Background: Gears of War 4 is a third-person cover shooter developed by The Coalition and published by Microsoft Studios as a Play Anywhere title in 2016. The latest entry in the series, Gears of War 4 picks up decades after the conflicts settled by Marcus Fenix and company. The game follows Marcus’ son JD and his friends as they survive in the aftermath.
The most immediate difference between Gears of War 4 and the rest of the series is that JD and his friends aren’t part of the COG – they’re Outsiders. Outsiders in other Gears of War games are looked down upon and left to fend for themselves. The game opens with JD, Del, and Kait raiding a COG base to obtain supplies for their settlement. As usual in a Gears game, things go downhill from there.
I was very impressed with the new direction for this narrative. JD and Del are Outsiders who have abandoned the COG, so we get to see a completely different side of the world. Here, unlike the previous games, the COG are often spoken of negatively and disapprovingly. Their actions and motives are questioned by the non-military people who are trying to get by. It was refreshing to hear the main group talking to each other about life, conveying worries and fears, joking, and being normal. It’s a very new and very welcome experience.
Since they’re Outsiders, the first half of the game involves struggles between the group of friends and the COG. I enjoyed playing levels set in cities, COG fortresses, and Outsider settlements. I finally felt the struggle of the Outsiders instead of looking down on them from the COG point of view. When the inevitable alien species enters the conflict, I was worried about the families and people in the settlements who didn’t have the resources or firepower to protect themselves.
This engaging narrative slowed down at the end of Act III when I realized that the story was falling into the same track paved by the previous games. The conflict felt similar, the settings were becoming more similar. There were a few new types of enemies, and the enemy race was under a different name, but even enemy encounters began to feel very familiar. Coming down from this new excitement to settle into what previous games had already done was disappointing.
The unfortunate thing here is that Gears of War 4 begins to drop the ball on the narrative. There is an attempt to bridge the Outsider conflict of the first half of the game into the level and story structure of previous games, but it only left me wishing they had stuck to the former. The game ends on a very big cliffhanger anyway, so it left me wishing the cliffhanger had been the reveal of the new enemy after wrapping up an Outsider vs COG conflict that could have been very unique.
Luckily this lack of an engaging story is the only place that Gears of War 4 falls short. The game looked incredible in both 1080p on my Xbox One S and in 1440p on ultra settings on my PC. The only holdup I had here was that cinematic cutscenes were sometimes inexplicably blurry. I often felt that the actual gameplay looked better than the cinematics because of this, which was obviously still a welcome occurrence. When the cutscenes weren’t blurry, though, the visuals were stunning.
The game played without a hitch on both platforms, so there shouldn’t be any worries about lag in the Windows 10 option. The only trouble I had with using a mouse and keyboard on PC was being too lazy to remap buttons. The default melee button made it hard to rev the chainsaw and move around at the same time. I have no plans on playing competitively, though, so I hooked up my Xbox One controller and everything was fine.
Gameplay is very similar to previous games. There are a few new weapons and a few reworks of previous guns. The level design was great. I didn’t ever feel like I was stuck in an area where the cameras were awkward and cover was usually readily available. The robotic Deebee enemies in the first half of the game were exciting, though they played very similarly to Horde and Swarm enemies.
There were a few new mechanics, like the ability to vault over cover while kicking anyone who is on the other side. If you don’t want to vault over, you can also reach across and pull the enemy to your side of the barrier. This leaves them vulnerable to assassinations.
Ultimately, Gears of War 4 takes the best gameplay elements from the previous games and improves upon them, bringing the most fluid combat experience I’ve had in any of the games. The updated visuals of the current console generation, plus the ability to play on PC, makes the graphics beautiful and the settings really come to life. There are hints of a unique and engaging story, but this ultimately falls through into a familiar and predictable narrative reminiscent of the previous entries.