Gears of War is back in a big way, bringing along with it a few milestones. Gears of War 4 is the first new entry of the franchise to be developed by Rod Fergusson’s team at The Coalition and the first new entry developed for Xbox One. It is the first entry not starring the games original band of brothers. It is also the first Gears game that was not developed or involving Epic Games, and marks a long awaited turn to PC, as the first Gears of War was the last entry to reach mouse and keyboard.
Humanity on Sera is in a state of flux since the Locust where demolished in Gears of War 3. The Coalition of Ordered Governments has built large compounds around the world, where the bulk of humanity now resides under military rule. However, a number of the population have rejected this way of life and become known as Outsiders. They live entirely on their own and out in the wild, without any help from the COG. This is where Marcus’s son, JD (James) and his two companions come in Kait & Del.
Both JD and Del were previously members of the COG, now gone AWOL and residing with Kait’s group of Outsiders. They are in desperate need of a Fabricator, which only the COG currently have. Think of the Fabricator as one of Star Trek’s industrial replicators, able to synthesize objects out of matter (weapons, barriers, traps, and presumably any number of other things). JD, Del, and Kait have decided to raid a new COG compound that is currently under construction and steal a Fabricator of their own. Of course, things don’t quite go a planned (do they ever?) and thus, the events of Gears 4 begin to fall into place.
The militant government is now being ran by First Minister Jin, who is hell-bent on capturing JD and Del. Once she realizes they have stolen a Fabricator, she sends numerous troops after our new band of heroes. There are two new factions of enemies in Gears 4 the Swarm (more on them later) and the DeeBees. The DB’s are an army of robots who are under the control of the First Minister and the COG, coming in a variety of flavors. Shepherd’s are your standard Terminator-style unit, and pretty much the equivalent of foot soldiers of the Locust’s Drones. There is also a sniper variation, known as Deadeyes. In addition to the standard models, there are a few others that round out this robotic faction. DR1’s are an oversized version of the standard DeeBees (think of them as Boomers), Trackers are the new Tickers in robotic form, and Guardians are drone-like robots that fly around the map with gatling guns and a large shield.
Players will get a chance to defend Kait’s village from a horde of these robotic baddies with their stolen Fabricator near the beginning of the game. These Fabricator Defense levels actually happen a few times throughout the campaign in Gears 4, and serve as not only a cool way to change up the action, but also as a mini-intro to the new Horde mode. First Minister Jin sends three waves of DeeBees to attack the village, giving players a minute or so in-between waves to access the Fabricator and set up turrets or fortifications. Once Jin’s attack on the village is thwarted, players are introducted to the Swarm for the first time, as they attack after nightfall and kidnap Kait’s mother, Reyna.
The Swarm are essentially a lot like the Locust, with drones, snipers, grenadiers, and hunters. A smaller breed of the Swarm exists as well, which very much reminded me of the Wretches from the previous Gears entries. However, they are faster and much more nimble than the Wretches ever were. There are also larger Swarm enemies, known as Scions, which are much larger and carry heaven weapons such as the Boomshot, or new weapons like the Buzzkill and the Dropshot.
The Buzzkill is a heavy weapon that can be picked up without dropping other weapons, slowing the players movement and packing a ton of firepower. It essentially rapid-fires saw blades, which tear through enemies like butter and ricochet around the map. The Dropshot on the other hand, will replace your currently equipped weapon when picked up. It reminds me of the Digger weapon from Gears of War 3. Whereas the Digger would send a shot underground and come up from underneath an enemy to kill them, the Dropshot lives up to its name sending a shot that sails across the map and comes straight down onto enemies, creating a mist of gory goodness. There are a few other notable weapons that have been added to the Gears arsenal, which are robotic weapons like the Enforcer, Overkill, and Embar. The Enforcer is sub-machine gun that fires a barrage of bullets that are lethal at close range, but not accurate enough for long range combat. Overkill is a new shotgun, which fires two consecutively powerful shots when the trigger is pulled, and the Embar is pretty much the DeeBees version of a sniper rifle.
The level design in Gears 4’s campaign is absolutely stunning, with amazing backgrounds and intricate details poured into every inch of the game. I stopped multiple times to simply look around, out into the distance, and take in my surroundings. This campaign also marks a returns to the roots of Gears, and is much darker and grittier than the last few entries (most of the campaign takes place at night). There are some really cool missions thrown into the mix as well, which help to breakup the action. My favortie was a level were you actually drive a motorcycle in a high speed chase and shoot down an airplane crazy stuff! There is also a section where you ride cables to the top of a mineshaft, swinging past obstacles and shooting others out of the way. Taking control of giant mechs (Godzilla-sized robots) and blasting away at enemies while calling in airstrikes was a ton of fun as well. The story is just really well done, and I think long time Gearheads will be completely satisfied with the amount of fan service in Gears 4. Players will meet a number of familiar faces along the way, and the twist ending totally caught me by surprise.
On the multiplayer side of things, this is Gears at its core and Gears at its best. As a long time fan of Gears, I’m glad The Coalition didn’t try to reinvent the Gears formula or needlessly change things up for the sake of feeling new or different. There is a new Yank-and-Shank mechanic, where you can attempt to pull an enemy from behind cover and stab them in their face for a knife execution. It’s really cool, and I pulled it off a number of times in the campaign, but I don’t see it happening much in multiplayer. Mainly because when you see someone sliding into cover across from you, players will automatically assume a Yank-and-Shank is on the way, rolling out of cover before they can be pulled over. The Gnasher shotgun is still pretty much king in competitive multiplayer, but primary rifles like the Lancer, Retro Lancer, and Hammerburst are much better a mid-to-long range combat. Wall bouncing is still a thing as well.
For the modes Guardian is back! This has been my favorite multiplayer mode since Gears 2 and it is the mode I spend most of my time playing. One player on each team is randomly selected as the leader. Other players on each team attempt to defend their leader, while simultaneously taking out the enemy leader. As long as your leader is alive, you can respawn. Once a leader is dead, death is permanent, so defending your leader is key to victory. I will say that only one grenade can be planted now, and it takes forever to explode, so there’s pretty much no point in even planting it. Making it hard for leaders in Guardian to set up a perimeter and defend themselves, so I sincerely hope The Coalition fixes this and puts grenades back the way they should be.
Other modes include Dodgeball, King of the Hill, and Arms Race in addition to the usual Team Deathmatch, Warzone, and Execution modes. Dodgeball is like Warzone with a twist, as players can bring dead teammates back to life by killing a player on the opposing team. King of the Hill is as you would expect it to be, with capture points marked on the map for teams to hold as long as possible and rack up points. Arms Race is a new mode, and pretty fun as well. Teams all start off with the same weapon, say a Boomshot for instance. Once your team scores 3 kills with that weapon, it changes the team weapon to something new, like a Longshot sniper rifle. Team Deathmatch is essentially Warzone with respawns, while Execution requires players to get up close and personal to finish off their opponents. Lastly, Escalation feels like a faster take on King of the Hill. All of the modes are a blast to play, but Guardian is definitely my favorite.
Before each match, players can vote on what comes next in addition to activating a Bounty Card. These cards offer objectives, such as getting a certain number of kills, assists, or headshots. There a mode-specific bounties as well. Completing multiplayer matches in Gears 4 will net players with both credits and XP, while achieving your active bounty during the match will net bonus XP or credits. The credits earned from playing can then be spent in the store on card packs, which unlock new characters, weapon skins, bounty cards, and skill cards. Characters and weapon skins unlocked can be used in both multiplayer and Horde. Bounty cards can be earned for both, while skill cards are are specifically for Horde 3.0.
Which brings me to one of the big changes for Horde mode in Gears 4 classes. Before beginning a Horde match, players must choose a class, with Soldier, Sniper, Engineer, Heavy, or Scout. The Soldier is a jack of all trades, starting with the standard Lancer/Gnasher combo, and excels at dealing damage. The Sniper starts out with the Longshot and Markza Mk1 rifles, with skills that provide enhancements and bonus damage for long range kills. The Engineer is the backbone of a Horde team, in charge or building and repairing fortifications to keep enemies at bay. The Heavy is all about big weapons and big explosions, while gaining bonuses to turrets and heavy weapons. Lastly, the Scout is all about speed and moving around the map, gathering much needed power for the Fabricator and allowing the Engineer to build better defenses.
The class system really brings Horde to a whole new level with 3.0, requiring players to communicate even more and stay in sync to successfully fulfill their respective roles on the battlefield. Also, turrets and fortifications are no longer in predetermined spots on the map (as they were in Gears of War 3). Players now make new fortifications, turrets, decoys, and traps at the Fabricator and can set them down anywhere on the map they choose. Want to set up 4 turrets right next to each other? No problem. Want to put down 6 rows of spikes in that doorway? Go for it! The Fabricator, along with the new class system, ensures that players can constantly try new approaches to horde and see what works best for them.
In the end, Gears is Gears and that’s a great thing. After Judgment disappointing fans, Gears 4 has hit the sweet spot. Bringing the best of Gears 1-3, while returning the franchise to its roots and adding meaningful additions at the same time. Too often, developers try to change what fans love in attempts to keep a franchise from feeling stale, but Gears of War 4 is a prime example of why that line of thinking is trash. Don’t try to change things that make a game great, add fun and meaningful mechanics on top of what is already there to make it even better. Other than the thing about grenades taking too long to explode in multiplayer and only being able to tag one at a time, the only criticism I can think of is that co-op for campaign is limited to 2 players. They definitely need to up that to at least 3 players in the next entry. There are 3 main characters after all.
Gears of War 4 is definitely the best Gears yet, in every sense of the word. The campaign is epic, and one of my favorites (tied with Gears 3). Multiplayer is as good as it ever was, if not better (Guardian is back!), and Horde 3.0 is absolutely amazing with the new class system and upgradeable skills. Leveling up and unlocking the card packs will keep Gears fans coming back for a long time (probably until Gears 5). There is an almost infinite amount of replayability in Gears 4, and this is likely my Game of the Year. If you aren’t a fan of Gears, I doubt Gears 4 will do anything to change your mind. However, if you are a Gears fan (or you’ve never played before), then you need to play this as soon as possible. You’ll be glad you did. There is more that could be said, and I’d like to write it, but I’d rather go back to playing the game. The Coalition has crafted a masterpiece. I can’t wait to see what happens next!