Blown Back To Life
HIGH The best, most enjoyable Gears since the series’ debut.
LOW The story might be too scaled back for its own good.
WTF I never thought Gears would sink deep into microtransactions. I was wrong.
These are the words I uttered aloud just a few minutes into my Gears of War 4 experience. A few minutes after that, I began peppering my thoughts with positive profanity. By the time I finished the campaign, I was excited by the new tweaks, but still thankful that my beloved ‘stop and pop’ cover-based gameplay made the transition to Xbox One in perfect condition.
Hyperbole? Perhaps, but a month after first removing the shrink wrap, I’m still finding things to praise. Fans of the series will likely have the same response, because GoW4 not only recaptures the wow factor from the original, but also tightens its focus — something badly needed after Gears 3 bludgeoned players with bromance, tragedy and daddy issues, and Judgment baffled them with a sheer lack of purpose.
This new approach is more direct and focused on the trigger. GoW4 isn’t trying to get players to cry, to call their moms, or to boost downloads of melancholy ballads — it’s just a gutpunch of a shooter, and one of the best experiences available on Xbox One.
For those new to the party, GoW4 is the latest in the Xbox-exclusive, third-person shooter series that helped define cover-based gunplay. Using conveniently placed obstacles as barriers, players move their muscle-bound characters from shooting gallery to shooting gallery, taking out enemies with a wide range of futuristic armaments. Snapping in and out of cover is intuitive and responsive, and before long, players will be ducking and firing with ease. Though repeated bouts of the hide/shoot/hide/shoot mechanics would seem to be redundant, Gears manages to avoid it through diverse environments, interesting enemies, and the ever-so-satisfying “splat” of a headshot.
Gears‘ gunplay is weighty enough to give gamers a sense of impact, but it’s also extremely nimble, allowing them to rotate between available weaponry using the D-pad, through what may be the best weapon-selection mechanic in the industry. Even newcomers will quickly master gun swaps and grenade attacks in a level or two.
As expected, GoW4 is a visual marvel, showing vast improvements over the public beta from just a few months earlier. Lighting, shadow, weather effects, and everything else are presented in such rich, deep detail, players might just take a few unexpected deaths while admiring the landscape. In turn, traditional Gears hiccups like collision detection, “sticky” cover spots, and clipping are mostly eliminated, with only the most visually demanding sections causing any issue.
The audio is equally impressive. Gunfire and environmental sounds are realistic, and only get better with a good set of headphones. The improved dialogue (featuring 100% fewer dude-bro one-liners) is well-acted and engaging when given the chance. Most important? The return of the distorted guitar riff that tells players a section is complete. It was extremely satisfying a decade ago, and it’s just as rewarding now.
In terms of story, GoW4 is a bit thin, but still enjoyable. Set 25 years after Marcus Fenix removed his battle-worn bandanna and pondered life without war, the game immediately reminds players that there’s still a long way to go before healing.
As JD (son of Marcus) Fenix, players are thrust into a narrative that indicates all is not well with the series’ beloved COG soldiers. In fact, they quickly learn that JD and friends have gone AWOL, flipping the dynamic entirely. It turns out the COG were never really good people themselves; they were just the protagonists. Learning how COG initiatives have affected the planet’s recovery turns the bad guys into good guys and vice versa, making everything (somewhat) new again. It’s not Shakespeare, but it doesn’t need to be.
However, this does represent the title’s biggest flaw – a dearth of storytelling. Oh, it still has its moments, but after the original trilogy ended in a wash of Kleenex, the developers decided to focus on gameplay first, emotion second. I agree with this decision, but the devs shouldn’t forget about making us care about the heroes. The original trilogy’s cast overcame painfully lame dialogue. In GoW4, JD and his fellow characters have much better voice acting and depth, but fewer opportunities to demonstrate it.
What players do learn is that a new threat known as “The Swarm” has invaded the recovering planet, and apparently they learned their battle tactics from former adversaries, The Locust. These beasts flank, hop cover and take terrible shots in the player’s direction. Hell, they even burst out of nests that perfectly resemble emergence holes. It’s Gears by-the-numbers, and I admit that for a few minutes I wondered how such a lack of creativity was released.
Then the title begins to flex its muscles. There are some seriously cool new creatures, including one that eats and pukes out characters in the most disgusting ways. There are also events that break up the samey locales and creatures nicely, and prevent anything from becoming redundant. The devs knows when they’re going to the well too often, so things change on a dime and keep gamers on their toes.
As always, the campaign can be played alone, or cooperatively with a friend. This time, the AI is much improved, and NPCs are more responsive and reliable throughout the eight-hour campaign. By the time it comes to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, players are prepared to take the battle online, where they’ll meet a community of experienced players waiting to roll up behind them, shotguns at the ready.
Perhaps the campaign was designed to serve as a full-length training session for multiplayer, but by this point in the series, most players probably know whether or not they enjoy online Gears. Matchmaking is decent, but even in the most entry-level matches, it can be frustrating to newbies trying to find their footing.
That’s not to say it isn’t worth trying, though. Gears of War offers one of the most comprehensive online components of any modern series. Between solo and team deathmatch, King of the Hill, and the now-classic Horde mode, Gears was already loaded with gameplay, and now it includes special variants like limited lives, weak weapons, and even a dodgeball mode.
GoW4 also introduces a card-based upgrade system, adding new ways to boost skills, armor, weapons, bonuses and more. It’s a traditionally grindy format that gamers have come to expect, but what wasn’t expected was how difficult it is to gain such perks without dipping into one’s wallet. Knowing that such perks would take countless hours of play to earn without dropping a few dollars is likely to drive many to spend real-world cash to stay competitive. It’s a rare black mark on an otherwise pristine offering, but it’s worth mentioning.
After one day of playing GoW4, I knew it was an awesome title. After one month of diving deep into all campaign and multiplayer modes, that feeling hasn’t wavered. The developers showed hints of brilliance with their remake of the original Gears, but no one could have predicted just how firm a grasp they had on the intricacies of what makes this series so special. Its few flaws knocked my score down a few notches, but the gameplay is well-paced, gorgeous to watch, and tremendously satisfying. GoW4 is a system-seller and a must-have title for any self-respecting fan of shooters.
Welcome back, indeed.
Disclosures: This game is developed by The Coalition and published by Microsoft Studios. It is currently available on XBO and Windows 10 PCs. This copy of the game was obtained via purchase and reviewed on the XBO. Approximately 15 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. An additional 25 hours of play were devoted to all competitive and campaign-based multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M, and it earns every bit of the rating. This is a third-person shooter in which players assume the role of a soldier fighting to stop an alien threat. Players use machine guns, shotguns, sniper rifles, grenades, and battle armor to kill enemy creatures and human soldiers. Blood-splatter effects frequently occur. Some attacks result in decapitation and/or dismemberment, leaving large blood stains and body parts on the ground; some areas also depict large pools of blood amid dismembered corpses. Countless swear words pepper the dialogue, making this a truly “adult” title.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game relies heavily on audio cues and music to enhance the experience. While the game features subtitled text and controller vibration during key moments, gamers who are deaf or hard of hearing may miss subtleties that require quick reaction.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are colorblind modes available in the options.
When not writing for Gamecritics, Brad spends his days managing several sports and entertainment websites, handling several freelance writing contracts, and occasionally playing the role of "Dad" when time permits.
Brad is also the only guy on this staff who prefers the Xbox One to other platforms. And he's not budging on that one bit.