When I beat Gears of War 3 a couple of days after it came out five years ago, a thought dawned on me: Gears of War has some interesting parallels to another series I adore: Star Wars. Just like Star Wars, the original trilogy is amazing, with the second game being the best (just like Empire Strikes Back) because of its victory at the end coming only after numerous sacrifices. Since then, Judgment was released, and it wasn’t as bad a prequel as what Star Wars received, but it was definitely forgettable and weak by comparison to the main trilogy. And now we have Gears 4—which, in many ways, is similar to Episode VII. It retreads a lot of old ground, but it does so in a way that fans of the series should love, while setting up repercussions and implications for future games, paving the way for even better stories to come.

Gears of War 4 takes place 25 years after the Imulsion Countermeasure. Sera has slowly begun to rebuild with the Locust being wiped out, but as humanity’s numbers stand at less than a million, the COG have taken it upon themselves to wall off huge segments of the population while they continues to bounce back. Not everyone agrees with the COG way of life, though, and they live outside the walls as aptly named “Outsiders”. Such is the life JD Fenix, war hero Marcus Fenix’s son, has chosen for himself. Of course, when JD and his friends Del and Kait stumble upon a conflict between the COG and an unknown group of bodysnatchers, we shouldn’t be surprised that a Fenix suddenly finds himself caught in the middle of a much larger plot that could have humanity on the brink of extinction once again.

Gears 4’s campaign will be nothing new to series veterans. With finding just over half of the story’s collectibles, I beat all five acts on Hardcore in 9-10 hours. While actively trying to avoid spoiling anything, let me say the story succeeded in getting me to care about all the new characters it introduces in that time, making the emotional ups and downs Gears games always have that much more poignant. It also carefully used familiar faces from the original trilogy, who are all much older (but not necessarily wiser) now, fleshing out and grounding me in a world very different from the one I became accustomed to in the original games. Admittedly, the pacing hits a couple of snags along the way, and there’s a few plot holes that a Corpser could crawl through, but a lot of the missing information feels deliberate—especially as certain revelations by game’s end open up entirely new possibilities for future entries in the series.

While some of Gears 4’s characters have been around before, its enemies are totally new. The Swarm may have some units that look similar to those seen with the Locust, but Carriers (with their one-hit kill strength), Pouncers (with their incredible range), and Snatchers (enemies able to cut off areas of the field with their acid spray) each bring something fresh to the series, requiring a drastic shift in tactics when they enter the fray. The same can be said for the DeeBee robots; trackers might remind you of Tickers, and the soldiers can be broken down similarly to the Swarm and Locust, but the flying, shielded Guardian DeeBee or the rocket launcher helicopter drones change any fight they are a part of.

In terms of gameplay, Gears 4’s campaign might be the best yet. Never have we had such a diversity of action sequences in a Gears game before, and it helped keep me going during those moments when the plot pacing started to slow a bit too much. Unlike Kryll or Razorhail from previous games, Windflares—Sera’s newest natural disaster phenomenon courtesy of fallout from the Imulsion Countermeasure and that are basically giant fire and lightning tornados—are a constant threat almost every time the game steps outdoors. They make even moving around the field a struggle, but finding different ways to overcome my slowed mobility was exciting. Interacting with the environment and shooting collapsible construction set ups, watching as brick and mortar or giant piping came crashing down on the Swarm—sending them all up into the Windflare’s maelstrom in a mix of blood and metal—never got old. And, dancing around the Windflares’ chain lightning always kept me on my toes.

Besides these larger set pieces providing variety, there’s also the brand new CQC mechanics introduced. By positioning yourself behind cover opposite from an enemy, if the cover is small enough to reach over, you can now perform a “yank-and-shank”. Honestly, it drastically changed how I approached several game situations. For example, if a Swarm or DeeBee robot was entrenched behind cover and I couldn’t get a good shot easily, I’d break into a roadie run almost every time, reach over with the X button, and quickly mash the Y button to get a combat knife execution. Or, if I wanted to keep my momentum up, I’d swiftly jump over the cover with a kick, and mash Y again to do a similar execution. It seems like such a minor thing, but it helped with the pace of combat tremendously, and can be just as effective in multiplayer as in single player. Just be careful, however, as the moves can be countered with a well-timed melee attack or shotgun blast, giving the move a risk-reward flavor to it that makes it all the more satisfying when pulled off successfully.

Speaking of multiplayer, much like how the campaign didn’t re-invent the wheel, but instead refined and improved in several key areas, the multiplayer suite for Gears 4 did much the same thing. Added to the multiplayer playlist alongside the Ranked and Social options is now a Competitive selection. If you’re thinking of wanting to possibly make a run at being a professional Gears player, that’s the tab you’re going to want to head for due to very specific weapon tuning there, bringing an even heavier focus on skill than other modes where a power weapon in the right hands can change the tides more quickly.

In terms of what you’ll be playing in multiplayer, there are still classic modes like Team Deathmatch and Warzone to choose from, but there are also three new offerings called Escalation, Arms Race, and Dodgeball. Dodgeball has that one-life-to-live stipulation you’ll see in Execution or Warzone, with the added caveat that if someone on a team gets a kill, one of their dead teammates gets to respawn. It leads to a very interesting back and forth, as a single person can single-handedly turn the tides of a battle back in their team’s favor.

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Meanwhile, Arms Race feels like it channels the spirit of Call of Duty’s Gun Game, just with a team-oriented twist. Each team is equipped with a weapon, and when that team reaches three kills as a collective, their weapon changes to something else in the Gears of War armory, with the team to move through all the guns first winning. The problem I had with this mode (in my limited time playing it) was it felt like if a team got a big lead, it was very difficult to come back from—unlike Dodgeball and other modes. With only three kills needed, if there’s a weak link on either team, they can be exploited very easily to advance through the weapons.

Escalation is exclusive to the Competitive playlist and is the next evolution of Annex. Players must try to win rounds by either capturing all three points on a map, or by holding two points for the longest amount of time. Respawn time is increased with each successive round, and more power weapons enter the fray as time goes on (with each team only starting with Lancers and Gnashers). Escalation is nothing short of intense, but also a huge time commitment. If players are thinking about Gears esports, though, this will be a must play.

If playing with others and not against them is your cup of tea, then Gears 4 still has you covered there. Two-player online and local co-op is available for the story, and stepping away from the four-player co-op campaign of the past not only makes it easier to play with just your best buddy, but also gave the team more flexibility in terms of the storytelling and what characters are with your group and when. There’s also Co-op versus mode that pits you and some friends against bots, which is a great way to learn the multiplayer maps and test out new strategies. And, of course, Horde mode also returns, putting you once again in a team of up to five people against 50 CPU-controlled waves of Swarm and DeeBees.

There’s a lot more to Horde 3.0 this go around than just new enemies and maps, though, starting with a new device introduced in the campaign called the Fabricator. Essentially a glorified 3D-printer, if the Fabricator has power, it can make almost anything: guns, fortifications, turrets, etc. While this mechanic is used in several campaign sections, it really shines in Horde 3.0, and serves as the focal point of wherever you decide to make your stand against the oncoming waves. Defeating enemies in Horde mode will reward you with the power you need to make the Fabricator work, and therefore stand a better chance against each subsequent wave. The Fabricator will also revive a player mid-wave—for a price—if a buddy can grab your COG tags.

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While tying something from the story into Horde mode and vice versa was a great idea, not everything added to Horde 3.0 makes sense to me: specifically, the inclusion of a class-based system. There are five classes to choose from in Horde mode, and while multiple players can choose one class, it clearly makes more sense for everyone to take a defined role. Each class has specific bonuses and weapons tied to them, and can earn greater bonuses the more you level up a class. For instance, the Engineer gets bonuses to constructing fortifications, while the Soldier gets better guns and more ammo. My issue with this is that the system feels limiting in a lot of ways. While Horde has always been about working as a team, this feels like it forces you into a role with very little wiggle room. It also means you’ll have to rely on certain roles depending on the situation—and if one person dies, your team might have a harder time coming back than they already would with a man down.

I should also take this time to point out that I put several hours into both multiplayer and Horde, but of course, the Gears 4 servers were in a pre-launch state. While there were a couple of lag hiccups, nothing too major occurred during my time online with the game. Considering there was probably never more than a few dozen people on at once, though, it’s hard to judge how things will shake out once the servers are properly bombarded by thousands of people trying to get on at the same time.

Customization was another huge focus for Gears 4, and in many regards it works great. A new card system shows off dozens of skins for your characters and weapons available at the game’s launch for you to acquire. There are also Bounty cards in both Horde and Multiplayer, where you can try to meet certain requirements on a card for XP boosts. I love the idea of adding personal objectives to your online experience, and you can get the cards by buying special crates with coins you earn in-game or with real world money. Although I feel you can more easily grind here than in other titles when it comes to getting what you want, I’d be remiss to not mention the microtransactions. Of course, spending money doesn’t guarantee you’ll get what you’re after, just that you’ll get more crates. You can also craft certain cards with scrap, which you earn when destroying duplicate cards. So, there are definitely options that get you around dropping more money down and praying the crates give you what you want.

Gears of War 4 looked at what the series did in the original trilogy and decided to give its fans more on every front. In most cases, this was a resounding success, providing a complete experience that perfectly channels the spirit of the originals. New characters, mechanics, and plot twists distance it enough to make us appreciate the homage it pays even more, though, while giving us new lore and a new adventure to enjoy. If you enjoyed the original trilogy as much as I did, Gears of War 4 is the continuation we’ve all been waiting for.

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Publisher: Microsoft Studios • Developer: The Coalition • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.11.16
9.0
Gears of War 4 looked at the series’ core formula and figured that if it wasn’t broken, don’t fix it. Most of the additions The Coalition put onto that core simply helped enhance and refine something that was already great. A couple of missteps were made, but this is still a great overall entry in the franchise.
The Good Handles just as good as the old games, while the new “yank-and-shank” and other fresh CQC mechanics add a lot to combat. Local co-op!
The Bad Class system in Horde mode.
The Ugly I think Marcus Fenix is my spirit animal. R.I.P. Marcus’s tomatoes.
Gears of War 4 is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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