Gears of War 4
Platforms: Xbox One (tested), PC
Developer: The Coalition
Release Date: Out now
Gears of War was never the meat-headed, soulless series the appearance of its outhouse-sized space marine protagonists implied. Epic Games' Xbox 360 trilogy had heart and often struck a knowingly silly tone. Who can forget Marcus Fenix yelling: "THEY'RE SINKING CITIES WITH A GIANT WORM" or the way over-the-top use of Mad World in Gears 3?
Its charms made it a firm favourite with many, but the success of Gears of War is ultimately down to its flawless cover-based shooting mechanics. Never bettered, this was the aspect new lead development studio The Coalition needed to perfect before it could even dream of moulding the series in its own image.
Thankfully, it has. No caveats, no criticisms, this is Gears of War as you know and love to play it, and active reload is still an absolute dream. With those basics serving as a foundation, The Coalition – led by Rod Fergusson, who has been part of the series since the beginning – has introduced a host of fun new additions that make Gears of War 4's single player a fun, if far from perfect, campaign.
The story is kept refreshingly simple (minor spoilers follow) focusing on a new trio of characters, 25 years after the events of Epic Games' trilogy, who spend the story on the trail of parental figures that have been snatched by a new threat called the Swarm, that for all intents and purposes are the Locust from previous games.
Drones are still called Drones, Wretches are now called Juvies and other recognisable enemy types reappear as well. This alone would be disappointing, but Gears of War 4 adds new enemies in the form of insectoid alien creatures with hard red shells and DeeBees –robotic soldiers of the ruling COG government.
Crucially, these new foes aren't simple reskins, but offer a new range of AI behaviours Gears fans won't be used to. Pouncers leap around the environment, often on to cover, pushing players out, while Snatchers attempt to carry off downed players suckered into their fleshy pouches. DeeBee forces meanwhile, have more standard infantry types, but also a flying Guardian drone with a shield and Trackers which bowl up to your feet and detonate.
The interplay of these enemies lends a level of variety to combat that's reminiscent of the Halo series. Further variety is added during big set pieces (most notably in the finale, which we won't spoil) boss encounters and instances where the game eases players into the basic mechanics of the cooperative Horde mode.
Gears has had elements of Horde mode in its campaigns before, but here it's particularly effective in setting out basic tactics and allowing players to get an idea for the new power system without annoying other players online.
Power is collected from fallen enemies (online, but not in the campaign) and can then be spent on items created by magic sci-fi "fabricator" devices. These can be weapons, but also defence items like barbed wire fences, turrets and decoys. Online players will also find a class system which offers certain perks but ultimately seems to add little, except for those set on dedicating dozen of hours to the beloved co-op classic. It seems a slightly useless addition, but not one that dilutes a Horde experience that is as good as ever.
Competitive multiplayer is present and correct with six modes including series stalwart Warzone and new mode Dodgeball. Competitive Gears has never really been my thing really since the original. Matches are often crapshoots that favour those who strike luckiest when players roll towards each other bearing Gnasher shotguns. For me, Gears will always be better suited to cooperative play.
So, Gears has no shortage of the modes you'd expect. Where it disappoints however is in the ambition and pacing of its story. Following a blistering first half, the campaign starts to sag in the middle as it labours towards the inevitable reveal that these new enemies that look and act like Locusts, are in fact basically the Locust.
It starts to pick up again towards the conclusion, but the ending that doesn't deliver on the promise of all the pieces it set up early on. I enjoyed that it was a small-scale story about its central characters that set up a larger scale conflict to come, but when the DeeBees and Swarm finally meet and Halo-like three-way battles unfold, they're gone before they really offer anything interesting in terms of play.
The story begins by establishing the split human populace of the Earth-like planet of Sera. Following the end of the Locust war in Gears of War 3, the COG (the coalition that players fought for) attempted to rebuild the population with an authoritarian stance. Those that didn't want to conform became Outsiders living off the land, and when we meet new heroes JD, Kait and Del, they're raiding a new COG settlement for supplies.
The clash between these two factions has minimal payoff, only serving to tease a running theme that the ties between humanity and the Locust are growing ever closer. During its final chapter, the game becomes an unashamed crowd-pleaser, which suits Gears, but the ending itself is abrupt and unsatisfying – serving only those with a deep understanding of Gears lore. The ending also exposes how little character development there is for the three new leads, who have a certain amount of chemistry and a hint of promise in the case of Kait, but who pale when compared to their predecessors.
Gears of War 4 offers everything you'd expect from a Gears title, and a surprising amount of great new ideas that enhance the core gameplay. Its campaign has problems in terms of story and characterisation, but in terms of fun is up there with the best the series has produced. The overall impression is that Gears of War is in thoroughly capable hands The Coalition. With more confident storytelling the studio could well produce a classic.