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Gears of War 4 Review

by William Schwartz

The Gears of War series saw incredible heights of popularity during the Xbox 360 era.  Developed by Epic Games, this trilogy of third person shooters told the story of Marcus Fenix and the COG Army battling the Locust and Lambent subterrainian enemies invading their homeworld called Sera.  It introduced us to genre defining third person cover shooter multiplayer, pitting said COG and Locust forces against one another.  In the second game, a Horde mode was introduced, that banked heavily on cooperative play.  By the time Gears of War 3 rolled around, the series was hitting on all cylinders, offering a single player story that had players invested, best-in-class multiplayer, and a robust cooperative mode in Horde.  All that said, three years into the life of the Xbox One and we’re just seeing a brand new Gears of War game in Gears of War 4.  The wait has been long for Xbox One and Windows PC players, not even the excellent stop gap Ultimate Edition that was released last year for both platforms was much reprieve.

The wait was worth it.  Gears of War 4 is one of the best games on the Xbox One to date.  Although development has shifted from Epic Games to the newly formed Microsoft Studio ‘The Coalition,’ Gears of War 4 appears to be in caring hands.  Like the shift from Bungie to 343 in the Halo series, Microsoft has formed a studio to take over the development for this franchise which doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.  While short on new gameplay ideas, Gears of War 4 looks incredible on the new console.  This wasn’t a huge surprise, the remastered Gears of War UE looked great as well.  However, Gears of War 4 has been built from the ground-up and on a new engine and it shows.  There’s been an obvious attention to detail in delivering the best looking Gears game to date, whether looking at it on Xbox One or PC.  You might remember the Gears of War series to be an impressive looker in its day, but side by side comparisons to this new game and even the latest Gears releases pale in comparison.  One reason is the more powerful console, but the game is also running on a brand new engine in the Unreal Engine 4.  The Coalition with strong ties to Epic Games (makers of the UE4), very well may have put out the best looking game on the Xbox to date.

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Gears of War 4 feels like both a technical achievement for The Coalition and Xbox One, while also being more than just a pretty face with its three-pronged attack of single, cooperative, and competitive gameplay.  That said, not much has changed here.  The Coalition is following the blueprint that was already inked by Epic Games back when Gears of War 3 launched.  They’ve yet to come up with anything original to keep the campaign lively between the hectic firefights of the game.  Hoping that players don’t get sick of pressing buttons to open doors, chainsaw doors, cooperatively open doors, or something of a similar nature while traveling between.  While the third person cover mechanics and gunplay is still as fun as ever, Gears of War can somehow manage to feel rote at times, mostly in its downtime that pushes you from one action-filled set piece to the next.

Gears of War 4’s campaign does offer a new branch for the storyline.  Picking up some time after the events of Gears of War 3, Marcus Fenix’s son JD Fenix is front and center in this new story.  With a new party of friends, Kait and Del, go on a mission to rescue their loved ones from a new threat.  It’d be unfair to delve into many story details in this review, Gears fans will want to experience it for themselves, but I do have some general complaints about it, other than the aformentioned overused gameplay mechanics.  Microsoft Studios is developing a pretty strong pattern with their most important first party series’.  Like Halo 5, Gears of War 4 ends with a thud that has you wanting quite a bit more from the story.  While the campaign features five acts of its own, Gears of War 4’s campaign feels like the first act in a three act saga.  With such a long wait for more Gears, the campaign is only underwhelming in that it doesn’t offer more detail and leaves important plot points unexplained.

With a campaign as impressive as that of Gears of War 4, it’s astounding that it’s the worst part of the package.  Although it does allow you to play through the campaign with a friend over Xbox Live or via local split screen cooperatively with the option to play as JD, Del, or Kait.  Furthermore, there’s a cross platform option that allows Gears campaign players to play cooperatively across the Xbox One and PC versions of the title. One of the new Xbox “Play Anywhere” games, meaning if you own Gears of War 4 on either the Xbox One or PC, you own it on the other, with progression saved via cloud saves.  I don’t want to get too down on the campaign for Gears of War 4.  I had a lot of fun with it.  It’s a good looking campaign, it sets up a brand new story to be told in the Gears of War universe, and feels far more mature than previous efforts in the series.  But as far as they’ve progressed in some elements for the single player campaign, there are so many places where they’re still using the same mechanics that are pushing up on 10 years old at this point.  Even the poorly recieved Gears of War Judgment gave the campaign a different feel with new mechanics like the “Declassified Missions.”  Gears of War 4 takes few risks in the gameplay department and does very little to bring the game into a new era, outside of its stunning visuals.

What Gears players will get the most value out of in this game is the online multiplayer and cooperative Horde 3.0 mode.  Both are as good as they’ve ever been in my opinion.  While our time reviewing these aspects of the game were limited to remote review sessions in private matches over Xbox Live, the experience was smooth and stable.  Graphics felt refined compared to the beta, weapons fine tuned for that perfect “Gears” balance — Gears of War 4 multiplayer in 60fps over Xbox One or PC is just best-in-class when it comes to third person shooters.  Again though, not much has changed here.  These refinements have been limited to tuning familiar weapons, and adding some new ones.  There are nine beautiful new multiplayer maps at launch, as well as a remake of a classic Gears map in Gridlock.  Some of the new weapons do change the game significantly.  The Dropshot for example is a weapon that can push players out of cover, allowing players to shoot it over cover and then drop it on their enemy at their discretion.  Other weapons include a single shot COG rifle, and with a new faction introduced in the single player campaign, they’ve got a whole host of new weapons to learn as well.

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All the classic game modes are back, as well as some new ones.  Warzone, Team Deathmatch, Dodge Ball, King of the Hill, Guardian, Arms Race are “Core” playlist modes, while competitive playlists include deeper game modes like Execution and Escalation — these have a tighter focus on the eSports crowd.  For newcomers to Gears, there’s also a Humans vs. Bots playlist to get your feet wet, and even some of the Core game modes like Arms Race do a good job of introducing players to the mechanics of Gears, it’s weapons and cover system, while being a little more forgiving than the more competitive modes.   Gears of War 4 is launching with 10 maps, with additional DLC to be released every month following the October 11th release.  This DLC will be free for public to play, with maps rotating in and out of playlists as new ones are released.  Alternatively, if you want to play a specific map in a private match, you’ll need someone to have purchased the DLC maps, but only one person needs to own them.

Our experience with Gears of War 4 Multiplayer was limited to these sessions that were mentioned above.  A reality that people should be prepared for is the possibility that things go wrong.  The Master Chief Collection taught us all a lesson on how badly things can go at launch, but we’re hopeful that the beta test for the game, and the private match stability and ease in joining games with others during our review will carry over to the full launch.  But things can go wrong sometimes, and if they do, we’ll update this review with that information.  A matchmaking system is being introduced in Gears 4 that is said to match players of similar skill levels.  Bronze, Silver, Gold, Onyx, and Diamond ranked players should be getting matched to other players in their skill level.  We didn’t get a chance to see this in action, so we can’t speak on how well it works.  Hopefully it works well, because if its one thing that sucks, is getting matched with experienced, relentless Gears players if you’re a newcomer.

If you’re eager to check out some Gears of War 4 Versus Multiplayer, you can do so in the video below.  Which also has level 20 and 30 boss fight gameplay from the new Horde 3.0 mode.

Gears of War Horde Mode & Versus Multiplayer Impressions

Almost as compelling as the online versus modes is the new Horde 3.0 mode.  Like everything else in Gears of War 4, this again takes from the blueprint that Epic Games concocted for Gears of War 3.  Horde 3.0 does take some twists and turns of its own, but it largely feels the same.  This five player cooperative mode has players hoping to survive 50 levels of increasingly difficult enemies.  Every 10 waves a “Boss Level” occurs, where you’ll need to face down one of the big bads of the game.  Enemies recieve modifiers as the rounds wear on, with things like accuracy and damage getting bolstered to increase the difficulty.  What’s new in Gears of War 4’s Horde Mode is the Fabricator system and character classes you can choose from.  The Fabricator, essentially a indestructible military grade 3D printer is the source for all of your fortifications in Horde Mode.  It allows you to purchase Sentry Guns, Barriers, Turrets, Decoys, Weapon Lockers and other items like weapons if needed.  As you kill enemies during each wave, they’ll drop currency that is used to craft these items.  You’ll carry this currency on you and must return it to the Fabricator to deposit into the bank for the whole team to use.

Everything does cost energy points in Horde 3.0.  These weapons and fortifications can be purchased from the fabricator, but if you happen to die, you’ll also need to pick up your partner’s tags and bring them back to the device to resurrect them.  Too many deaths and it’ll start costing you more and more energy to revive your fallen teammates.  Furthermore, you can spend this currency to level up just about everything in Horde 3.0.  From the Fabricator itself to the fortifcations that you purchase from it, everything can be leveled up… and you’ll need it if you plan to make it deep into this mode’s fifty levels.  We played to level 30 on the normal difficulty and it became quite hard by the third boss battle.

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Horde 3.0 is based around classes, five different roles on the battlefield.   There’s the Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Sniper, and Engineer.  You can use any character skin you have unlocked, and make them into any class in Horde 3.0.  Classes do not restrict you to using certain weapons either, nor does it restrict you from making an unbalanced team full of engineers.  You can mix and match the best possible combinations for your team.  Each class has its pros and cons, and responsibilities during a wave.  The Scout for instance gets a boost to how much energy is worth if they pick it up, and can help the team greatly by going out and picking up all the extra currency lying around at the end of a round.  The Engineer will need to mind turrets and other fortifications with a repair tool that this class starts with.  Like everything else, repairing these fortifications in Horde 3.0 costs currency.  The Engineer will use the currency that is on their person first, and then dip into the community pool to fix defenses or refill things like ammunition on turrets.  Each class has a different starting loadouts, Snipers and Heavies are going to be pretty self explanatory — while the Soldier is Gear’s jack of all trades.

Another thing that is being introduced in Gears of War 4 is a new cards system for the Versus Multiplayer and Horde mode.  Gear Cards that come in Gear Packs offer boosts in both modes.  Personalization unlocks, character skins, emblems, and weapon skins can be found in these packs.  XP and credit boosts for completing Horde and Versus bounties can also speed up the progression process.  Horde skills specific to certain characters can also be unlocked in different Gear Packs, these help immensely in the Horde Mode as they can offer things like quicker repairs, or items costing less to build.  The Gear Packs come in four varieties, all Gears of War 4 players will get one of each to start.  The Versus Booster only contains cards that will boost XP and Credit bounties.  While Horde Booster Packs will contain four skill cards for your characters to use, and one XP or Credit bounty for the Horde Mode.  The Operations Pack contains booster cards as well, with at least one personalization card in the pack.  Finally, the Elite Pack contains only personalization items with one guaranteed Rare card in the pack.

While we got to open plenty of packs, we didn’t get to see too many of them in action.  This doesn’t appear to be a situation where players will get boosted abilities in Versus Multiplayer, as those cards are only XP and Credit booster bounties.  It’s hard to tell just how long its going to take to earn these packs, but we’ve been assured that everything is earnable in game without having to spend a dime extra.

This is a review of the Xbox One version of Gears of War 4 but using the Play Anywhere option that instantly grants you access to the game on PC, we had to sneak a peek at that version of the game. We’re not going to dive too heavy into the technicals of that version, but if you’ve got a newer graphics card and the lastest drivers from your card manufacturer, Gears of War 4 is a stable stunner at every resolution and frame rate combination.  Going back and playing the single player campaign in 4K was a real treat as it was easily one of the best looking Unreal Engine 4 games to date.  While other Microsoft Studios launches have had spotty PC releases, Gears of War 4 doesn’t disappoint for the PC crowd.  Frame rates capped at 120 and the ability to run that in 4K with a top shelf card like GTX 1080, it’s clear that the best version of this game will be on the PC with certain video cards.  Delving into this PC version of the game on a GTX 1080 did make the technical achivement on the Xbox One feel a little bit smaller, but with new hardware coming from Microsoft in the future, they’re getting damn good at this 4K thing with their big releases.  Forza Horizon managed a solid 30 fps in beautiful 4K and Gears stands shoulder to shoulder in terms of sheer beauty with that other recent Microsoft Studios release.

The Verdict

Gears of War 4 is exactly what you’ve come to expect a Gears of War game to be over the years — an impressive visual showcase in the campaign, with the accompanying competitive and cooperative modes to keep you busy long after the credits roll.  The Coalition may have chosen to optimize the look and feel of this game over adding new mechanics to the gameplay, but perhaps we’ll see more variation when the inevitable sequels roll in.  The story was little blunt for my taste, but then again, the story of Gears of War has never been the star of the show.  After so long though, a little more explanation as to why we need to be invested in this new branch of the story would’ve been the icing on the cake.  With rock solid multiplayer and Horde 3.0 to fall back on, Gears of War 4 has plenty of value if you delve into all its modes.  Its good to finally see a new Gears of War game on the Xbox One.  The wait has been long, and now we’ve seen that the wait has been worth it.

"loved"
loved

Gears of War 4

  • Available On: Xbox One, Windows PC
  • Published By: Microsoft Studios
  • Developed By: The Coalition
  • Genre: Third person shooter
  • US Release Date: October 11th, 2016
  • Reviewed On: Xbox One/PC
  • Quote: "Gears of War 4 is exactly what you've come to expect a Gears of War game to be over the years -- an impressive visual showcase in the campaign, with the accompanying competitive and cooperative modes to keep you busy long after the credits roll. Its good to finally see a new Gears of War game on the Xbox One. The wait has been long for Gears of War 4, and now we've seen that the wait has been worth it."
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