I never thought I’d live to see the day when I was happy to see Marcus Fenix. The Gears of War franchise has a lot of good stuff going for it but outstanding plots and characters are typically an afterthought for the series. Oh sure, we get a nice moment here or there with a dead wife or exploding main character set to sappy music, but for the most part Gears characters have more in common with T-bone steaks than they do actual people. But now here I am, five years after Gears of War 3, and I’ve just been introduced to a brand new generation of soldiers and gained a whole new respect for the old Gears gang in the process.
Gears of War as a series has followed very closely in the footsteps of Microsoft’s other big exclusive franchise: Halo. Just as 343 took the reigns of the Halo series from Bungie, Microsoft’s other in-house studio, The Coalition (formerly Black Tusk), has inherited Gears from its original developer, Epic Games. The results with both franchises are actually very similar. Microsoft’s developers seem to have a very keen understanding of how these games should function and from a gameplay perspective you probably won’t skip a beat as you jump into Gears of War 4.
In fact, at times Gears of War 4 feels a little too familiar to its predecessors, especially considering the game features an over twenty year time jump in its plotline. The Locust horde has been vanquished and humanity has made some big steps towards rebuilding from the dismal state of the world we saw in Gears 3. The war hero Marcus Fenix has wandered off to retire to a life of drinking and shouting at an unplugged television, leaving us to control his generic looking son, JD Fenix as he and his friends deal with the return of the Locusts. Call me an old man but I don’t find much about the new cast terribly endearing. Your new female companion Kait looks like she would be just as at home making lattes in a Starbucks than she would be fighting bug monsters, and JD’s old buddy Del features a totally radical ring in his eyebrow that realistically should have been ripped out in your first scuffle. Yes, I’m complaining about these kids and their damn eyebrow piercings! Look at what you’ve done to me Microsoft!
But really, the game’s campaign is at its best when it’s rolling out the series old-timers. Marcus Fenix is delightful as a crotchety old man who can barely be bothered to explain what’s going on to these young whippersnappers. I loved everything about him in this game, starting with his groans at hearing the stupid names the kids have come up with from this enemy he sent to the grave decades ago, and ending with his overblown concern that his tomato plants won’t survive the warzone his homestead becomes. Other Gears alumni make appearances as well, but I’ll avoid spoiling all of their arrivals here.
For the most part the game plays identically to its predecessors, aside from some time spent piloting mechs you really won’t see or do anything you haven’t experienced before. Even the guns in the game feel a little too familiar. All these years and we still couldn’t invent something better than the Lancer, huh? I would have liked to see some newer tech, something that was more in line with the time jump that was being portrayed to me.
Occasionally the campaign will rip a chapter from the game’s multiplayer and have you and your companions defend an outpost against waves of enemies a la the classic Horde mode. You can fortify your defenses with different pieces of equipment including physical barriers, shock cannons that slow enemies down, or just straight up gun turrets. Maybe I was spoiled by Sunset Overdrive’s similar take on this model but it felt like the game was really stingy with how much equipment it would let me place, most of the time you can’t afford more than a single turret and one, maybe two barriers if you’re lucky. It’s still fun to play, but I would have enjoyed myself more if I was spending more time planning for the attack and positioning my defenses. Instead you’re really just getting a couple of damage bonuses while you just take on the waves of enemies like you normally would.
Of course for a lot of folks out there a Gears of War campaign is ancillary when compared to its multiplayer mode and I’m happy to report that The Coalition has done a great job bringing the series’ multiplayer into the next generation. Like the campaign the game runs nice and smooth on the Xbox One, even when playing in split-screen mode, which by the way you can still do in competitive multiplayer as well as co-op in the main campaign.
The success of the multiplayer is somewhat marred by some of the decisions the team has made regarding microtransactions. Gears of War 4 jumps onto the “card pack” train, allowing players to purchase packs that will unlock weapon skins and “bounties”, specific goals that will earn you bonus XP and allow you to buy even more packs. Packs are entirely cosmetic in the competitive multiplayer modes but they do have an actual effect on how your character performs in the popular Horde mode, granting you different skills and ensuring you can pay to survive a little longer. If that doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth then the actual cost of the packs probably will. I positioned most of my multiplayer gameplay in the middle of a double-XP weekend and all of my hours of play only earned me a single pack that contained character skins.
I suppose it’s understandable that in this transition phase Gears would play things as safe as it does, and despite some bad writing, a somewhat abrupt ending, and the multiplayer’s poorly thought out microtransactions the game did leave me in a place where I’m looking forward to seeing what The Coalition does with the series next. Gears of War 4 manages to keep the torch flame lit as it passes, let’s hope that the inevitable Gears of War 5 can set off some actual fireworks.