Evolution is an ugly thing. From insignificant, microscopic, cosmic debris, our species has morphed, mutated and finally managed to reach a point where we are somewhat aesthetically pleasing. Our process was one without a prime mover or a cosmic engine ensuring that we reached the quasi-elegant design we currently possess. With this in mind, I can only imagine what we, as a species, would look like now if we had been blessed by the Unreal 4 engine and the intelligent design of The Coalition, as they reinvent the wheel – or the cog – with the release of Gears of War 4.
Evolution is a beautiful thing. From game modes to gameplay, Gears of War 4 exudes intelligence, purpose and precision in its design. These facets are possibly best encapsulated in the reinvention of the cover mechanics that form the fundamental axiom of the traditional Gears of War experience. Once upon a time (and two sequels thereafter) cover was simply that: a lump, a dead-end: an obstinate obstacle that your never-touched-a-steroid-like-Lance-Armstrong-never-touched-a-performance-enhancer character could barely stuff himself behind. Cover didn’t do anything because everyone just assumed that cover didn’t need to do anything. Gears of War 4 not only rejects this placid relationship with cover but injects the very basis of cover-based gameplay with an explosive cocktail of fresh, frantic new features, designed to keep your movement in firefights fluid and tactical.
Gears of War 4: Xbox One [Reviewed], Windows 10 PC
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: 11 October 2016 [6 October w/Ultimate Edition]
Price: £49.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Firstly, the introduction of Close Cover Combat ensures that cover-based battles are microcosmic chess games with brutal consequences. The moves at your disposal while you’re on – or approaching – cover each have their rewards and risks. Pressing the X button while on cover will enable you to reach over cover for the enemy on the other side, drag them out of cover and, if you’re quick enough, execute them with a swift press of the Y button. If you’re approaching cover and you happen to see an enemy on the other side, waiting for their chance to ‘yank-and-shank’ you, you can deploy a mantle kick a la Gears of War 3. The ability to fluidly mantle cover with an offensive attack not only stops players from claiming cover and constantly yanking opponents but also keeps the movement speed of Gears of War 4 at a constant rapidity. This new found sense of speed in a historically slow genre (well, excluding Platinum games’ superb Vanquish) reinvigorates not only the Gears of War series but cover-based shooters as a whole.
The second stroke of evolutionary excellence comes in the form of destructible cover. This may seem like old hat in a marketplace full of games touting similar features, but Gears of War 4 utilises this feature in an exciting, dynamic way. Whether cover is taken from you by an opponent raining down on it with Lancer fire, or whether you’re storming the enemy and watching their cover be swept up in a lightning storm or a wind flare: breaking the previously concrete pact between cover and the player is essentially a gift as far as gameplay is concerned, insofar that firefights are constantly evolving and changing and forcing you to relocate and reorganise. Whether you’re new to the series or you’re a hardened veteran, the gameplay of Gears of War 4 will impress and engross you. It’s fundamentally more of what made the original trilogy so great – intense, blood-soaked firefights grounded in the series’ trademark military realism aesthetic – but with more attention paid to the finer points of the gameplay, rather than the bombastic, blockbuster moments that the Gears of War series is famous for.
That isn’t to say that the latest installment has rejected such moments from the gene pool. On the contrary: Gears of War 4 might just be the most ludicrous campaign experience you’ll have this year. Twenty-five years after we said goodbye to the subterranean sadists known as the Locust Horde, the planet Sera has enjoyed unfettered peace, and the New Coalition of Ordered Governments is leading the people with a firm but fair hand. Of course, there are those that don’t want to be ruled by the CoG, and so they have taken to establishing colonies beyond the walled cities of the government. James Dominic Fenix is one such individual, and along with his friends Kait and Del, lead scouting missions and raids against the CoG in order to help out his colony.
What starts as a run-of-the-mill snatch-and-grab, however, soon spirals into a waking nightmare for the tearaway trio, who find themselves on the verge of a brand new war with a brand new enemy: the Swarm. Take Darwinian evolution, pop it in fleshy sack for thirty seconds, leave to cool, and voila – you’ve got the Swarm! These handsome devils come in all shapes and sizes, with each variant bringing something different to the ecosystem that is Gears of War 4’s firefights. ‘Juvies’ are the miniature-yet-manoeuvrable shock troops of the Swarm. They’ll dance and dive over any obstacle in order to meet and greet you – and probably eat you too if you give them half a chance! The larger Swarm are able to use weapons and cover. The A.I is particularly ruthless the more evolved the Swarm become, with some soldiers aggressively pushing you out of position, while snipers will typically hang back. When different enemy types collide, however, things get frantic! Managing the mayhem that is the various enemy types will remind fans of the previous enemies in the Gears series, such as the Wretches and the Theron Guards, yet the Swarm will present new challenges to the player thanks to superior, unrelenting A.I.
As if the standard Swarm weren’t enough, a fresh batch of freaks will keep you on your toes… right up until your legs are ripped off by the aforementioned abominations. New nasties, such as the ‘Pouncer’, ‘Snatcher’ and ‘Carrier’, change how you interact with Gears of War 4 in a way that fans of the series haven’t had to do since the inclusion of the Lambent in Gears of War 3. Pouncers’ agility and aggression means maintaining cover is simply not an option: these guys will leap over any obstacle in order to seize you, and once they have you, it’s up to you to mash the B button for dear life, lest you die a Pouncer’s plaything! Snatchers are an equally disruptive presence, bringing with them a potentially hilarious, and nefarious, mechanic. Snatchers – as the name might suggest – can literally snatch other players and carry them off the battlefield. This mechanic makes them a unique threat, but also a squandered opportunity. If
If Gears of War 4 had been a 4-player cooperative experience, this enemy type would have made for a memorable 4-player moment, similar to the Lambent Berserker battle in Gears of War 3. Although the inexplicable lack of 4-player coop is, quite frankly, tragic to the point of being comic, the campaign is still a rewarding experience alone or with a friend. Additionally, the miniaturisation of these unique enemies means the campaign can be readily populated with them, resulting in a varied experience regarding the enemies that you’ll face. No longer are the memorable monstrosities relegated to a single boss battle over the course of a 10+ hours-long campaign. Instead of fighting one Corpser, or two Berserkers al la previous Gears of War games, players can take on multiple game-changing challenges in the space of a few firefights. When three Pouncers and a wave of Juvies get together, things get chaotic – fast! Simply put: no two firefights are ever the same in Gears of War 4, with destructible cover, difficult A.I and diverse enemy types colliding to form the perfect storm of voracious enemies and varied campaign experiences.
Speaking of perfect storms, now might be a good time to talk about the perfect storms in Gears of War 4. Just as the gameplay has evolved, so too has the weather of the planet Sera. Violent ‘windflares’ ravage the land, billowing thunderbolts and battering battlefields with loose debris. Each of these instances of windflare activity is an event unlike any other, and the Unreal Engine shines in these sections. The way grenades flail helplessly in the wind, the way a Torque Bow reticule is mercilessly dragged across the screen rather than up it, the sheer force of loose environmental assets being tossed around like playthings from the pram of an angry child: the sound and the fury of these sections is impressive, and wholly apart from anything else you’ll experience in gaming at the moment. Likewise, the audio quality is utterly superb. Every single weapon you pick up has its own voice. From the feverous, fricative fire rate of the Enforcer sub-machine gun to the mechanical, mac-speed release of an Embar round from its chamber, the wealth of weapons on offer in Gears of War 4 is not only impressive in terms of choice for the player, but also in terms of audio fidelity. Truly, this title’s bark is as savage as it’s bite, with Unreal Engine 4 and the deft hand of the developers ensuring Gears 4 is as worthy of the title ‘next-generation game’ as the next generation hardware is worthy of staging this technical achievement.
Gears of War 4’s campaign is an intelligently designed, robust, eclectic mix that will cater to all tastes. A veritable piñata of a package, with defensive sections, exploratory sections and all-out firefight sections coming together seamlessly to form a brilliant campaign experience. The dialogue between characters can sometimes be a bit ham-fisted, and certain relationships aren’t given enough airtime to develop, however. Gamers looking for Charlotte Bronte at the end of a chainsaw bayonet will be disappointed, but what else is new? Gears of Wars’ campaigns have always been style-over-substance affairs, and Gears of War 4 does try to pull at your heartstrings… until you realise you’d much rather be ripping those heartstrings out of your enemies’ chests. This isn’t to say there is no story at all: there is definitely a point to what you’re doing, even if it will only be made clear right at the very end, but the plot of the game is relatively weak. The action and variety of the campaign mode will keep you engaged rather than the not-so Pulitzer worthy plot.
Once you’re done with the starter, however, you’ll be wanting to tuck right into the main course: online multiplayer. Since little has changed fundamentally regarding the series’ multiplayer from Gears of War 3 to Gears of War 4, it’s certainly worth discussing the changes made to the ever-popular “Horde” mode. Arguably the most accomplished example of a wave-based game mode in recent years, Gears of War 4’s Horde mode is just as fun as its predecessors were. With five friends, Horde is a joy to play, and a nice change of pace from the competitive, close-quarters combat seen in the conventional multiplayer – that is brilliant, by the way. Gears of War 4’s Horde mode is a beast (or rather, a horde of beasts!) of a different colour rather than a simple adaptation of the prior installments. For starters, the starting point for your doomed defence can be moved at any time. A ‘fabricator’ – a device that can produce fences, turrets, decoys
For starters, the starting point for your doomed defence can be moved at any time. A ‘fabricator’ – a device that can produce fences, turrets, decoys etc. in exchange for points – can be dragged across the map at will. If your seemingly perfect position turns into a holdout from hell, just move your fabricator to a new location, and set up shop. Defences can also be manipulated at will, meaning you don’t have to abandon the defences you’ve already installed. This crucial addition to the Horde formula is genome-altering, changing the entire being that was Horde mode. Tactical malleability and the ability to respond to enemy types by moving to high ground, or take shelter in a canopied position, allows players the opportunity to utilise every inch of the map, and as a result encourages exploration and experimentation: a far cry from the obstinate, ‘set-up-and-stay-put’ Horde experience of Gears of War 3.
Furthermore, class-based systems have infiltrated Gears of War 4’s Horde experience, to dubious effect. With five virtually arbitrary classes to choose from, ranging from the Sniper, Soldier, Heavy Weapons, Engineer and Scout, you’d be forgiven for thinking these titles mean anything on their own. The Sniper, Heavy Weapons and Soldier class have no inherent abilities whatsoever, and the Engineer can rebuild things at an accelerated rate, but any class can purchase the repair tool item, meaning all the classes can be engineers too! The Scout class has the passive ability to collect more ‘juice’ from fallen enemies on the battlefield, meaning his contribution to the fabricator’s power supply is worth more if used correctly. These classes seem to have been added to Horde in order to justify the new “card” system.
Cards are… well… cards, basically. They can be equipped to your character in order to give them new abilities, such as increased movement speed or access to class-specific weapons or upgrades via the fabricator. Although the absence of cards won’t be felt on lower Horde difficulties, higher difficulties virtually require you to utilise this new feature, since hardcore and insane difficulties are exactly that: pretty hardcore and definitely insane! It stands to reason that superior cards will grant access to superior resources, but this is by no means a ‘pay-to-win’ system. At its core, Horde mode is still one that depends upon the strength of the team rather than the deep pockets of the individual. With or without cards, Horde is still as much fun as it always has been, although the inclusion of microtransactions in a game as robust as Gears of War 4 is disappointing, to say the least… and downright f**king despicable if pushed to the utmost extreme.
A note on microtransactions: they aren’t remotely necessary. Most of them are cosmetic, and the ones that are cosmetic can be purchased with either in-game currency that can be earned by playing the game, or by destroying other cards in order to accumulate ‘scrap’ that can be used to create cards that you want (like the utterly fantabulous ‘trippy’ gun skin!). All this being said, their inclusion is one that I, personally, had rather not had to deal with as a consumer. Happily though, the Gears of War 4 package is already replete with content, and the ability to craft weapon skins means that you have unfettered access to a superb campaign, a next-generation Horde mode and possibly the finest, most frantic multiplayer mode ever devised: and you don’t have to spend a single penny more for any of it.
Oddly enough, it is the multiplayer mode that leaves me with the least to discuss. With old favourites and brand new game modes, character customisation and the CCC mechanics mentioned earlier, Gears of War 4’s online multiplayer is simply the continuation – and evolution – of the phenomenal multiplayer that enthralled fans and players fresh to the series way back on Gears of War 3. From the brand new “Dodgeball” mode, that sees players respawn upon an enemy player’s death, to classic game modes like Execution and Guardian, finding your favourite game mode will be a joyous experience, regardless of whether you’re playing casually or competitively.
One can’t help but marvel at the depth of Gears of War 4. Much like Doom before it, Gears of War 4 is virtually three play-intensive, utterly rewarding experiences in one technologically stunning package. The way this title faithfully channels the spirit of the classic Gears of War experience while making the whole thing feel young and alive again is a miraculous happening. Unreal Engine 4, coupled with the creative vision of The Coalition, has produced a phenomenal reboot of a beloved series that will no doubt resonate with fans new and old, thanks to the faithful adherence to the very DNA that made Gears of War the monolithic franchise we know it to be. Equal parts nostalgia and new experiences, Gears of War 4 is an invitation into the next generation; an invitation that should not be declined.
Gears Of War 4
- Peerless use of the next-generation hardware
- Volatile weather sections are great
- Gunplay is as frantic as it ever was
- Cover mechanics reinvigorate the entire genre, let alone the Gears series
- Horde mode is objectively improved since the original
- No 4 player coop
- Lacklustre writing and limited plot
- Minor framerate issues (full disclosure: I was playing a pre-release copy of the game, so maintenance was underway during play)