Editors Note: This review is as spoiler free as possible. Read on and enjoy!
We return to Sera, decades after the Locust threat has been destroyed. The wildlife has come back. The planet has had time to restore itself. And the humans, being humans, have once again divided themselves into their groups and are at odds with each other. They allow their difference to divide them. The mighty Cog, with their machines, rules, order and proud history. And the Outsiders, those who pillage Cog facilities and refuse to bend a knee to the establishment. They’ve lived side by side, attempting to prevent an all-out war with one another. But that peace is about to shatter. And nothing is ever going to be quite the same again.
Welcome back, Gears.
In the latest and most intense installment of Gears of War to date, you play J.D., son of Marcus Fenix and Anya Stroud. Like his father he’s brash, bold and very sure of his own abilities. So much so, that he’s gone against his father’s advices (sound familiar?) and joined up with the Outsiders. While J.D. is expecting something along the lines of garden variety trouble for J.D. and his friends, such as Cog resistance to his actions, he’s in store for a whole lot more than anyone could have imagined as the story starts to unfold.
As you play, you’re introduced to the new Sera. This Gears looks almost like an entirely different world than the last several games. There are trees, plants, vibrant colors. The world has grown and recovered from the blasted wasteland left behind from the Hammer of Dawn strikes. There are insects and animals. In short, it’s beautiful. The graphical detail put into the game is absolutely gorgeous. As you move through the environments you’ll get drawn into the detail that the developers put into each set piece. When an object should be glowing, it has a glorious luminescence. When it’s supposed to be dark, it’s dismal. It feels dank. The buildings that are still recovering are crumbling and covered in vegetation.
The controls for the game are mostly comfortable and familiar, however. It was very, very nice to jump right back into the game and be able to pick it up as if it was an old friend. Hello, Lancer. How I’ve missed you. You jump right into the action with several flashback sequences that take you through some of the game’s history before catching up to modern day – a warm up if you will. But once the game gets you back to the present and gets you moving again, the break is incredibly short lived. In fact, it’s a teachable moment. Do not get used to breaks or rest periods in this Gears game. They are practically nonexistent. The game is almost all action, all the time. You’re bounced from action sequence to action sequence with regularity, moving between encounters constantly. The only difference is in the amount and kind of enemies you get. The experience is extremely intense.
In addition to the consistency of the action itself, the developers decided to add in some more tricks to tamper with the gameplay. The cover mechanic, a staple in the Gears games, is no longer the old reliable fallback that it once was. There are multiple places in the game where cover is placed at an angle, making it difficult for you to simply hunker down and wait the enemies out. And some of the cover simply explodes and creates new enemies for the player to fight. Without giving too many spoilers, let it simply be said that a large portion of the cover in the game is in the form of cocoons that have the potential to spawn new enemies. Use at your own peril. A few sections of the game have an added challenge of moving cover. This cover has the capacity to kill you. These sections are very difficult. Tread lightly.
Enemy types in the game have been enhanced and upgraded as well. In addition to being much more bullet resistant, they are very intelligent. If given a chance they are much more likely to try to flank you. They are also hyper aggressive. When playing, there were multiple enemies who, when injured enough, simply started charging my position. At least one of those enemy types exploded when they died. Additional enemy types include two new special enemies that are both extremely agile and that ignore cover. They jump, leap and hop all over the battle field and are very dangerous. So some caution is recommended.
The Coalition have added a few new combat techniques into the game to help deal with these tougher, smarter enemies; one is an execution move where you can pull enemies out of cover. Another is kicking enemies in the face while running or vaulting over cover. Personally I found pulling enemies out of their cover and executing them to be an excellent maneuver and I used it often. It requires a lot of aggression on your part but it saves the bullets. The enemies can kick you over cover as well though so, again, caution.
There are also environmental dangers as well that are a constant threat throughout the game. A persistent weather effect known as the Windflare plays out at certain points in the game, affecting your ability to move and shoot projectile weapons. This includes grenades and Boomshots. Good luck with those. Playing the levels with the weather effects was very interesting and actually pretty cool as objects in the environment could be used against the enemy. There was one section that completely bombed, however because it required the use of a projectile specifically. Due to the weather effect it took an extraordinarily long time to move past the section and the entire time my computer teammates were yelling the same things over and over at me. It was incredibly grating and annoying.
The A.I. partners are generally useful in the game, mostly carrying their weight and handling the enemies well for the most part. They didn’t run out into the open and get themselves killed unnecessarily for which I was very grateful. However, with the enemies being as hyper aggressive as they were, there were some problems I found with the A.I. ignoring enemies that had run right past them and into my face. They had trouble disengaging from the enemy they were fighting immediately and helping you out; though they were usually pretty good at running over to get you up if you’d been downed. There were also some problems with computer A.I. running into the line of your fire if you were shooting down range at enemies; very bad considering that the upgraded enemies in Gears 4 are bullet sponges. Most weapons don’t do nearly as much damage as they used to do; a headshot with the Longshot isn't always a one shot kill anymore even on normal difficulty.
Horde mode has been upgraded and changed as well. Fortifications have stayed around, but the format has changed. Instead of being static placements in the level, they can be moved around the level through the usage of a new object called the Fabricator. You are introduced to the Fabricator during the Campaign and get to use it several times. In the Campaign, it’s a self-powered device that allows the player to build not only fortifications but weapons to help fend off enemies. These fortifications can be shifted and moved around the level wherever desired to help set up a defensible position. You also have a Weapons Locker that can be purchased through the Fabricator. When placed on the field and a weapon is put inside it, the ammo constantly recharges and the weapon can be retrieved at any point.
During the Campaign, the Fabricator constantly regenerates power which can be used. During Horde mode, however, enemies drop power as they’re killed, which needs to be picked up off the battlefield. This energy is either stored on your person or deposited directly into the Fabricator simply by walking up to it. As it builds up in the Fabricator, it can be used. Fortifications are also repaired using this energy and a Repair Tool. The Repair tool is automatically equipped on the Engineer class Gear or can be purchased through the Fabricator for power.
Constantly having to juggle retrieving power, ammo and the Fortifications is a tall order. There is a very small window of time between each successive wave in Horde. Optimally, enemies are killed before they rush your position, but if they’re killed too far afield it can make it difficult to pick up their power, pick up ammo and get back to your position before the next wave starts. And if you want to build new fortifications or repair the existing ones, you are seriously pressed for time. Also if you don't get to the power the enemies drop before a new wave begins, it disappears from the field.
Gears players have Classes in Horde mode now that give them special abilities. The Engineer class can repair Fortifications easier, the Heavy specializes in stuff like the Boomshot and so on. Each of these individual classes can be leveled up, gaining slots to equip abilities that make Horde mode easier. This of course, requires extensive playing of the mode. While leveling up, the gameplay can be a bit frustrating as you find yourself slogging through difficult waves of aggressive enemies. Making it harder is the fact that the Fabricator costs can be prohibitively high initially and creating a truly defensible position can be very difficult.
Complicating matters is the fact that all abilities or skills are locked behind a “card” system. You must have the card in order to equip the ability. Cards can be obtained by unlocking crates that can be purchased with in game currency which is obtained through leveling up your individual character or spending real money through the Xbox Live Marketplace. You can level up faster with bounties – but bounties are also locked behind the card system. Some bounties give you money. But again, you must have the bounty card. You can destroy your cards to create scrap and purchase other cards with the scrap. But it takes a large amount of cards to create the scrap and you have to accumulate the cards initially to make use of the system, which takes us back to the initial problem with the card system.
Banners, weapons skins and characters are also locked behind this card system. It’s an entire micro transaction system within the game. It differs from the previous version in that you can’t unlock these things by completing in game challenges to obtain them. And it makes it harder to play the actual game effectively unless you unlock certain things. Basically, you have to suffer through difficult game play for a longer period of time, level up, purchase a crate and hope that you get some of the cards to assist you in making the game easier to play. And once you have the skills, you need to start leveling those individual skills up as well by getting additional cards. Horde mode, when played for hours and days on end, would likely be incredibly enjoyable as you would have unlocked multiple skills and would have leveled them up enough to make the mode more fun and less stressful.
Starting out, however, is an exercise in frustration as you try to push your way through the waves. Additionally, some of the upgraded enemies can make the fighting in Horde aggravating in the extreme, even on lower difficulties. They can turn even the early waves into an unnecessary fight to the death when your character class is low due to not being able to stand up to them. Instead of the fights being a challenge, they feel unfair and unbalanced, making it difficult to want to go back to the Horde experience. Contrast that with Gears 3 where Horde was a mode I’d return to over and over again because of how enjoyable it was.
The multiplayer in Gears 4 is an interesting experience as well. There are some very fun modes available for play. Dodgeball allows you to go back and forth between kills, with each enemy kill bringing back a teammate. Arms Race has you killing the enemy with every gun, with every third kill changing your team’s preferred weapon. Guardian has the players execute the other team’s leader before they can kill the other team and of course there are other modes such as Deathmatch, War Zone and King of the Hill.
Of course any game with humans will vary based on the other humans involved, but there is the option to play with bots or friends. It wasn’t exactly the easiest to start up a closed session however; starting up a private versus session with only two people requires each to be on separate teams, so if you and a friend want to play together without randoms, be prepared to fight against each other. There is the option of starting a Co-Op Mode game against bots, however you will have to wait for the mode to find other players to fill in the rest of the slots with players online because there is no option to set the game to private unless you use the Play on LAN option, which may be cumbersome depending on your individual setup. Gears 3 used to have the option to play versus modes with bots in private matches without having to run a LAN setup; there doesn’t appear to be a way to do that in Gears 4 which is a shame. When running around with the bots several of the modes were very enjoyable and a lot of fun; sometimes you just want to cut loose and destroy your enemies without the stress of Horde mode. And not everyone wants to play with randoms online; some like having the option of private games with friends and don’t want the LAN connection.
Overall, Gears of War 4 is an enjoyable experience. The campaign mode did not disappoint with its constant action and a story that was not only interesting but amazingly funny. Watching the interactions between J.D. and his squad had me laughing every time they started talking to each other. Make sure your volume is turned up as you play; you won’t regret listening to their banter. By the time I was done with the main game, I was excited for the next installment.
Playing Horde mode, however is a seriously mixed bag for me. While I love having the freedom to continuously go back into the game and have the freedom to destroy my enemies, I am disappointed at some of the missteps in the new version. While I love the fact that fortifications can be moved around and that bases aren’t static anymore, I’m not happy that the Fabricator from the main game and Horde are so different. I would have loved to see a hybrid of the two; a Horde mode Fabricator that generates some power but relies upon you picking up enemy power in order to build high level fortifications in order to keep game balance, for example. Juggling everything at once is very difficult and makes for a frustrating time.
Additionally, the ammo boxes regenerated themselves on the Horde maps which helped, but again, getting to them, the power and the Fortifications all in the amount of time between waves is difficult, leading to some near misses as enemies are spawning in. And the new card system is a definite downer for me. The old medal system was much more palatable; randomly spawning out skills from a crate as you struggle to level up to afford them or purchase them with real money is a poor way to handle what was once an enjoyable “go to” mode for me and I’m incredible upset at the change. The online modes seem to be more enjoyable than the Horde and I’m probably going to be giving those a whirl, but Horde is initially not the most pleasant or enjoyable because of the changes.