“Another Cog in the Machine”: Gears of War 4 Review

Posted in Kulturecade by - October 20, 2016

While fans around the world would disagree, Gears of War never ascended to the level of continued relevancy enjoyed by its chief rival, Halo. Gears of War 3 stood the test of time as the series’ pinnacle, a perfect symphony of sight, sound and story that even five years later is just as enjoyable as the first time the disc started spinning.

Gears of War: Judgment sought fit to change all of that and certainly succeeded.

As a yearly Call of Duty and Judgment knocked Gears of War out of the minds of the masses, Gears of War 4 was announced with a boulder-size chip on its shoulders. The tried and true Gears of War system has remained virtually unchanged since it’s inception: A third person cover based shooter, defined by a film worthy narrative and over the top, almost cartoonish violence.

Gears of War 4 continues the trend set by its core series predecessors, and at times does so in a spectacular way. Most unfortunately, Gears of War 4 is a game at constant odds with itself, sacrificing a coherent narrative for a reward that never materializes while simultaneously providing players with what is easily the best competitive multiplayer experience seen in this generation thus far.

Set 25 years after the events of the end of the Locust War, Gears of War 4 tells the tale of JD Fenix, son of series hero (and Gears of War 4 main character) Marcus Fenix. In tow are JD’s best friend, Del and JD’s main squeeze, Kait. Gears of War 4’s narrative problems start almost from the first few moments.

With the Locust gone from the planet Sera, taken with them are the iconic and terrifying characters we’ve come to both love and fear. In their place are the DeeBees, a class of new robotic enemies excellent at breaking players out of cover and making hunkering down in the early acts of the Campaign all but impossible.

At first reveal, the DeeBees seemed at odds with both the narrative direction of Gears of War and the gameplay style. However, I am more than happy to report the DeeBees are the best part of the game. As a robot, the DeeBees employ a very aggressive style combat, attacking players both at range and in close quarters.

Thanks to DeeBee variants like the tracker, a rolling land mine similar to the Locust’s Ticker mines and an armed flying drone, cover isn’t the safe haven it once was. This shake up to the Gears of War formula makes combat situations in the early goings of the campaign fast and frantic. It’s a breath of fresh air that was badly needed to the game’s duck and cover style of combat.

In truth, the much-advertised Windflares, violent storms raging across Sera due to the aftermath of the Imulsion Countermeasure that alter the battlefield, are far less altering to the flow of combat than the DeeBees are. Also, the DeeBee’s bring with them a new class of weapons ranging from shotguns to small machine guns and even a terrible new sniper rifle.

At this point in the article, there is something that must be addressed. Kulture Shocked employs a very strict and total policy against spoilers in our articles. As fans of the medium ourselves, we believe, very simply that spoilers suck. They suck pretty bad. However, as the nature of my grievances of this game pertain to the narrative, the following section will contain spoilers for the campaign.

***SPOILERS BEGIN***

The positive aspects of the campaign sadly end there though. As the Swarm enters the picture, both gameplay and more importantly narrative begins to fall apart. Don’t let the name fool you, these are Locust, the same enemies you know and love. Unfortunately, gone are any of the unique flair that made the original Locust so memorable and fun.

Gone are the flowing combat robes of the Theron Guard, replaced by a shredded loincloth draped around a flesh-colored nude body. Gone are the trademark Boomers, fighting to the death for their queen. In their place, a bigger Locust wrapped in a loin cloth.

Perhaps most troubling in the narrative is the revelation that these things that look exactly like Locust are just that… Locust. However, what should be a world shattering revelation made by three young adults with no combat experience and a war veteran who lost almost everything, is treated with all of the urgency of a slow leaking faucet.

There is no fanfare at the prospect that a force of subterranean race of monsters that nearly rendered humans extinct have returned to the surface. With this baffling choice of storytelling comes a complete change in the intensity of the campaign. If the character I’m portraying doesn’t put much stock in the ferocity of the enemy, then why should I?

As the campaign continues to unravel you are treated to a joyless slog, going from one combat bowl to another with little being progressed in terms of narrative or character development. The cherry on top stands as perhaps the most bizarrely unfun moment I’ve experienced in piloting a giant robot ending with a reveal that renders the previous 8 hours of the campaign nearly pointless.

***SPOILERS END***

Sadly, after combat against the DeeBee’s becomes an afterthought, the campaign becomes a slog. Characters, while likable, aren’t memorable in the least. Locations and weapons don’t carry with them the same flair or engagement as they did in the early years of the franchise. Perhaps it’s an inevitable symptom of nostalgia, but the Gears of War 4 campaign is, by many measurements a failure.

Thankfully, where the campaign stumbles, the multiplayer component of the game shines in a way a game hasn’t done in many years. Not since Rocket League has competitive multiplayer in a video game gripped me in the way Gears of War 4 has.

Running at 60 frames per second, Gears has never felt smoother. Movement is key to victory in multiplayer, and the combined frame rate bump and dedicated servers combine to give Gears the presentation it has deserved since it’s inception. Changes to the cover system like quick vaults over a piece of cover add a level of speed to combat that compliments it’s speed and tactical shooting.

New weapons like the Dropshot, a reverse of the Savage Boomer’s Digger Launcher and the Buzzkill, a gun that shoots bouncing sawblades somewhat alter tactics, but the usual tactics still apply to Gears multiplayer. The shotgun is still the weapon of choice for most, an admittedly frustrating prospect to the newer generation of Gears players more familiar with shooting DeeBees with a Lancer assault rifle. However, thanks to tweaks to the advanced tactic of “wall bouncing” and more consistent hit detection thanks to the aforementioned servers and frame rate boost, becoming a veteran with the Gnasher Shotgun is more attainable than ever.
A slightly perplexing change to multiplayer comes in the form of weapon tuning. Playlists are split into both competitive and core modes. With both modes comes two separate sets of weapon tuning, meaning that weapons behave differently in the competitive queues than in the core modes. While this might be a minor grievance, those wishing to make the jump from a more casual experience to a more competitive one may wonder why a Lancer is scoring quick downs on one list over another. However, with competitive currently consisting of two game types, I doubt many will make that cross over.

In addition to a rewarding and deep multiplayer experience, Gears of War 4 offers an exciting reimagining of the fan favorite “Horde” mode. Not only is the classic tower defense of past returning, but some substantial improvements have been made as well. Fortifications are now able to be placed almost anywhere on the map, so long as your Fabricator, a central 3-D printer has enough power.

Combat is split by classes ranging from the very powerful and underrated Sniper to the backbone of every good team, the power boosting Scout. As you progress in waves, caltrops become laser wire and simple decoys become elaborate set pieces drawing fire away from your squad. The simple change of allowing players the opportunity to place defenses anywhere on the map is a complete game changer, making each round of Horde different than the last, even when played on the same map.

While the subject of much controversy among the Gears of War community as a whole, each class of characters in Horde has access to a perk that amplifies their innate abilities. Where the controversy exists is the fact that these class perks, along with many cosmetic skins and characters are obtained through Gear Packs.

Similar to collectible card game booster packs, users can purchase a “pack” with either in-game currency or cold, hard, wet, smelly cash. Sadly, a player could mine a bitcoin faster than they earn enough coins to purchase a pack.

As an example, before writing this review during a Horde session, believe it or not, a team of myself and four random teammates actually completed all 50 waves. In completing all 50 waves, I did not earn enough coins to purchase the cheapest pack. That being said, as an above average player, I can earn credits at a faster rate than most. In my testing, I could earn around 1000 credits in a session, including any bonus’ I’d receive for ranking up. However, couple that with Halo‘s system where packs are earned at an accelerated rate and I can see where some would take issue with the frequency of earnings.

Myself, I enjoy the hunt for that one skin that I can’t live without or a chance to play as a classic character. While the money grab aspect of the business model seems more akin to a free to play cell phone game than a full price AAA title, I genuinely enjoy the multiplayer component and this is merely an extension of that. My hope is that over time, more classic characters are added to the roster and the card pool can expand.

Gears of War defined a console generation and to say that it had a notable impact on my career as a gamer is an understatement. I’ve spent countless hours with my fiance discussing saga of the Locust Horde and whether or not Adam Fenix is the real villain of the franchise. I’ve grown closer to and likely saved my friendship with my best friend thanks to Gears of War. These games are very personal and meaningful to me.

Gears of War 4 isn’t that game… yet.

The campaign is an absolute mess and in some regards and Horde can sometimes feel like “play to win”. But beyond all that is Gears of War 4‘s true achievement; Rod Ferguson and The Coalition have created the new gold standard in competitive multiplayer gaming. Gears of War 4 puts Destiny, Call of Duty, and Halo on notice. While the campaign plays it safe to the degree that it is largely forgettable, the multiplayer components of Gears of War 4 stand in an elite class all its own, unlikely to be unseated for quite some time.

Final Say: Play It

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This post was written by
He is the senior editor at Kulture Shocked. A Nebraska boy born and raised, where he spends most of his time as a writer. When not tearing up Xbox Live, he spends most of his time divided between Magic: The Gathering and his fiancee.
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