Gears of War has always been an also-ran series. It is the second biggest shooter franchise in Microsoft's arsenal, with new titles slotted into the off years when they didn't have a new Halo to put out. It certainly has a diehard playerbase keeping the old games alive online, but the series is perhaps better known to some as a technical showpiece for the Xbox 360's early days. I remember loading the original Gears up in 2006 and feeling that the next generation was finally here. Gears of War 4's chainsaw-laden combat doesn't quite have the same impact ten years later, but the game is still a flashy and impressive shooter that both pushes the Xbox One hardware and makes a solid argument for Microsoft's latest Windows gaming initiative.
It's been twenty-five long years since the events of Gears of War 3, and the world of Serra is seemingly at peace. The Locust have gone back into their holes for good, and the COG act as stewards for what is left of mankind. Those who reject government rule build settlements on the outskirts, including recent army deserter JD Fenix. Alongside former brother in arms Del and Outsider native Kait, JD looks to steal a fabricator to power the village he now calls home, unaware that his actions will set off a string of events that will put him in conflict with the COG's robotic armies and a new horde of familiar looking foes. Gears has never had the most intricate storylines, but 4's campaign has enough action movie moments and varied combat scenarios to make me more than happy to overlook its narrative failings.
Speaking of which, Gears of War 4 hasn't missed a step as the series has switched hands from Epic Games to The Coalition. This game plays pretty much exactly as you remember, with only minor changes being made to the flow of combat. Chest high walls are everywhere, shotguns are lethal as all hell, and exploding heads still emit the same satisfying pop after a well-placed blast from the Longshot. This game does pile on even more execution style moves by allowing you to reach over and grab enemies who are sitting in adjacent cover. After you release them, you're just a quick button press away from stabbing your foe somewhere in the face with a combat knife. I went for these knife kills often, as rushing in to perform them led to a number of chaotic moments filled with confused AI and close calls with death.
Gears 4 has also changed its combat by adding a few new tools of destruction to its arsenal. The more high profile additions, like the hoverdrill launching Dropshot and the Unreal Tournament inspired Buzzkill, are satisfyingly out there in a way that you'd expect from Gears. The less notable additions are rolled in with the new enemies that you'll be facing for half of the campaign. The DBs are robotic soldiers owned and operated by the COG government, and I have to admit that I did get the feeling that I was fighting an army of robots while facing off against them. Their constant vocal barks about assisting humanity were humorous but got old after a while. The real problem is that the weapons the DBs wield are generic clones of other guns. The Enforcer SMG is a less powerful Lancer without a chainsaw. The EMBAR is a charging railgun sniper that is significantly less useful than the Longshot. I actively didn't want to use these weapons, but the entire first half of the campaign was nothing but DBs, forcing me to spend hours playing a lesser version of Gears.
Things get better once the Swarm show up, and I was surprised that the two enemy factions didn't mix it up more. Outside of a single encounter, the game is split right down the middle between robot fighting and putting grubs in their holes. On either side of the campaign, you'll also get a few Horde-lite sections (where you have limited building options and are told to defend a location for a few rounds) and a few fun minibosses. Chatter between your squad of Gears hits just the right note of jokey fun, and I couldn't stop laughing whenever I heard Marcus shout out "Revive Me" in just the same way that he did back in 2006. All this variety is kept up throughout the campaign, and blazing through all five acts in two sittings felt like anything but a chore.
In fact, the only reason I needed two sittings at all is because Gears of War 4 is a part of the Xbox Play Anywhere program. After having a less than smooth experience with Halo 5: Forge and hearing horror stories about ReCore's initial PC performance, I was hesitant to load up the Windows version of Gears, but I was worried for nothing. Gears 4 is the smoothest PC game I've played out of Microsoft's camp in a long while, and the campaign is improved significantly with the full 60FPS that is only available on the Windows release. With the PC version's snappy load times and seamless controller integration, I sometimes even forgot that I was playing on PC. You'll get both versions of the game if you buy it on Xbox One, but the PC version might just be the preferred option.
Gears multiplayer isn't for everyone, but Gears 4 offers a solid version of that experience. There are ten varied arenas to square off on (nine new maps and the stalwart Gridlock), and classic modes like King of the Hill, Team Deathmatch, and Execution are all here and just as you remember them. Special mention goes out to Arms Race, which is a Gun Game-type mode where your team has to rack up kills to cycle through a set progression of weapons before their opponents. I love Gun Game modes, and this variation works surprisingly well within the confines of Gears combat.
Sadly, due to the gameplay of the previous games being ported over pretty much intact, Gears 4 instantly suffers from some of the worst problems of online deathmatch. Players who have been playing Gears for years need only spend a few hours memorizing weapon placements and they're golden. Meanwhile, anyone new to the franchise or used to other shooters will be effortlessly steamrolled by the core player base, leading to numerous cases of teammates quitting in frustration and uneven matches stretching on for minutes past their expiration date. King of the Hill comes close, but there is no real haven online for players who want to enjoy Gears multiplayer without mastering it, and that's a real shame.
Gears of War 4 is also home to the somewhat confusingly titled Horde 3.0., and not much has changed here other than the robotic additions that the Gears 4 campaign brings. This rendition of the popular wave based survival mode does have players choosing a class, each with unique starting weapons and attributes. You assign these perks through cards you earn through playing the game (similar to Halo 5's REQ system), and some of the powers available seem crazy to think about from a balancing perspective, especially when you measure it against the major grind for credits that exists in the mode.
Every weapon customization, player skin, and perk for Horde mode is locked behind randomized item crates. The gold crates are 3,500 credits a piece, with a lesser silver crate coming out to 1,000 credits. After completing a standard Gears 4 match, you can expect to get around 100 credits if you win, and less if you lose. This means that getting to open even one of the lesser crates will be a rare occurrence, maybe once an hour. Certain leveling milestones will drop larger quantities of credits, but the entire system still feels like a mobile-style grind that weakens the otherwise fun Horde mode and pushes players too far towards the game's microtransactions.
Gears of War 4 isn't the revelation that the original game was a decade ago, but it's not trying to be. Instead, Gears 4 succeeds as a solid iteration on the formula, providing great action and unique combat that will please most anyone who gives it a shot. The campaign is an action movie romp that hits all the right notes, and the multiplayer is an iterative improvement on past games. Simply put, if you're looking for a new deathmatch game to sample, you're most likely already too late to get in on the ground floor here. However, if you're looking for a great shooter campaign to blaze through over the weekend, Gears 4 might just be your jam.
Gears of War 4 was reviewed on Xbox One and Windows 10 PC with a copy provided by Microsoft.
Gears of War 4 is probably the best Gears campaign so far, but it's saddled with uninteresting robotic enemies, a multiplayer suite that makes no concessions to casual players, and a loot treadmill that pushes microtransactions too aggressively.
- Action Movie Campaign
- Amazing Presentation
- Satisfying New Executions
- Smooth PC Port
- Multiplayer For Diehards Only
- DeeBees Aren't Fun To Shoot
- Aggressive Microtransactions System
- New Weapons Feel Unessential