Gears of War 4 is all about cocoons. There is a short monologue at the beginning of the game, where one of the characters describes her fascination with the transformative process that a caterpillar goes through during the cocooning process: “If it survives, and most don’t, it finds a way to change. The little larva becomes a chrysalis. Inside, it destroys and rebuilds itself, changing its color, its shape. It gets wings, claws. It slashes its way out of its cage… and then it’s new, and beautiful.” The last original Gears of War game came out on the Xbox 360, and since then The Coalition has taken the series, and put it through a proper cocooning process of its own, and the result is one of the best shooters I have ever played, third-person or otherwise.
Gears of War 4 begins 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, on the planet of Sera, which has spent the last couple of decades recovering from prolonged war, and near annihilation… so a lot has changed. The COG has transitioned from being a military outfit to something that looks more like a massive corporation, with the primary goal of preserving, and restoring humanity to its former strength. Nature has reclaimed most of Sera, since humanity no longer has the numbers to occupy most of the planet. Massive storms dubbed “windflares” regularly sweep across Sera’s surface, due to the damage done to its atmosphere through the use of Imulsion (a fictional resource from the original trilogy) at the end of the Emergence War. The place we knew in previous Gears of War games is looking decidedly more optimistic than we’ve seen in in the past, but is also worse for the wear in a way we’ve never seen before.
With a dwindling population, scarce usable shelter, and the loss of Imulsion, the people have had to find solutions to half a dozen dire problems, and this has brought about the rise of industry. Construction materials litter the streets, roads are in the midst of being re-paved, and the frames of new houses/settlements are being erected before the player’s eyes — even some of the new weapons in Gears of War 4 are simply repurposed construction tools. Robots have been constructed in great numbers to automate the rebuilding process, so that people can focus on improving the state of their domestic affairs, especially in regards to repopulation. Sera has the look and feel of a land struggling with reconstruction, and working to put its bloody past behind it.
At the center of Gears of War 4’s story is James Dominic Fenix, or JD, the son of the original Gears of War trilogy’s protagonist, Marcus Fenix. JD isn’t the same type of unpolished, gruff meathead as his pops, but he’s his father’s son when it comes to his grit, sense of duty, and ability to kick total ass. Alongside JD, we have Kait, a badass ladybro, and my personal favorite, Del, the hilarious egghead of the group. As Outcasts from the COG, they set forth to investigate a series of mysterious disappearances, after one of their own is taken by an alien foe.
I like to think of the Gears of War series as the Fast and Furious of video games in that it’s over-the-top, totally bro, and packed with 500% of your recommended daily dose of action, but despite all that Gears manages to also present a compelling narrative that’s largely about family. Gears of War 4 is a continuation of this tradition, but is now better-presented, and more satisfying than it’s ever been in the series. The cutscenes are personal,engaging, and more numerous than they’ve been in previous entries, to the game’s utmost benefit. I won’t go into spoilers here, except to say that the intro for Gears of War 4 is quite possibly the most engaging, succinct, and effective summary of the series so far that I’ve ever seen in a game (which also cleverly serves as the game’s tutorial).
While many of the former Gears cast could be easily summarized by a handful of catchphrases and one-liners, the new cast is (for the most part) more nuanced, relatable, and interesting, while still being every bit the badass. That said, Gears of War 4 certainly doesn’t forget about its beloved characters from earlier games, and does a good job of including them here-and-there in effective ways. Somehow, old man Marcus Fenix feels perfectly at home as an honored citizen — in fact, his crankiness and stubbornness seem more fitting now. I never thought that I needed to hear Marcus Fenix shouting expletives at his enemies for shooting up his tomato garden, but as it turns out, I needed that in my life.
The only issue that I have with Gears of War 4’s narrative is that it ends too soon, and by that I mean right in the middle. The Coalition has stated that Gears 4 is the first part of a planned trilogy, but even so, the narrative’s end is abrupt, and unpolished. Having said that, the final level itself is an epic, worthy climax to the game as a whole; I just wish that we would have gotten a better wrap-up to the story before the credits rolled.
The Gears of War series has been mostly known for its gory, tight, incredibly fun combat, and Gears of War 4 brings the tried-and-true formula to new heights. The primary improvement is that combat feels more intimate than it ever has. For example, one of the longest-running issues with Gears’ combat is that you’d often get into an awkward situation where you and your opponent were a foot away from one another, using the opposite side of the same slim piece of cover as protection. In previous entries, the only solution was to try firing at an awkward angle at the enemy, or simply go around. In Gears of War 4, you can now reach over the cover, and grab the enemy, and follow up with an execution. Alternatively, you can leap right over cover and kick the enemy on the other side, then finish them off. The players on the receiving end of these new maneuvers can also counter these attacks, and turn the tables on an overly-aggressive opponent.
There are also various other minor improvements to gameplay that go a long way to making Gears of War feel more modern and intuitive than ever before. One of my favorite minor features is a small clicking sound that you hear when your automatic weapons are nearing empty, which helps remind you that you’re running low, and prepares you to participate in the game’s signature active reload minigame. It’s a tiny detail, that becomes majorly useful as you go, and makes you wonder why more games don’t have a feature like this.
Gears of War 4 also involves the world itself into combat more than any previous entry. Windflares, for example, are common throughout the campaign, and affect everything you do, from causing your own grenades to fly back in your face with a gust of wind, to making cover you’re hiding behind get blasted away with a strike of lightning. You can also do things like shoot at a barricade that’s holding large pieces of metal, and watch the storm blow them into your enemies, and turn them into a fine red mist. These sections easily make up some of the best in the campaign.
One of the biggest improvements Gears of War 4 offers to the series is its growing sandbox, which is now bigger than ever due to the added enemy-types in this entry. You spend most of the game fighting the Swarm, a mysterious new enemy with various types of monsters in its ranks. “Juvies” run at you, and climb over cover and bounce off of walls at an incredible speed; “Pouncers” jump on you and eat your face; “Snatchers” grab your allies and haul them off; and “Scions” buff their evil friends and do incredible damage. And the crazy part is that this is just one faction. Throughout the game, you’ll face a new faction of robots that attack you with an equal variety of enemy ranks to throw at you — there are even some surprise appearances of a couple other factions that I won’t spoil here. Gears of War 4’s library of terrors is dense, varied, and keeps things interesting from beginning to end.
The Gears of War franchise is perhaps best known for its PvP multiplayer, and The Coalition has pulled zero punches in making Gears of War 4 the most comprehensive Gears multiplayer experience yet. Gears of War 4 has eight unique game modes, ten multiplayer maps, social playlists, competitive playlists, and can be played on dedicated servers, LAN, via split-screen, or crossplay between PC and Xbox players. Gears of War 4 is a game that lets you play however the hell you want to, which is so refreshing to see in an era where our freedom in this regard seems to be narrowing with the elimination of things like LAN support, and split-screen support.
Gears of War 4 has a lot of returning PvP game modes that fans would expect, like Team Deathmatch, as well as a lot of new game types, like Dodgeball, or Arms Race. In Dodgeball, players don’t respawn after dying, unless a teammate manages to kill an opposing player, which then earns a teammate back. This gametype is particularly excellent in how polished and balanced it feels. As the last surviving player against a full opposing team of five players, you can get one lucky kill that summons a buddy back to the field, and completely turns the tables on the enemy. At any point in the game, it’s anyone’s game, as comebacks are frequent and rewarding, as any good game of dodgeball should be.
Arms Race is a 5v5 game mode that asks players to get at least three kills with nearly every weapon in the game. Everyone starts out with the same weapon, and when your team gets three kills with that weapon, that entire team’s weapon is replaced with the next one on the list. The goal is to cycle through the complete list of weapons before the opposing team manages to finish it. This game mode is just full-on bananas, and you should definitely play it.
Horde mode also makes its triumphant return in Gears of War 4. Similar to previous entries, Horde requires a team of up to five players to survive 50 rounds of grueling assault from enemies of all kinds. You get to choose between five different playable classes, each with a unique role, and need to build defenses, like turrets and barricades, if you hope to survive all 50 waves. Horde Mode works across all ten multiplayer maps, and can be played in private groups, or via matchmaking. Overall, horde mode is tense, full of interesting enemies/bosses, and more challenging than it has ever been.
Gears of War 4 also has the most stunning presentation we’ve seen in any Gears game. For the first time in the series, characters look more photorealistic than they do cartoonish, and the environment is alive with insane weather, deep darkness, and particle effects that are truly stunning. I had the pleasure of playing Gears of War 4 on PC and on the Xbox One S, both utilizing HDR, and the difference is incredible. The sound is also impressive, though more in line with what fans have come to expect. The soundtrack is diverse and exciting, and the sound design is top-notch — not much beats the signature cracking sound that accompanies a headshot.