After concluding an excellent trilogy, The Coalition wants to take Gears of War 4 to a new place while very much honoring (and fawning over) those who brought us here.
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: Windows 10 (majority of review process), Xbox One
Release Dates: October 7 (Ultimate Edition), October 11 (Standard)
Epic Games has moved on from Gears of War, selling the franchise (that was once thought finished) to Microsoft Studios in 2014. A new group, named The Coalition, has taken over design elements of Gears of War 4 and incorporated them into their new vision for the third-person shooter franchise. Unsurprisingly, those ideals translate to the Gears of War 4 campaign, where a group of young guns are inexplicably tied to the past, with a story that refuses to let go and move onto something new.
25 years after the victory over the Locust, the Coalition of Ordered Governments commemorates those who were lost while protagonists JD Fenix and Del Walker abandon their posts to join an opposition group called The Outsiders. The player is thrust into a situation that seems odd on the surface: steal a fabricator to restore energy to a town outside of the COG’s city borders.
What starts out as a conflict between The Outsiders and The COG quickly morphs into something more, as a Swarm of alien bug creatures threatens humanity once more. JD, Del and the daughter of the Outsiders leader, Kait Diaz, must find the source of this new threat, all while diving deep into the abyss in a daring rescue mission that will test the faith of everyone involved.
Despite this Gears of War 4 campaign supposedly focusing on the stories of JD, Del and Kait, The Coalition can’t help but pivot most of the focus of this game on the wealth of knowledge coming from franchise hero Marcus Fenix. He is who this crew looks up to, and it is he who guides the party along the narrative trail.
It starts off with the best intentions, especially as it helps to grow a better understanding of playable Gears of War 4 protagonist JD Fenix. There’s a strained relationship here, one of reluctant guidance for a son caught up in the underbelly of the COG forces based off of first-hand knowledge. Marcus, realistically, is the only person who JD could call upon to help out in a human-versus-alien crisis.
However, as it becomes increasingly evident throughout the story, Gears of War 4 becomes more about the nostalgic pining for characters fans of the series know and love. The interpersonal relationships barely blossom beyond personal conviction. Kait wants to get her mother back, and JD, Del and Marcus serve as sarcastic, gun-toting quip machine avatars, with the new characters barely evolving their standing as characters.
There is nothing remarkable about JD or Del that can be described beyond mouthpieces for the writing staff to get jokes into the script. The reason we control them as Gears of War 4 single-player or co-op campaign partners is because Microsoft says we are. JD is the leader of the group because he is programmed to be so, and his convictions are solely comprised of helping others complete their goals. It is the understanding that there is more to the Gears story in possible sequels that leaves the only reasonable excuse for failing to explore the characterization of JD Fenix. Regardless, that doesn’t help new players to the series that aren’t aware of the events of the first three games.
Speaking more to what the campaign embodies, the cast of Gears of War 4 are up against a bigger variety of threats than we’ve seen before. COG robots, named DeeBees, are armed to the teeth in opposition of those who don’t fall in line. They serve as the first act’s antagonists, trying to take down JD, Marcus et al before the real Swarm threat emerges.
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Split between cutscenes and transitions from one waist-high-cover setpiece to another, the characters do get to reflect on the events as they occur, but often as flavor text in reaction to the entertaining gunplay. The opposing threat escalates in amusing ways, from swarms of kamikaze grunts to Elite Swarm soliders that use a wide array of weaponry in opposition.
How the Swarm evolves proves to be an interesting development in Gears of War 4. Gigantic Snatchers beget Psion leaders, which beget larger and larger creatures that serve as bosses. While the action of hiding behind cover, picking off enemies and moving onto the next, identical set piece becomes vanilla, the escalation of the incoming threat naturally scales the difficulty of combat.
The implementation of several campaign levels, those that act as Horde Mode final stands, brings variety to the proceedings and gives players the chance to seek comfort in their preferred playstyle. Do you set up turrets and hope to get a lucky placement, or do you throw down spikes everywhere and pick off the sitting ducks as they run at you? Not only do these levels bring back player agency, but they help break up the predictable pace that the story otherwise puts you through.
It should be noted, however, that Gears of War 4 is a visual masterpiece. In the initial gameplay reveal, I had complaints concerning the use of overtly dark shadow and lighting effects, making it difficult to see environmental effects. The finished product, especially on a competent PC setup running Windows 10, offers an art style that makes colors glow. It does rely on the typical action movie pair of blues and oranges, but the colorization utilized in weather effects (especially in the purples, oranges, and darks in wind flares) is outstanding.
Nowhere is the upgrade from Gears of War 3 to Gears of War 4 better seen than in the multitude of insanely enjoyable multiplayer modes. First off, let it be known that Horde Mode may be an instant “Game Mode Of The Year” candidate, as each of the various maps reflect a perfect marriage between gameplay/level design and art design. Whether it be the ruins of a derelict city wrought with destruction, a docking port with rain pouring down, a ruined outcropping near a jungle or elsewhere, each map is woven to create a winding maze of increasing difficulty measure.
Just like the Gears of War 4 campaign missions, it’s up to your team to take down foes and use your resources and abilities wisely as a group unit against a non-stop force. However, the Horde Mode expands to serve five different classes, each with their own weapon loadouts, pros and cons, plus possible bonuses brought on through character customization. Additionally, as wave totals rack up after the boss waves (every ten waves), enemies become stronger, more accurate and healthier.
Just like any good survival mode, Gears of War 4’s Horde Mode ramps up the difficulty on a bell curve, ensuring you are guaranteed to improve your survival skills over time. With experience comes knowing whether or not to mount a turret, where the best places to defend your energy source are, and how to work with teammates to succeed. In many ways, the Horde Mode makes up for any downfalls the campaign may bring to those who just like single-player experiences. Trust me; this is worth getting out of your comfort zone.
Gears of War 4 is a collision of good intentions to start anew, while catering to the old.
Finally, that leaves the traditional Versus multiplayer modes of Gears of War 4. The Coalition has taken the tried-and-true run-and-shoot mechanics that have made the franchise’s multiplayer scenes famous and added a few modes. One new mode includes Dodgeball, an exciting mode that puts an emphasis on killing others to bring teammates back in. A 5v5 start could easily become 5v1, which can quickly turn the tide with decisive quick kills in order to bring back a 3v3 balance.
Escalation is clearly intended for eSport inclusion, where teams must capture three rings on the map or score 210 points. First team to seven rounds wins, with losing teams placing weapons down and respawns taking two additional seconds per round. Another exciting new mode is Arms Race, where teams race to kill their opponents with each of the 13 different weapons at least three times. It’s easily the best way for a player to learn and understand the game’s array of weapons, and helps serves newcomers to the franchise and former single-player-only players.
Gears of War 4, as an overall package, is a collision of good intentions to start anew while catering to the old. Narratively, it’s clear that Microsoft is afraid to move on from the stories we know from the past, incorporating them into every aspect of the campaign in a painfully repetitive series of cutscenes, smarmy jabs and waist-high-cover arena to waist-high-cover arena. That said, the multiplayer aspects are methodically prepared to cater to everyone, providing an ease of access for entry and a high bar to reach in mastery.
In terms of launch and post-launch monetization, however, Microsoft Studios cannot get away from the idea of hunting for whales after charging full price (or more than that, if including Ultimate Edition buyers). There are options for players to advance their online characters by purchasing gambling packs akin to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2, with options up to $49.99. These packs include custom aesthetic options, in addition to XP and credit-boosting bounties.
For all that Gears of War 4 does right with upcoming DLC, including only needing the host to own DLC that all players in a private party can join, microtransactions inside expensive games continue to service the publishers. By leveraging the cost of not restricting DLC maps, they incentivize a handful of players to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by treating pack drops like lottery slots. It’s a slap in the face to proper consumerist practices.
It’s a shame, because there is an argument to be made about Gears of War 4 bringing back that third pillar of the online shooter experience. Multiplayer is all about acting as a unit to take down your opponent, and that experience is definitely clouded when you’re encouraged to play as stylishly as those who dropped dozens of dollars on customization packs. Your visual style is important to the gameplay experience, too, and for it to be so difficult to outright earn credits to pay for what you want mitigates that part of online play.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.