for you (i.e., you are one of the elite), then it’s fantastic. I’m not sure if there’s much more to be said than that, as if anything anyone says can sway what the competitive multiplayer means for anyone else. I will say, though, that the new modes Arms Race and Dodgeball are pretty damn fun, though I’m not sure about their respective staying power.
In the grand scheme of things, Gears of War 4 is good. It even approaches great in many regards. It’s just unfortunate that is the sort of good and great that we’ve seen before. Some parts are a bit more ambitious than others, but none of it reaches beyond any innovative threshold. This is just a solid release from a studio taking over the legacy of its progenitors.
+ Some really fun shakeups in the campaign from Windflares and Horde arenas
+ New enemies give us new tactics to combat against
+ Horde 3.0 is a lot of god damn fun
– Story doesn’t try to do much, if anything at all, that’s new
– Campaign encounters quickly go from fresh to boring
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Gears of War 4
Release: October 11, 2016
Genre: Third-person shooter
Developer: The Coalition
Available Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Players: Single-player, multiplayer