‘Gears of War 4’ shows signs of regression

By Craig Taylor | Staff Writer

Since its debut in 2006, the “Gears of War” series has outgrown much of what made the first game in the franchise unique. Not all of those changes were necessarily bad, but the face of “Gears of War” has undoubtedly changed during the decade since the original gritty, cover-based third person shooter.

Now, in an effort to reinvigorate the series, studio The Coalition is attempting to recapture what was so special about in the first “Gears” and give it a new face for a new generation. “Gears of War 4” certainly feels like a classic “Gears” game, sometimes a bit too much for its own good.

Taking place 25 years after the end of “Gears of War 3,” the campaign of “Gears 4” follows the story of JD Fenix, son of former protagonist Marcus Fenix. Having defected from the newly established Coalition of Ordered Governments, JD and his two friends, Del and Kait, are living in a settlement that survives on the fringes of civilization called the Outsiders. They live in relative peace, until their entire village is either captured or killed by the Swarm, a horde of monsters not dissimilar to the Locust of the previous games. JD and his friends set out to save whatever might be left of their friends and family, and to get to the bottom of where the Swarm is coming from.

A major developmental focus of the “Gears of War 4” campaign was to recapture the intimacy of the first “Gears of War”. The entire story happens over a 24 hour period, which keeps the narrative grounded and the smaller spaces the firefights take place in are undoubtedly inspired by the series’ past. Learning how to deal with the new Swarm forms calls back to encountering the Locust for the first time, which the game’s effort to feel like an old “Gears of War” with a new skin.

At the same time, there are insane, exhilarating action set pieces that contrast the close, tight quarters of the rest of the game. These moments nail the feeling of a schlocky Hollywood blockbuster, complete with hammy dialogue and one-liners. The single-player seems focused on creating awesome, memorable moments rather than attempting to tell an emotional story, which works to the game’s benefit.

While the campaign delivers on that old-school Gears of War feeling and offers up some original ideas, the multiplayer is not as successful. Versus plays it safe in almost every way, and online just feels like more of the same, rather than being an innovative step forward.

To be fair, there are some new weapons, modes and cover maneuvers, but longtime fans will immediately feel a disappointing familiarity when they jump in for the first time. There’s not that sense of wonder that comes with experiencing a new, fresh game for the first time, which is a casualty of putting so much emphasis on making “Gears of War 4” play like the original.

However, the one area which has seen a major improvement is Gears of War’s famous Horde co-op mode. The idea behind Horde is that players must build fortifications on multiplayer maps in order to fend off increasingly difficult waves of enemies. In Horde 3.0, the mode has been completely reworked and for the first time feels fully fleshed out.

The new Horde features classes which must be individually leveled. Before beginning a match of Horde, players choose from a pool of class-specific and general skills that they can equip. On top of leveling each class, those skills must be upgraded as well, and so building a strategy comprised of different class specifications and fortification set-ups creates a deep system that gives Horde mode a longevity and complexity it’s never had before.

Although the heavy reliance on nostalgic game design can come off as a bit tired in multiplayer, “Gears of War 4” just plain feels good to play. The telltale cover-based action the series is known for has never been better, and it’s consistently great across each of the three core game modes.

“Gears 4” is a game that has room to grow in the coming months, and offers something substantial for every type of player. It’s a successful soft reboot of the franchise, and a must-buy for owners of the Xbox One.