For the love of numbered sequels… Coalition have got the old Cogs turning again, and they’ve buffed them ’til they shine!
Having hibernated through the dormancy of the Gears of War franchise–by not touching Judgement with a barge pole–the announcement of Gears 4 at E3 awoke something inside of me. For Microsoft as a company it was a ballsy move attempting to revive such a huge franchise; Halo 5: Guardians faltered in terms of campaign, so why should Gears 4 be any different?
Gears of War 4 begins by providing some narrated history, disguising a light playable tutorial for new and long returning players alike. Our narrator is portrayed as a strong, young leader and she talks in the past tense about the ‘Pendulum Wars’, and then in a more somber tone addressing the occurrence of ‘Emergence Day’ and the Locus-human battle for survival on Sera (the planet). You play as an insignificant COG soldier, there to experience what life was like during the war–short, it turns out!
These introductory chapters were a reminder of what Gears of War is all about. The purposeful, hefty cover based mechanics, the dark and oppressive atmosphere, the thick-set brutish protagonists and their even beefier adversaries, and most pivotal of all: the Lancer chainsaw and the horrific acts of violence you can achieve with it.
It gave me mixed feelings though! It felt old, it felt last gen, it felt too slow and safe and familiar.
Despite the average gameplay, the cut scenes were fantastic. The militaristic grey metals and uniform patterns of the COG ceremony are immediately juxtaposed in Act 2 where we meet our unlikely ragtag band of heroes. The sun shines on a lush green wood and we are treated to a delightful peep at what Coalition can do with the updated Unreal Engine 4.
It was also a surprise to see our protagonists not dressed in COG armour! Instead they were contemplating raiding a COG settlement, and making the time to watch butterflies hatch from their chrysalis’–cleverly foreshadowing what is to come. The fundamental change that makes this experience fresh however, is in the characters themselves. JD, the front-cover hunk, is built like any other Gears character, and Kait’s uncle Oscar looks like a retired dwarven bodybuilder. However the introduction of Kait to the usual sausage fest changes everything, and Del is a hilarious personality.
No longer are we hard-ass bros with more resemblance to the Locust horde than our own kind; we are playing as clever, witty individuals who aren’t scared to show emotion, or reveal their insecurities. Having Kait in such a pivotal role guides the story in a new direction and helps to loosen up the other characters. The banter which seeps into both cutscenes and battle dialogue made me fully invested in the characters, and the family bonds (no teasers) are genuine and strong. There’s no denying the bond between Marcus Fenix and Santiago was fierce, but it’s a relief to find the formula mixed up a little.
The story is simple but well told and exciting. The raid on the COG settlement and the following sequences introduce you to a new set of enemies, the robot DeeBees, which behave very differently to your usual Drones. Turns out the narrator from the COG ceremony is the big cheese in charge of manufacturing these, and she’s not pleased to see trespassing Outsiders! Having the small team in a sticky situation with no backup is exciting, and the atmosphere created by not being part of a chaotic war makes Gears scary again.
The threatening atmosphere is built by the situation and the setting, however it’s the sound effects and the music which really add the suspense. Sounds such as footsteps are painfully loud, putting you on edge, and when the music begins to ramp up during combat, you don’t realise how tense you are until the characteristic low DONG sounds, indicating the fighting is over. Enemy voices always sound incredibly close, and the ‘Swarm’ always sound so malevolent and rage filled. There’s nothing quite as terrifying as the boomer from the original series, but some of the enemies are so tough and revolting you do end up feeling the dread creep in when you hear them coming.
Just as the DeeBees are starting to get old you are reacquainted with some old foes, but they have evolved into a number of new, terrifying forms. Much like many titles, new enemies and gameplay scenarios are drip-fed to you to keep you engaged. So while the story ticks on and ramps up in pressure, there is usually a complimentary ‘something’ to keep the gameplay interesting.
At the centre of it all there’s the cover based shooting, the award winning tactical gameplay which Coalition have made even better. Enemies are smarter than I remember, they are constantly looking to flank and suppress you — especially the hulking Scions! The gun-play is smooth, but without removing the weight of the original’s, and taking/changing cover is more intuitive and fluid than ever.
To mix up the gameplay and the story to boot, Sera is now prey to humongous storms called ‘wind flares’ which destroy anything in their path. The winds affect slow moving projectiles such as the lethal Buzzsaw blades, and they physically push and pull you around. The low visibility cloaks enemies’ approach, but the high winds also provide opportunities to inflict brutal environmental kills.
Graphically Gears of War 4 is very attractive, and it’s in these outdoor battles that this is most evident. Whilst dingy interiors of mine shafts are made atmospheric with dust effects and reflective surfaces, the sense of scale and destructive beauty of the wind flares are truly awe inspiring.
There are a few non-combat set pieces, of which the lightning storms are the best. Dodging fast-moving lighting bolts whilst anticipating the next wave is extremely difficult, especially when playing co-op, where often you must both survive to progress. There are also tower defense style levels where–much like in horde mode–you must use a fabricator to build defenses to fend off waves of attackers.
Towards the end of the campaign when all the enemy types had been introduced, things did get quite samey, and patterns began to emerge. Open heavy door, kill everything in area, move on, open heavy door, defend area, open heavy door, navigate wind flare, and repeat. This would be an issue, but in the 12+ hours I spent playing I never got bored. The game mechanics were strong, and the levels were challenging enough to keep me fully engaged. Whilst we’re on negatives though: the final chapter is a little anti-climatic after such an amazing build up. The boss battles were generally very impressive, but the last slobbering fella was such a push-over!
Playing through co-operatively was an absolute blast. Although scripted party split-ups force you to help each other out, we found ourselves talking through tactics after every death–after blaming each other for the failure, that is. There is always the risk-reward complex with splitting up to flank and divert suppressive fire VS not being able to help each other in a tight spot. Let one grenadier too close and it’s a one-shot down with their gnasher shotguns, and they will slaughter your friend if you ignore the revive requests. Also some weapons will instantly kill you, and this adds a layer of fear and caution to any situation. Your A.I friends are usually very effective at staying alive and reviving, however I often had my face bashed in right infront of Del and he didn’t bat an eyelash…
Horde mode has been neatly revamped and now includes all the new enemy types. As things stand it takes less than a minute to find a game of 5 people, and provided you’re not an absolute amateur they might stay! Rounds go to 10 then the enemies get a health buff before it repeats. Also having the defabricator to create turrets using picked up currency adds a layer of tactics, good thing the campaign trained you up for it!
Gears multiplayer is something I’ve never got into, however this time around I’m beginning to love it. Weapon-wise the gnasher is still an absolute beast at close range which makes gameplay quite similar, however the interesting roster of game modes makes up for that. Most notable modes were Guardian and King of the Hill for me, these encouraged team play and made K/D matter less, since I died a little too frequently.
Lastly, character customization is completely nuts, with garish gun camos and creepy character skins adding some player choice. You may also customize your loadout for multiplayer and for horde; where in horde you can be one of 4 classes which you attain a level in with experience.