On its path to the current console generation the Gears of War franchise endured several significant developments, from becoming a Microsoft-owned brand to getting a dedicated developer in Canada's The Coalition (previously known as Black Tusk Studios). This new dev studio, headed by Gears veteran Rod Fergusson, got their first taste of Xbox One development for the cover shooter series by remastering the original Gears of War title into an "Ultimate Edition" last holiday, and this year their first new game in Gears of War 4 - and the first real Xbox One game in the series - finally moves the franchise forward by quasi-relaunching the saga.
And the timing is quite fitting given the flagship nature of the brand since Gears of War 4 can also be played with higher graphical fidelity on PC. Players who purchase the game digitally are able to take advantage of the Xbox Play Anywhere initiative since they get the game for Xbox One and PC, with crossplay support between the two. This is the single, best thing Gears of War 4 does for the franchise and it cannot be overstated.
Longtime fans of the franchise are in luck on either platform if they're invested in the lore surrounding the people and culture of the planet Sera since Gears of War 4 takes place in the same continuity, picking up the story 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3 where our playable heroes managed to finally defeat the Locust and the Lambent once and for all. Gears of War 4's story follows JD Fenix and his two most loyal companions as they fight for survival and uncover the truth behind new threats to Sera in the aftermath of the original trilogy.
Despite defeating the monstrous enemies which united the people of Sera together decades earlier, the political and socio-economic landscape of the current setting isn't the most welcoming. Think Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings style of settlement structure with independent communities fighting to survive, all of which make for an apt comparison for the visual design choices of some of the environments of the game. There are gorgeous ruins everywhere and extreme weather events that tear through the overgrown remains of what was once a populated and growing society. Gears of War 4's story campaign falls just short of 7 hours long and the game's real longevity will come from its world-class multiplayer suite and cooperate Horde Mode 3.0. But how do these two elements and its campaign compare to previous iterations?
Story Campaign is Very Familiar
Gears of War 4's narrative is character-driven. It's not about saving the world and defeating their leader across increasingly larger set pieces. It's about survival and family, with a larger underlying plot in the background being setup for future games. New protagonists JD (son of series poster bro Marcus Fenix), Del, and Kait, fit perfectly into the established canon and have great banter, injecting some much needed youth and freshness to the playable squad, and they're supported by a few familiar faces and new ones.
The prologue and main plot do a commendable job of offering nods to what came before for longtime fans, while also adequately establishing the story going forward for returnees and newcomers. The game wastes no time in throwing players into the action and giving them a new faction to battle against in the first two acts of the five-act campaign. Instead of standard locusts and larger beasts, players fight against robots (dubbed "DBs") for a chunk of Gears 4 and these new units bring with them new weapons that find their way into multiplayer and Horde mode as well, expanding the aesthetics and variety of the Gears franchise armory.
By the back half of the story however, players find themselves in familiar territory with familiar enemy types when they battle "The Swarm," with a few epic vehicular sequences tossed in for good measure as well. The larger story however, doesn't truly end by the game's conclusion, and for that reason, the campaign feels incomplete. There's no hiding the fact that the cliffhanger ending, which offers an interesting twist on the past, is setting up Gears of War 5, but at the same time, it also leads to a feeling that the franchise is just churning its wheels and not going anywhere when it comes to its story. The Coalition plays it safe with Gear 4, arguably a little too safe.
What it does well however in bringing back the unique and addictive third-person cover shooter gameplay, with new tweaks and polish, speeding up gameplay with a few new moves and execution types, new weapons and power weapons that replace some of the armaments from Gears of War 3. And this is emphasized with the game's focus on environmental hazards. The environment becomes a tool and weapon in Gears of War 4 in a big way. There are frequent "windflares" (think, giant flaming tornado) that push extreme winds on the player and enemies, and heavily affect projectile or throwable weapons while opening up opportunities to use environment objects against enemies. Other environmental objects can even create new barricades for cover or take out enemy groups.
Gears of War 4's campaign has a lot to offer in its action set pieces, cinematic moments, and character banter, even if it's not the smartest story or even a better one than what's come before, and that's the feeling the title gives across the board in its three pillars of gameplay. Gears of War 4 only supports two-player co-op in its campaign despite there being more than two squad members on the squad through the entirety of the story and it doesn't have as many memorable moments as previous Gears games.
The Versus multiplayer section of Gears of War 4 has a little something for everyone, including LAN play for old-school local sessions, co-op play against AI bots, and the standard Core and Competitive playlists which include the series standards like Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill, the more competitive Escalation and Execution modes (these two feature competitive weapon tuning), and the brand new Dodgeball and Arms Race modes - the latter of which sees teams having their weapons changed after every three kills, reminiscent of Call of Duty's "Gun Game" mode.
There's also a Social Quickplay option which lets players vote on the map and features a rolling lobby, something the Core and Competitive modes are lacking in, meaning in those playlists players get booted back to the menu after every match. The game also forces players to shutdown the app entirely on Xbox One or Windows 10 if players want to back out of waiting for the loading of a lobby since there's no other way to back out.
In terms of gameplay, Gears of War 4 is very familiar, if a tad bit faster. There are options now to vault over cover quickly, knocking back enemies on the other side, and even pulling enemies over if they're opposite you, helping put an end to goofy blind fire point blank shootouts of the past. Successfully initiating one of these intense maneuvers also gives the aggressor the chance to pull off one of several new execution animations in appropriate Gears gore fashion. Players can even sprint while carrying power weapons, another first for the series.
The ranked matches occasionally suffer from player dropouts and unbalanced teams, something that's tricky to deal with. You can easily find yourself joining a session with a team missing players or see others dropout, guaranteeing a loss outside of your control. Competitive games however, are as fun as ever and Gears fans will find themselves right at home.
Nickel-and-Dimed To Save Time
Gears of War 4 is doing something different with its long-term multiplayer plans in releasing DLC maps for free as part of the regular playlist but in order to access these newer maps as they release two-a-month for private play, players must purchase the DLC Season's pass. The goal here is to avoid fracturing the player base but make no mistake, Gears of War 4 is all about the monetization for its multiplayer suite.
Like so many other games, The Coalition is jumping on the trend of including in-game card packs. These cards are used for three purposes: a way to collect weapon skins and characters for use in multiplayer, to earn bounties for Versus and Horde mode, and a way to unlock class skills for Horde (more on that later). The skins are self-explanatory and there are many different weapon skins to unlock through random card draws. These come in a variety of pack types with differing costs for each, purchased through in-game currency earned slowly through gameplay or by overpriced microtransactions.
Bounty cards offer rewards for completing specific challenges and there's a set for versus modes and a set for Horde. One bounty can be activated before playing a match and incentivize players to accomplish things such as winning a certain match type, netting a certain amount of in-game kills, etc., and offer the reward of extra experience points or credits. Every five levels, players are given extra credits as well to help them buy more card packs, earn more bounties, to maintain the reward loop. It's an addictive system, especially on Horde mode, but it's a painful grind as well designed to better reward players who pay with real money. In competitive multiplayer these unlocks do not affect gameplay, just the visuals on player characters and weapons so the card packs on that front are entirely optional. In Horde mode however, it's another story entirely.
Horde Mode 3.0
Gears of War 2 made Horde mode famous and many other games have attempted to include their own versions of this play type ever since. Gears 3 added a few more layers to the wave-based gameplay mode where the goal has always been to beat 50 waves, with every grouping of 10 concluding with a boss battle before the difficulty ramps up, but Gears 4 perfects that. In Horde 3.0, players choose where on the map where they want to fortify, and they can move their base or emplacements (barriers, gun turrets, decoys, etc.) at anytime.
Horde mode embraces a class-based system this time around where each class has access to different skill buffs to unlock and level up along with different starting weapons, fitting every play style and adding all sorts of new dynamics to teamwork. The system is incredibly addictive and fun, and certainly represents one of the best co-op experiences available on the market.
In our week of gameplay with over 25 hours of Horde 3.0 experience, we experienced quite a few connection errors on both the Xbox One and Windows 10 versions, something we expect will eventually be sorted out with updates to the game and server stability. In addition to connection hiccups and slow load times, the one major failing of the mode this time around is The Coalition's choice to make the co-op mode online only. Horde 3.0 inexplicably cannot be played locally through LAN, another step backwards for the series in addition to its lower campaign co-op player count.
When it works as intended, Gears of War 4's Horde mode can be spectacular and it comes packed with plenty of challenge with four difficulty levels to work through. Leveling up specific classes and working with a good mix of classes on your squad is essential to success, and the progression systems and difficulty help make Horde 3.0 the most replayable and rewarding yet. And by rewards, we mean that players earn credits by playing Horde mode as they do for Versus play, and this becomes important for unlocking additional Horde Booster packs to gain more skills and bounty cards.
We should note that this mode is pay-to-win however for players willing to fork out extra cash since leveling up skills involves acquiring a large amount of duplicate cards, which can be gained by chance through buying a larger volume of packs, or by breaking down cards for scrap and using scrap to purchase the card you desire. Rarer cards are worth more scrap so players can scrap better cards they acquire from more expensive packs and buy exactly what they want to max out their buffs from the get-go, making them the most effective player in-game. The long-term effects of this may result in players with maxed out loadouts nabbing the most kills, preventing others from participating or succeeding in their own bounties.
Bounties bring with them their own issues as well since many of the standard bounty cards ask players to complete short-term tasks such as completing only the first 20 waves or landing a certain amount of headshot kills, kills in general, or building a set amount of fortifications. Once a bounty is accomplished, a new bounty cannot be selected in-match without quitting (the same goes for switching class) and so most players do end up quitting. This is what happened in every single one of our 20+ horde attempts when using matchmaking. The game does not fill in those roster spots with bots or other players so you're left hanging, often punished by the system.
The ideal Horde setup is teaming with a dedicated group of friends or regular players so everyone knows what they're getting into beforehand. The mode is generous on weapon drops, ammunition boxes which reload every wave and help refill all ammo types, and there are also bonus crates of weapons from completing in-round challenges (i.e. a certain number of headshots or turret kills, etc.). Gears has always allowed downed players to be revived by allies but in Horde 3.0, allies who've been executed can be brought back in the wave as well by a squad mate grabbing their COG tags and bringing it back to their base. Additional revives, like the purchase or repair of fortification, costs power - the in-game Horde mode currency earned through killing enemies and picking up power drops off their remains. Certain classes have skills which buff emplacements, or offer discounts to their cost and repairs, and there's even a class which buffs the amount of power acquired, while other classes get buffs to their speed, health, weapon damage, ammunition capacity, etc.
If you enjoy Gears of War, there’s new content to experience on the Xbox One and Windows 10 platform. Gears of War 4 may be a slight step down from Gears 3 in some regards but it successfully moves the series forward onto the current platforms and reestablishes the new status quo and conflict for the inevitable Gears of War 5. For an in-depth look at screenshots, maps, key artwork, and official Gears of War 4 merchandise, check out our mega gallery:
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Gears of War 4 is available on Windows 10 PCs and Xbox One.