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The gears resume turning…

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    Gears of War 4

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    The gears resume turning…

    After the lackluster Gears of War: Judgment, Epic Games was ready to shelve the franchise for a decade. However, Microsoft stepped forward with the cash necessary to secure the rights to the franchise that had been instrumental in the success of the Xbox 360, and then turned Black Tusk Studios into The Coalition, a team dedicated entirely to growing the Gears of War brand. Their first original effort, Gears of War 4, shows a deep love for the series, and is one of the finest Gears of War games to date.

    Campaign

    Gears of War veterans will probably want to jump straight into the campaign, which is set 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3. Throughout most of the adventure, players play as JD Fenix, with the option of a co-op buddy joining them online or in split-screen as Del Walker or Kait Diaz. The character that isn’t selected hangs around for most of the proceedings, controlled by significantly smarter AI than in past game, and an AI-controlled Marcus Fenix brings the total number of main characters to four.

    Since four characters are present during the events of the campaign for the vast majority of it, it’s odd that The Coalition decided to dial things back to just 2-player co-op, but it’s probable that they did it for balance reasons. Whereas Gears of War 3 sometimes felt a little overwhelming without four people and a little too easy with a full squad, Gears of War 4 feels very balanced from start to finish.

    It does help that the AI is way smarter this time around. Enemies are more strategic than in past Gears of War games, and allies are also much more useful. In fact, it could be argued that they are sometimes too useful, as co-op partners will barely have to revive their partners. Now that AI-controlled allies can revive human players, though, it does make playing through the game solo much less frustrating than it was in the original Gears of War.

    The campaign hits familiar beats that should be familiar to fans of the series. Players slaughter their way through five acts of non-stop action against a variety of new and returning threats. Each enemy requires its own strategy to deal with, and each level seems to introduce a new weapon or gameplay feature to deal with those enemies.

    It’s hard to talk about these new gameplay features without getting into spoiler territory, but there’s some I can mention without tipping people off to what the story entails. Probably the most noticeable addition to the Gears of War formula in the Gears 4 campaign are the new knife executions. These executions also appear in the multiplayer mode and Horde 3.0, and add an extra layer to the game’s cover system.

    Players can yank enemies from over cover and then finish them off with one of many brutal knife execution animations. It’s also possible to leap over cover and stagger enemies with a well-placed kick. Enemies are able to perform this new trick as well, though, which results in some devastating instant-deaths not unlike being blindsided by a revved up chainsaw lancer.

    All of the game’s popular weapons return for Gears of War 4, but there’s some new toys to play with as well. The Dropshot is a mining tool that drops an explosive from the sky, and while it is a challenge to use, those that master it are devastating across all the game modes. There’s also the Buzzkill, which allows players to shoot ricocheting saw blades all over the place with devastating results.

    These weapons are used to kill some new enemy types. The first batch of enemies players deal with are robotic foes called DeeBees. They come in various shapes and sizes, and are a change of pace from the Locusts that players encountered in the first four games. Locust-like creatures called the Swarm join the fray before too long, however, and they are more reminiscent of the Locust fights that defined the series in the past.

    Another way Gears of War 4 mixes up the campaign formula is by blending in elements of Horde mode. I personally thought these few Horde mode sections felt tacked-on and were a cheap way to extend the length of the game, but they do a good job of preparing players for what to expect in Horde.

    Gears of War 4 is a heart-pounding campaign experience from start to finish. Players are going to find plenty of surprises and a lot to love about it, and while it does get a little slow in the middle (a common trait of Gears games, actually), it’s pretty entertaining from beginning to end.

    Multiplayer

    Ever since the first Gears of War hit the market a decade ago, the multiplayer component in the franchise has been one of its most praised features. Gears of War 4 offers a more accessible multiplayer than, say, the first game, but at the same time, it’s not quite as casual as Gears of War 3.

    The result is a nice blend of the hardcore demands of the original Gears and the more easy-going nature of the later games in the series. Players can enjoy this well-balanced multiplayer challenge in some returning fan favorite game modes like Team Deathmatch and Warzone, as well as in new modes, like Arms Race and Dodgeball.

    While a lot of people seem to like Dodgeball, I think Arms Race steals the show when it comes to the multiplayer in Gears of War 4. Arms Race is similar to Gun Game from the Call of Duty franchise, but extended to an entire team. A team has to get three kills with a weapon to move on to the next one in the ladder, and the first team to cycle through all of the non-heavy weapons in the game wins. With the right team, Arms Race can be an absolute blast, and one of the most strategic game types there is.

    The multiplayer maps are well-designed, allowing for a variety of different playstyles and strategy. There are a couple of standout maps, with my favorite being the one set on Marcus’s farm. This map not only has a unique visual look for the series, but its layout lends itself well to Arms Race and many other game types, with plenty of spaces for intense close-quarters encounters in addition to long-range sniper fights.

    Progression is an area that the Gears of War 4 multiplayer kind of disappoints in, unfortunately. To unlock new skins or "bounties" to get bonus XP, players have to purchase card packs. Card packs can be bought with real world money or in-game currency. A patch was released for the game within the first week that made this microtransaction system less annoying, but buying card packs and hoping for the best is not really an ideal progression system, in my opinion. I’d rather grind for the coins to purchase the skins I want specifically, not have to suffer through The Coalition’s weird attempt to mimic the card pack gameplay seen in most sports game nowadays.

    Despite the obvious cash-grab microtransaction system at work, the Gears of War 4 multiplayer experience is mostly a positive one. The servers were rough the first few days, but The Coalition was quick to iron out those problems, and now we have a more-than-competent multiplayer shooter with numerous satisfying match types and fun maps.

    Horde 3.0

    Ever since Gears of War 2 introduced Horde mode to the series, it has been a Gears of War staple. Gears of War 4 brings it back as Horde 3.0, which has some key differences that separate it from how the mode worked in the past.

    The most noticeable difference is the use of a class system. The classes all have unique loadouts and special abilities, so having a well-balanced team of classes is key to success in Horde 3.0. The class system allows for people to play exactly how they want without having to run around the map looking for power weapons, which will be appreciated by someone that likes to snipe from afar instead of battling enemies up close, for example.

    Something else unique about Horde 3.0 is how players get to choose where to defend. They place a box anywhere they want on the map, and that becomes the point where they defend. Players earn points by killing enemies and picking up the energy they dropped, which can then be delivered to the box and spent on defense equipment and the like.

    Some people not like having to share funds with all their teammates, but overall this system and the class system encourage more teamwork than was required in the past. Horde 3.0 is not perfect, but it is a different flavor of Horde that should keep even the best Gears of War players on their toes.

    Story

    Gears of War 4 takes place 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3. The COG army now takes care of the people of Sera by building settlements, with most of the soldiers replaced by robots called DeeBees. However, even with the Locust horde defeated, there are still new threats looming on the horizon.

    Sera is being ravaged by intense weather events (scripted sequences in the game that were previously promised to be dynamic). The COG army is becoming more authoritarian by the day. And people are being taken away by mysterious creatures that look like mutated Locusts.

    JD Fenix, the son of the legendary soldier Marcus Fenix, gets wrapped up in this mess after his friend Kait’s mother is kidnapped. Players then go on an adventure with JD, Marcus, Kait, and Del as they attempt to save Kait’s mother, and drive back these dangerous forces that threaten the people of Sera.

    In terms of character development, JD is a little vanilla, and Del is a walking stereotype. Kait is given more character development than any of the playable characters, but even then she is a bit lacking. However, Marcus Fenix really steals the show with his "grumpy old man" attitude about everything, and his hilarious responses to the banter of these younger individuals, as well as his reactions to the events they find themselves in.

    It’s a little unfortunate that The Coalition wasn’t able to nail the new characters, but that doesn’t mean the story is lacking. As a matter of fact, the story in Gears of War 4 is one of the most cohesive and consistently engaging that the series has delivered to date. Each cut-scene feels like a reward, filled with humor, heart, and insane action set-pieces that are eye-popping on the new-gen hardware. There’s also some shocking story developments that have huge implications for the Gears of War franchise as a whole, and fans should be excited to see where The Coalition takes things next.

    Presentation

    For the most part, Gears of War 4 is a gorgeous game with highly detailed characters and environments. There’s more animations, more advanced graphical tricks at work, and the storms in the game look phenomenal. Having said that, the game is also a clear graphical downgrade from what was originally shown, and some people may take issue with that.

    Even though it’s not quite as pretty as was advertised at E3, Gears of War 4 still looks amazing, and is easily one of the best-looking video games ever made so far. It supplements these fantastic visuals with a brilliant score and solid voice acting. It’s just disappointing most of the characters (besides Marcus) don’t have anything interest to say.

    Play Time and Replayability

    Beating the Gears of War 4 campaign takes less than 10 hours, but completing the entire game will take months. Not only are there some ridiculous achievements to unlock, but players also have the meaty multiplayer experience to indulge in, as well as the tough-as-nails Horde 3.0. There’s also branching story paths in the campaign, and a huge number of collectibles to find.

    There’s also plenty of DLC planned for the game on the horizon as well. Gears of War 4 is a game that The Coalition will be supporting for the long-term, probably up until the release of Gears of War 5. This means fans can expect new game modes, maps, and more to be added between over the next couple of years.

    Final Recommendation

    Gears of War 4 is an absolute must-have for any Xbox One owner, and anyone that considers themselves a fan of the franchise. It has an engaging storyline that leads the series in some very interesting directions, on top of polished gameplay spread out across three fully-featured game modes. It’s a complete AAA blockbuster video game package, and there’s few shooters that can match it. The gears are turning again, and Xbox owners should count themselves lucky.

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