Disclaimer: A copy of the game was provided by the Developer for the review.
Taking over the reins of a mega-franchise is always going to be a challenge. Some people take it in their stride, like J.J. Abrams who managed to remind us all why we love Star Wars. Other people find it a little tougher, like John Moore who managed to crash and burn the Die Hard franchise with the appalling ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’. Microsoft has already managed to successfully pass the torch of one of their superstar IPs, with ‘343 Industries’ taking over the Halo Franchise from its creators at Bungie. With Epic Games no longer interested in creating Gears of War titles, but Microsoft not prepared to give up such an obvious cash cow, they formed ‘The Coalition’ to take the series forward.
As Gears of War 3 tied up all the loose ends in the series, Rod Ferguson and his team at ‘The Coalition’ not only had to create a new story, but a new set of enemies and a new cast of characters. This substantial refresh of the franchise makes it a superb starting point for new gamers to join the series. Fans of the previous games aren’t left behind either though with well-known (some more than other) faces popping up throughout this latest entry. What we have here is a game that successfully respects the games that have come before it, while also creating new mythology, stories, and heroes.
This time around, your squad looks a lot less like the offensive line of an NFL team. In fact, keeping the American Football theme going, they look more like a couple of linebackers and a female pitch-side reporter. You play as James ‘JD’ Fenix, the son of Anya Stroud and Marcus Fenix (the main protagonist of the original games). His school friend Delmont ‘Del’ Walker, who enrolled in the COG militia alongside him, joins JD. After a classified incident, the two of them go AWOL and find refuge with the Outsiders. It is among the Outsiders that they befriend Kait Diaz, the daughter of Reyna Diaz who is leader of the Outsider village that JD and Del join. The trio share an obvious camaraderie, however apart from a few fleeting moments there’s not the same level of humour and sarcastic banter that Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird shared.
The adventure our trio go on is basically a search for Kait’s Mum and JD’s father. This journey will take them through various locations on Sera, and bring them up against a new array of enemies. The first set of foes you’ll come across are ‘Deebees’. These are robots that were created to help with construction work and later assigned to combat roles. They tend to come straight at you only stopping to strategically take cover. The other group of enemies that you’ll come across are The Swarm. This new foe has similar types to the Locust enemies you will have faced in the previous Gears of War games. They also have some particularly pesky bigger types though; including a couple that will try and pin you down or swallow you up, giving your teammates only a few moments to free you from their grips.
The other enemy you’ll come across is the weather, and that’s without there being any razorhail in the game. The weather you’ll face here are massive windstorms and lightening storms that would scare even Nikola Tesla. The windstorms require a little planning to survive, with a couple of things to keep in mind. The first thing that you have to beware of is flying debris, and we’re not talking about the odd empty crisp packet or carrier bag here. You will need to keep your eye out for giant metal pipes, burned-out old cars, and large rocks & boulders. To avoid getting a severe headache, you can either dodge out of the way or duck into cover. The other thing you have to bear in mind with the wind is how it will affect the weapon you’re using. If you’re thinking of throwing a grenade or using a torque bow, you might as well forget it. Your best options in these hurricane conditions are standard bullet based weapons. It is possible to use the chainsaw on the lancer, but if you do this, you are once again in danger of being greeted by a large fast moving object. Lightning storms work like a mini-game where you basically have to dodge a moving minefield of deadly pillars of electricity. These lightning sections often require a little trial and error to find a safe path to your next objective.
The weather effects don’t just add nice gameplay elements though; they get to show off the improved particle effects allowed by the game from its use of Unreal Engine 4. There is dust swirling around, as well as larger elements, in a flurry that gains realism through its depth of field. It’s not only the particles that look great, the whole game has a sheen of quality throughout its visuals. The character models look among the best that I have seen in a game, with faces moving convincingly and not feeling like an image stuck on to a marginally animated object. Though the game never quite manages the wow factor that the first Gears of War title elicited, it is easily among the best looking games on Xbox One.
Gears of War’s tried and tested linear gameplay of going along a corridor to a large area with lots of cover options and a swarm of enemies, is once again the core backbone of the game. ‘The Coalition’ have tried to spice the gameplay up with a few different set-pieces and a chapter or two which resemble the new Horde mode. These set-pieces are particular highlights with a motorbike section and an escape section in a lift shaft being some of the most exciting moments ever in a Gears of War title.
The often copied, but barely bettered, Horde mode is back and has undergone a few alterations. The basic premise is just the same as it ever was, but you now have to look after a fabricator unit that can also be used to create defences and supply weapons. When you kill an enemy, they drop power points that you need to collect and then take back to the fabricator. Power up the fabricator and you can buy blockades, sentry guns, turrets, and a whole host of weaponry. Collect even more power and you can upgrade the fabricator itself, which gives you access to more sturdy defences and better weapons. When you start each match, you also get to choose which class you will play as, Engineer, Heavy, Scout, Soldier, or Sniper. This adds a nice variation to your games and means that teamwork is more critical than ever.
Last year, ‘The Coalition’ showed us how they could use the power of the Xbox One with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. This year they have managed to push the power of the console, and also create their own gripping storylines to spur the series onward. Even as an ardent Gears of War fan, I can’t deny that a lot of the game is repetitive like the earlier games, but this only made the levels where you do something different that much more special. For the most part our new trio of heroes are welcome additions to the franchise. Their motives and actions are completely believable, and the mystery behind JD and Del’s military career just adds more depth to their characters. The new enemies work well too, though the origin of one of your foes was just a little too obvious (I figured it out from the gameplay footage released at E3 this year). It was also good to see that the final boss was not as cheap as General Raam was in the first game, or as unfair as General Karn was in Gears of War: Judgement. The updates to Horde mode make for a more strategic affair while still maintaining the heart in mouth moments we expect as you reach the end of a wave. This is all complimented by a decent selection of multiplayer modes that will no doubt keep the game an active part of most gamers libraries. Gears of War 4 is a great jumping in point for new gamers to the series, but will also please the numerous hardcore Gears fans out there.