After a five-year layoff, the chainsaw-ripping Gears of War series is making a return to the Xbox, with a little side trip to the PC thanks to Xbox Play Anywhere. The third-person cover-based shooter jumps forward a little further in the in-game world, taking place 25 years after the end of Gears of War 3, when Marcus Fenix and company put the Locust to bed. The new game follows a new generation, with Marcus’s son, J.D., taking center stage. But, old man Marcus has a part to play, in more ways than one — the spirit of the original Gears trilogy is alive in this one, even if the story falls a little flat compared to those older games. The game plays like the originals, with new additions augmenting the experience instead of changing it wholesale. Oh, and here’s some excellent news for PC gamers — for once, someone took the time to properly optimize a game for PC hardware.
Note: This review will only cover the single-player campaign. We’ll do a separate multiplayer review once the public servers have opened up. I played the game entirely on a Windows 10 PC.
In its time, Gears of War was one of the better examples of a third-person cover-based shooter — probably because of the gratuitous use of chainsaws attached to guns. Gears of War 4 doesn’t mess with a good thing — melee combat using gun butts and chainsaws are still a huge part of the gameplay. And, like before, you can’t just chainsaw everything in sight — some caution needs to be taken, or you’ll get shot up pretty quickly by enemy AI who, at the very least, do know how to use cover effectively. Like the previous games, Gears of War 4 encourages that gameplay balance by throwing a mix of melee, mid-range, and long-range enemies (snipers) at you, especially in the later stages of the game. My only gripe here is that there’s only one type of melee enemy, and it’s of the bottom-of-the-barrel sort. Then again, a lot of the mid-range enemies don’t mind mixing it up every so often.
The Gears cover mechanic was ridiculously polished in its day, and while Gears of War 4 has a new developer in The Coalition, it still feels familiar. You can take cover automatically by charging up to a wall or barrier, or vault over that barrier. And, like before, if you take cover opposite an enemy, you can yank him over and deliver some up-close punishment. It all works the same as it has in the previous games, and that’s meant as high praise.
The game is mostly split into corridor shooting, open-area set pieces, and the kind of tower defense sections introduced in Gears of War 3. In the tower defense sections, you’ll need to use a device to spawn turrets or barricades to stop or slow an onslaught of enemies as you try to hold a position. These tend to be the most difficult sections of the game. I played on hardcore difficulty (third hardest of four settings) and died most often on these defensive parts. I felt like the rest of the game probably wasn’t punishing enough for that difficulty setting, considering how reckless I was playing, but the top difficulty setting helped put that to rights.
Gears of War 4 also retains the active reload mechanic from the originals. When it’s time to reload, you’ll see a little bar under your ammo with a slider that will race across. Hit a button at the right time, and you’ll reload faster. It works really well in the context of Gears, where you’re quickly ducking in and out of cover. You’ll usually reload when you take cover rather than when you’re empty, so getting the hang of active reload means you can pop up and get some shots off faster. It complements the game in a really satisfying way.
You’ll spend most of the game fighting alongside two or three allies. To paraphrase Anchorman, sixty percent of the time, they work every time. Funny enough, J.D.’s allies are pretty effective against most enemies, but completely melt down against the simple melee brutes — my only guess is that the game tends to throw so many of them at you that the friendly AI gets confused from all the input. But, they’re also guilty of the usual friendly AI offenses of walking into your line of fire, running into the middle of a pack of enemies, and saying the same lines too often. They don’t get stuck behind obstacles and walls, though!
The AI is nice enough, but Gears of War has always been a series best suited for co-op. I didn’t get to try out campaign co-op, but I can imagine some of the later boss fights would be a ton of fun with a few friends. And, believe it or not, the PC version even has a LAN option! In 2016! Major credit to The Coalition for that.
The only things truly new to the gameplay (besides the enemies, who mostly feel familiar) are a handful of new weapons to play around with. They stay true to the, uh, industrial theme of Gears — there’s a gun that launches saw blades and a launcher that shoots bombs that drill into the ground, among others.
There are collectibles you can find in each of the game’s acts, too. Almost every AAA game I’ve played does this, and I’m not a huge fan of it. I like it even less in Gears — it makes some sense in a slower-paced adventure game like Rise of the Tomb Raider, but Gears is a fast-paced action game, and interrupting that pace to hunt for objects tucked away in a corner didn’t feel right. Fortunately, those trinkets are just for collection and don’t add much to the narrative — they seemed to be more for original trilogy nostalgia, and can be safely skipped if you’re not interested.
Being a PC gamer lately has been good news/bad news city. A lot more console games have been getting PC ports, but many have been shoddily made and perform poorly. Gears of War 4 isn’t one of them. Even on my PC, which has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 graphics card (don’t laugh, I’m waiting for Black Friday), I was able to play the game on high settings at nearly 60 fps (no frame rate locks here). Microsoft still hasn’t made it possible to run third party benchmark software on UWP games (keep in mind, the PC version is on the Windows Store, not Steam), but Gears does have its own benchmarking tool. I’m still a little of wary of fully trusting a first-party tool, but the game did pass the eye test while I was playing, as I never noticed any significant drops in frame rate.
None of the environments in Gears of War 4 are anything you haven’t seen before (and in many cases, that’s the point), but they do look pretty good. I didn’t notice many jagged textures, and the parts of the game where wind storms blast through look pretty awesome. One of those wind storms is actually what’s used for that benchmarking tool, and despite all the detail, the game’s performance never suffers because of it.
In fact, those wind storms are perfect examples of this game nailing the little details that make it clear that the developers really cared about what they were making. Those storms affect the physics of the game — chuck a grenade, and it’ll most likely end up back in your face. Free some debris in the distance, and you might level some enemies, but you’ll need to dive out of the way to dodge that debris yourself. The game plays around with this wind mechanic in a few other fun ways that I won’t spoil here.
One thing I do need to mention — this game is huge. I don’t mean the game world, or the scale of the set pieces, or anything like that. I mean file size. It’s 73.33 GB. Make sure you’ve got the space, or start shopping for another drive. The game is also HDR-compatible if you have an Xbox One S and can be played in 4k on a PC with a 4k display (on the Xbox One/S, it’s 1080p with upscaling on the S). I regret to say I do not have the hardware to test that.
Yeah, I know. It’s a game where you chainsaw monsters in the face. But, the original Gears trilogy had some narrative heft and some genuinely moving moments. If you didn’t realize it then, you’ll appreciate it when familiar faces (particularly Marcus) show up in Gears of War 4. Thing is, Marcus ends up overshadowing the new cast. His son, J.D., and his companions Del and Kait never get fleshed out as much as Marcus and his squad did in the original. In-game dialogue is mostly restricted to one-liners or light banter about what a crazy situation they’re in, and what few cut-scenes there are feel obligatory and generic. You don’t get the same sense of camaraderie, and there isn’t enough meaningful dialogue to show any character growth. On the other side, there are no towering villains like RAAM or Myrrah to help build tension.
Again, you might rightly point out that this is a game where you chainsaw monsters in the face. That’s a valid assessment, and if you couldn’t care less what these people are talking about, then there’s not much negative to say about Gears of War 4. But, if you do like a good story on the side, both the characters and the overarching story feel way too well-trodden. Being formulaic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there’s not much here past just the bare bones formula. What few story beats there are have been recycled from other Gears games. And, without getting too far into the story, it’s yet another one with a big bad government/corporation/well-moneyed entity. It’s not that I want The Man to win, but it’s a trope that’s starting to feel a little tired when it isn’t approached with any subtlety (I know, I know, subtlety and chainsaws).