The single-player campaign of Gears of War 4 is a spectacle no fan of action games should miss.
"There's no doubt The Coalition is capable of making a great action game anyone can enjoy. Packaging it in a Gears of War box is a welcome bonus."
To author a new chapter in a franchise that’s been away from the public limelight for a while must be quite an undertaking. To do it with Gears of War - a core part of the last console generation, and one that spawned countless clones in the years since - is a wager you may never win.
At least as far as its the single-player campaign is concerned, Gears of War 4 developer The Coalition - in my mind - has already won.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with Gears of War. I love the campaigns, enjoy the characters and story, and have immense fun with Horde. Yet the way it plays always irked me. Character movement feels stiff, getting in and out of cover constantly is the only viable way to play, and on and on. Though I’ve generally accepted it as a core part of its identity, I always hoped the next game would bring about a major change in mechanics, control schemes - something, to be more inclusive of the way I play.
I even ranted about how the multiplayer beta convinced me that many of what I don’t like was here to stay. But that was multiplayer, a mode I could never really get into. Now that I've finished the single-player campaign for Gears of War 4, I realise that none of this baggage can stop you from enjoying an action-heavy, well-paced, and interesting story mode.
For the ten or so hours I spent playing it, I was constantly reminded of how you can push a series forward while maintaining the core tenets that have always made it what it is. The main Gears mechanics are largely the same, but movement is quicker, and with help of new animations, the combat flows much better than in any of the other games. Cover is still your bread and butter, but many cover pieces are destructible, ensuring you (and the enemy) don't hide for long.
The story of Gears of War 4 succeeds on many levels, but above all, it knows exactly what it wants to deliver right from the get-go. During the first few minutes, we get introduced to our three new heroes, JD Fenix, Kait, and Del.
But before we meet the new squad, we go through perhaps the most bombastic tutorial/prologue of any game in recent memory. You get dropped into three big battles from the series’ history, and the game uses that to re-familiarise you with controls and the core gameplay loop. It's also a chance to remember some old friends. A new high bar for prologues has been set.
The story takes place 25 years after Gears of War 3. We find our new friends in a situation we can't quite understand, talking about objects and concepts we're not familiar with yet. But through clever writing in both the main story and in-mission chatter, we slowly get a better picture of the world.
This trick of teasing the player for a bit before slowly delivering answers works wonders for the game. It guarantees you're always paying attention, anxious to learn what this off-hand comment or that character line meant. It does so elegantly, without making you feel like an outsider, or dumping a load of info in the form of "as you all know"-style speeches.
It takes about a couple of hours before things really start to get going, but all the while I’ve been too busy wondering about the state of this new world and the backstory of these characters to worry if the "real" story was being held back.
Make no mistake, when things do go off, you’ll know it. This is when Gears of War 4 swiftly re-introduces an old character, and after a certain item is returned to him, you'll know in your heart that it's about to get real. I was surprised to find myself cheering loudly in that moment. I don’t think it was nostalgia, I played the Gears of War games way late in the Xbox 360’s life. Yet, for some reason, that moment resonated with me well, as if Han Solo had just showed up to remind everyone this is a Star Wars film.
The game doesn't waste any time clarifying what he's been up to since we last saw him, or why he is the way he is now. He's here, you know him, and there's no elaborate or convoluted setup for why he needed to show up now. He's in this story for a reason that's been established prior, and I didn't mind, because I could see him as another layer being added to an already interesting story.
It could’ve been easy for The Coalition to present a timid first act in which the old Cogs teach the new Cogs how to get things done, only to disappear for two acts and conveniently reappear near the end to solve a conundrum that stumped the younglings, or lend them a hand one last time.
Instead, through five acts, we get to fight two new enemy factions, learn a few things about each of their origins, and generally come out the other side with a better understanding of this new world than we had going in. More importantly, we meet new characters that never for a moment feel like they don't belong in this world.
"The action happens in smaller chunks that make each environment feel less like an arena, and more like a real world location."
Action, too, is well dispensed throughout. The classic Gears style of 10-15-minute fights, into 2-minute cut-scenes, into another fight, doesn’t quite return. Instead, the action happens in smaller chunks that make each environment feel less like an arena, and more like a real world location.
You're still going to spot chest-high walls ahead and realise you're probably about to get into a fight, but encounters never outstay their welcome. There are usually 5-10 enemies you need to take care of, and when that's done, the story moves forward and you get another encounter of a similar length shortly after. A couple of new enemy types in particular were a lot of fun to fight - designed to get you out of cover and force you to learn a new way of dealing with things.
The big, massive attack/defend missions are here, too, but evolved. The Coalition saved those moments for when they really made narrative sense, and ingeniously bolted Horde-style mechanics onto them to make the fight more engaging.
When you're left defending an area, you’re given the Fabricator (a 3D printer, essentially) and asked to fortify entry points, because the mission is about to turn into Horde mode for a few minutes. These scenarios are never as long or as tough as the real Horde, but through them, you get a better understanding of the new Horde mode just by playing.
As waves of increasingly difficult enemies hit, the scene turns into a spectacle. Enemies pour in through barriers and walls you see break in front of you, instead of spawning infinitely from a monster closet you can identify before the fight event begins.
Boss fights are another series trademark that have seen some changes. There aren't quite as many of them as you’d expect and they generally appear in crucial, story-sensitive moments. As a result, they're less memorable but work well in the moment.
In between regular skirmishes and Horde-style defence missions (which, by the way, are not many), we get these mini-boss fights that usually happen in small arenas, prompting constant movement. These can often be unspectacular, as mini-bosses tend to have limited move-sets and can generally hit you from a far. One in particular frustrated me the most, though that was more a fault of my buddies' AI than the boss itself.
Speaking of AI, your squad is generally good at going through hell to revive you, but they're very happy to constantly run in front of you as you try to land shots. This happens on and off, but never really halts the action too much.
I was impressed by how varied the levels themselves were, and the unique mechanics some of them offered. There are couple of vehicle sections that could easily be cut-scenes in most games. They're short but very polished, and like the rest of the game, never drop below 30fps.
"The story amplifies the stakes and quickly accelerates towards a final act you won't soon forget. The changes in gameplay in the last couple of hours in particular border on power fantasy, unlike anything else I’d seen before in a Gears game."
The lightning bolts we saw in trailers - called Wind Flares - don't appear too often. You're basically asked to navigate your way around their AOE's as they land, in a couple of very short sections. Weather effects in general were made to be a much bigger deal than they ended up being.
As we get closer to the end, the story amplifies the stakes and quickly accelerates towards a final act you won't soon forget. The changes in gameplay in the last couple of hours in particular border on power fantasy, unlike anything else I’d seen before in a Gears game.
The tone overall is dark, but is often betrayed by the unnecessary quips the squad keeps making. It feels off when you see them angry in one cut-scene and joking about a tangent the next minute. These feel like they were added in later to lighten up the general tone, and they make the characters appear less consistent with their stories every time you hear them.
Unfortunately, the ending also doesn't quite deliver on the promise. Even though we reach a form of conclusion, it conveniently leaves certain big details out. The final scene is clearly setting up a sequel.
Comparisons between Gears of War 4 and Halo 4 are bound to come up. Both games are intended as true sequels, pushing their respective universes forward, and both are created by new teams whose first work is creating these big chapters in two venerable series.
As far as the end result is concerned, The Coalition has nailed it on the first go. There's no doubt in my mind that this team is capable of making a great action game anyone can enjoy. Packaging it in a Gears of War box is a welcome bonus.
This is review is an assessment of the campaign only, played on Xbox One in single-player.