It’s a cliché, I know, but sometimes it’s true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But while that happens to be the case with the sci-fi third-person Gears Of War 4 (Xbox One, Ultimate Edition Xbox One, PC, Ultimate Edition PC), it’s actually the changes that make this otherwise familiar game feel refreshed and revitalized.
Picking up many years after the events of Gears Of War 3, which saw the annihilation of The Locust and The Lambent, Gears Of War 4 casts you as a former solider named J.D. who discovers that there’s a new enemy threatening the good people of the planet Sera.
In many regards, Gears Of War 4 feels like the previous games in this series. You still have to duck for cover, and fight enemies who do the same; you also battle foes who don’t understand the benefit of taking cover; you have a wide variety of weapons and explosives to deal with said enemies; most of these fights still happen in war-torn areas; and the whole thing is driven by an epic and often cinematic sci-fi story in which things often go awry.
But while Gears Of War 4 has you fighting new enemies in a new timeframe, even some of the newness is familiar. While you aren’t fighting Drones, Tickers, or Wretches this time around, you do battle enemies that act just like them. And with many of the same weapons you had in earlier games.
What makes Gears Of War 4 feel fresh, though, are all the little changes and additions they’ve made. Take the cover mechanics. While they work as they have before, you now have to be mindful of a cover object’s sturdiness, since some barricades are breakable under fire. It also pays to notice if an enemy has taken cover. As always, you can jump over cover and kick the opposing enemy in the face. But now you can do this while running to cover, sliding over the top like one of the Duke boys. Or, if you’re in cover already, you can reach over the top of a barricade, pull your enemy to your side, and stab them in the chin with a knife.
There are also new enemies to fight in Gears Of War 4. The Pouncer, for instance, shoots quills from its tail, and will not only jump on top of cover, but on top of you as well. Then there’s Snatchers, which are like big Pouncers, except that instead of jumping on you, they use tentacles to pull you into a stomach pouch, where you can do nothing but hope your teammate shoots the creature a bunch before it runs off with you inside.
Good thing Gears Of War 4 also has some interesting new weapons. Besides a two-for-one shotgun called The Overkill and a handheld railgun designated the EMBAR, there’s also the Buzzkill, which shoots circular saw blades in a very Dead Space-y way.
So, how do the different modes in Gears Of War 4 stack up? Well, as someone who’s partial to single-player, naturally, the campaign is the highlight for me. Here, all the new elements work well together, though not always how you’d expect. For instance, when the game begins, you’re not fighting creatures in someone’s bombed out house, you’re invading a clean, ’50s-looking city under construction that’s being guarded by robots. As a result, the first couple missions feel like BioShock Infinite crossed with a Terminator movie.
What also changes the campaign in Gears Of War 4 is the weather. Sera now suffers from the same kind of windy electrical storms as Australia did in Mad Max: Fury Road. But while they can be a hindrance, since they leave painful electrical fields in their wake, they can also be used to your advantage, like when you shoot out some wooden slats holding some large pipes in place, and the wind sends the pipes rolling over your enemies and the machine gun they were using to shoot you.
As good as the campaign in Gears Of War 4 may be, however, it does have one kind of SPOILERY issue. While the story creates interesting scenarios for the game’s gunfights, and leaves some intriguing foreshadowing in its wake, it also comes to a rather abrupt and unsatisfying end, and feels more like the first part of a large story than a story until itself.
Even so, Gears Of War 4 is still worth playing for the campaign alone. It’s so effortlessly fun that you’ll want to play it multiple times. Including, I suspect, when this game’s story concludes in Gears Of War 6 or whatever.
While the campaign may be my personal highlight of Gears Of War 4, the Gears Of War games have always had compelling and addictive multiplayer that puts them on par with the Halo series and the post-Modern Warfare installments of Call Of Duty. And Gears Of War 4 continues this tradition. But it also continues this installment’s tradition of augmenting its previous mechanics with new variations.
For starters, competitive multiplayer in Gears Of War 4 not only features such familiar modes as “King Of The Hill,” “Warzone,” and “Team Deathmatch” — all of which work as well here as they have in previous games — but this also has some fun new ones as well. Besides a slightly different version of the “Masters At Arms” mode from Gears Of War Judgment, here called “Arms Race,” this also has a fun variation on “Team Deathmatch” called “Dodgeball,” in which killing an enemy brings a dead teammate back to life. Then there’s “Escalation,” a best of thirteen rounds game in which you earn points by capturing three spots on a map to earn points, and the team that lost a round places a special weapon anywhere on the map they want.
As with the campaign, the new weapons, mechanics, and modes make competitive multiplayer in Gears Of War 4 feel like it always has but slightly different. And like the campaign, it too has some issues. Though it’s a small one. First, because of its weapons, “Arms Race” feels almost too frantic at times. Also, the mode “Co-op TDM (Hardcore AI),” in which you and your friends taking on enemies who are set to the “Hardcore” difficult level, feels more like a training exercise than something you’d play for fun.
But then, “Co-op TDM (Hardcore AI)” also seems like a waste of time. If you want to play a co-op multiplayer mode where your main objective is to kill everything that moves, you might as well just play the designated co-op mode, “H.O.R.D.E.” Especially since the augmentations they’ve added to it for Gears Of War 4 are rather engaging.
For starters, dead enemies drop energy, which you need to pick up before the next round begins. That energy is used in a device called The Fabricator, which you use to build fortifications, turrets, and other accoutrements. You can even move The Fabricator wherever you want, or duck behind it for cover if need be.
Next, “H.O.R.D.E.” in Gears Of War 4 now has five character classes, each of whom have their own specific skills and starting weapons. For example, the Engineer can fix fortifications faster and cheaper, while the Scout has X-ray vision and gets twice the energy from fallen enemies. Thankfully, you can use whatever weapon you want, if you can find one.
All of these additions make “H.O.R.D.E.” in Gears Of War 4 deeper and more involved. But what really changes things up is that you now face enemies who can jump or fly over your barriers or fortifications, which makes this mode more frantic than it’s ever been before.
While “H.O.R.D.E.” doesn’t have any issues like the ones I mentioned for competitive multiplayer or the campaign, Gears Of War 4 does have one irritation that afflicts the entire game. While this has multiple options when it comes to the button configurations, none let you quickly toss grenades like you could in the previous game, Gears Of War: Judgment, which let you fling grenades by hitting the right bumper, and then instantly switched you back to your equipped gun. Instead, like the numbered installments, you have to switch to grenades on the D-pad, aim with the left trigger, throw with the right, and then go back to the D-pad to re-equip your gun. As a result, using grenades in Gears Of War 4 is annoying, sometimes prohibitively so. Which, admittedly, may be familiar, but it’s something that really needs to change.
Even with this irritation and the others, however, Gears Of War 4, taken as a whole, is an impressive fifth chapter in this epic sci-fi shooter series. While the compelling campaign furthers the saga in some really intriguing ways, and the competitive multiplayer modes and “H.O.R.D.E.” provide an addictive and ongoing challenge, it’s the new additions to the intact core mechanics across the board that make this one of the year’s best shooters. Which, as anyone who’s played a Gears Of War game before will tell you, is basically more of the same.