Releasing in 2006, the original Gears of War was a watershed moment for console gaming. It featured a previously unseen level of HD graphical fidelity and tight gameplay built around balls-to-the-walls violence that proved that the marriage of assault rifle and chainsaw bayonet was a match made in heaven. Progenitor of the stop-and-pop third-person cover-based shooter (or SAPTPCBS), Gears of War cemented itself as a true classic, and Epic Games’ trilogy of Gears games in particular are near and dear to many gamers’ hearts. After People Can Fly’s disappointing Gears of War: Judgment, we finally have a new numbered entry being unleashed on current-gen consoles, this time headed up by developers The Coalition (who count Rod Fergusson amongst their numbers, co-creator of the original Gears of War). With the Locust all but vanquished in the original trilogy, GoW 4 promises an entirely new enemy called the Swarm to creatively eviscerate, but is it a bold new entry or a rehashing of aging ideas?
And ye did the Lancer passeth from one chunky dude to another
The events of GoW 4 take place some twenty-five years after the conclusion of the Locust War. The political landscape has changed considerably, with the brave soldiers of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG for short… because gears) largely being replaced by killer robots called DeeBees (I’m paraphrasing here but it’s fairly accurate). Humans live predominantly in designated areas called Settlements, and the authoritarian COG regime keeps watch over its citizens and rules with a robotic iron fist. The story picks up with Marcus Phoenix’s son JD raiding Settlement 5 to procure supplies for an Outsider camp he has become part of after fleeing the COG. As the name suggests, Outsiders live on the periphery of ordered society and are not well liked by the establishment. Unsurprisingly things go south for JD and his ragtag crew during their raiding run, and the outset of the game has you battling hoards of DeeBees whose COG masters would rather you not steal their stuff. This is the continuation of particularly bad blood between JD and the COG (like father, like son), but there’s bigger fish to fry. People are disappearing from COG settlements, and an attack by mysterious creatures (quickly dubbed the Swarm) on the Outsider settlement that has taken JD in spurs him to seek out the help of his papa and get to the bottom of this mess.
The narrative aims for a deeper sort of storytelling than its predecessors, but this is essentially your classic dudebro (and occasionally chickbro) tale featuring burly men who look like they are hewn from large chunks of steak.
Kait: The armour maketh not the lady
While some familiar characters will pop up, the tale is mostly focused on JD, his fellow COG deserter Del and Outsider Kait. The narrative aims for a deeper sort of storytelling than its predecessors, but this is essentially your classic dudebro (and occasionally chickbro) tale featuring burly men who look like they are hewn from large chunks of steak. Kait brings balance to the Force as the main female presence, but her character largely panders to gender stereotypes that are likely to have Anita Sarkeesian making another video where the comments are disabled. Kait’s edgy cuteness and slender frame protected by a bare minimum of ridiculous armour is tempered by the fact she is tough as nails and swears a lot though, so all is not lost. Of the trio I found Kait to be the most likeable, but nevertheless expect endless bravado-filled banter as everyone tries to outdo themselves in how off-the-cuff sarcastic they can be. This does tend to make some of the more emotional moments on display a little hard to swallow.
The main narrative drive is to discover the origins of the Swarm and find out what the hell they want, but the pacing (especially at the beginning) is quite slow and really the entire game feels like a prelude to something bigger and better (and more badasser). Revelations about the plot come slowly and are often glossed over without much fanfare. I’m not particularly thrilled with the questionable story direction The Coalition has decided on, and without spoiling anything the narrative feels like a nervous shuffle sideways in the Gears universe rather than a bold step forward. The ending is as abrupt as it is disappointing and anti-climactic, however the final little story tidbit does offer a tiny glimmer of hope that the sequel (calling it!) might actually go somewhere interesting.
Gameplay-wise it’s Gears of War just as you’ve known it for the past decade, almost to a fault. Asides from a few new standout weapons you’ll be hugging cover, shooting things in the head and raging at cheap explosive kills for almost the entirety of the eight-hour campaign. This isn’t a criticism as such, as GoW has always had rock-solid cover and
shooting mechanics, but if you’re hoping that the gameplay has evolved then that hope is in most definitely in vain. There are some cool Horde-inspired sections that have you fortifying and defending points against increasingly powerful waves of foes, but there’s a definite ‘been there done that’ feel to it all that I just couldn’t shake. The garden variety DeeBees (such a terrible name) and Swarm you fight are far too similar to the Locust you’ve fought before, and I can’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity to introduce new gameplay elements centred around an entirely different set of enemies. There are a couple of new mechanics like the yank and shank manoeuvre and improved vaulting while roadie running, but it’s hardly groundbreaking. It’s undeniable though that the moment-to-moment gameplay is still a blast, and watching heads explode with a well-placed Longshot bullet or having the screen dripping with gore as you slice an enemy in twain with the chainsaw bayonet of your Lancer is still a sight to behold. The DeeBees (while stupidly named) are quite fun to shoot bits off too, and I was reminded at times of the criminally underrated Binary Domain (in a good way). I’m not sure if killer robots are a great fit for the Gears universe though, however some developments later in the game hint at having these guys become slightly more interesting in the future. I think the main issue is that a Gears game is supposed to be dirty, gritty, bloody and raw, but the inclusion of DeeBees comes off as kind of… silly. This is no more apparent than in the final act, which cranks the silly factor well above 11. Seriously, it has to be seen to be believed.
Swarm or Locust? Bam, you’re dead
It’s undeniable though that the moment-to-moment gameplay is still a blast, and watching heads explode with a well-placed Longshot bullet or having the screen dripping with gore as you slice an enemy in twain with the chainsaw bayonet of your Lancer is still a sight to behold.
Graphically the game is very competent, but it won’t have your friends looking over your shoulder and wondering why you’re trying to control real life with a controller. More important than good gameplay, the game runs at a smooth 1080p 30fps (is this sarcasm getting through?), although there’s some not so sneaky up-detailing during cutscenes that makes it jarring when you return to the main action. It bears mentioning that the game features couch co-op (a feature many had considered to have gone the way of the dinosaur), and this is probably some of the best fun you can have on dry land. I’d honestly forgotten the joys of sabotaging a friend by stealing precious ammo or laughing as they explode in a bloody shower of meat and guts after getting hit by an errant Torque Bow. Although there’s online co-op for the campaign, I recommend getting a real person beside you to share in the action. Be it a friend, enemy or stranger you met at Woolworths while stocking up on Dew and Doritos, the couch co-op mode couldn’t come more highly recommended.
For the Horde
While I believe that Gears single-player is what draws most people to the series, GoW 4 brings to the fore some of the best multiplayer action the series has seen. The revamped Horde 3.0 has evolved just enough to keep it fresh but manages to retain that classic Horde feel. The biggest change to the cooperative wave-based mode is in the addition of classes, which each have their own unique abilities and starting loadouts which make them useful for various roles. For instance, the Soldier class has abilities which focus on increased weapon power or magazine size whereas the Engineer can fix fortifications as well as build them on the cheap. Each of the classes can have up to five abilities (represented as cards which are gained from packs), however this will require you level up that class first. Even with the addition of Bounties (which gain large chunks of XP for the completion of specific actions). This is quite laborious and feels a little grindy, but the game is firm in making you fight for your right to party. A lot of shine is taken off Horde 3.0 by the inclusion of microtransactions (which should go die in a fire) which confer gameplay advantages, and if you’re so inclined you can pay for packs which contain bounties, abilities and character skins. While the gameplay advantages are fairly minor and you still have to level up like the common folk scrounging in the dirt, they should not be present in a full-priced game. Halo 5’s Warzone mode made this mistake and it is being repeated here.
The Versus multiplayer is slicker than a black ferret on amphetamines, and there really isn’t anything out there like it. Unlike the campaign, multiplayer runs at 1080p 60fps and it looks absolutely glorious. The simple, symmetrical map design hides a quite strong strategic streak to the multifarious modes on offer. GoW has always had a small but very strong multiplayer community, and GoW 4 brings back all the old fan favourites (like Team Deathmatch, Warzone and King of the Hill) but includes a couple of clever new ones. My favourite is Arms Race, where every three kills your team’s weapons changes and it’s a race to get through all of them. It’s chaotic fun and makes for some very strange head-to-head match-ups. Having a team with only Overkills (a powerful DeeBee shotgun) gunning for a team who only have Longshots can lead to fairly hilarious results. Dodgeball too deserves an honourable mention, where just like the sport of the same name you can revive downed teammates by killing a member of the opposing team; it makes for some epic clutch moments and is much more fun than dodging wrenches thrown by Patches O’Houlihan.
Zombie Dom: Too soon
The best offense is a good defense
It should be noted that although the game features dedicated servers, online connectivity is not quite as smooth it could be. Loading and matchmaking screens will stutter and freeze sometimes, and I found that the beginning of every match had a certain degree of lag that seemed to clear up as the game progressed. The game would benefit from having a connection quality guide and perhaps a ping tracker and choice of server location. It would also be nice if the respective populations in each mode were shown as several times I had to wait upwards of five minutes to find a match.
The Coalition have successfully imitated a Gears game, but given this is the fourth entry following a stellar trilogy you’ll no doubt be left wanting more. They’ve set up some fairly shaky narrative ground moving forward, and the eventual sequel really needs to challenge the franchise’s status quo and forge its own identity separate to the games that have gone before it. While the multiplayer shines, the single-player feels like it’s just going through the motions. Can The Coalition steer this ship to more interesting waters? Hopefully so, because another entry that plays it as safe as this title will have the Gears franchise fade into obscurity quicker than you can say ‘Dom’s tomatoes’.
Reviewed on Xbox One