A brand new legacy.
To be honest, at the beginning Gears of War 4 had me worried. Its opening act felt dull, safe and familiar. But as the game goes on, its clear that new developers The Coalition show their bravery. By contrast, the game's final act is a riotous thrill that allows the player to cut loose after hours of nervous cover hugging. The last few chapters don't fully absolve the mediocre opening, but it shows Microsoft's second(??) most beloved franchise is in the hands of developers with ambition beyond the template laid out by series creators, Epic Games.
I can lay the opening act's weakness squarely at the feet of the robots I was fighting. They absorbed Lancer bullet after Lancer bullet as they marched ponderously towards me. Shooting them never felt satisfying. As macabre as it is, I like Gears to show me gore -- and lots of it. If I unload a Gnasher shotgun clip into my target, I want to see guts, not sparks.
What I did enjoy about the opening act was seeing a world rebuilding after the long war with the Locust. The template for the last four games was ruins, ruins and more ruins. Fighting through neat, freshly-painted houses and spotless piazzas rather than bombed out concrete husks was refreshing.
Quintessential cover combat
The locations may be new, but the fighting is anything but. Gears popularized cover-based shooting, and in its fifth outing, it's still the best example of it. If you aren't hunkered behind a wall or pillar then the enemy will make mincemeat of you, especially on Hardcore difficulty mode, which is recommended by the developers.
Roadie running and slamming into cover still has the weighty satisfying thud that the series is known for and the contextual arrows that allow you to easily switch between cover is as useful now as it was in 2006. There's a feeling of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" about the combat in Gears of War 4, so instead we have to look at the enemies for combat diversity.
The aforementioned robots have aerial drones with shields that you need to deplete before doing any real damage. Heftier robots charge at you and explode once you've done enough damage, forcing you to get away sharpish. However, either of these enemies brought relief to the robot tedium.
Things pick up when the Swarm are introduced. After coming to terms with the fact these troopers are carbon copies of the Locust from previous games, The Coalition began to ask questions of my skills with new enemies like Snatchers and Pouncers. The former are huge, but attack infrequently, meaning you're best out of cover. The same goes for Pouncers, which have a stress-inducing habit of landing right on top of your hiding place, forcing you out of your comfort zone and into the line of fire. The best thing about the Swarm is that they bleed. Shotguns reduce enemies to gory chunks, while a hail of Lancer bullets gives the visceral reward of jets of blood. That's more like it!
New ways to kill
Variety comes in the shape of new weapons, too. The Buzzkill is a particular favourite. It fires ricocheting saw blades capable of dismembering anything in their path. You can even angle it off walls to get around cover, but that kind of tactic is reserved for someone far more skilled than me. The violent potential of the Buzzkill meant I always went out of my way to pick one up.
The Dropshot, on the other hand, is a weapon I came to fear. It fires a beam and a floating bomb. The bomb drops on whatever the beam touches and if it's you, it's a one-hit kill. There is no escape. I absolutely dread this weapon. I'd say it was responsible for half of my deaths in the campaign. Perhaps the most annoying thing about it is that it occupies an inventory slot. The Buzzkill is heavy, and like the Mulcher, you drop it if you try and switch weapons. This means you can grab it, blast its ammo into anything that moves, then drop it and forget about it. The Dropshot means losing your Lancer or your shotgun, both of which never stop being useful. If the Dropshot was a heavy weapon like the Buzzkill, I would have used it a lot more.
The next chapter
Outside of the first act, Gears of War 4 is a well-paced adventure into the bowels of the Swarm. Figuring out who and what they are is made all the more engaging by the new cast. Main character JD Fenix and his two companions are more believable than Marcus Fenix (JD's father) and his muscle-bound friends, and their story has more impact as a result -- particularly the moving closing moments.
Graphically, Gears of War 4 isn't the kind of awe-inspiring leap that the original Gears was. It's still stunning and fantastically detailed. Ivy creeps over crumbling walls, leaves flutter in the breeze and the sickly ooze that seeps from Swarm incubation sacks has an unsettling glisten. Visually, Gears of War 4 is at its most impressive when the weather turns sour. Dust storms set the sky to a ferocious shade of orange and seeing vast tornadoes of dust and lightning speed towards you is exhilarating.
It will come as no surprise to hear that Gears of War 4 is at its best when it lets you fight. The Coalition integrates Horde mode into the campaign and setting up defenses before hunkering down against the game's toughest enemies with your squad around you works well. Its one diversion from combat -- a linear motorbike chase -- left me clamouring for the open driving sections in Uncharted 4. This frustrating, old-fashioned sequence could have been a welcome break from the cover combat, but instead I couldn't wait for it to be over.
Take your skills to multiplayer
The beauty of Gears 4 multiplayer is how similar it feels to the campaign. The skills you learn in the eight-hour single-player adventure, such as out-flanking, serve you in good stead when you're fighting human opponents.
The Coalition don't reinvent the multiplayer, but the modes they have added are some of the best. Particularly, in Arms Race -- which asks you to kill enemies with a changing carousel of guns -- the first to get the requisite kills which each gun is the winner, and it's a real blast.
If you enjoyed the Horde mode sections in the campaign then you'll love it with friends. Wave after wave of enemies -- both robot and Swarm -- come at you, but kills give you the resources to build barbed wire, electric fences, turrets and more. It's simply thrilling! Keeping to a tight game plan, reviving your friends and not going on a gung-ho, solo charge are the keys to victory, and practice really does make perfect as you learn what defenses work best and where the best places are to bunker down.
This game was reviewed with a digital copy on Xbox One provided by Microsoft.
Images courtesy of Microsoft Studios and The Coalition.