The Gears of War franchise is often used as a stereotype of video games: big men, guns, explosions, aliens, pretty graphics. Yet, having played the previous three games, I also think about how its focus on friendship, love, its diverse cast and heart-pounding moment-to-moment combat, rises above mediocre expectations (this doesn’t mean it’s perfect in those areas, only that those areas do exist). And with the first game on current gen consoles, Gears of War 4 not only follows in that tradition of subverting expectations of pure grittiness but takes it further than I expected.
Gears of War is a third-person, cover based shooter franchise. Indeed, it’s where we get our sticky cover shooting from. It uses group mechanics, letting companions revive you and work as kind of “lives” – if you’re entire group goes down, you’re dead. But if there is at least one of you standing, there’s a chance they can recover you.
The latest, Gears of War 4, takes place more than two decades after the events of Gears 3 – I won’t give a backstory to the franchise since plenty exist, like this one. This time we’re in the shoes of JD Fenix, son of the main character from previous three, Marcus (Gears of War: Judgement had players in the shoes of Damon Baird and Augustus Cole, not Marcus). The game spends little time introducing either Fenix, focusing instead on a brief – albeit vague – history of the planet. The history isn’t complicated: humans digging to find some mineral, angry planet-dwelling aliens, governments taking things too far, robots for… some reason.
Characters are key
We’re almost immediately thrust into the shoes of JD Fenix, alongside his two companions, Del and Kait. It’s uncertain precisely how they met and what their relationship actually is – one character quips about JD and Kait being in a relationship, though that’s never explored. JD and Del seem to have a very long history, while Kait appears to come from a life very different to either man.
Regardless of background, though, they easily support and riff off each other. Del is notable as being very knowledgeable about science, tech and engineering. He’s the obvious nerd of the group. Kait is an experienced but not formally trained soldier. She’s also the daughter of a powerful leader of some kind of settlement.
There’s a natural quality to their relationship, where everything is shrugged off or joked about – without anyone disrespecting the other. Wonderfully, Kait is never used as a plot point to be saved but is regarded as another soldier.
Indeed, much must be said about the women in the game. Not only does the game pass Bechdel-Wallace twice (which most games or films do not), the longest scene between two people alone is between two women. Furthermore, the leader of the government – or army or robots or whatever – is a woman. And the leader of the settlement they travel to is a woman (Kait’s mother). As indicated, Kait isn’t used as a romantic interest for JD. Further, even a grizzled old soldier views her as a fellow soldier in arms. Again this highlights even the grumpy old man soldier dude treats her as another soldier, not a fragile woman.
The diversity of the characters is worth noting and celebrating – but this has been a staple of the series since the beginning. If you’re wondering why I’m spending time on the characters, it’s because the game itself focuses a great deal on them – there is a lot of dialogue, a lot of focus on what matters to them, and their relationships are central to the game’s plot. It should be noted much of the quippy, unfazed reaction from the lead seems very inspired from Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series.
It can be a bit much when almost nothing seems to faze them and they laugh it off. The goofiness sometimes is too much in trying to negate the grittiness it seems to want to shove off.
The world itself
What’s fascinating is the number of environments which by themselves undo any sense of it being a dull, grey military shooter. Indeed, the game Gears of War 4 most closely resembled in terms of aesthetics was, surprisingly, the recent Ratchet & Clank reboot. Both game mix the vibrant beauty of nature with high tech, but colourful armor and weapons.
Gears of War 4 has lush green environments, autumn leaves and trees – but also destroyed cities, creepy alien caves and caverns. There are moments that seem to come straight out of Dark Souls. Weather ranges from bright sunshine to rain, with a terrifying storm that occasionally rolls in – literally tossing and ripping the environment apart. You are forced to navigate this, while still in combat. This diversity of environment is key to what makes Gears 4 an incredible experience.
Pulling the trigger
Playing the game feels almost exactly like it did on Xbox 360. There were no hiccups or slow-downs – even during those incredible storms with a million things happening on screen – it ran smoothly, consistently and felt as glorious as ever to chainsaw evil aliens.
The cover system is still sticky but functional, asserting itself as the grandfather of all cover-based shooting. The guns still feel strange when shooting, however, sometimes lacking the kick and power you’d expect. Nonetheless, characters control well and combat is a hair-raising affair as you’d expect. One particularly new mechanic to combat is the ability to yank enemies from cover and kill them brutally with a melee move. You can either grab them while you’re in cover or slide kick the cover – this stuns them and opens them up for an instant kill. This proves an efficient additional tactic and can become essential to survival. Your companions can also pull enemies and if you make it in time, you can finish them off. (I don’t recommend chainsawing enemies with guns, though).
Companions call out enemy types and direction; explosions are everywhere, as you try see through the haze to reach a downed companion. The AI worked surprisingly well, barring two instances where they died for reasons I could not fathom (I presume walking off a high ledge?).
Of course, combat is basically all you do in this game: this is neither criticism nor praise, but merely a fact (as objective as one can be in reviews). There are no puzzles to speak of, little exploration and no meaningful choices beyond go left or right, up or down. This can become tedious – other third-person action games provide puzzles and exploration, while Gears appears to focus entirely on action setpieces.
Often this works. I’d rather not spoil what these sequences are, but they manage to differentiate it in interesting ways that sometimes had me gasping. And, as indicated, the environments are so varied and interesting, the moments of repetition felt fleeting for me. There are two main categories of enemies this time, robots and aliens – making for change in tactics. But even within these categories, various classes attack, requiring a change in your approach. One aspect I thoroughly enjoyed were wave sequences, which saw you hunker down with your companions, set up barricades and turrets and take on waves of enemies. This is of course incorporated from Horde mode, but it works perfectly fine in the campaign itself. The usual video game reason of “waiting for backup” or whatever arises, but so much of the plot is in reality an excuse to chop up aliens.
On Xbox One, the game allows for split-screen co-op. Since I don’t have friends, no one could play this with me – but having played the previous three in co-op, this seems perfect. As indicated, the game is designed to played with others.
In the end…
The game is not particularly challenging, though it is pulse-pounding. It’s also the right length for an action-game focused solely on combat. Thankfully, it doesn’t drag. The boss battles were enjoyable, too and perhaps the most tense situations in the game.
With incredible performances from the voice artists, incredible sound design and music, Gears also delivers audio quality. This only rounds off a surprisingly enjoyable experience – one that shrugs off its history or associating with mindless, brooding, grittiness in favour of light, colour, friendship, respect and diversity. I laughed frequently and genuinely felt something for these strange people who shrug off alien invasions as a nasty toothache.
I loved my time with Gears 4 and still can’t believe just how much it seems to have grown up as series.