[This review will only cover the single-player campaign. Due to restrictions set by the publisher, we were unable to play the multiplayer modes.]
The original 3 Gears games were always about placing you as the most crucial component in a war that was clearly bigger than what you saw. You heard radio chatter depicting other battles and you found the bodies of soldiers that had shown up before you. Gears 4 takes another approach. Playing as J.D., son of Marcus Fenix from the original games, you experience the beginning of another war, and while it’s certainly familiar – sometimes too familiar – Gears 4 carves a really nice niche for itself, telling a more personal story this time around.
Gears of War 4 opens with a clever prologue. Minister Jinn is making an expectedly epic speech at a memorial for the fallen heroes of the war, which graciously catches us up on some of the lore’s most important moments, including the final moments before the emergence of the Locust, and their eventual decline. Each segment is playable, as a nameless grunt – though if you’ve played previous game, the role seems to be one of the Carmines. From there we jump into the shoes of J.D. and his friends, who are fleeing the COG. These two moments create a really great juxtaposition to show the state of the world. Neither side is necessarily the villain, though you will fight the new DeeBee robots, which now take the place of all soldiers in the COG. J.D. and co. are trying to survive, and to do so means stealing from the COG. Upon returning to their village, they find that they’re attacked by some new monsters, and thus begins the game’s primary quest: save Kait’s, presumably J.D.’s girlfriend, mother.
The journey takes them on a path with few surprises. Characters from the previous entries return, and the bad guys may or may not have ties to the bad guys from the original trilogy. In fact, story wise, the game takes many cues from Microsoft’s other big sci-fi shooter series, Halo. With development being handed off from Epic to The Coalition, the changes aren’t dissimilar to the differences found from Halo 3 to Halo 4, as that series, too, found itself with another developer. The story is tighter, and actually hits the emotional highs that the original trilogy only wishes it could (Yeah, that’s right. Dom’s death was lame). It wisely keeps those scenes to a minimum in favor of a more light-hearted affair. As much as I hate to compare the game to others, its story-telling often felt most similar to the Uncharted franchise.
Gears‘ shooting mechanics receive minimal overhaul. You still lumber your way through battlefields littered with conveniently-placed, waist-high barriers to use as cover. With this being the first time in years that a new Gears game is playable on PC, using a mouse and keyboard brings the expected benefits. Aiming is more precise than it’s ever been, while movement is analog (all or nothing). Gears barely benefits from the increase in aiming precision, with only a few standout moments that were made better by a mouse. I actually eventually switched to using the Xbox One controller, as I found the added benefit of the comfort of a controller and couch outweighed the benefits of a mouse and keyboard. I anticipate this will change for multiplayer. That said, the transition of moving from controller to keyboard/mouse is seamless.
Those who feared the worst for Gears 4 on PC can lay their fears to rest. On my machine, sporting an i7-4790k, an nVidia 970, and 8 gb of RAM, I was able to play at Ultra settings/1080p, with rarely a frame under 60fps. Oddly enough, the only time I saw notable issues was during the pre-rendered cut scenes. There were moments when the scene would freeze completely for only a moment. During gameplay, I never once saw any slowdown. Following my experience with Forza, which received a similar treatment as part of the Xbox Play Anywhere program, I expected to have to turn the settings down and still experience slowdown. As far as I’m concerned, Gears of War 4 is best played on PC.
Graphically speaking, Gears 4 doesn’t quite sport the visual prowess that the original did upon it’s release. It’s certainly a pretty game, but I recall this series standing as a shining example of what the contemporary hardware was capable of. This time out, there are noticeable ugly moments, particularly hair and some weird liquids. Nothing really detracts from the experience, however, and the game’s sound effects, music, and voice-acting are all top-notch enough to make up for it.
If Gears 4 has one big black eye, it is the abrupt ending, one that (aw jeez, I’m doing it again) reminded me of the ending of Halo 2. It feels like there should be another hour or two, and while I think a ten hour campaign is certainly an appropriate length, the content feels unfinished, and I suspect we’ll see something wrapped up in costly DLC.
Gears 4‘s issues are minor, really. The moment-to-moment action and set pieces are better than the series has ever been. The new characters are fresh and stray away from the meat-head bravado of the series’ previous central characters, and feel less like outdated 80s action heroes and more like the Nathan Drakes of the world (in spite of the absurdly disproportionate muscles and jawlines). The story manages to play it simple and straight – a standard save-the-princess scenario that is highlighted by moments of genuine emotional depth. But most importantly, this is a Gears of War game, and there’s a lot of new bad guys to cut up and blow up. At the end of the day, that’s a whole lot of fun.