|Platform Xbox One|
|Publisher Microsoft Studios|
|Developer The Coalition|
|Release Date Holiday 2016|
Note: portions of this review previously appeared in our pre-review check-in with Gears of War 4 in September.
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Gears of War 4 is about home and family.
That might sound weird. Gears of War as a series has dealt with accusations of hyper-masculine excess and an emphasis on gore and violence since it was first announced more than ten years ago. And it’s not that those observations are wrong, exactly — the characters have always been larger than life, the men in particular wide and heavy, and the violence of the series has always been extreme and enthusiastic. But beneath or even in parallel to that aspect, there’s always been consistent themes of friendship, of relationships of support and camaraderie that would seem corny in most other games but, somehow, work in Gears of War for a passionate fanbase.
New Gears developer The Coalition’s job with Gears of War 4 is many-fold. To bring the series back to relevancy five years after it last had an impact; to serve as a standard-bearer for the Xbox platform; to legitimately lay claim to a property started by another studio. And, maybe, to do something fresh with a series that seemed to reach its logical endpoint.
Oh, and to make a great video game.
The Coalition doesn’t succeed on all fronts. Gears of War 4 at times seems to have more ideas than it has time or bandwidth to explore. This often results in a game that feels like a refined reboot rather than something truly new or different. But Gears of War 4 serves as an effective statement of intent, bringing Gears forward and competing with the modern vanguard of competitive shooters.
It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
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As Gears of War 4 begins, decades have passed since the human race narrowly survived the Locust War (with a tight, playable history lesson that gives a brief timeline of events). After the events of Gears of War 3, the Locust threat was over, and humanity began to rebuild.
The line running through Gears of War 4 is family
The survivors of the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or Cog, live in cities closely supervised by a government with a tight grip in place. This is partly to ensure the survival of a human race almost snuffed out by the Locust War — the world is full of propaganda that tells its story, like books and posters espousing the heroism and service of breeding for the future of the species. However, some survivors live outside the walls of large, robot-built cities at odds with the Cog, engaging in raids on certain Cog storehouses for supplies and living in a state of cold-ish war.
Sitting somewhere between these factions is J.D. Fenix and his best friend Del Walker, who have gone AWOL from the Cog and joined an outsider group with their friend Kait Diaz. But when a mysterious new threat invades their settlement and steals away their friends and family, J.D and his companions go to the only neutral party they can think of to find help — J.D.’s father and Gears of War protagonist Marcus Fenix.
Gears of War 4 is a more focused, less sprawling story than the last few entries, following the three friends through the forests and ruins of Old Sera as they try to find their friends and family. It feels more action-horror than action sci-fi, and it can be as enthusiastically violent as previous games — sometimes even more so, as there’s even more combat chatter than before and J.D. is a less morose lead than Marcus ever was. But the line running through Gears 4 is, as I mentioned before, family. A lot of time is spent exploring the strained relationship between Marcus and his son, with a lot of perspective on both sides of the equation.
As for competitive multiplayer, as always, it will take time for Gears of War 4 to show whether or not it has the legs to keep an audience and build a community. But the ingredients are there, and it feels like The Coalition is off to a great start. The decision to bump Gears of War 4’s frame rate in multiplayer to 60 frames per second, over the campaign’s 30 fps, offers specific improvements to the game’s controls and responsiveness (which were already pretty great). In return, Gears 4 is the best-playing multiplayer in the series. Twitch response is dramatically improved, and there are fewer moments where death feels like it came because you couldn’t turn in time.
The maps I’ve spent time with so far have a good mix of cover points and line of sight, and there almost always seems to be an opportunity for strategic movement and positioning. I’m more concerned with the number of modes Gears of War 4’s multiplayer is trying to focus on. It’s not that anything in particular is badly implemented. Arms Race is a fun gimmick for people who liked Gun Game in the Call of Duty games. Dodgeball — where each player has a single life, but is “tagged” back into the match when a member of the other team dies — is inspired, and leads to some great back-and-forth stories. But I wonder how many of those modes will be alive a few months after the game launches, and whether that variety might hurt the community’s ability to coalesce around specific game types and grow from there.
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Microsoft and The Coalition have also committed to an ambitious, if confusing, DLC plan where new maps will be free of charge for all content in most circumstances — offline being the exception. It would appear that Gears of War 4 and the Coalition are following Halo 5 and developer 343’s lead with an aggressive post-release update schedule of new content, which should bode well for the game’s longer-term prospects.
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