In the past, Epic Games developed entries in the Gears of War franchise. In 2014, Microsoft bought the franchise rights from the company and tasked The Coalition (known at the time as Black Tusk Studios) to create a new title for the franchise. Usually, fans are apprehensive about a new studio taking over the development of a series, especially one that’s so coveted. However, with studio head Rod Fergusson — who also worked on previous Gears titles as the executive producer — at the wheel, rest assured that the franchise is in the rights. With Gears of War 4, The Coalition proved that it could carry on the legacy of Gears of War. However, some areas require improvement.
The War Is Over...Right?
Whereas previous titles (not including Gears of War: Judgement) focused on the adventures of Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago, Gears of War 4 centers on three new characters — Marcus’ son J.D., and J.D.’s two friends Kait and Del — and takes place 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3. The Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) of old is no more. In its place is a new COG organization that houses its citizens into multiple, yet massive walled settlements. However, some people choose not to join the COG settlements and create their own villages in the wild. These so-called Outsiders live a peaceful life, but recent abductions, including Kait’s mother, from a terrifying enemy called The Swarm has put both COG and Outsider factions on alert. The trio must rescue Kait’s mother and find out more about her abductors.
The world of Sera is vastly different compared to Marcus and Dom’s time. In the past, the war ravaged the world. Cities burned to the ground and Imulsion, the most sought-after resource at the time, damaged everything it touched. The new COG settlements are the government’s way of restoring order and the first step to repopulating the planet. With Imulsion no longer on the surface, nature took back the land. Trees are growing everywhere and rivers are flowing again, and they provide a scenic backdrop throughout several portions of the game. However, there are also many scenes that take place in old and crumbling buildings. These abandoned structures provide some context as to what happened in the 25-year gap between Gears of War 3and Gears of War 4. The current landscape also has some strange weather in the form of windflares, a triple-threat combination of a sandstorm, tornado, and lightning. To stay outside during a windflare event is suicide, and yet there are a few times when the trio must fight the enemy outdoors while also trying to avoid the devastating effects of a windflare.
As I ventured into this new story, the game's first few hours were definitely intriguing. The feeling of peacefulness is strange, yet welcoming, and I was interested to see how the current COG government operated after the conflict with the Locust and Lambent. However, the topic didn’t develop that much throughout the game. Even with the snippets that I saw, it always felt like there were few details missing in the story, which was disappointing.
Just like the new COG, the mysterious abductions by The Swarm were also interesting. I wanted to see how The Coalition would deal with the eradication of the Locust and Lambent and focus on a new enemy. As I progressed through the story, I found the studio’s solution to be a bit lazy. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t add any specific details, but the identity of The Swarm, as well as its motives, lacked substance. It didn't seem as if much thought was putinto the story of the villains, which meant that there wasn’t enough motivation for me to fight them other than the fact that the game would end if I didn’t kill every foe in the way.
Nevertheless, The Coalition created the new environments to have a varied color scheme instead of a single shade of yellow or green like in past titles. The result is a beautiful mix of scenic sights and awesome destruction. You might be tempted to look around from time to time, but at some point, you’ll have to return to the fight.
Welcome Back To The Fight
If you’ve played any Gears of War title, you’ll be pleased to know that combat works exactly the same in the new game. However, there are some additions to the system, two of which have roots in the game's cover-based mechanics. The first is called a “Yank and Shank,” a move that lets you grab an enemy from cover and kill them with a melee attack. Another move lets you can vault over cover and kick your foe, leaving them vulnerable to another attack.
Compared to the usual exchange of gunfire or running up to an enemy and killing them with the chainsaw, it’s rare to use these moves in combat. I tried both moves a few times throughout the game, but it didn’t really add anything to the experience. It’s also worth noting that enemies can also perform the same moves to catch you off guard. Of course, you can counter the attack with a button press, but it’s difficult to see the enemy vault over until it’s too late. The best thing you can do is stay vigilant and shoot them from afar or flank them from another side.
The story campaign also includes a few portions of the new Horde Mode (more on that later). In specific parts of the story, you get access to the Fabricator, a device that can create turrets, barricades, and weapons. With the items you create, you’ll need to hold off waves of enemies in order to progress to the next area. It’s a brilliant idea as you only use the Fabricator three to four times throughout the story, so it’s not something that gets too repetitive. In fact, the appearance of the Fabricator usually signals some of the game’s most intense battles. You can set a kill zone with turrets and barriers, but you also need to protect the flanks and open areas to stay alive until the next wave.
Other than that, most of the combat mechanics are identical to past Gears of War games, which in this case is fortunate. Every enemy encounter is exciting and intense, and the enemy AI seems smarter, whether it’s the Swarm or the mechanical "Deebees" robots that act as the COG's military force. They will find ways to flank or flush you out of cover so don’t get comfortable in one place for too long.
The new game also comes with a new version of the popular Horde mode. With the Fabricator, you and your teammates must choose a suitable spot to set up defenses. With every wave, your team kills enemies and gathers energy points to repair defenses, buy more turrets and barricades, and resurrect allies.
Before the match starts, you have to choose from one of five classes: Soldier, Scout, Sniper, Heavy, and Engineer. Each one has unique abilities or bonuses. For example, the Engineer is the only class that can repair defenses, and the Scout gains bonus points for the Fabricator if it collects the energy points on the field. It’s a wise idea to have all five classes in a match, especially during the harder waves.
For the first few rounds, it’s important just to gather energy points as it takes some time to accrue enough energy to buy defensive units. However, some rounds have bonus objectives that will reward you with extra points. In the midst of all of the gunfire and excitement, it sometimes hard to pay attention to these objectives when you just want to clear the level. Still, it’s another way for teams to work together and get enough points to survive the next round.
If that wasn’t difficult enough, every tenth wave includes a strong boss. These are the rounds that will test a team’s defenses, but it’s also the most exhilarating part of Horde. With every boss fight, it feels like your team is pushed to a corner, but with enough turrets and barricades that slow down foes, you can mount a strong offensive to survive.
Welcome Back, Gears
For the most part, Gears of War 4 is a satisfying addition to the franchise. It has all of the traits that made its predecessors great, and The Coalition tried its hand with by adding some new elements. The combination of nature with old structures provides for some breathtaking views while combat is still thrilling and fierce. To round it all off, the always-popular Horde mode returns with some upgrades to the delight of fans eager to prove themselves against 50 waves of tough enemies.
However, some of the additions don’t fit in the grand scheme of things such as the new combat moves. Maybe it’s best to leave them out entirely or find new ways to incorporate them into future titles. The story could also use more work because it left something to be desired. It was difficult to feel any emotion for the new characters and even more difficult to be invested in the story.
Still, the addition of J.D., Kait and Del are a sign that the times are changing. The spotlight on Marcus’ story is fading, and it’s time for a new generation to continue the story. In a way, that reflects on The Coalition as first-time developers for a new Gears title: Some things will need improvement, but overall, Gears of War 4 delivers on what fans loved about the series since it first came out.