Ten years ago, Gears of War helped define an age of blockbuster multiplayer games. Now, it’s the status quo.
Gears of War 4 is more Gears of War. Luckily, Gears of War kicks ass. The newest game doesn’t offer many surprises, but it’s still enjoyable to play. Like the earlier games in the series, you control a beefy dude (or lady!) from a third-person perspective. You still take cover, still hunker down and “roadie run” from place to place, and still carefully time your active reloads to fill each clip with extra-powerful bullets. You still shoot at big, squishy enemies that burst open like gore pinatas. You still carve monsters open with chainsaws.
After four games starring the same group of COG soldiers, Gears of War 4 passes the narrative torch to a younger generation. Instead of playing as Marcus Fenix and his crew, you control his son, JD Fenix, along with JD’s friends, Kait Diaz and Del Walker. The new cast is baby-faced compared with the grizzled old gang, opting for eyebrow rings and dyed hair in place of out-of-fashion do-rags. They’ve got more personality too, with the sort of constant quips and jokes you might expect from an Uncharted game. Looking at the protagonists, you would think Gears of War was ready to transition into a new age, but within the story, these characters actually inherit many of the problems of their parents (and then some.)
It’s been 25 years since the events of Gears of War 3. Humanity managed to rebuild after a long war with the Locust, the monstrous race native to their planet of Sera. Most civilians live in centralized cities under the watchful eye of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG). Over time, a splinter group grew to resent the COG’s iron-fisted rule.
At the start of Gears of War 4, you learn that JD and Del used to be COG soldiers, but for some reason they decided to abandon their posts to live with these ‘Outsiders.’ Your first mission involves stealing resources from the COG, and it’s during these early moments that Gears of War 4’s campaign brims with possibility. We’ve spent multiple games fighting for humanity’s survival, and it’s intriguing to turn on the people we used to defend.
Some of the dialogue hints at some interesting motivations for the characters’ rebellion. For example, Kait notes that she has more purpose in life than to repopulate the planet, as the COG would have mandated. Unfortunately, Gears of War 4 never really explores many of the good ideas it presents. Mostly, they’re just an excuse to give you more things to shoot.. It’s a good thing, then, that shooting is Gears of War’s strong suit.
Gears games have always been about taking cover. A third-person camera hangs just over your character’s shoulder, and with the press of a button, you can stick to cover. Once there, you can do a variety of things. You can mantle over the cover, or you can pull an enemy over to your side and execute them. You can pop out and aim, or you can wildly blind-fire. Like its predecessors, Gears 4 manages to add weight and heft to small interactions like going into cover, so that you feel the force of your character hitting the concrete. Those animations, combined with the up-close camera, gives the game a remarkable a sense of physicality that you cannot find in most other shooters.
Gears of War 4’s weapons also capture that kinetic vigor. The chainsaw bayonet is a violent earthquake of exploding bits; the Marzka semi-automatic rifle connects like a satisfying fist-bump. The new game introduces a few other new toys to play with, most of which make for fine additions to the Gears of War repertoire. There’s the EMBAR, a charge-shot sniper rifle that must be fired with a specific cadence, lest it overheat. Then there’s the aptly-named Overkill, a shotgun that fires two shots: one when you pull the trigger, and a second when you let go of it. Despite Gears’ already-formidable weapons line-up, inclusions like the EMBAR and Overkill not only feel novel, I’m still having fun with them after dozens of hours.
Gears of War still has, hands-down, the most gratifying headshot in any video game. There’s something morbidly perfect about a burst skull in Gears: that tactile crunch is like bursting bloody bubble-wrap, perversely satisfying because it’s so gory and gross. I can’t get enough of it.
Playing on normal difficulty, I found that I would regularly run out of ammo for my standard weapons. That snag would prompt me to pick up the enemy’s arsenal and make do. It’s a small design decision that pushed me to change up how I was playing, but it rarely shook up the overall experience. Encounters against standard enemies often played out in the same way regardless of which weapons I was using: I’d stick to the same cover and pickoff enemies one by one.
Combat briefly became more interesting whenever Gears 4 threw specialized enemies at me. The “Pouncer,” for example, is an armored beast that carries itself as if it were a large cat. If the player gets too close, it’ll pounce and pin you down. Hence the name. The only way to kill it is to shoot its weak spot, which naturally resides on its hard-to-see belly. Another neat enemy are the scorpion-esque Snatchers. Snatchers have an obvious weak spot, but it doubles as a pouch they can use to transport things. Unlucky players mightget sucked into the Snatcher’s stomach, and the rest of the team will need to shoot the pouch before the Snatcher makes off with the player. Enemies like the pouncer and the snatcher are aggressive, and can quickly put a player into a vulnerable state. The smartest way to combat them is to stay mobile, seeking out cover on-the-go.
Midway through the campaign, Gears 4 runs out of steam. Enemies like the Pouncer and Snatcher become rote and the game throws more and more at you, without an additional twist. Every so often, Gears does switch it up with some spectacle, such as a level where you cruise and shoot while riding a motorcycle, but after a few hours I felt as though the game had showed me every trick it had. Finishing the campaign is a slog, made worse by annoying environmental hazards like strong winds and deadly electrical hurricanes. It’s not fun to die instantly because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, nor is it fun to have a live grenade blow back into your face. Rather than shaking up the gameplay and keeping things interesting, Gears 4’s environmental hazards are mostly just a pain in the ass.
Fortunately, Gears of War 4’s campaign becomes way more fun if you play with a friend, and that makes sense, given that the series’ joie de vivre has always been about bringing bros together. With a friend along, small decisions like “which way do we go?” actually feel meaningful. Some of my fondest memories of the campaign involve rushing to save a knuckle-headed pal who was down-but-not-out, or rooting for my allies to save me before a Snatcher ran off with my body.
I also spent a few hours with the Horde 3.0, the latest spin on Gears’ famous cooperative mode. Horde throws wave after wave of enemies after the player, asking teams to carefully construct and maintain their defenses in between rounds. Horde has been revamped yet again for Gears 4, and now introduces a number of complexities that can necessitate elaborate strategy. It is no longer enough to just shoot whatever is in front of you, so I like it better than previous iterations.
Before a Horde match begins, players choose a class: Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Sniper, or Engineer. Each class has a specific strength: the engineer, for example, can repair fortifications, and the heavy packs a punch. This decision means teams will immediately begin negotiating who will take which role. I was bummed whenever I was stuck with a class I didn’t want to play, but I still appreciated that Gears encourages players to communicate with one another to get the job done.
Players can further customize Horde by equipping something called “Gear Cards,” which can set bounties or give players special abilities and bonuses for the match. You might equip a card that gives you a small health boost, or perhaps a bigger ammo reserve. If you’re playing as a sniper, you might pick a bounty for landing headshots. You might give yourself a bounty that pays out if you can get 100 assault rifle kills. More cards can be equipped at higher levels, which the player gains by accruing XP during matches. Gear cards further influence how you approach a match, making the experience about more than just defeating waves as quickly as possible.
Before a match begins, players must set up a large chest called the “Fabricator,” which can 3D print anything from turrets to ammo. Fabricators can be set up anywhere, and they serve as the team’s base of operations. Depending on where you set up, you might have a totally different experience on a map you’ve played a dozen times. You might decide to bunker up inside a warehouse for added structural defenses, or you might decide to set up shop in a high vantage point with the best line of sight.
Whatever you decide, you must build out from there. To build and upgrade your defenses, you’ll need to spend the power points you gather from fallen enemies. More elaborate fortifications cost more power, and Power can be maximized if it is picked up by the right class equipped with the right cards.
In addition to regular boss rounds, Horde also occasionally introduces challenges. Challenges are special shared tasks like needing to clear the round in a set period of time or tasking players with killing 10 consecutive enemies within a small window. It’s stuff like this that makes me hopeful that Horde 3.0 will have some longevity; there’s so much to consider and play around with. I’ve spent a few hours with it and still haven’t managed to clear all 50 rounds. Not yet, anyway. I’m definitely going to keep trying.
It’s in competitive multiplayer modes, however, where Gears of War’s interlocking systems truly come into their own. During competitive play, mechanics like active reload and mantling over cover feel like they actually matter, and your survival depends on their mastery. Most striking is the fact that when playing against other humans, Gears ceases to be merely a cover shooter. The cover is a means to an end, and that end, paradoxically, is movement.
Normally, when you press “A,” your character vaults forward, magnetized to whatever piece of cover the game has assigned you. Gears of War gives players lots of leeway here: you can pull yourself to cover despite being several feet away. Clever players discovered that if you pull your stick away from cover before sticking to it, you accelerate without sticking to the wall. Skilled competitive players use this trick to jet around a map faster than they could by running alone, all while rarely actually taking cover. This is called “wall bouncing,” and it’s particularly useful when paired with a shotgun. It is a delight to dance toward other players, rapidly closing on them before anybody has a chance to react.
After spending a few games learning the method, Gears 4 competitive games feel less like a thing I play and more like a thing I plug into, synapses firing directly into my controller. Familiarity makes it possible, but certain improvements—like being able to play at 60 FPS on console for the first time, or being able to roll in more directions—heighten the experience and make everything feel more responsive.
As always, Gears multiplayer is primarily a shotgun show. The constant, intimate violence of the shotgun can make things intimidating and infuriating for new players, who might logically assume that other weapons would be more appropriate depending on the situation. Hell, it’s frustrating even for a veteran like me, because the shotgun isn’t even consistent. Sometimes, you can shoot someone point-blank in the face or chest, only to have them slightly recoil as if you gave them a firm shove. Other times, a shotgun can kill you from yards away. It’s maddening, but you’ll still catch me rolling with the shotgun wherever I go. I can’t stop, and neither can anyone else. Gears of War’s shotgun meta has persisted for ten years now. It will probably never go away, and at this point, the developers know better than to try to fix it.
Any time people aren’t using a shotgun, they’re likely using the power weapons peppered around the map, such as the Boom Shot or Torque Bow. Acquiring these special weapons is crucial, and in the right hands, they grant control over entire maps and matches. The “shotgun + power-weapons” paradigm means that playing online often feels like a series of very sudden deaths, which is another barrier for entry. Gears is not as forgiving as Overwatch or Halo in that regard.
As always, competitive maps are symmetrical, with no advantage given to one side or the other. That doesn’t mean maps are easy to learn though. The new maps feel big, especially compared to the claustrophobic design of the campaign, and they are filled with all sorts of nooks and crannies. After dozens of hours, I still feel like I’m formulating new avenues of attack, still wrapping my head around how to best get around. Just yesterday, I realized that one map has a button that lets me turn on an engine that can instakill other players somewhere far away from me. It’s totally changed the way I think about that locale.
Competitive Gears can be played in a few different modes. There’s the basics, like Team Deathmatch, and Guardian, which were present in older games. Then there’s Arms Race, which is Gears of War’s version of Counter-Strike’s Gun Game. Unlike most cracks of that mode, everyone on a team shares the same pool of weapons and kills. In order to advance, the team must get three kills with the current weapon before advancing to the next one. Arms Race is the best experience I’ve had with this game type, because it erases the frustration of being stuck with a shit weapon while everyone else moves on to better ones. Teamwork makes mode sing, and I liked being in a competitive environment that still gave me room to try out weapons I might not be wholly comfortable with. Some friends also tell me that they like this mode because it is not a shotgun-fest, so it’s got that going for it.
Dodgeball, another one of the new modes, has two teams of five face off. It’s basically team deathmatch, except the players can respawn. In order to bring a teammate back from death, players must first land a kill on the enemy and then must go on to survive for five additional seconds. When the timer hits zero after a kill, the next teammate in the death queue comes back. I like it better than TDM, but I don’t see myself playing Dodgeball much. I’m more of a King of the Hill girl but I still like knowing that other options are there whenever I need a change of pace.
Every competitive match rewards players with XP as well as credits, which can be used to buy packs containing skins, characters, and Gear Cards. Of course, you can also buy card packs with cash. Right now the meager payouts make it a grind to really save up for anything, but I’m glad that I can forego spending actual money if I want to. It’s also possible to craft cards by destroying duplicates or unwanted ones. I just wish I liked more of the unlockables.
It’s fun to play competitive Gears 4, but much less fun to get into a game. As of this writing, matchmaking has been a huge bummer. Depending on which mode you select, it can take more than anywhere from 3-15 minutes to to find a single match. Often, I found that the game would make me wait for a while, only to load me into a match that wasn’t even full. I’d be playing against a team with more players, and as a kicker, I couldn’t leave without getting penalized. It sucks, though the developers are aware of the issue. Hopefully they get it resolved soon.
At the beginning of Gears of War 4, two characters muse over a butterfly in a chrysalis. “If it survives—and most don’t—it finds a way to change,” one reasons. The dialogue has obvious metaphorical bearing on the game’s story, but it notably does not apply to the game itself. Gears of War hasn’t changed, not really. I’m left wondering what a true metamorphosis of Gears could look like, how this series could go about defining a new generation of video games. It’s a lot to ask. Gears of War might continue as on as it has, a single revolution followed by a lifetime of refinement. It’s enough.