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The Nightmare Reborn

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    Gears of War 4

    Rating: 4.0 – Great

    The Nightmare Reborn

    When Gears of War 4 was announced at E3 2015 under the development of a studio that wasn’t Epic Games, Gears fans around the world let out a collective groan as they experienced flashbacks of 2013’s Judgement. After some preliminary work on the game, development of Gears of War 4 was passed from Epic Games to the in-house developer Black Tusk Studios. In an act of commitment to the huge responsibility they had just been handed, Black Tusk Studios renamed themselves The Coalition, an homage to the renowned series they had just become a part of. Fans of the series were understandably hesitant, seeing as how Judgement singlehandedly broke down most of the series’ mechanical innovations and took the series in a direction that no one asked for. Gears of War 4 in a lot of ways brings the series back to its roots and, in an equal number of ways, capitalizes on the improvements made to the series in the last decade, both in a narrative and mechanical perspective. In terms of quality, it firmly contrasts Judgement, and adds a lot to the series as its own title.

    While the series’ staple mechanics – cover movement, Perfect Active Reload, and DBNO states – tend to remain virtually unchanged from title to title, Gears of War is a series of constant improvement of existing mechanics. Gears of War 4 adds a sense of speed and closeness to the familiar mantle system in two major ways. First, while the player’s character model is in the process of sliding to cover, a single button press provides the functionality to skip hitting cover and slide directly into the mantle animation, helping active players retain momentum while running around the battlefield. Second, players now have access to a variety of cover-based close combat techniques for quick and easy executions. In previous titles, jumping over cover onto an opponent would leave them staggered and reeling, opening them up for a clean shotgun kill. In Gears 4, players have the option to close the gap and perform a close quarters knife execution with the press of a button. Alternatively, if you share opposite sides of the same piece of cover with an enemy, there is another option that allows players to yank enemies over to their side of cover and perform the same knife executions. Both mantle and yank attacks can be countered by the target of these attacks, too. With a well timed counter-button press, the attacker could very easily find themselves on the receiving end of a knife execution. Further improvements to the game’s mechanics come in the form of gun balance in multiplayer, a dedicated class system in Horde, and the inclusion of light Horde mechanics in the single player campaign to allow players a less tense environment to grow familiar with the game mode’s basic mechanics.

    The Gears of War series is as famous for its storytelling as it is for its polished multiplayer and its unique mechanics, and the fourth installment to the series easily carries the torch handed over to it by the original trilogy. Gears of War 4 serves to introduce players to the new Sera, twenty five years after the conclusion of the Locust War through the eyes of JD Fenix, and emphasizes how much the world has changed over time. The prologue phase takes players through a series of three flashbacks to important battles in Gears history – The Battle of Aspho Fields, E-Day, and The Battle of Anvil Gate – and allows for not only an opportunity to see some familiar faces but also to highlight the anonymity of the Gears who lost their lives through years of constant conflict. In the aftermath of the Locust War, the COG reinstated itself as the governing body of humanity, and groups of people who chose not to live under COG rule became Outsiders, nomads who lived outside of COG settlements and lived off the land, raiding for COG supplies when necessary. Severe environmental conditions following the Locust War brought about the advent of a natural phenomena called windflares, massive and unpredictable lightning vortexes that form suddenly and destroy everything in their paths. The necessity of shelter from windflares led to the development of circular, walled COG settlements, where most of the civilized world resided in the aftermath of the war.

    Players are introduced to JD Fenix, an ex-COG officer who went AWOL to join the Outsiders, as he prepares to raid a COG settlement with his friends Kait and Del in hopes of acquiring a Fabricator to supply his Outsider village with power. On their way to the entry point of the settlement, a windflare rises up, and players receive early exposure to the powerful and impressive physics of Gears 4. When a windflare stirs up, objects are tossed around like toys, running and rolling speeds are significantly altered, and fire from certain projectile weapons become much less predictable as they bend and twist with the wind. Opportunities for scripted environmental kills often open up to reward players with a sharp eye, and combat in general just becomes much more hectic. JD and the party find shelter to wait out the windflare and successfully breach the walls of the settlement, where they engage the first new enemy species, the DeeBees: robots deployed en masse by the COG for military, security, and maintenance purposes. JD and his friends successfully battle their way to the center of the settlement, steal the Fabricator, and return to the Outsider settlement. As the day settles down and night sets in, the settlement comes under attack by a party of unidentified monsters, and within minutes, everyone except JD, Kait, and Del are carried into the night. The trio resolves to rescue their friends and family and set off into the darkness, prepared to face whatever nightmare awaits them.

    Gears of War 4 is set on the new Sera. Twenty five years after the first game, the world is a lot less bleak and gloomy than it used to be. Humanity has recovered, society is rolling out a swelling golden age, and the quality of life is improving all around in the absence of the Locust. The architecture of some of the more modern settings reflect the times, as buildings are generally not ruinous by thematic design. Likewise, the grays and browns that permeated the world design of the Locust War-era have been replaced with the more natural blues and blacks of the woodland. The Swarm, as a faction, make good use of the color red to assert the tone of hostile biology, and the descent into their nest draws everything out of the cliche-hat from fleshy walls to organic weapons. In contrast, the mechanical DeeBees and the environments you typically fight them in scream dystopia, which is fitting given the oppressive, overbearing turn the COG has undergone in recent years. The soundtrack could have done a little more to accentuate the mysterious vibe of the mid-game dungeoneering, but what it lacks in exploitative emotion it more than makes up for in combat accompaniment.

    Thematically, Gears of War 4 emulates the essence of the first game excellently; it captures the mystery and the horror of the unknown quite well and centers the narrative emphasis on horrifying revelations. As a series, Gears has always been about perseverance and the struggle to survive against a terrifying and seemingly unstoppable foe, and the origins and motives of the Swarm certainly succeed in recapturing the petrifying nature of the Locust and Lambent threats. Diving feet first into the darkness guns blazing has never felt more like Gears, but as one insightful Youtube commenter put it, it seems as if "they took the ‘war’ out of Gears of War." The pacing of Gears of War 4 is noticeably slower, the atmosphere is a lot quieter and less somber, and aside from the campaign’s finale, it seems to lack the explosive spontaneity and action set-pieces that I grew fond of in the first three games. There’s no large scale mobilization or clashing of armies outside of the brief prologue scenes, and this is fine, but it’s something potential buyers should know if that’s something they were looking for specifically. What Gears 4 does do – the small squad punching their way through hordes of monsters and other baddies – it does excellently, and it captures the feeling of the "decisive strike" that the first games did so well.

    The characterization of the game’s protagonist cast is not so great considering how well many of the heroes of the first trilogy were written. JD’s character is extremely hard to place, as he constantly bounces from witty smartass to charismatic team leader yet manages neither role especially well. As the son of the Marcus Fenix and considering their relationship, it makes sense that the writers wanted to create an obvious distinction between the two, but throughout the entire game he feels like a cardboard cutout of a generic protagonist who adds little to the story himself. Kait adds some nice flavor to the group dynamic, considering impulsiveness and a lack of reservation aren’t traits generally associated with characters from the series, but her attitude and interactions with other characters might come off as childish and annoy some players. Del falls into all of the same pitfalls as Cole in the first Gears of War: little to no significant character development throughout. The only difference is that Cole made up for this with tons of personality; Del does not. As indicated by the game’s ending, the three of them have massive potential to develop, and the original trilogy exists as proof that this is probably what will happen, but in Gears of War 4 alone, the main cast leaves much to be desired. The party dynamic throughout the game just doesn’t feel very good, and I found myself sorely missing Baird’s snarky one-liners or Cole’s flagrant (yet punctual) interjections. Everything about the newer cast reeked of naivety and inexperience, and I understand that that’s how they were written in order to show perspective to the scenario, but I think – much like the first game – we’ll need the scope of the entire second trilogy before we pass judgement onto the new characters.

    In order to allow the rest of this review to flow properly, I will explain – and critique – the game’s integrated card-based unlockable system here. To anyone familiar with Halo 5’s unlock system of REQ Packs, it’s very similar, but worse in every way. As players level up, participate in multiplayer matches, or complete Horde waves, they unlock credits which can be used to buy four different types of in-game booster packs. These packs contain a variety of "cards" which unlock cosmetic weapon skins, provide players with bounties to complete for bonus rewards, upgrade class skills in Horde mode, and act as a source of scrap by discarding duplicates. This system is neither pioneering nor foreign, and the prevalence of similar unlock systems has only increased since the advent of mobile gaming when developers learned of the phenomena of cosmetic unlock acceleration through microtransactions, but Gears of War 4 implements its unlock system in a way that’s bordering on unfair to free-to-play players. Packs come in four purchasable varieties; Versus Boosters (400 credits), which provide four bounties and one cosmetic card; Horde Boosters (400 credits), which contain four class skills or Horde bounties and one cosmetic card; Operations Packs (1000 credits), which guarantee two rarer customization cards and three class skills or bounties; and the significantly more expensive Elite Packs (3500 credits), which contain five cosmetic pieces of high rarity, guaranteed. Naturally, all of these packs are available for purchase with real money. Credit yield is extremely low, with my calculated average coming in at around 200-300 per hour of play time, which means that players have to make the distinction between saving up and pushing for rare cosmetic items, or buying many Booster Packs in hopes of acquiring more practical bounties and class skills, leaving cosmetic draws to RNG. This system wouldn’t normally bother me too much, except that all of the Packs except for the ridiculously expensive ones draw from gigantic pools of possible pulls. If you want to upgrade class skills, you’ll need incredible luck to draw duplicates in order to combine. You can also discard duplicates or other unwanted cards, skins, etc. for Scrap used in crafting, but the yield for scrapping is extremely low and the cost to craft is extremely high. Over time, things do eventually fall into place and class skills do find themselves upgraded over time, but for more casual players or people who may not have tons of free time to throw into a stacked unlock system, it can be extremely discouraging.

    Horde mode in Gears of War 4, titled Horde 3.0, takes the classic wave-based Horde mechanical formula and improves upon it in many different ways. In this title, Horde is redefined into a class based co-op game mode, with players being able to choose to play as one of five different classes; each class has a unique set of class skills, starting load outs, and strengths and weaknesses. Horde 3.0 deviates from its predecessors by allowing much more freedom of fortification placement. Instead of the predesignated build spaces featured in previous Horde modes, Horde 3.0 allows players to place fortifications anywhere they please. When killed, enemies drop a resource called Power which should be picked up and deposited into the team’s Fabricator: the team’s "home base." Players can interact with the Fabricator to purchase fortifications, weapons, and in some cases, class specific perks and abilities. The Fabricator can be leveled up by spending Power for fortifications and upgrades, and by the later waves it’s completely normal for teams to pump out multiple high-level turrets and weapons every wave.

    Classes, although ultimately unbound from class distinction in every way except class skills (everyone can equip any weapon and purchase every fortification), serve unique functions on the battlefield. When used to their maximum potential and working in cohesion with other classes, they collaborate excellently in producing a strong, stable defense. Scouts are highly-mobile, close-quarters fighters, bolstered by skills that allow them to engage in slugfests with powerful opponents and come away with tons of Power. Snipers specialize in separating themselves from their team and sustaining themselves, dropping high-priority targets before they become a threat to your teammates. Engineers, though offensively underwhelming, receive huge bonuses to purchased fortifications, and start with an equipped Repair Tool. Heavies carry weapons designed to wipe any mob off the map at a moment’s notice, and can output massive amounts of damage in seconds with heavy weapons. Soldiers play similar to the classic Gears of War play style, with skills providing passive buffs to cover fighting and rewarding Perfect Active Reloads. Soldier players also tend to mess around with grenades a lot, considering they’re a part of his loadout. Players unlock class skills through the game’s arching unlock system, which rewards players with random skills that benefit a class’ specific role. Skills can be upgraded in level by receiving and combining duplicates of the same skill, or crafted by using Scrap gained from discarded skills. In general, class skills serve to bolster the effectiveness of a specific class in carrying out its function, and a high-level player with five available skill slots can become immensely influential in a Horde game. When a well-coordinated team composition comes together during later waves is when one can most appreciate the Horde class system, but this design can also be easily abused. A good Scout with the right class skills can amass an astounding surplus of Power very early on, and it’s not an uncommon tactic to find teams buttoned up in the back of the map with four manned turrets, funneling enemies to their deaths while the Engineer keeps their ammo supplies at maximum. The only possible fix to this I can imagine is a nerf to the Scout class, but even a slight change can easily snowball and ruin the class’ effectiveness as a whole.

    As fun as Horde 3.0 may be, and for all of its mechanical improvements to the game mode and the series overall, I personally don’t find it to be as fun as previous Hordes in the series, namely Horde in Gears of War 3. What made the Horde 2.0 such an attractive game mode was the incredible depth of enemy diversity; between the Locust and the Lambent, there were over two dozen unique enemies that required different approaches and possessed different strengths and weaknesses. In Horde 3.0, the only thing that can force an entrenched team out of their fortifications is a boss monster that gets neglected for too long. As much of an improvement free-placement of fortifications is, the only thing it’s really done for the game is allow players to set up rows of barricades and decoys to distract enemies while they mow them down with their turrets. Horde 3.0 also takes another step backwards with standardized wave progression. Every decade begins with strictly DeeBees and gradually transitions into a mixture of the two enemy species, similar to the original Horde mode. Aside from the fact that I abhor fighting DeeBees, it really disrupts the pacing of the hectic nature of Horde mode. Coming off of an intense boss battle, teams most likely need time to recover and repair damages, but two waves of nothing but slow, clunky DeeBees is simply boring and mind-bogglingly simple. Horde embodies what the the true essence of Gears is: backs to the wall, dangerous and terrifying monsters on all sides, bullets flying in every direction. When it works, it’s amazing, but as of right now, minor design flaws and easy system exploits prevent it from being what it could very easily become: the best Horde mode the series has seen to date.

    Gears of War 4 also brings to the table the classic Gears style of multiplayer, characterized by arena shooter elements, supremely symmetrical map design, and the dodge-rolling, shotgun-slinging frenzy that has defined Gears multiplayer for years. While Gears 4’s multiplayer doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table, the multiplayer design is as pristine as ever, using years of feedback and experience to polish itself into the most youthful incarnation to date. Bounties are unlocked in the same fashion as class skills for Horde mode, and provide short term goals to achieve over the course of a multiplayer match. When completed, they reward players with XP and, rarely, credits. Sporting a good amount of game modes made unique by Gears’ signature mechanics, ten vanilla maps, and a refined ranking system for all playlist casual and competitive multiplayer game modes, Gears 4 promises a great amount of multiplayer replayability for those who aren’t easily disenchanted by matches that tend to go sideways quickly. For those who are interested, the game also expresses plenty of interest in its e-sports scene, which has always been quieter for those who don’t actively follow it but extremely hardcore for those who do. The opportunities are significantly more transparent than other e-sport leagues, and are open to any players willing to climb the competitive ladders. Additionally, The Coalition has promised the release of two additional maps for Versus and Horde on a monthly basis (a tad earlier for Season Pass holders).

    Versus falls victim to all the major flaws of online multiplayer, as well as retains some unaddressed issues that continue to persist from title to title within the series. Community toxicity is a pillar of Gears online play, so expect to be insulted for your level, emblem, character choice, weapon choice, performance, voice (really, anything you can think of). The ranking system has seen improvement over the years, but ultimately seems to serve little to no purpose in selecting matchmaking opponents. Inaccuracies in designated player rank can stem from a lot of reasons; players quitting mid-match, trolls and throwers, and unskilled players can all negatively impact your initial rank placement. Lastly – and one might argue that this is simply how Versus is meant to be played – the Gnasher Shotgun is as prevalent in the game’s meta as ever. Personally, I have no idea why this weapon is allowed to run as rampant as it is for as long as it has been, but some players have managed to turn using it into an art form over the years. There’s just no reason to use any other load out weapon besides the Gnasher, and it completely decentivizes the use of otherwise balanced weapons.

    Gears of War 4 is a worthy successor to the undeniably classic series, but it’s not without flaws of its own. Small things like instances of poor character writing or slight tonal shifts are easily forgiven when held against everything, all things considered. The world design, art style, and atmospheric development all coalesce into what I would consider to be Gears done right. Horde 3.0 brings back one of the most enjoyable PvE modes in video games, seeing both major improvements and major setbacks alike, but overall succeeds in delivering the critical hectic experience it’s known for. The multiplayer modes are as fun as ever, though for series veterans, they might be familiar at this point. The replayability of Horde and Versus is hampered only by an overbearing, microtransaction-heavy progression system, which honestly won’t matter much to players who are determined to progress anyway. Gears of War 4 is only a few small, correctable steps away from greatness. But most importantly, its success shows us, the fans, that the Gears series is in good hands once again.

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