It's been awhile since Gears of War has felt absolutely vital. Five years, if you want to be a little more exact about it. The release of Gears of War 3 was the high-water mark for the series up to that point, both narratively as it closed off most of the loose ends you wanted to see wrapped up by the end of the trilogy and technically. Gears 3 was a great-looking Xbox 360 game that built up some terrific gameplay additions when compared to the earlier games in the franchise.
Since then, the series lost its way a bit. Epic seemed to drift away from game development, with its then-owned studio, People Can Fly, handling a Gears side story that filled in story gaps that didn't need filling and offering up gameplay twists that were occasionally interesting but usually superfluous. Not long after that, Microsoft realized the value of the Gears franchise and brought it in-house, converting one of its studios into a Gears-dedicated studio along the way. That team got its feet wet with a technically competent remake of the first Gears of War that really just made it obvious how much the series had improved over the course of that initial trilogy. Going back to Gears 1 just made me want to see a full, new Gears of War game.
Gears of War 4 is The Coalition's first full, new Gears of War game. And it feels like a good mix of old and new, capturing the characters and gameplay moments that made the series feel so impactful in the first place while advancing a new set of characters, a new, well-justified story, and the sort of multiplayer options you'd expect to see. It might not reinvent the gear, but it goes a long way to making the franchise feel alive in a way it hasn't since 2011. If nothing else, it's left me wanting to see more from the franchise and the team behind it.
Gears of War 4 is set years after the events of 3, where Marcus Fenix sat down, took his do-rag off, and made you think that the Locust threat was more or less over. Gears 4 puts you in the boots of Marcus' son, JD Fenix. It seems that the situation has changed since we last checked in on this universe, as the younger Fenix and his colleague Del have abandoned their post, left the Gears, and taken up with some "outsiders." The COG may have successfully fought off the Locust, but in the years that followed they seem to have become quite the oppressors themselves, with robots known as DBs doing most of the heavy lifting as they attempt to rebuild the planet and repopulate the race. It's politically muddy in ways that the previous trilogy would occasional hint at, but now you're seeing the effects of that trilogy spun out, 25 years later. It's a good swap that makes the good guys the bad guys, as the game opens with your crew of outsiders raiding a COG construction site.
The game doesn't spend much time actually exploring this new flip, though, as a new/old threat of creatures that come to be known as "the Swarm" rear their ugly head around halfway through the game. While the airdrops of robot troops made the game's opening chapters feel at least a little different, the Swarm come off as the Locust troops of the previous games but with somewhat better AI. They'll flank you, they'll hop over your cover to knock you back, but they'll also just post up behind something and take mindless shots in your direction. And they'll occasionally emerge from nests that look suspiciously like the Locust emergence holes. So the bulk of the game, then, just feels like more Gears of War with some new unspeakable creatures thrown in along the way, including a "snatcher" who sucks up downed players and traps them inside the creature's stomach until other players put enough rounds into the enemy, forcing it to puke the player back up. There's some neat stuff in there, but I was definitely left wishing that the campaign didn't cruise back into its comfort zone quite so quickly.
It also must be said that the game is really leaning into its status as the first step in a new Gears of War saga, sometimes at the expense of its own story. The world is interesting and I like its cast of characters, both new and old. Cool things happen along the way that enrich the Gears of War universe. But Gears of War 4 is mostly setup with very little in the way of resolution. The ending moments feels like they're missing an encounter or two.
You can play the campaign cooperatively with another person, or you can dive right into the game's multiplayer modes. The competitive multiplayer brings new weapons into the conflict, but that doesn't mean that it isn't still a map full of bulky, shotgun-toting fighters who love to roll up behind you and splatter you into a mess before you know what's happening. This is the fifth Gears of War game, and by this point you probably already know if you're into that sort of thing or not. I used to be, but as the competitive community developed and got better and sneaking up behind you and shotgunning you down, I fell out of love with this mode in the game. On one hand, it's a shame that this facet of the game isn't more inviting to new players. On the other... well... it's the fifth Gears of War game, and by this point you probably already know if you're into that sort of thing or not.
Even as someone who isn't likely to spend any more time with the competitive side of the game, Gears of War 4 still feels like it has a lot to offer. Horde mode returns as the wave-based survival mode that up to five players can play. It uses a class-based system this time out with equippable bonuses and starting weapons that correspond to each class. Soldiers are your everyman Gears of War character, while Heavy players get bonuses to explosive damage. Engineers start with the repair tool for making sure your defenses are in working condition. Scouts collect more power out in the field, which is used to purchases new fortifications. And each class can equip a set of bounties and bonus cards.
Yes, Gears of War 4 is the latest in an increasingly long line of games to bring a card metaphor into the action. Here you'll open blind boxes (which you can grind out for a far-too-high price or spend actual money on) and get new characters, weapon skins, versus bonuses, Horde skills, and bounties. The skills are things like a card that gives you 20% damage bonus whenever you active reload in Horde mode. Bounties are things like "earn 20,000XP when you build 50 fortifications." And so on. Skill cards can be combined to increase their bonus potential and you'll earn the ability to equip multiple cards as you level up. It's a neat system that doesn't dig too deep into the single-use item side of microtransactions, but ultimately the rate at which you earn in-game currency seems way too low, making the game feel too biased in favor of real-money transactions. It's not enough to ruin the core of the Horde experience--which is one of the best wave-based survival modes in the business--but it's still a bummer.
Gears of War 4 is a great-looking game both on the PC and Xbox One, though with its higher frame rate potential and better resolution options, the PC version is the way to go, if you're able. The only real catch is that PC and Xbox One players can't mingle in the public, competitive side of the game. So if you're going in looking to play with friends against other humans, you'll all need to commit to the same version of the game to stick together. Horde mode and co-op don't enforce that same limitation, though it's easy to see why you'd want to keep the higher-fidelity mouse-and-keyboard crowd away from the controller users in competitive matches.
My time with Gears of War 4 left me with a feeling that the game could have been a little more ambitious in spots. It feels a little too safe and too unwilling to ditch some of the traditions of the initial trilogy. But the ways it plays around with and reintroduces the characters from those Gears of War games is expertly handled, making for some great moments along the way. It might not stick the landing, but Gears of War 4 puts the franchise back on the map in a big way, and large parts of it are a great time.