Gears 4 has a heck of a heritage to live up to, with the bombastic series racking up plaudits and sales throughout its lifespan, so there is clearly a lot riding on the newest instalment - especially with The Coalition taking over the reins from Epic. I mean it's been a whopping FIVE years since Gears 3 (I'll ignore Judgment, and its spelling, as it felt like more of a coda to the other games) and that's a long ass time to wait for a proper sequel. I just wanna chainsaw some dudes in the face like any regular person..............
The first thing you'll notice is that it's come out a real beauty, probably one of the best looking games on the XBox One right now. The flora and fauna, the weather effects, the dank caves and gloomy lighting effects all look superb, as do the lead cast and their numerous foes. From a graphical standpoint it's a triumph and runs at a good lick with no obvious drop off or hiccups, even when the action kicks up a notch. It's even better online too, with 60fps as standard, so you can expect beautiful but deadly confrontations with your friends and foes. But more on that later.
Back to the story and its here that things kind of fall down. The initial trilogy built up to a grand finale over the course of three games, and it's fair to say that the newest story may well ratchet up in future, but this game just feels a little dull at times. The problem is especially noticeable early in the game. You start off with a nice Prologue chapter taking you on a whistle stop tour of the series past events, and some of its coolest characters, before seguing into the current state of affairs. Big cities built by robots, protected by robots, and a rag tag group of people called the Outsiders that refuse to live under COG rule and do their own thing.
Having to wander through a city in the middle of being built is fairly cool, but the DeeBee enemies that make up your opposition certainly aren't. They feel dull and unresponsive and, even though their A.I. acts just like you'd expect the Locust to from previous games, they just feel like training bots for the main event. Which would be fine but you are stuck battling them for a few hours before the real enemy turns up in the form of the Swarm.
The overarching narrative shifts at the same point too. As the story moves from one of survival to a rescue mission, with our heroes JD, Del and Kait picking up a familiar face to help out. The banter and one liners are on point, as ever, but the story still feels pretty dull. It literally devolves into chapter after chapter of "follow that enemy" at one point. Even the occasional set piece, like a bike ride, elevator escape or horde style wave defence feels contrived rather than fun.
It's a shame but is, surprisingly, not too much of an issue. That's because the general combat in Gears is still as excellent as ever, the cover system, active reload (a mechanic that no other game has come close to copying) and environments designed to cater to flanking manoeuvres all make for a satisfying repetition of combat. Cover, shoot and kill. Then repeat. Sure it may mean every fight is ostensibly the same, barring a few new enemies and weapons, but it still feels so good that it's hard to care about the similarity. A longshot headshot is still a thing of beauty, a chainsaw kill still makes me laugh and a torque bow is still less than deadly in my hands.
The story has a few twists and surprises along the way, so I won't spoil them here, but it just never has the gravity or threat of the previous games. It's a pretty enough diversion but one that is hardly likely to warrant repeat plays. The Coalition have played it safe in terms of creating a good cover shooter that ticks a lot of the boxes that have taken place throughout the series - it's not fresh but it does feel familiar enough for you to easily slip into the groove and have fun.
It's also nice to know you can enjoy split screen co-op too, after the debacle with one of Microsoft's other flagship franchises Halo, as the game is perfect for tackling with a buddy. Though bizarrely it's a max of two players whether you're on the couch or online which is a step back from Gears 3 and it's four player action. It's especially weird when you have 2/3 A.I. buddies for the entire campaign.
It's a mercy then that Gears can fall back on probably it's main selling point, at least for long term fans, which are the Horde and online offerings. Here too it's more about refinement than outright change, so don't expect anything too different.
Horde mode has seen the biggest changes. Now you can choose from one of five classes with a range of abilities and upgrades to help you out. Engineers can build defences with better health and at a lower cost, snipers can tackle their foes from afar, heavies like to blow stuff up, scouts are melee fighters and fast movers while soldiers are jacks of all trades. You can assign them skill cards, and gain more slots for different ones, as you level them up and it pays to have a mixed team of operatives to get the best chance of success.
This time around you also get to choose your defense point with more clarity. As you can drag the fabricator (which is the source of all your handy defensive gear) and drop it where you want to set up, then you can drop defensive items wherever you wish, rather than in set spots as in Gears 3, to ensure success. Enemies drop currency that you can take back to the fabricator to build more stuff, if an ally dies you can also grab their tags and revive them via the fabricator too. It all works pretty well.
As ever enemies come in tougher and tougher waves, with a boss wave every ten levels, then the waves reset but gain boosts to health and damage all the way up to the 50th wave of brutal punishment. It's not for the faint hearted and even playing on Normal you'll probably need at leats 4-5 players to get that far just because of the sheer weight of enemy numbers against you.
My only quibble with Horde mode is actually something that's not there - where the hell is Beast mode?! Maybe it's just me that thought that was awesome back in Gears 3? I guess sacrifices had to be made.
The other online stuff is pretty much what you're used to. Warzone, Execution, Guardian, King of the Hill etc all play in exactly the same way as you'd expect. The newer modes are decent additions though. Dodgeball, which see a teammate revived every time you kill one of your rivals, works pretty well and can lead to some tense moments when a couple of quick kills can swing a match entirely. Arms Race sees you aim to get three kills with all thirteen weapons on offer before the other team can - again this can lead to some great matchups as one team might have a power weapon while the other has pistols. NOTE: For the sake of this review we only got to play on servers with low populations or in developer led team matches, so will revisit this portion once the game goes live with any other issues/concerns.
Nothing that redfines the wheel, but it feels solid as you have a plethora of modes and options that should keep fans happy for moths to come. Plus every match and Horde mode you playthrough sees you earning ribbons, XP and credits which you cna then use to buy item boxes of various types. These boxes offer new weapon skins, character skins, emblems and bounties - which you can equip to gain boosts after successfully carrying them out in a mtach - so are more superficial than necessary, but fun to collect nontheless.
On the whole then Gears 4 does what it set out to do with mixed success. It looks wonderful and the combat is still superb, but that's slightly let down by a rather rote story that feels like it's more interested in just getting you to the next setpiece than doing anything overly fresh. Thankfully Horde mode is still bags of fun, the online MP is fluid and interesting and the whole package offers enough to keep it the right side of good and even veering into great now and again. If you were never a fan in the first place then this own't change your mind, but for returning veterans it's a good romp through a familiar world.