For me and many others, the Gears of War franchise was one of the most prolific in theseventh-generation of gaming consolesand the defining series in Microsoft’s second console, the Xbox 360. Gears of War was one of the first video-games I ever played on the 360, and I don’t think I’ve completed the campaign of any game more than Gears of War 2(five times and having to fight the urge to start a sixth go-around). Through fun game-play mechanics and combat, blending elements from other third-person shooters and seamlessly developing a distinguished recipe, the Gears series also brought high-production cinematic and sound, amounting into a series I always knew it’d be difficult to bid adieu to – especially for Microsoft. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when the original trilogy was followed by Gears of War: Judgment, then, subsequently, Gears of War 4, and honestly, I wasn’t disappointed either. Frankly put, I was in the same boat as Microsoft, even if I knew the series had completed from a narrative standpoint, my hunger for the series wasn’t satiated. Does Gear of War 4 satisfy that hunger, or is it developed as a milking for one of Microsoft’s largest cash-cows? Here are my thoughts..
As said, Gears of War 4 is a third-person shooter video-game, serving as the fifth installment in the series overall and the fourth installment of the main-series. Unlike the original trilogy, Gears 4 wasn’t developed by Epic Games, outsourced, instead, to The Coalition, the company that developed Gears of War: Judgment. This time around, it’s a new-generation of Gears, so-to-speak, with the story-line focusing on Marcus Fenix and Anya Stroud’s son J.D. Fenix, who, alongside his friends Delmont Walker and Kait Diaz, have deserted their allegiance to the COG, due to disagreement with First Minister Jinn, and align themselves with a group of Outsiders. Throughout their journey, they are pitted against state-of-the-art robotic soldiers commissioned by the COG and find themselves dealt a new threat altogether, a new set of malicious creatures, aptly dubbed as “The Swarm”. Focusing mostly on its new cast of characters, Gears 4 also doesn’t shy away from revisiting familiar faces from earlier in the series, setting the foundation for what’s clearly intended to be a story-arc with future installations.
I have beaten the campaign twice now – once on the normal difficulty and once on the hard difficulty. The latter of which is the way I completed the campaign right before this review. For the most part, the game-play mechanics are unchanged. Gears 4 features the tried-and-tested formula the series is known for, filled with waves of baddies to spray lead at and slice through with a Lancer, this is a cover-based shooter at its most polished. The enemies are mostly unique from what we’ve seen prior with the series, with similarities making some feel like understated callbacks. Set twenty-five years after Gears of War 3, the Imulsion Countermeasure weapon that destroyed all Imulsion on the planet Sera also caused powerful windstorms called “Windflares,” which also find themselves featured prominently in the campaign. On these occasions, uses of the environments such as liberating a large stack of pipes from their restraints to crush your enemies can be enacted. Many of these can feel a little forced, after all, you only ever encountered fastened stack of said pipes during winds flares, making it feel like it was arbitrarily wedged into the environment. The Windflares can also change how weapons like the Boomshot react, or send your Grenade hurling back at you.
Each time I completed the campaign, I had a new word to describe what I had experienced. The first time I completed it, that word was – workman-like. Let’s set aside the cheap way I used a hyphen and look at why I think that. As I’ve said, the game-play is as polished as ever, Epic Games nearly perfected the formula by Gears of War 2, and ever since then, they’re maintained it with each release and kept it updated on a technical front. According to the laws of diminishing returns, it’s only to be expected that when a series doesn’t evolve, declination is to be anticipated. Although this might carry some weight, Gears’ game-play continues to feel fun and distinguished. It’s a successful recipe, including ingredients from other series for its own unique concoction, and unlike, say, Dark Souls, which borrowed and improved upon, it hasn’t been imitated by other game series’ or been overexposed. Simply put, even if its narrative met a satisfying enough conclusion, the game-play mechanics don’t feel like they’ve yet jumped-the-shark or overstayed their welcome.
Like the rest of the Gears series, Gears 4 also attempts to include variation, whether it be through giant robotic suits or new wave-based segments, which feel akin some to Coalition’s earlier contribution to the series with Judgment. Even still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the campaign felt mechanical, like it was checking off the boxes for what was needed to have a successful Gears game and that it never stuck together in the cohesive fashion I would have liked.
I think this “workman-like” description carries over most abundantly when it comes to the story-line and the characters. The dialogue between them and their development, all of it feels, frankly, very cookie-cutter. J.D. and Del’s back in fourth exchanges always feel very conventional and generic, and I never care for Kait’s emotional quest to find her mother. They remix Gears’ greatest hits, recreating Cole and Baird’s back in fourth and Dom’s quest to find his wife, and while they commit to their rendition, it still feels like a rendition and not an authentic, unique composition. And, worst of all, it ends on a hastily strummed, sour note.
As the credits rolled in my second play-through, the second-word I had to describe for the series was “beginning,” an obvious phrase, meant in-comparison to the first Gears of War. Although I loved Gears of War 2 for what I perceived as camaraderie between characters and emotional-depth, the original game was rough-around-the-edges, buildings the foundations for the series. If judging the original cast of characters based on solely their first adventure, they, too, could be described as “cookie-cutter” or “generic,” mind you, not to as high of an extent. It doesn’t do a whole lot to defend Gears 4, but it does suggest a promising future could await. After a solid Gears of War, Epic Games was given the chance to really find their footing with Gears 2, and now, after a solid Gears 4, I hold my hopes that will Coalition will be able to find their footing as well.
Gears 4 offers a polished execution of the established formula, never overachieving and never particularly coming together with the sum of its parts in a way that stands better together than its individual segments. It does offer the high-production value and aesthetical appeal of its predecessors, and that’s worthy of acknowledgment. Unfortunately, because of what I perceived as generic characters and underwhelming plot-threads, I can’t help but conclude it’s a particularly middling entry in a series I’ve often coveted.