Gears of War, like many major game franchises, has a rather interesting history. The brainchild of Cliff Blezinski, the game went through many iterations before becoming the celebrated series we know today. While the game took shape at Epic Games, Microsoft was coming to the realization that their upcoming Xbox 360 wasn’t going to have a new Halo game ready for another two years. Wanting to get the biggest head start against the competition as possible, they turned to Epic and an exclusive deal was born. The game was shown center stage during Microsoft’s E3 in 2006 and on November 7th that year, Gears of War launched. Despite being a new IP and developed with a budget of only $10 million, it became an instant success, selling over two million units before the end of the year. Gears of War 2 and 3 released in in 2008 and 2011 respectively and were even larger successes for Microsoft and Epic, making Gears of War one of the most critically acclaimed series in all of gaming. After the trilogy, Epic had many internal discussions of where to go with the series. In the end, it was decided that a fourth Gears of War game would be developed as a prequel with studio People Can Fly assisting with development. Gears of War Judgment was released in 2013 and while it still received general acclaim, it didn’t resonate with fans in the same way the trilogy had. After Judgment, Epic toyed with the idea of making Gears of War 4 but in the end decided to focus on other projects. The future of Gears of War was left in limbo for a brief period of time but fortunately, Microsoft had other plans.
In January of 2014, Microsoft announced they had acquired the rights to the Gears of War franchise. For fans with foresight and seeing the support a studio like 343i had gotten, this was incredibly exciting. The question of course was, how do they properly move Gears of War forward? Two key decisions led to me joyfully writing this review today. First, Microsoft offered Black Tusk Studios the option to focus solely on Gears of War moving forward. While they were working on an unnamed project for the Xbox One at the time, their focus would be diverted completely to the future of the franchise. Second, Microsoft was able to recruit Rod Fergusson to lead the studio. Rod served as the Executive Producer on the Gears series at Epic and over the years had become one of the key faces of the franchise. For fans, this felt like a match made in heaven. In June of 2015, the studio was renamed The Coalition and Gears of War 4 was shown to the public for the first time at E3.
The story and thus campaign for Gears of War 4 is a direct continuation of the trilogy. Upon first starting you are welcomed by a prologue that does an excellent job introducing the characters and key moments of the series to date. Briefly reliving events like Aspho Fields and Emergence Day is fun for old and new players alike while also introducing new players to the mechanics in the best way possible. Fast forward to twenty five years after the events on Sera, we then open with JD Fenix and Del Walker having deserted the COG. They are joined by JD’s girlfriend Kait Diaz and assisting an outsider colony lead by Kait’s mother Reyna. Kait’s uncle, Oscar, joins the group in raiding a nearby COG settlement for needed supplies. Very early, you are introduced to an entirely new cast of characters in Gears 4 and yet, it never felt forced nor disingenuous. For a franchise with such beloved characters that spanned four games over a decade, this is an achievement in itself. Additionally, the campaign structure feels familiar in the best way, with fluid controls, pop and shot combat, character banter, and gorgeous backdrops setting the tone immediately.
New enemies and thus new weaponry are introduced near immediately as well. While the Gnasher and Lancer always take center stage, and do so again here, there are several new weapons that round out the options for combat nicely. Facing the new “DeeBee” robotic soldiers, a new shotgun (the Overkill), SMG (the Enforcer), sniper (the Embar), and two new mounted weapons (the Tri-Gun and Salvo Rocket Launcher) are introduced. Two new civilian weapons are also added in the Buzzkill and Dropshot which add further variety. I found these additions especially pleasing as they fit into the world well and create new ways to engage in combat both in the campaign and other modes. The DeeBees are unlike any enemy faced in a Gears campaign to date but make for a welcome change as their presence, movement, and combat techniques are slightly different to the traditional Locust. Meanwhile, the Swarm feel far more familiar with battles taking on the ebb and flow veteran Gears fans will appreciate. New enemies like the pouncer, scion, and those introduced in boss battles mix it up while retaining the classic Gears feel.
Where the campaign really succeeds however, is in merging the old and the new. There are elements in the campaign that Gears veterans will instantly recognize and you can feel the presence of the original trilogy throughout different points of the game. From quiet survival horror esque moments, to large set pieces, and everything in between, you can tell the campaign was crafted by a team that understood why the trilogy was so revered. Marcus is now the grizzled old man among the group but retains the feeling completely that he is Marcus Fenix. The interactions between him and JD, and the group as a whole, are especially pleasing and the voice actors did a tremendous job bringing feeling and sincerity to them while simultaneously highlighting the gap in experience. At the same time, the campaign forges its own path with beautiful landscapes, well written character interaction, an engaging narrative, and several moments that will make you gasp in awe. In particular, the final act made me smile ear to ear while the ending had me wide eyed through the credits as I thought about the ramifications of the final scene. Truly my only qualm with the story would be the lack of a singular thrilling antagonist. While it feels as though one is being setup at multiple intervals, it never comes to fruition and thus I did end up wishing for a character in the vein of Raam to be the focus of my mission at times. That’s not to say the game lacks direction however, as I was engaged in the story the entire way through and The Coalition has done an admirable job in setting the stage for a new saga to come.
Art direction and sound design have been standouts for Gears since it was introduced and The Coalition has made sure Gears of War 4 is no exception. Utilizing Unreal Engine 4, the locales are varied greatly with gorgeous backdrops and spectacular lighting and particle effects. At times I felt as if I was viewing a gorgeous painting and I found myself pausing to take screenshots of the game frequently. It was said the goal of the original Gears of War was to present a “destroyed beauty” aesthetic on Sera and while Gears 4 doesn’t have the pleasure of introducing it for the first time, it continues on with that same theme successfully. Sound design is one of the aspects of a game I can be quite critical of but I’m pleased to report Gears 4 impresses in that realm as well. For veterans, many of the effects will be instantly recognizable. Hitting that perfect active reload, nailing a beautiful headshot, and clearing out an area of enemies are all followed by the sounds you know and love. But beyond the sounds of combat and character banter, I was thoroughly impressed with the environmental effects. Severe weather plays a role in the campaign and it was simply stunning how impactful it was in full surround sound. The crack of lighting, wind whipping around the environment, and debris crashing across the ground all felt as thought they were happening around me. I believe audio plays just as large a role in game immersion as graphics, if not more, and thankfully The Coalition did a wonderful job with both.
Horde mode is back and better than ever as well. First introduced in Gears of War 2 and credited with starting the co-op, tower defense style PVE experience among modern console shooters, Horde has a fanbase all its own. Horde saw iterative changes through Gears 2, 3, and Judgment, and borrows traits from all three for this outing. First and foremost, there are five classes to choose from in the Soldier, Heavy, Sniper, Scout, and Engineer. Each has a different set of starting weapons along with bonuses to unique abilities that can assist the team. Once players choose their class, they are then spawned on the map needing to place the fabricator wherever they feel is best. Think of the fabricator as a futuristic 3D printer as it will be where you spawn weapons, turrets, decoys, and other items to help the team. Once placed, the initial wave countdown begins and Horde takes on the shape players are familiar with. There are fifty total waves but as before, they are broken into groups of ten with each wave escalating in difficulty and culminating with a boss wave on the tenth. If your group is successful in completing the boss wave, you are then greeted with a summary screen of your ribbons, XP, and credits earned, before the next wave starts the cycle over again with an additional trait added to the enemies. For instance, after finishing wave ten, wave eleven begins with all enemies having double health.
Horde has been thoroughly enjoyable in the matches I’ve played and it’s clear to me the development team designed Horde with longevity in mind. Enemy variety is excellent with a random assortment of DeeBees and Swarm attacking at all times and changing every round. Additionally, there are random missions that will occur from time to time that can provide a bonus to the team should you complete them. For instance, your team may need to kill more than eight enemies with headshots in the next round. Should you complete the objective, your team will then be supplied with bonus weapons or ammunition. Coordination among your teammates and class makeup play an integral role to succeeding, as it should, and it’s obvious it will take experimentation to learn the most efficient courses of action. Classes are also able to be upgraded over time with further increases to the bonuses they provide while Horde based bounty cards add further incentive to your matches. And for those that enjoy the ribbons in Gears, a plethora of new ones are present to earn and collect through Horde and multiplayer.
Multiplayer was initially a very late addition to the original Gears of War, and yet despite being limited in scope it gained a very passionate fanbase. Over time, that fanbase grew with Gears of War 3 representing a very large community on Xbox Live and spoken of in the same vein as Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield. While the trilogy is remembered fondly, one of the reasons Gears of War Judgment didn’t resonate with fans well was the multiplayer design. Several significant changes were made to the core formula and for fans that had spent years adoring the franchise, it felt like a betrayal to what they knew and loved. Fortunately, The Coalition knew this well and it was apparent after a single match of the beta that Gears of War 4 was in the right hands.
According to The Coalition, Gears of War 3 was primarily the model for what Gears of War 4 should be at its core and it shows. Gnasher battles are alive and well while rifles and pistols still play an important role. Fortunately the sawed off shotgun, which I debated mentioning at all, is nowhere to be found thus leaving skilled movement and aiming to be the keys to victory in one on one battles. Map and power weapon control take priority and coordinated team play is needed to win consistently. It’s apparent the maps were designed with competitive play in mind as they are very well balanced with few spots acting as camping locations for teams. While I would have appreciated some more organic settings to contrast the industrial feeling of the majority of the maps, I can’t argue with the results and I’m sure The Coalition already has plans in place for more varied aesthetics in future maps. Most importantly, what we love about Gears with its gritty, visceral, almost heavy combat is alive and well. No game on Earth provides a more satisfying feeling when getting a perfect headshot and winning one on one Gnasher battles is as thrilling as it has ever been. Lastly, the new weaponry not only adds variety to encounters, but leaves you never feeling truly safe ; a trait representative of all excellent competitive shooters.
Esports is a core focus for the multiplayer development team and it shows. While an unranked “Social Quickplay” playlist is available with bot backfills and random mode selection, the majority of Gears 4 multiplayer is built for competitive play. Similar to what we saw with Halo 5’s Arena modes, the “Core” modes in Gears 4 are now ranked, five on five modes with no backfill and penalties for quitting early. The modes you know and love are largely represented with Team Deathmatch, Warzone, Guardian, and Execution all being present. Arms Race and Dodgeball are two new welcome additions as well, with Dodgeball in particular standing out as a very fun update to the classic one life per round modes. The only mode I truly hope makes a return in the near future is Wingman as it was always a fan favorite and I already miss it. A new mode built primarily for esports play, Escalation, is present as well. Escalation is an interesting mix of the domination style modes that have become popular in modern shooters with a few key differences. First, to win a team must win seven rounds. You can win by a normal timer but if your team ever holds all three rings at the same time, you win that round automatically. And second, the team that loses the round gets to place a power weapon on the map in set locations as they see fit. This allows teams to change strategies mid-match and makes for some very thrilling gameplay. My friends and I went to round thirteen of an Escalation match the other night and while we lost, it was a hugely thrilling experience. I definitely see Escalation creating many spectator worthy moments in the future.
Again, similar to what we saw with Halo 5, Gears 4 has taken the approach of offering all future DLC maps for free to all players. As I’ve said before, I greatly applaud this decision as it’s far better for the multiplayer community and will provide greater longevity to the game. The Coalition has announced that two maps will be released per month for the next year, totaling twenty four additional maps to be added for free in matchmaking. Progression is handled in the familiar way of earning XP through both Horde and multiplayer while each will also earn you credits that you can then use to open packs of cards containing skins, emblems, and bounties of varying rarity. As with several of the recent shooters, you are also able to purchase packs with real money should you choose, but it is not forced on you nor does it give anyone a competitive advantage.
All in all, I am simply thrilled with Gears of War 4. I have enjoyed every moment I’ve had with the game and as a long-time fan of the franchise, I am overjoyed to not only have it back but to have it back with this level of quality. Each of the three distinct modes of play are excellent and it’s now blindingly obvious that Microsoft made the right decisions in funding and personnel to bring this series back to the forefront. The merging of the old with new has rarely been done better and I’m anxious to see where the story heads next. While I greatly enjoyed the presence of an aged Marcus Fenix, the new cast of characters in JD, Del, and Kait are truly endearing and I feel they already have a cemented place in the franchise. Both Horde and multplayer are very well designed and I will be spending countless hours over the coming years playing them both with friends. It’s not often a AAA game with history this storied and scope this large is able to provide a thrilling experience across single player, PVE, and PVP. Gears of War 4 not only manages to do so but does so with very few faults. To Microsoft and The Coalition : bravo. And thank you.
Highly Recommended : The most complete Gears game to date containing something for nearly everyone.
Our review has also been posted on OpenCritic.com!