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Gears of War 4 review: better safe than sorry

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The newest Gears doesn’t take many chances, but that’s okay

Gears of War 4

“If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll like it.” It’s a perennial cliché in games criticism and something I almost always try to avoid. It’s a lazy way to bunt on actual appraisal of the title in question, playing off presupposed notions of what the reader wants to hear.

But things are a little different with Gears of War. Once Microsoft’s standard bearer for the Xbox 360, the series’ stock has fallen somewhat following the last installment, 2013’s tepidly received Gears of War: Judgement. Stewardship of the series has been taken over by a newly assembled studio named The Coalition, echoing the way Microsoft set up 343 Industries to take control of Halo. And both Judgement and 343’s Halo games alike have been criticized for changing up their formulas in unwelcome ways.

So know that when I say this, it’s a statement with some meaning: if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll like Gears of War 4.

Set 25 years after the third game in the series, Gears of War 4 feels like it could have been released the following week. Its single-player campaign hews strongly to the template set out by original developer Epic Games in 2006: it’s still a cover-based shooter where every action feels weighty and teammates yell things like “REVIVE ME” when they’re hurt. (I’ve been trying to imagine a situation in which anyone would actually say that for 10 years now.) The HUD font is the same, the “active reload” minigame is the same, the ominous noise that plays when you clear an area of enemies is the same.

This is not a bad thing, because as I mentioned when The Coalition’s remake of the original game came out last year, Gears of War’s template is yet to be bettered. Although Gears’ focus on cover has been lifted by games ranging from Uncharted to Mass Effect to Grand Theft Auto, none have ever managed to match its effortless, crunchy flow. It’s a masterpiece of execution. The game’s control system is simple, but each available action — making frantic “roadie runs” across the battlefield, firing blindly from relative safety, hopping quickly between points of cover — feels intense and vital.

The Coalition has added a few new elements to the formula, though none are especially drastic. There’s the usual new selection of enemies and weapons, many of which put thoughtful twists on Gears’ action; one gun fires rounds over cover, for example, slamming down on enemies when you release the trigger. Other tweaks play with the concept of cover itself — you’ll often see slimy pods above the battlefield that can be shot down and used to hide behind, but if they take too much crossfire a monster will burst out. Cover in general is more destructible than in prior games, and violent weather conditions add a further element of chaos.

Those last two changes may well have been introduced for their visual effect as much as anything. Gears of War 4 is a beautiful game on the Xbox One, and much of its impact comes from the sheer amount of stuff flying around on screen at a given time — buildings collapsing in storms, boxes splintering under a hail of bullets, and so on. It’s not quite as stunning as the original Gears was in its day, but then the Xbox One is far less exotic a piece of hardware than its predecessor was in 2006.

Gears of War 4

I should also call attention to Gears 4’s excellent PC port, which not only looks amazing and offers a frankly staggering level of graphical customization, but is available for free to anyone who buys the Xbox version (and vice versa) under Microsoft’s Xbox Play Anywhere initiative. Save progress is synced in the cloud, so you can start play on one system and pick up on the other, and you’re also able to play multiplayer across platforms.

One area where Gears of War 4 has changed is its characters. You play JD Fenix, son of original protagonist Marcus, who together with buddies Kait and Del ensures Gears 4 is a little more realistic about the hulking proportions of its humans. JD is very much from the Nathan Drake school of breezy, light-hearted wisecracks in the face of near-certain death. But the gruff, snarling Marcus is along for the ride as well, and the relationship between the two characters is a highlight of the narrative. Gears of War 4 never takes itself too seriously, with straightforward writing that knows when it’s not wanted.

But while I appreciate Gears 4’s economical storytelling, the campaign ends abruptly with almost no payoff — it feels like it’s missing an extra act. You leave the game without learning very much about its core menace, and the weak final battle comes after an extended period in which the base mechanics are dramatically altered. I could’ve used a little added information on what was actually going on, and a more conventional final level would likely have wrapped things up effectively.

If Gears of War 4 left me wanting more, though, The Coalition has done its job well. This is as safe a sequel as you could imagine, but I think that’s exactly what was needed to remind people why the series matters in the first place. There’s room for a more dramatic reinvention down the line, and it’ll be disappointing if the inevitable next game is as conservative as this one. But Gears of War 4 is a great way to get into Gears for the first or fifth time, proving that the series is in solid hands.

Gears of War 4 is available on October 11th on Xbox One and PC.