The Gears of War franchise has come a long way. What started as one of the crown jewels of Xbox 360 exclusives soon become a franchise, and the story of Marcus Fenix and his fellow “gears” fighting for their very lives against an enemy, the Locust, so numerable that humanity didn’t stand a chance became a massive hit and system seller. But the Locust had never gone up against anyone like Fenix and his band of brothers, who, in three core games, essentially wiped them off the face of planet Sera and gave humanity a future.
Now, 25 years later, Gears of War 4 opens up on a Sera that has tried to rebuild. The heroes of that final battle with the Locust are revered, yet somehow forgotten. The new COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) has built walled, fortress-like cities, and those that don’t like it are left to settle outside the walls away from the technology that the COG uses to build, and away from the security offered by the COG. But all is not well. Sera itself is reclaiming the land left over by the war. Massive storms wreak havoc on what’s left of humanity, and the settlements are constantly battling the COG for resources — and for their right to exist.
This sets the stage for the events on Gears of War 4, as JD Fenix, the son of the legendary Marcus Fenix, leads a team of other outcasts on a mission into a COG city to steal a much-needed Fabricator for their Settlement. This action sets in motion a series of events that will reveal a new threat to humanity, and a whole new war for survival.
Gears of War 4 was developed by The Coalition, a studio founded by original Gears of War co-creator Rob Fergusson, and the transition from Epic Games is seamless, unlike 343 Industries’ fumbling of the Halo franchise. Gears 4 looks, sounds, and feels like a Gears of War game, and that’s no easy task. There are epic, cover-based gunfights, weapon-specific executions, vehicle/motion levels, couch and online co-op, and so much more that have become signature Gears of War gameplay. The Coalition nailed this game in almost every way and after a shaky start — which I will get to — Gears 4 settles down into one of my favorite gaming experiences of 2016.
Gears of War 4 is essentially made up of three pillars of game play: Campaign, Versus (multiplayer), and Horde 3.0. The campaign is as epic as expected, though it starts off slow after a smack-ass action-packed prologue that retells the story of Gears. For the first half of the game, the player is running around natural setting or sterile cities fighting robots, led by COG First Minister Jinn — herself a cartoon of a villain who spews cliches and has more in common with the Sunbow version of Cobra Commander than she does a leader who inspires her people. In fact, this part of the campaign is boring and slow. Those are two words never before used to describe a Gears of War game, so I’m as shocked as you are. Luckily, in Act III (of five), the game changes and the true threat emerges, and suddenly, Gears of War 4 puts the pedal to the metal and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Once the robots give way to real flesh-and-blood enemies, the gore and gunfights ramp up with the body count, the thrill of seeing some new monstrosity introduced to the battlefield excites, and when Act V begins, JD and his team get a new weapon that changes the game and lets the player punish the enemy in new and exciting ways. It’s not only satisfying, it’s downright amazing.
The Versus mode is a fully featured online and/or co-op with various game modes to play with friends and strangers. There are eight different game modes, like Team Deathmatch, Warzone, Dodgeball, Guardian, and King of the Hill, and there are different varieties of these games, from casual to competitive, to even eSports. Players can customize their avatars with more and more options unlocked by buying packs of cards and the choices are varied. There is a lot here to kill your free time, and the mode works to add length to the game as a whole.
Horde 3.0 is what separates Gears of War 4 from other third person shooters. Horde mode drops up to five players on a map and tasks them to build a defendable base using a Fabricator, then survive 50 waves of increasingly difficult enemies — enemies that get buffs after every “boss fight,” which occur on the tens (10th wave, 20th wave, 30th wave, and so on). I’ve spent a good amount of time playing Horde 3.0, and to say I love it is an understatement. I love my wife. But I LOVE Horde mode. When you get a solid team of five people who work together, who play their roles, and who watch each other’s backs, Gears 4 creates a true spirit of brotherhood. And it feels great to survive wave after wave, building defenses and gathering energy from downed enemies to pay for those defenses. It’s a thrill, to be sure, and well worth playing over and over and over.
On the technical side, The Coalition did an amazing job utilizing the power of the Xbox One, as everything just looks so damn beautiful. And the deep blacks of HDR on the Xbox One S makes the colors just pop off the screen, and that says a lot when a good portion of the game is covered in bloody gore. The character models look great and while they still feel like you are controlling tanks, in a war with relentless enemies, tanks are good things to have. Gears of War 4 might be the best looking Xbox One game this year.
Gears of War 4 continues the greater story of the inhabitants of Sera and their constant fight to survive against nature, terrible enemies, and even each other. Gears 4 is the beginning of a new trilogy guided by the careful, skilled hands of The Coalition, and there are two or three subtle developments in the campaign that hint at the horrors that are to come. There are moments in this game that will stick with me, just like I’m still haunted by battling the Berserker in the first Gears game, or the excitement I remember from riding a Swarmak into the final battle in Gears 2. This series is stocked with epic mic-dropping moments, and Gears 4 continues that streak. Gears of War 4 is not to be overlooked, as it is the near-perfect first chapter — once it finally gets going — of a presumed much longer story, and it’s a story I cannot wait to play through, again and again.
Gears of War 4 is available now for Ultimate Edition owners, and on October 11 for everyone else. It is exclusively on the Xbox One, and is a play everywhere title, that can also be played on Windows 10 PCs. This review is based off a review code provided by the publisher.
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