Review: Gears of War 4 is the best exclusive on Xbox One so far
The Coalition has unveiled their first explosive offering to the world: Gears of War 4.
Gears of War 4 takes place 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, kick-starting an all-new saga. However, the game represents much, much more than that.
Microsoft purchased the Gears of War IP from Epic Games back in 2014, as the Unreal Engine developer began winding down its AAA game development ambitions. Microsoft repurposed the Vancouver-based Black Tusk Studios to oversee the franchise. Many developers from the original Gears of War team, including executive producer Rod Fergusson, jumped ship to join the new studio.
Black Tusk was renamed The Coalition to honor its stewardship of the Gears of War franchise. Much like Halo's 343 Industries and Forza's Turn 10, The Coalition is the third pillar in Microsoft's blockbuster Xbox-exclusive effort. The news was hugely exciting, but questions remained.
Can the Gears formula still work in 2016? Can The Coalition bring the same magic to the franchise under Microsoft Studios? Can Gears of War compete with the likes of Battlefield 1, Call of Duty, Titanfall 2, and various other heavy-hitting AAA shooters this holiday season? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding yes.
The Gears Awaken
Story & Setting
Gears of War 4 follows the exploits of JD Fenix, the son of the original trilogy's main protagonist — Marcus Fenix. Throughout the campaign, JD is joined by his childhood friend, Delmont Walker.
Both JD and Delmont (Del for short) deserted the COG during a "classified" incident, leading them to join a band of Outsiders, who exist outside of the COG's jurisdiction. Kait Diaz, the daughter of the village's leader, joins you early on to raid an uninhabited COG settlement for supplies.
The new characters are likable and sport good chemistry as a trio, each with distinctive, but complementary personalities. 'Family' continues to be a strong theme Gears of War 4, with both JD and Kait prepared to risk everything when their parents get into trouble. Much of the game focuses on the rescue of Kait's mother from a new, but eerily familiar enemy, The Swarm.
One quote from The Coalition that stuck with me was this idea that the studio would have to "betray" fans to show them something new and evolve the franchise, and certainly, that's how Gears of War 4 feels in the earlier levels. The genocidal Locust have been destroyed, humanity has begun to rebuild, and the global military urgency of previous games simply isn't there.
As Kait, Del and JD battle through waves of DeeBee robots in hopes of stealing an uninhabited, 3D-printed city's Fabricator, the new leader of The Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) appears via video, accusing the Outsiders of attacking COG soldiers. It's not long before you find out the real source of the attacks.
I won't be posting any spoilers for Gears of War 4, suffice to say that its one of the most intriguing games in the trilogy so far. The early stages really slam home the idea of this much, much wider universe, while reminding us of the totalitarian nature of the COG, which has often taken a backseat in the story.
The game kicks off with a flashback to the Pendulum Wars which established the COG's global dominance, and then towards the end of Gears of War 3, where Delta Squad were able to destroy the Locust with a massive, targeted radiation weapon. It moves you through the new world, 25 years later, showing how humanity is attempting to rebuild in the wake of the billions slaughtered by the Locust invasion of the previous saga. We're introduced to new creatures, beautiful, bright and colorful alien landscapes, and new characters, like the instantly lovable Oscar.
These early levels lull you into a false sense of security. As you progress through Gears of War 4, it gets gradually darker. Incrementally more industrial, desperate and horrifying. You'll traverse abandoned facilities, underground tunnels, destroyed cities, and the as the Swarm evolves, you begin to feel that fist-clenching life-threatening urgency that really typifies Gears of War.
I can't help but compare Gears of War 4's delivery to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Formulaically, Gears of War 4 does little new. But what it does do is build on the wonderfully cinematic recipe of its predecessors while delivering something that not only re-establishes itself as one of the industry's greatest franchises but it also acts as a signal to let fans know the series is in good hands.
You will be agape with the implications laid bare by this new threat, you will enjoy the way the game hints at a larger, more diverse Gears of War universe, and you will be enraptured by the return of old friends, and the light-hearted camaraderie that typifies Gears games. You will adore the way the game subtly references scenes from previous games. You will be driven mad by the twists and turns in the introduction to this new saga, and by the time the game comes to its shocking conclusion, you will be beside yourself in the knowledge Gears of War 6 is probably a long, long way off.
Gears of War 4's story is perfectly paced, utterly engrossing and above all, it is indeed Gears of War.
Visual & Sound Design
It's strange to think that, despite being a launch title, I still consider RYSE: Son of Rome to be the benchmark for visual greatness on Xbox One. While the Forza games have gone to great lengths to prove the graphical chops of the Xbox One, racing games rarely have the pressure of capturing human emotions, which gives games an entirely new dimension.
Make no mistake, Gears of War 4 is among the most visually stunning titles not only on Xbox One but of this generation in general.
Gears of War 4's characters are lovingly rendered, inching away at the gap between video game and true photo realism. While Gears of War human designs historically feature blocky, almost comic-book style proportioning, Gears of War 4 edges towards something a little more realistic. Del, JD, and Kait are beautifully crafted, and returning characters like Marcus Fenix retain their signature look, albeit weathered by age.
Gears of War 3 is one of the most visually impressive Xbox 360 games out there, and Gears of War 4 continues that tradition with some utterly incredible particle effects, breath-taking weather sequences, and mind-blowing lighting.
Not only are the basic visual features great, but Gears of War 4's art direction is also on point. New gore physics and designs make weapons feel more impactful than ever, weapons like the iconic Lancer received more thunderous sound effects (to the point of vibrating my earphones with bass boost turned on), and some of the new creatures and environmental hazards are as terrifying as they are awe-inspiring.
The Mad Max-esque windflare storm sequences make up some of the game's most visually impressive moments. They send cascades of debris flying in all directions, painted with real-time lighting from arcing electrical strikes. Everything caught in a windflare is affected by the storm's wind physics, including the bloody chunks of Swarm drone destroyed by the game's arsenal of deadly weapons. All too often have I simply stopped playing to stare at the spectacle unfolding on my screen.
As described by our own Daniel Rubino, the Xbox One S's HDR features send the title's visuals into overdrive with boosted contrasts, revealing details otherwise hidden. Deeper shadows and brighter lights give Gears of War 4 a vivid, almost life-like realism, that combined with dynamic 1080p resolution scaling helps to elevate it beyond the benchmark set by Crytek's triumphant RYSE: Son of Rome.
There isn't a single dropped frame, even the slightest bit of screen-tearing or vaguest hint of slow-down in Gears of War 4. It's one of the most polished launch titles of recent memory, never crashing. Using dynamic scaling and 30 FPS works well for the game's campaign. The resolution visibly reduces during some of the game's most intense sequences, but you'll be too busy shredding drones with your chainsaw to notice.
Gears of War 4 also uses a technique similar to Quantum Break for its anti-aliasing, making the edges of models appear blurry in motion. I'm not a huge fan of this particular technology, but it's a subjective gripe. It does, however, remind us that the upper limits of what's possible with the Xbox One's hardware have likely been reached, but it's fair to assume Gears of War 4 will be among the first titles to enjoy boosted visuals on next year's monstrous Xbox Scorpio.
From the crimson entrails of a splattered Swarm to the delicate trails of rain sweeping down JD's armor - Gears of War 4 is a visual feast that is as satisfying as it is gruesomely delicious.
Home is where the meat is
Gears of War's gameplay has a unique style that many tried to emulate in the Xbox 360 era, but it hasn't been seen much on Xbox One. Set in the third-person, Gears of War 4 is a highly cover-based shooter known for its gory combat, signature, heavy feel and cinematic showcases. Gears of War 4 doesn't attempt to redefine, or even evolve that formula, but it does refine it, giving it a glistening finish.
Split into three pillars, Gears of War 4 contains a huge amount of content. The campaign mode lasts a good 10-15 hours depending on the difficulty you choose, but Versus and Horde mode pack potentially dozens, maybe hundreds of hours of potential gameplay. And if Gears of War 4 is anything like Halo 5, it's fair to expect a good amount of post-launch content to keep those multiplayer modes fresh long into the future.
When it comes to basic Gears of War 4 combat, very little has changed. It's still a cover shooter — but the mechanics governing cover systems have been given a much-needed injection of fluidity. I can't remember a time throughout any of the game's modes where I unintuitively snapped into unwanted cover, which is something I recall experiencing with previous titles. The gun play still has that signature, Gears of War heavy feel, but everything handles a fair bit faster. You'll still struggle while dragging a Mulcher across the battlefield, but general movement feels nowhere near as lethargic as it could in previous entries.
Speaking of the Mulcher, Gears of War 4 comes with an array of brand new weapons and combat features that keep the classic formula from feeling stale. You can now vault over cover by holding the 'B' button as you roadie run into it, stunning an enemy on the other side. While stunned, enemies are vulnerable to an execution attack, which is delightfully satisfying to pull off. Similarly, you can grab an enemy out of cover if they have taken up an opposite position, resulting in the same execution stunned state. Of course, this also means that your enemies can utilize these attacks against you. Thankfully, The Coalition had the forethought to include a counter move, which prevents the new techniques from feeling cheap.
Some of the new weapons include the cover-evading Dropshot, which sends a flying drill across the battlefield. Releasing the trigger causes the drill to burrow directly downwards, generating an explosion. Headshots with this thing are sickeningly satisfying, watching the drill bore into the cranium of your enemies ahead of an ensuing, gore-splattered explosion. The Dropshot sounds overpowered, as it can fly above cover, but it can be tough to use. Combining its skill requirement with a 4-round clip ensures the Dropshot remains balanced.
Another repurposed engineering weapon is the Buzzkill, which almost feels like an homage to Unreal Tournament's Ripsaw. The Buzzkill is a heavy weapon that sends deadly buzz saws spinning and ricocheting across the battlefield, dissecting enemies like a hot knife through crimson butter.
Like previous games, satisfaction typifies Gears of War 4's combat. Every aspect of it is designed to feel impactful, as though you're the star of your own violent action movie. Some of the other new weapons include the Mulcher-like Tri-shot, some ancient UIR weapons like the Markza rifle, and new robotic DeeBee weapons like the submachine gun Enforcer and blisteringly powerful Rocket Salvo.
Speaking of which, the first stages of the campaign will see you face off against an army of COG DeeBee robots. These deadly, but dumb automatons feel little more like canon fodder a lot of the time, but their accompanying heavies, swarming roller ball Trackers and cover-evading Guardians can make the DeeBees overwhelming without aggressive resistance. It's not long until you'll meet Gears of War 4's headline threat, though, the all-new (but familiar) Swarm.
The real nature of the Swarm is unraveled throughout the game's campaign, but in combat, they feature similar archetypes to that of the Locust Horde from previous games. The Wretch-like Juvies bounce off walls and dodge melee attacks at will. Complacency can be deadly. Drones are the more intelligent, cover-using Swarm, and their AI has been given a punishing make-over. They're often more aggressive than the Locust foot soldiers, happy to rush down with shotguns and get into close quarters combat, making use of the game's new cover-vaulting stun abilities.
Beyond standard enemies, the Swarm also have a deadly menagerie of new enemies like the vicious, cover-ignoring Pouncers, and the horrifying player-swallowing Snatchers. Each new enemy requires tactics fresh to the Gears of War franchise, which stops the game from feeling like a rehash with a new coat of 1080p paint.
There are plenty of epic set-pieces and boss fights scattered throughout Gears of War 4's campaign, but I don't want to spoil the fun. Still, these things are standard to Gears of War, but the fourth entry's new windflare mechanics give set-pieces an all-new meaning.
For reasons unknown, enormous electrical storms now rage across Sera's surface, ripping the environment apart with gale force winds and gigantic lightning strikes. As you traverse to the campaign's mission objective, JD Fenix and his crew are often caught up in these deadly meteorological death-traps, but you can use them to your advantage.
Most windflare sequences allow you to use the environment itself to vanquish your enemies. The wind affects the physics of most guns, warping the trajectory of projectiles. You can dislodge debris by shooting at them, sending massive battering rams sweeping across the battlefield to crush your enemies. The results of a well-placed shot in these scenarios are always incredibly rewarding, adding a new dimension to the Gears formula.
The fun continues in Gears of War 4's online modes, including the 60 FPS versus modes and the addictive 5-man Horde mode. I haven't been able to try too much Versus mode as of yet, due to the small amount of players with the game so far, but I'm hoping the game's new skill-based matchmaking system will pair me with players at my experience level. Previous Gears of War titles have been notoriously difficult to access for newer players, so these modern systems will hopefully go to some length to alleviate that issue.
I have, however, played a lot of Horde mode, which I'm happy to describe as the quintessential co-operative shooter experience on Xbox One. Horde 3.0 is class-based, giving players bonuses for committing to certain roles in battle. Snipers deal increased headshot damage and gain perks for spotting and so on, engineers take charge building and repairing fortifications, and heavies gain bonuses with explosives, heavy weapons and manual turrets.
Activities across Horde and Versus mode reward credits which can be spent on loot called Gear Packs, which contain tons of cosmetic items and skill cards for use in Horde mode. Duplicate cards can be destroyed and then put towards specific cards you're seeking, to reduce the randomness of the system. Upgrading your skill cards and leveling up your classes will be crucial if you eventually want to go through 50 ranks of Horde mode on insane difficulty, which, as the name implies, is a challenge best left to the thoroughly demented.
When you consider the 10-15 hour length of the campaign, the longevity of the online modes, the fact that Gears of War 4 also comes with Gears of War 1, 2, 3 and Judgement on backward compatibility, it's impossible to fault this game on value. It offers such a dizzying amount of raw, uncontaminated fun, making it such a pleasure to write about and recommend.
The torch has passed
As I was slugging through Gears of War 4's campaign, I'd planned to score the game 4 or 4.5 out of 5 for its polish, its visuals, and refined gameplay. It wasn't until I was playing Horde mode with Daniel Rubino and Zac Bowden and traversing the game's explosive, beautifully crafted later stages did I come to realize Gears of War 4 is a truly special, stand-out title deserving of a perfect score.
Gears of War 4 just feels great. It feels like the return of an old friend, and The Coalition masterfully weave that nostalgia into the game without smothering us in it exploitatively — which is something they very easily could have done. Gears of War 4's greatest moments can be found in between the lines. They're in the shadows of familiar silhouettes, in the tones of nostalgic sound effects, in every COG tag you find scattered around the battlefield, and every ridiculous, over-the-top set piece.
- Technical showcase for Xbox visuals
- Polished to glistening
- Satisfyingly gruesome combat
- Engrossing story
- Heaps of value
- Could have explored more new mechanics and features
I would have liked to have seen The Coalition take more liberties with the Gears formula perhaps. The game feels overly linear for a 2016 title, and I'm not sure what else The Coalition can do to keep the format fresh as we move into the inevitable Gears of War 6 and 7. Now that they have reintroduced Gears of War to the world and proven themselves as a capable studio, I'd hope that the next entry can go a little further to try out new things. But that's for another discussion, on another day.
Gears of War 4 is the greatest exclusive Xbox One has so far, and that's really saying something when you consider the likes of Forza Horizon 3, Halo 5 and Ori and the Blind Forest. The Coalition has solidified their guardianship of one of the greatest video game franchises of all time, and not only proven to the world that the IP is in good hands, but that Microsoft Studios isn't reliant on Halo to make its mark in the shooter space.
Whether you're a returning fan or a Gears of War newbie, do yourself a favor and pick up this stunning game as soon as you can.
Gears of War 4 launches on October 11th, 2016 for Xbox One and Windows 10 as a Play Anywhere title.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!