I don’t envy the position of any developer who is tasked with bringing back a dormant franchise, especially one as popular Gears of War was. How do you make something new in a series people love, modernize it, and try to open it up for a whole new generation? Even developers like 343 Industries who have firmly took the reigns of the Halo franchise from Bungie with Halo 4 and 5 are still struggling -- disputing these games being strong – to discover a meaningful identity and purpose for these games to exist beyond the simple fact that they make a lot of money. Freshly minted developer The Coalition have been given this very same task with a franchise that while a successful third-person shooter, always read to me as tone deaf with its stupid yet deadly serious machismo supported by a dull, vapid universe. How do you rebuild something with such a flawed foundation? And as it turns out, The Coalition’s answer is through metamorphosis.
Gears of War 4 takes place 25 years after eradication of the Locust Horde and their Queen in Gears 3. Most of the veterans of that war are now elderly citizens in the slowly recovering Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) empire, and a new generation has taken their Lancers and moved forward into the uncertain future. You control the son of war hero Marcus Fenix, James Dominic Fenix, who has recently become estranged from the COG militia who he served.
Now living with a group of Outsiders who try and maintain their independence in the shadow of a rebuilding COG empire, J. D. and his fellow deserter Delmont Walker and Outsider friend Kait Diaz live every day to fight off the COG from swallowing them whole. Until one day when J. D.’s village is attacked but a horde of unknown monsters that look vaguely like the ghosts of the Locust Horde, ending with everyone but him and his friends Delmont and Kait being kidnapped by these beasts. With chainsaw guns in hand, J.D. and his compatriots go on an adventure to try and save everyone, and to discover if the Locust are back from the dead.
If you were going to tell me that Gears of War 4 would be the first of the series not to have a miserable story, I wouldn’t have been too surprised as it’s such a low bar of quality anyway. But if you were to tell me that Gears 4's story was honestly pretty good, I would’ve called you a silly monkey man. Gears 4 really does nail it by introducing a likable new cast of characters which ditch the self-serious machismo of previous Gears protagonists, pay homage by bringing back old Gears characters and write them in a way they should’ve always been which was gruff but goofy bastards, and set up an interesting universe and path forward through it with future games. Gears 4 won’t win any awards for its story, mind you, but it was thoroughly enjoyable to walk in the shoes of J. D. Fenix on this fun, intentionally cheesy and bombastic action movie romp.
And while Gears 4 does reinvent its universe and characters, it knows when it has a good thing going for it, and for the most part perfectly preserves the classic third-person cover-based shooting of the Gears of War franchise. Back when Gears was new and everyone was copying it, it was easy to be deeply cynical of its stop-and-pop shooting gallery, but now as a relic of yore, Gears 4 does remind me that these titles were always great playing games. Slamming into cover, picking off charging enemies, chain sawing the survivors, it’s all still a grand old time.
That’s to say though that there aren’t any additions or improvements. The ability to pull enemies out over cover and knife them for a quick execute is a brilliant feature which helps make it more engaging than just sitting in cover waiting for enemies to pop out. Speaking of enemies, the Swarm whom are stand ins for the Locust, are far more aggressive and interesting to fight. Fighting the Locust felt like punching big gray blobs, and while there are certainly slime men to shoot in the Swarm, there are also far more weird monsters that don’t play by the rules of cover. The Swarm is largely made-up of leaping, crawling, and smashing beasts which can either move over cover, pull you out from it, or even destroy it which gives Gears 4 a far more mobile feel as you must be constantly jumping from cover-to-cover to escape the Swarm.
In addition to the Swarm, you’ll also being fighting a new faction of enemies which are an army of robots sent by the COG to bring you in for your desertion. These robots are dropped from the sky, landing on top of you, ever marching forward into you with no regard for their own wellbeing. It’s fun shooting and chain sawing these robots as sparks erupt and oil spews, and provides a new combat experience that helps break up the monotony of fighting fleshly monsters.
The new weapons in the game, while not myriad, are fun to use and continue the theme of forcing you out of cover with the Dropshot which shoots a missile which flies over and behind cover like a bunker buster, or even the Buzzkill which shoots bouncing sawblades which will reflect off cover and most likely into you. Gears 4 knows its cover-based shooting is fun and all, but wants to make sure you are doing more in a fight than just picking a piece of cover at the beginning of every fight and standing there for the entire encounter, which is the absolute perfect direction to take the franchise moving forward.
Visually the Gears of War games have always been gorgeous showpieces of Unreal Engine technology, which Gears 4 proudly carries on with beautiful, colorful environments and crazy weather effects. The Coalition exploits this perfectly with a wonderfully varied campaign that has you seeing and doing new things frequently, from vibrant arena level design to some of the best set pieces in a Gears game yet. The standout visual moments are the Windflare combat encounters which are also incredibly fun to play. These storm sequences drastically change the physics of the battlefield, flinging you and enemies around, pushing you back when you try to run, throw off the aim of grenades or other projectile weapons, or even forcing you to dodge roaming bolts of lightning. It’s almost like a third faction of enemy, and is perfectly brought to life with the incredible technical and visual design of Gears 4.
Through the process of metamorphosis, The Coalition have brought the Gears of War franchise back from the dead. They do so by preserving the great gameplay of past Gears of War games, recycling the unlikeable machismo and universe of the old games into a goofier self-aware tone and a surprisingly interesting world to explore in future games, and adding new ingredients like the numerous fun new enemies and the exciting Windflare scenarios. Gears of War 4 is the best, most varied and exciting Gears game to date. As a known Halo fan, it’s surprisingly to realize that The Coalition have outdone their compatriots at 343 Industries in bringing the Gears of War franchise back, modernizing it, providing a strong direction for the future, and giving it a reason to exist beyond just simply trying to make bank. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m glad Gears of War has become relevant again.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE
(An exceptional game whose flaws are barely noticeable.)