I was fairly dismayed when I finished Gears of War 3. I didn’t feel like I was done with the world yet, and I didn’t think Epic were either. While Delta Squad’s story had come to a close, there were still so many unanswered questions. The origins of the Locust, the extent of Adam’s research and co-operation with the Locust, the true nature of the COG in general – there was a lot I still needed to know. So, you can imagine how excited I was when a new team, aptly named The Coalition, had taken up the series to add more to the tale. There are a few things that I think could have been either improved, or done away with entirely, but overall I’m happy with Gears of War 4 (GoW4) and its return to the chaos of Sera.
Bloody, nonsensical, delectable chaos.
GoW4 takes place twenty-five years after the events of GoW3, and follows the exploits of J.D. Fenix, Marcus Fenix’s son. The cost of waging war with the Locust and Lambent was substantial, with mandkind’s numbers dwindling, and their traditional energy source of immulsion being wiped out. The newly reformed COG is focused on repopulation and protection of those remaining, which has led to the use of a robotic construction and peace-keeping force called “DeeBee’s.” Peace time, of course, couldn’t last forever, ruined by a perfect storm of lightning-fire tornadoes, dubious governments, schismatic factions, and bloodthirsty, aggresive beast-things. Terrible for the planetary stability, rad if you’re itching for some chainsaw-gun killing.
Personally, I love the story and the world of Gears of War, even if it’s not the best story ever written. For humans, they’re a people who’ve tried to advance despite being constantly locked in a cycle of war, and, as a result, their whole society is based around combat, or the support of combat. Even in their brief moments of peace, such as the time between the pendulum wars and E-Day, or the war with the locust and the events of GoW4, they’re still obsessed with military might. GoW4 offers further insight into the world in general, more than the previous games ever did, and even has some answers to questions you might have about the original trilogy. These answers also raise further questions, but hey – they need something to put in the next two games.
Maybe in GoW5, the blossoming bromance between Del and J.D. will come to wondrous fruition. A man can dream.
What I found to be the most jarring in this shift to the new generation is how the main three characters are so much like one another. In previous games, the four main characters certainly shared certain traits but had distinct personalities. Cole was over-the-top and excitable, Baird was an arrogant jackass, Marcus was a gruff, no nonsense kind of military man, and Dom wouldn’t shut up about his wife. In GoW4, J.D., Del, and Kait have been given solid foundations to be built upon, but feel like they lack the immediate, separating personality traits of their predecessors. For the most part, they’re all sassy, sarcastic would-be soldiers, and often come across as Baird clones more than anything else. Given the events of this first game in the new trilogy, I expect that will change over the course of the next two games but it’s very noticeable, and kind of distracting for the moment. It also isn’t helped by the mostly wooden voice acting for the new characters. Except for Oscar, his voice acting was completely on-point for his character.
The campaign itself isn’t any longer or shorter than the previous titles’ campaign modes, and what’s in there is some excellent, cracked out, classic Gears action. That being said, I still have a few issues with some of the design choices. Firstly, given the 4-player co-op available in GoW3, there’s really no excuse for it not being present this time around, I don’t care what narrative reasons there might be – it should be there. GoW4 is also obsessed with doing things for you, instead of making you perform tasks yourself. Two major staples of Gears of War are its grand architecture and rugged environments, with lots of focus on how the characters are always laboring to open giant doors, cutting through things to make passage, or shift fallen debris. GoW4 is no different, but I feel like this is used to an excessive degree, and it doesn’t really serve much purpose gameplay wise; if anything, it actively detracts from the fun.
I can only assume that the people of Sera are so impossibly musclebound because of the giant doors they’re forced to struggle with everyday.
Moreover, if all pressing a button does is open a door, or clear the way without any real challenge, then why have it there at all? You’re able to carry around the fabricator boxes that you use in Horde mode, why not let the player pick up the debris and move it as mobile cover, or a new cover spot altogether? Why not let me smash the doors open with an explosive to get the drop on the enemies outside and possibly kill some of them before a battle starts? Or have a door that’s hard to open in place while being cornered by overwhelming numbers? It just feels like so many missed opportunites. The campaign certainly plays like an adrenaline fueled, interactive Michael Bay movie, using Joss Whedon-esque dialogue, and elements of Pacific Rim thrown in, which is great. It just baffles me that the game regularly stops to say, “Hey, player, stop what you’re doing and press a button to let the this animation run again,” every five minutes.
Gears is arguably the series that popularised the over-the-shoulder, cover based shooter, and while there have been improvements to the mechanics, GoW4 hasn’t strayed from that core concept. You can now pull enemies over cover when they’re immediately opposite you for a quick execution, or rush over cover to kick them in the face and out of the way. When on the receiving end of this, you can also counter grab and kick attempts if you’re fast enough to get the upper hand. Some cover types are now also destructible, allowing you to thin out enemy hiding places during shoot outs. It’s not game-changing stuff and rarely does it make much of a difference during the campaign mode, but it does make the multiplayer modes more interesting and dynamic than before.
Or if you’re playing against one of the devs, like I did, you’ll have a slew of new ways to die!
The changes and improvements in mechanics work best for multiplayer, introducing new modes for Versus and refining how Horde mode works. The Versus modes benefit from an increased arsenal, and the new modes are a lot of fun, but Horde mode (even if it’s my personal favorite) is where the game really shines. Reinforcements and defenses are now compeletely moveable, not just in the preparation time between waves but in the middle of the fight, as well. Can’t get a decent shot from the manned turret where you’re standing, or is an auto-turret going to die soon? Just pick it up and move it!
Horde mode also allows players to fulfill specific roles within their squad by choosing classes that receive passive bonuses that can be equipped before each game. Rather than everyone being a regular every-man soldier, you can be a Soldier that deals out extra damage with rifles or grenades, or a Sniper that receives head shot bonuses, to name a couple. The class system assists players to play to their strengths and favored play styles, and rewards them for doing so, granting new buffs and bonuses as you progress. The only downside is that the class levelling system is separate from the profile levelling system, and gaining class levels takes forever – like, we’re talking Killing Floor 1 levels of progression. I finished Horde mode all the way to completion of wave 50 and I only reached Soldier lv.2, while my profile level went from lv.2 to lv.10.
I basically committed mass-genocide and all I got was this lousy level and a half.
GoW4 looks beautiful, even on console, and (although I cannot confirm for myself) I’ve heard it said from those who’ve managed to get it working that the PC version looks incredible. The designs of new or classic COG armor, the robotic DeeBee units, and Swarm monsters are lovingly detailed. In particular, the Swarm enemies are heavily inspired by the former Locust monsters, while still maintaining a unique look. Swarm Drones and Juvies are very reminiscient of Locust Drones and Wretches, grounding returning players in something familiar, but still maintain new or unique abilities. As you progress, you’ll see how the Swarm diverges from the Locust, with some of the new monsters being entirely new, and designed to be just as dangerous.
The environments are excellent, with just about anything outside of the COG settlements and cities being left to rot. It means that the crumbling, decaying scenery that fans of the series are used to can still stick around in a way that makes sense narratively. Additionally, new environmental hazards have appeared, such as Windflares – massive fire-lightning storms that tear through the landscape with destructive winds and crackling lightning strikes. They’ll rip up the environment around you, hurling debris that you need to dodge through, and otherwise spew out lightning strikes that kill almost instantly. There’s been an enormous amount of thought put into what the world of Sera looks like outside of the battlefields, and it shows. Sound and music mostly hasn’t changed, and that’s a good thing because there really wasn’t anything wrong with either in previous games. Those headshots are deliciously gruesome and satisfyingly squishy to listen to.
Exploding monster heads really is half the fun of Gears of War.
The game certainly has a few hangover issues from those that came before it, but these problems weren’t enough to stop me from having a total blast playing Gears of War 4. Though the campaign frequently wants you to stop and watch it do things that you should be doing yourself, there’s still enough ridiculous action for you to actually play through. The main characters are still finding their feet, sometimes their own personalities, but it still works as a solid setup for a new series. The improvements to mechanics and slight changes in design work excellently with the multiplayer modes, and Horde mode has never been more fun. It’s been a long wait for the series to continue, but that wait was worth it. As long as The Coalition takes not of the elements that didn’t work in the new iteration this time around, the next game should be even better. I’m already hanging out for it.