I remember watching a documentary on the making of the original Gears of War. One scene in particular has always stuck with me. Members of the development team, including the outspoken Cliffy B, are having lunch with Microsoft producers. Cliffy B turns to them, shifting in his seat excitedly and asking “Did you see the chainsaw gun? Did you?”.
This excitement was well founded, the Lancer as it later became known is now one of the most iconic weapons in all of gaming. The brutal machine gun, comically over sized to fit its comically over sized owners, dealt death from afar and blood spraying, satisfying vivisection when the distance becomes point blank. It summed up Gears of War in one single image, and made that first game truly cool.
Fast forward a decade and a few sequels, with a few years off and a new developer, Gears returns in Gears of War 4 and I can most definitely confirm that the Lancer is still cool as all hell. This time though, it is wielded by a new generation of gears, including original protagonist Marcus Fenix’s son, JD.
We are introduced back to the world Sera some twenty five years after the events of Gears of War 3. The planet is scarred by the explosion at the end of the third game and the younger gears, JD, Del and Kate have grown up in a world where the series main bad guys, the Locust, no longer exist, the COG (the government) have started to rebuild the world and women are told they should be mothers to rebuild the population.
At the start of the game, this isn’t your dad’s gears in terms of story. The writing is much improved, the setting genuinely feels like a world trying to rebuild and the main protagonists feel like they no longer believe in the government, and so have become ‘Outsiders’ - people who live away from the main cities, the COG and more over, the law. Meaning they have to perform raids for supplies.
This is the first mission, a raid on a construction site for some supplies. The enemies supplied are robots, called DB’s, and are fresh foe to help regenerate the series. They take cover and flank where appropriate, with bigger and badder robots being introduced the further into the game you get. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last. A few levels in and the ‘real’ enemy appears, and they look awfully familiar. This is actually deeply disappointing.
Falling back on long standing antagonists to remind everyone they are playing a Gears of War game is totally unnecessary. The opening missions set the stage for an intriguing tale of government vs outsider, where superior technology takes on human grit and pure muscle, but The Coalition, the new overseers of the franchise, chose to quickly forget that and move into the same thing players were doing a decade ago.
Therein lies the rub, with ten minutes of play reminding you that yes, this is indeed a Gears game, through and through. The active reload, familiar weapons, weight of just about everything and copious amounts of blood provide comforting knowledge that the core gameplay hasn’t been messed with and the developers know how to make this game and do it well. It just needs better story arc’s, something that moves the universe forward, not back.
That said, the writing is vastly improved over previous entries. One sequence in particular, where the team move from a partially built hospital, scattered with posters and pamphlets about how every women on the planet should become a mother, sticks out. At the end of this, JD asks Kate if she doesn’t like the thought of being a mom, to which she responds that she likes it fine, she just doesn’t like being told she has to.
It once again reinforces that anti-government story that would have been so cool to see played out, while also marking out what a great addition to the series cast Kate is. JD and Del on the other hand, fit more into archetypes seen in previous games, with Del being a wisecracking sidekick, despite being the one that asked Del to leave the COG, for reasons never fully explained. JD on the other hand isn’t as gruff and hard boiled as his father, presenting a youthful exuberance, but feels like he is a character transplanted from a previous game in the series.
Its unfortunate that more isn’t made of these characters, but, this being 2016, the game lets you know there is time. The ending, while not spoiling anything, achieves almost Halo 2 levels of ‘Oh F*** off!’ when it just stops and the credits roll. While this is a good few hours in, it just feels like a cynical way to remind people that this is the start of a new trilogy.
Taking all other elements away, and focusing on just the gameplay, this is probably the best gears game released so far. The new elements, some light tower defense sections and battling through spectacular ‘Wind flares’ during a few levels give some welcome changes of pace and push the Xbox One’s powers, and that core gameplay loop that always Gears so a great game remains fully intact.
The multiplayer returns, and if you loved the previous versions, then you will be very happy with what is on offer here. I didn’t play a huge amount of it back during the series heyday, but I did play enough to know that everything you loved about then is still present and correct today.
If Gears of War was never a series you were into, that this new entry will do nothing to change your mind, but for those who loved the hyper violent, gritty sci-fi and slight ridiculousness of the originals, Gears 4 will be a most welcome return to form. It’s just such a shame that it was felt necessary to cover old ground so completely, Gears of War fans deserve more respect than that, indeed, Gears of War itself deserves better.