Gears is back. Thank the swarm.
Judgment was a misstep for Gears of War. While we're on it, I think Gears of War 3 wasn't as good as it could and should have been. The series started ambitious with the original, and I was there on Emergence Day. The sequel was good, too. Gears 3 felt awkward and Judgment, well, like I said, I felt like the series was off in the wrong direction for good.
So, here's The Coalition stepping up to develop Gears of War 4, and the campaign is outstanding.
Sure, it's got its vague storytelling moments and cliché to go around, but this game stands so close to what made me love the original so much. It's an action ride with constant craziness, and the set pieces only serve to make the story that much more bombastic.
During the review phase, there's been some competitive multiplayer. I'll admit that I haven't partaken in that yet. Instead, I've focused on playing the campaign solo and, interestingly enough, with some couch cooperative. Couch co-op is how I dug into the first Gears, after all. I'll be digging into competitive when the playerbase expands with actual players.
Before we get rolling, I'm going to touch on some stuff that's already well known in the marketing for this game. However, I'm of the mind that this experience would be so, so, so much better if you go in blind. If you know nothing about Gears of War 4, I suggest you keep it that way until you play. This is a fun game, and I'm glad I played it, but man do I wish I went in completely ignorant to the surprises ahead.
If you know what's up with the basic premise of the story, or you simply don't care about things Microsoft didn't deem too spoilery, roll on.
Mechs, Swarm and Locusts, oh my!
As is the standard with the Gears series, Gears 4 rolls over five acts split into multiple chapters. The middle act drags a bit, but each carries its own unique tone and some interestingly different enemies. The same goes for locales and weaponry, too. There's some tight corridor shooting, some point defense, some fighting in much bigger spaces and interesting "bosses" to tangle with. There are environmental challenges, too, like wind flares that crop up to change up gameplay at tight intervals.
You play JD Fenix, the son of franchise hero Marcus. The setup is minimal, though it arrives with a prologue that highlights three moments in the history of Gears through the perspective of an unnamed soldier. This prologue, straight up, is the worst part of the game. It felt like an add-on that arrived thanks to focus testing and late development to me, and it's such a sharp change when the prologue ends and the actual game begins. From Act I on, the tone and polish are on such a better level than what you'll see in the prologue.
I'm not going to spoil the story for you. Just know that it's a big one that spans a lot of great moments.
Gears has mechs to fight against now. These robots don't play entirely like the locust horde, and they're present for a chunk of the game. They feature new combat styles and completely unique weaponry, most with interesting firing and reloading mechanics that will make Gears diehards grin as they try out new ways to blow stuff up into gooey chunks.
Without giving too much away, we're battling a form of Locusts as well. Their classic weapons return, but they're accompanied by bonkers stuff like a gun that shoots circular saw blades or one that fires a drill that hovers out until you release the trigger and send an explosion onto the ground below. That one is sweet, friends.
Then there's the way The Coalition decided to put Horde Mode into the campaign. There are moments in the game when you have to set up defenses and actually defend an area against a few waves of enemies. It's Horde Mode, like I said, although it's on a much lighter level. There's building in this Horde Mode, complete with a story relevant 3D printer that lets you create turrets and decoys to aid your survival. It works here, and it doesn't feel like they simply took a multiplayer mode and slopped it into the campaign in order to pad the game's length.
All this is done in a group of three-to-four soldiers, though cooperative play is meant for two. When in co-op on the same TV, you'll find that the screen size is reduced and split in half horizontally. Why? They managed to maintain the aspect ratio for each player rather than make the game super wide or super narrow by going all the way across the screen. It's sort of annoying at first with everything so small, but the game runs really well in local splitscreen, and, at least to me, that's one of the best ways to experience this franchise.
I say that because the game is a lot of fun.
"Oh no, not my f—ing tomatoes."
It was around Act II with a close friend that we started laughing our asses off. There are moments in this game when the writing is good enough to draw chuckles from players the same way a great action flick might. It breaks up the tension, and just like Cole Train screaming about how he's at home on the rails during a minecart chase in the classic Gears games, there are moments here that feaure characters saying ridiculous things to lighten the mood.
Yes, you'll meet up with Marcus Fenix in this game. He's old and grizzled, but just as cranky as he's always been. Marcus has a greenhouse now, and as you're fighting you're way through it, the old man gets upset about his tomatoes. The moment, like so many others that are an equal mix of explosive and absurd, is hilarious.
That right there is why I think I liked this game so much. With Gears of War 3, seemed like Epic was trying to make the game something it wasn't. Gears, as much as I love this thing, has never been about this huge emotional storyline. It's storytelling has been vague, at best, and that meant fans were left to infer all the emotion going on in the world around them. Watching Dom die or sob over his wife wasn't fun, and it didn't really serve Gears, in my mind, in any way beyond "making it more emotional."
There are moments here where The Coalition reaches out to tug on your heart strings, but it's never as ham-fisted as it was back when Epic was behind the wheel for the sequels. I disliked that about the previous era of Gears, but they've done a great job here.
The only Gears I played through on each difficulty was the original. That game managed to do enough fun stuff with its campaign that I wanted to return multiple times and challenge myself again and again. Gears 4 is more of the same, though in the classic sense that isn't tired and unoriginal. The Coalition took the gunplay and cover-shooting loop of Gears, and they created a campaign that never feels trite or boring.
I liked this game. A lot. As someone who loves the Gears franchise and found myself frustrated with its recent direction, it's good to have a proper Gears game that feels like a new chapter in the original saga.
I missed this. The Xbox One and Windows 10 platforms have a great game this holiday season. Pick Gears of War 4 up if you own either.
Disclaimer: We received a digital copy of Gears of War 4 from Microsoft for this review.