It’s been a long decade since the first Gears of War set the tone for the last console generation. The gory third-person shooter from Epic Games innovated slick, magnetic cover-based shooting and dreary, gunmetal palettes with auburn blooms — hallmarks imitated by the triple-A shooters that followed it. For better or worse, Gears of War defined its era. But does it do it again in 2016? For better or worse, it doesn’t.
Gears of War 4, from Vancouver studio the Coalition, is both a sequel and “reboot” in the sense that it’s engineered for newcomers — an exposition-filled prequel features battles during the Pendulum Wars, E-Day, and the final assault in Gears of War 3 — while netting fans of the originals. Set 25 years after Marcus Fenix set off the Imulsion Countermeasure to kill the Locust, only a few hundred thousand humans are left alive on Sera, now plagued by storms called “Windflares.”
To ensure repopulation, the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) imposed martial law, restricting travel between walled-off cities. Those against COG rule, “Outsiders,” reside on the fringes in the path of Windflares … and something else more sinister.
Like Father, Like Son
The secret to Gears of War is that it’s always been a drama between a father and son. This isn’t groundbreaking (see: Star Wars) but it’s a bit unexpected in a testosterone-fueled shooter with “chainsaw rifles” as its biggest appeal. The tradition continues in Gears of War 4 as players control JD Fenix, the brash son of Marcus. Not to worry, however, as JD moves and shoots just as dear old dad did, awkward jogging and all.
The Coalition, the Microsoft-owned studio that took over from Epic, had a lot of practice getting the feel of Gears with last year’s Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, and it shows. There’s nothing missing in Gears of War 4: The B button still revs the chainsaw, active reloading is still satisfying, and curb stomps still punctuate with an exquisite, soaked “splat.”
It’s also a little dated. Gears of War 4 features the tightest controls the series has ever had, but COG vets will immediately fall into decades-long habits. The Gnasher is still a beast without aim, the Snub pistol is still pointless, and the Hammer of Dawn is still annoying against multiple, smaller targets. Even some of the character animations haven’t changed — seems EVERYONE smacks the Lancer’s magazine housing when they fail at an active reload — making Gears of War 4 sort of stuck despite its supposed bold step into a new era. This is Gears of War without question, but maybe that’s all it is despite seemingly wanting to be more.
Some New Tricks
New to the game are cover-based takedowns which take getting used to. Opportunities to try them in the campaign are also rare; it’s not often you will share cover, and even if you do try it, you’re open to enemy fire for too long. Since there’s almost always a more efficient way to get rid of enemies at that point anyway (i.e. the Gnasher), it’s merely a neat mechanic that doesn’t reinvent.
The same goes for the new weapons players get to wield. The Overkill shotgun (it fires twice with one trigger pull) and the Enforcer SMG (high-rate of fire, low accuracy) feel like how Gears of War guns should feel, but you lose nothing sticking with Gnashers and Lancers if you so wish. They’re just icing.
Getting to the Meat of It
There’s still a lot I have to unpack with Gears of War 4. Multiplayer and Horde 3.0 are big question marks — I won’t know the true extent until closer to launch — and since I’m only a little over (what feels like) a quarter of the way into the campaign, I don’t know every character arc or plot twists.
But when it comes to the nitty gritty of the mechanics, this is the same Gears of War built for the current generation. This is both exciting and disappointing. It’s been a long five years since Gears of War furthered its unique mythology, and it’s a thrill that the newest installment has leaped the setting ahead with a new crop of likable, dynamic characters. (A lot of them women!) But that it plays exactly like it did when we first revved a Lancer ten years ago, it’s a wonder how much the series is really willing to move forward.
Gears of War 4 releases October 11 on Xbox One.