It’s been nearly 10 years since Gears of War changed the landscape for Epic Games, Microsoft and the Xbox 360. The franchise quickly became a cornerstone of the the Xbox family, and with it came endless hours devoted to multiplayer, co-op campaigns, and more multiplayer. Franchises like Gears of War rarely go gentle into that good night, even when there are some sequel stumbles along the way. Three years into the Xbox One’s life a new Gears of War has arrived to inject some of that classic Microsoft attitude into the platform. Gears of War 4 rights the franchise’s course after the slow and steady decent into merely average sequels that began plaguing the series just a few years ago.
Though the Coalition of Ordered Governments’ war against the Locust only ended five years ago for us, it’s been 25 years for the denizens of Sera, the planet where all the Gears games take place. The government is celebrating the anniversary at the start of the game, but the focus soon shifts to a group of Outsiders — citizens fed up with the COG and living outside protected cities — trying to gather supplies to survive. Even with the Locust threat seemingly thwarted by Marcus Fenix more than two decades ago, things aren’t all that rosy for the COGs or the Outsiders. To help the surviving citizens of Sera, secured cities were built by the COG, with the core idea of defending the future from any possible threat.
The world-building in these cities, and across the game, is fantastic even in brief stints. There’s a lot of lore to soak in — a lot can happen to a whole planet in 25 years — but you have to be willing to dig for it. On the surface, you get glimpses at what’s transpired, but if you take the time to dig around for the intel items, or even just to wander around each area to observe the world as it is, you’ll find little narratives laid out before you. Gears of War 4‘s primary focus is on JD Fenix, his closest friends Kait and Del, and living up to the legacy of his father, Marcus Fenix. But the Coalition has been busy advancing time, and crafting a very different Sera than the one we left. Learning more about it is half of the fun of Gears of War 4‘s campaign.
The other half of that fun concerns your quest to solve the great mystery plaguing the COG and Sera’s populace — where is everyone? Many of those COG cities are empty, which makes them ripe for the Outsiders to raid without much hassle, but also brings cause for concern. The COG believe the Outsiders responsible, but even this collective of free-living people faces the same challenge, only they don’t have the resources of the COG army to help them… until JD and his band rally together when forced into action. It’s then that they stumble across the familiar foes lurking in the darkness — the Locust.
A Gears of War game wouldn’t be very exciting if all you did was walk around though, so it’s a good thing that tried-and-true combat returns as gleefully goretastic as ever. It’s true Gears of War’s violence is a bit more than gratuitous, but the world is consistent with how grotesque dying can be across the board. You’re just as likely to end up being exploded into a million bloody bits as the enemies you’re fighting. There are times when it can begin to feel lie a bit much when the buckets of blood turn into dump trucks of bodily fluids, but you can’t say the Coalition hasn’t remained true to one of the original Gears’ most basic tenets.
You’ve also got those wonderfully placed waist-high walls and barriers cropping up all over the place. A lot has changed in the cover-based shooter since Gears of War refined the mold a decade ago. Still, Gears of War 4‘s gunplay and cover mechanics are just as tight and weighty as they ever were. There’s also a new trick for those pesky crouching Locust foes where you can leap over cover and kick them out from their hiding spots. If you time your Roadie Run right, you’ll vault right over the obstruction, flicking your enemy into a dazed position. You can then execute them with a new attack, or finish them off the old fashioned way — a chainsaw to the chest. Of course, the Locust have this nifty trick too, so you’ve got to be wary if you’re ducking more than shooting.
New weapons help shake up the familiar shoot and duck by adding elements like saw blades that ricochet all over the place, sniper rifles that fire a lethal electric shock if timed just right, and a short-range, one-directional drone strike. You can’t help but falling back into old habits when the Torque Bow and Longshot reappear in the campaign however, as those weapons are legend in the shooter genre, let alone in a Gears of War title. The satisfying pop and splurt you get for a favorable headshot with the Longshot is as satisfying as ever, and exploding someone from a long distance with a well-placed arrow will make you giddy with nostalgia. If this is your first time in the Gears world, you are in for a treat with all the weapons, but those legacy armaments still live up to all expectations.
Those expectations are also high for multiplayer, which brings back classic modes like Warzone, Execution, Team Deathmatch and more for the longtime players, but also adds three new modes in Dodgeball, Arms Race and Escalation. Dodgeball is a clever twist on Deathmatch, which allows dead players to respawn only after an opposing player is killed. The team advantages swap fast and furious, and things can get really wild when one player swings things back in the losing team’s favor with a well-timed kill streak.
Arms Race is Gears‘ spin on Call of Duty‘s Gun Game, where the first team to cycle through a set number of weapons wins the match. Everyone starts with a Boomshot and works their way down to the Boltok pistol by getting three team kills with each weapon. It’s one of the more intense multiplayer modes we’ve played, and action is frantic from start to finish. With weapons sometimes swapping mid-firefight, the dynamic of the battlefield can sway in an instant. What’s more, it gives you good reason to get better with each gun in the game. If you don’t, you get killed often. Arms Race is full of teachable moments.
Escalation is a bit more traditional in that it follows closely with the King of the Hill model, but injects it with new life by allowing certain players every round to alter the elite weapons and their locations on the map. At half-time, the capture points change, as do the weapon placing options, giving every single one of Gears 4‘s 10 launch maps twice the lifespan. At least as far as this mode is concerned. Communication is tantamount for this mode, so if you’re planning on teaming up with a bunch of random players, be prepared for the potential of heavy losses.
Horde is back again for its 3.0 iteration, and it smartly builds on the foundation put in place during the Xbox 360 era. You’ll team with up to four other friends to take on 50 waves of increasingly challenging enemies with boss waves sprinkled in for good measure. Now however there are five different classes to play as (Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Engineer, and Sniper), each with their own advantages, but all capable of more or less the same on the battlefield. Enemies also award you with Power currency which can be traded in at the Fabricator to build defenses in your area. Turrets, barricades, additional weapons and more can be built with the device and the Power you earn, but you’ve got to actually turn in the currency before you die if you hope to take advantage of it.
You can be resurrected of course, but that too costs Power, and it requires a teammate to gather your COG tag from the spot where you died. If you wandered off like a lone wolf, you just made things infinitely more difficult for your hopes of coming back, not to mention for your team’s potential success. You also might inadvertently screw your team out of a nice random bonus — or your own bonus based on Gears of War 4‘s new card system.
Where previous games in the series had you earning new skins and characters by leveling up, Gears 4 introduces a card system to offer these cosmetic upgrades. There are cards with varying rarity that equate to some gnarly skins for weapons and characters, but there are also more practical cards that offer more than slight customization options. Booster cards give you bonuses in XP and credit payouts (used to buy more packs) across competitive and Horde multiplayer, and you can add a bounty to your match for an even bigger payout if you can pull of living through 20 consecutive waves of Horde or leading your team in kills.
These cards also offer class-specific treats in Horde, where you can improve your version of these classes with better repair times, the ability to carry more ammo, or get more Power in return for specific kills. Where the competitive multiplayer arena is mostly self-serving with its cards, the Horde versions are damn useful in making it further than 20 waves. You don’t need them to be dominant in Horde mode, but with the Locust taking every advantage the game will give them, it helps to have a few of your own.
Gears of War 4 is a worthwhile successor that brings back all of the brutal combat, addictive multiplayer and waist-high walls you remember in a terrific return to form. The campaign leans on everything that worked in the first game, all while adding new flourishes to further make the world of Gears of War more compelling. The multiplayer is as enjoyable as ever, with the new modes keeping Gears online elements fresh, and more importantly, addictive. It’s undeniably good to be thumping around in COG armor again.