10 years ago, Gears of War graced the Xbox 360. It was the Xbox’s new killer app, following in the footsteps of Halo. It sold a heft amount and Microsoft took note of that. Two years later we received Gears of War 2 which dialed down the horror and cranked the action up to 11. It was even more of a hit than the first game and three years later Gears of War 3 topped it yet again and continued the franchises popularity climb. And then Gears of War: Judgement happened and put a damper on the whole party. In 2014, Epic Games decided to move on from Gears of War and do something new, so they sold the IP to Microsoft who in turn gave it to Black Tusk Studios. Not long after, Rod Fergusson, one of the creators of Gears of War, was brought on at Black Tusk to lead the development of the next main installment in the Gears franchise. The transition was solidified when Black Tusk became The Coalition, a developer dedicated to the Gears IP, just as 343 Industries solely makes Halo games and Turn 10 makes Forza. Gamers have waited patiently to see if this game lives up to the legacy of its predeccessors, and I’m happy to say that, at least for the campaign, it hits all the right notes.
Gears of War 4 picks up 25 years after the end of the Locust War and the Lambent Pandemic. We meet Marcus Fenix’s son James Dominic Fenix, who has gone AWOL from the new COG alongside his friend Del Walker and joined a group of Outsiders led by Reyna Diaz. They are accompanied by Reyna’s daughter, Kait. After something goes bump in the night and kidnaps their entire village, he three of them set out on a journey to save them, meeting some familiar faces along the way.
I won’t say that the story of Gears 4 is perfect, but it hits the notes that it needs to and hits you where it counts, when it counts. While its nice to see some old friends(All of whom are written and acted perfectly.), the new cast are no slouches. JD, Del, and Kait are all likable characters with their own quirks and each of them has a comedic side that adds some much needed light to the darkness surrounding them. The actors all gave great performances and the performance capture caught every subtle nuance to the characters movements and facial expressions.
Despite all the praise I’ve been heaping on it, I will say that I felt the game was a tad too short. Playing through it on Casual difficulty netted me a clear time of about seven hours. To some that may be a decent amount of time for a singleplayer shooter campaign, and you’re right, most of them are about that length. But I feel like there wasn’t as much crammed into that time span as there could have been.
And a point I have to make is that the enemies are fairly predictable. The DeeBees aren’t very interesting to fight and the Sworm is more or less just a reskin of the Locust classes with the only major differences being the beastial enemies like the Pouncer, Snatcher, and Carrier. I will say though that the Juvies are better than the Wretches. They’re faster, deadlier, and their high-pitched squeals echo. So if you can’t see them, and you’re using surround sound headphones or have a 5.1 or 7.1 surround system wherever you play your games, it’ll be hard to tell where they’re coming from.
One final note: The Coalition didn’t really succeed in making the game terrifying. The first Gears of War definitely had horror elements to it that freaked you out and one of The Coalitions goals for Gears 4 was to recapture that feeling, that’s why the game is set over the course of a single night. Because, ya know, stuffs scarier at night. But the Swarm never really scared me. I just shrugged them off and blew them away with my trusty Lancer.
Okay, here’s where I really get to let loose. Not sure how many people will read this section, but I really gotta talk about this story. I have no one to discuss this with so I need to do it somewhere before I explode. Gears of War 4 has some of the best moments in the whole franchise IMO. From Marcus’ near-death to the revelation that Kait is Queen Myrrah’s granddaughter. Yeah, you read that last one right. There was a mystery hanging over the whole story that didn’t quite make any sense until the very ending. Kait’s mother acted like she knew something was going to happen and when she was the fighting the Scion(Note: Scions are the evolved Locust that survived the Imulsion Countermeasure, were thought dead, and evolved for the past 25 years and now lead the Swarm.) she was holding a pendant with a strange pattern on it. And as you progress through the campaign you see that pattern more and more the closer you get to the Swarm Hive’s. And it’s strange that Reyna was not podded like everyone else. At the end it’s revealed that the Scion had attached her to a bunch of tendrils that were mutating her(And that’s coupled with the Scion earlier saying that she was where she belonged. Which was strange.). Kait was forced to cut her down, killing her in the process, and was given her mothers pendant. The final shot shows your the back of the pendant: The symbol of the Locust Horde. When Kait reveals that it belonged to her grandmother, everything suddenly slides into place and its this big reveal moment(Though the audience are the only ones privy to this knowledge as no one else sees that symbol, the younger characters don’t recognize it, and Kait has no idea about her family’s legacy, though it’s likely her mother did which is why she expected the Locust to come for her one day and locked Kait inside a shed so she wouldn’t be taken as well. The Scions were trying to turn her into the new Queen, and with her now dead, Kait is the only descendant of Myrrah left, which means they’ll likely be coming for her next. This leaves some significant plot threads hanging for the future because it’ll be interesting to see what happens when everyone else learns about this. I’m also having a hard time wrapping my head around Myrrah having a daughter. She was surrounded by Locust all her life and there were no other known humans living amongst the Locust that we know of. I mean, obviously she had to have had parents, but they were never seen nor mentioned. And Reyna would have had to of been conceived prior to E-Day for this to all work out. It’s baffling.
But enough of that, lets move on to the Swarm. The reveal that the Juvies and Drones aren’t Locust didn’t surprise me. It’d be lame to have the same old enemies again, especially in such large numbers. What did surprise me was that Juvies are born from humans who have been cocooned inside a Swarm Pod. And then Juvies burrow underground and rapidly mutate into Drones. So the Swarm is technically Human, but they’re driven by a hivemind and at the top of that hivemind are the Scions. Scions are Locust that didn’t die from the Imulsion Countermeasure. Instead, they crystallized and were trapped inside some sort of cocoon that nothing could break through. The COG wrote them off as dead and tossed the cocoons underground, creating a mass Locust grave. I can’t be the only one that sees the stupidity in that, but hey, we needed a way to bring at least a few Locust back. And it’s these Locust that make up the new heavy infantry, the replacements for the Boomers, Grinders, Butchers, Maulers, and Diggers. The reason they’re kidnapping humans is to pod them up and turn them into Juvies in order to breed a new army in order to finish what they started and destroy humanity.
And of course I’d be wrong to not bring up the obvious cameos of Marcus, Hoffman, Baird, Cole, and Sam. Hoffman only appears in the Prologue of the game, being the focal point for the three flashbacks that make up the prologue. It’s nice to see that he’s still alive, albeit confined to a wheelchair. Marcus, meanwhile, is present for the vast majority of the story. His back and forth banter with JD and Del really hits it home that he and JD are on rough terms and that Del has quite the history with the Fenix family. It also really shows that JD is definitely Marcus’ son as they too of them constantly bicker back and forth and can predict what the other will do because they’ve been there, done that. Baird appears briefly in the Prologue, watching the ceremony and spying on JD, and then doesn’t appear again until the end of the game where it’s revealed that Baird and Sam are married, something he still doesn’t want to admit openly, laughing it off with his usual wit. Cole is also still the barrel of fun that he always was and Sam is as snarky as ever. Notice how I haven’t mentioned Anya yet. And that’s because she doesn’t appear in the game nor will she probably appear in any future games, because she’s dead. We don’t know how or when it happened, just that somewhere between Gears 3 and Gears 4 she passed away, and the only reason we know that is because it’s brought up briefly during a conversation between JD and Marcus. I kind of don’t like it when characters are killed off off-screen. That just isn’t right, especially for a character that everyone cares about. The least they could have done was give us some more information on how it happened, but it’s left very vague. The only clue that we get is that it probably happened 10 years prior to Gears 4 because Cole mentions to Marcus that its been 10 years since they last saw each other and the look on their faces says that it wasn’t a pleasant meeting, which leads me to believe it was for Anya’s funeral, after which Marcus became the cranky farmer that he is having put his emotions into his work. He doesn’t even live in his own house. The manor is all run down and boarded up, with Marcus living off to the side of it in a smaller house like where the hired help would live. There’s just so much I want to know, that I don’t think we’ll ever learn.
As promised, The Coalition cranked up the graphics of the campaign by sacrificing the framerate, shooting for a stable 1080p30 instead of 720p60 or 1080p60, but with lesser graphics. And they weren’t wrong to do so. Sure, 60fps is nice for gameplay, but a campaign isn’t competitive. It’s more about the presentation. And the graphics definitely do their job of making everything look more realistic and less flat. Of course, I can’t actually speak to the performance of the Xbox One version. Why? Because I played the PC version. And I’m happy to report that it’s very stable and very pretty. I’ll admit that I was worried when I first saw comparison videos of the Xbox One version versus the PC version, but after going through the settings myself, cranking them all the way up, and then diving into the campaign first thing, I’m happy to say that it looks better than what I saw before. It had nothing to do with video compression, it had to do with the people that made those videos intentionally gimping the PC settings. One thing I noticed in their videos were the blurry textures. It made sense for the Xbox One version because there was no way they were gonna pool off graphics voodoo with the power they had. Unreal Engine 4 is great, but it can’t work miracles. But then you saw the PC version and the textures looked only slightly less blurry and still kind of flat. That bugged me because it looked like Microsoft was holding back their own PC version. However, after getting my heads on the game, it turns out there’s a dedicated texture sharpening slider in the graphics options. Cranking it all the way up will make the textures are sharp and clear as crystal and the detail will pop. On top of that the PC version has soft shadows which are more realistic than the Xbox One’s hard shadows. Top that off with increased particle density, and you have one beautiful looking Gears of War 4 PC running at 1080p60(I had it capped at 60 to prevent tearing. My screen can only display 60fps anyway.). The benchmark showed that, with all the graphics turned to maximum, the game was only using roughly 4.8GB of VRAM at its peak. Thankfully my GTX 980ti could handle the job and I think it’s safe to say a GTX 1080 will also accomplish that. Little iffy on the 1070, but feel free to try it. I don’t know anything about AMD so you’ll have to make your own judgement calls on that.
Moving on from the graphics settings themselves, The Coalition definitely nailed the look of the Gears of War world. Though this time it looked less Victorian era and more sci-fi meets medieval. You have castles made from stone, buildings with tiled roofs, and a large under-construction settlement that looks more advanced than any other COG city we’ve seen before. I can honestly say that the environments are fresh, but they don’t really change all that often. The good news is that Gears 4 has the vibrant color palette of Gears 3 which I absolutely loved.
This will be the smallest section mainly because there isn’t much to say. The returning weapons sound about the same as they did before with the exception that they have a lot more oomph to them. The new weapons likewise have a similar attention to detail in their sound effects and it pays off because they all sound really good. Couple that with the great environmental sound effects and the decent score and you have the basis of solid sound design.
After seven hours I completed the campaign of Gears of War 4. It was time well spent, even if it felt like it should have been a bit longer. The characters were perfect, the enemies were fresh, yet familiar, and the art was gorgeous. The Coalition’s first attempt at a major Gears title has largely succeeded, even if it didn’t nail the atmosphere it intended to. This is a story that I think Gears fans will find to be a fitting start to a new saga even if the characters we’re familiar with take a backseat to the new generation in future titles. Having said that, it makes me sad to think that we’ll have to wait at least two years for Gears of War 5, and that’s if they stick to the prior release schedule. For all I know they could decide to do a three year cycle instead this time around. At least the Scorpio will have arrived by then and the next game will be able to take full advantage of that massive boost in power.