Gears of War 4 is the first in the franchise to show up on the Xbox One, and the first in the franchise to show up on both the Xbox platform and PC at the same time.
Indeed, purchasing a copy gets you both versions. Now you can play on either Xbox One or PC or both. In fact, you can play on the Xbox One in your living room until some other family member needs the TV, and pick back up right where you left off on your Windows 10 PC since all the save data is cloud-based.
It’s a great feature that’s long overdue, and the sort of thing that sets the Xbox platform apart from its competitors. Meanwhile, multiplayer is cross-platform, so everyone on PC and Xbox One can team up or go toe-to-toe together.
Only surface level spoilers follow (names of characters, basic premise, etc.)
Gears of War 4 takes place 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3. Instead of Marcus Fenix, you take on the role of JD Fenix. JD is the generic white guy who is joined by Kait, the cute Asian chick, and Del, the funny black dude, as they fight their way through the dangerous world of Sera. JD is a carefree young man, with none of the rough edges that made his father such an iconic video game character.
And Gears of War 4′s story largely fits JD’s personality—it’s light-hearted at first, even when things get dangerous. It’s a handsome game, but maybe not one with much in the way of brains. Even when things get deadly serious part way in, JD, Kait and Del joke around and, for the most part, never seem too burdened by the peril they find themselves in. They’re off on a lark, wise-cracking and talking like the young invincibles they are.
In some ways, the game feels like the beginning of a classical “hero’s journey.” JD is untested. There’s no wrinkles around his eyes, nor stubble on his chin. No scars. They’ve lived a peaceful life, which only now is beginning to crumble.
This game is just the beginning of these characters’ journeys, and while we see some old faces, The Coalition is trying to start mostly fresh, without crutching too heavily on nostalgia.
Of course, there’s still plenty of that to go around, though perhaps more in terms of gameplay than anything else. Gears of War 4 plays out pretty much exactly how you’d expect.
The story unfolds over five acts, with multiple chapters comprising each act. You and your squad push forward through each chapter, encountering and destroying enemies, unblocking paths, and occasionally splitting up into two groups.
Some chapters have special gameplay mechanics—you ride a bike at one point, and at another control a mining mech—some of which are more fun than others. Mostly it’s a cover shooter, and mostly that’s what you do.
Occasionally you have to stop and defend a location, which plays out exactly like Horde mode, though with far fewer waves.
Enemy types change as you progress, and there’s quite a few new enemies in the game, from various robotic “DeeBee” soldiers courtesy of COG, to a whole new spread of aliens known as the Swarm. These include little bouncy creatures that rush at you called Juvies, which are easy to chainsaw; heavily armed and intelligent Drones that pack various kinds of heat; leaping insectoids called Pouncers; and deadly man-eating Snatchers, just to name a few (and there’s plenty more.)
DeeBees come in various shapes and sizes as well, including flying Sentinels and rolling explosive spheres called Trackers. And while the Swarm mostly uses familiar weapons—plus some new heavy arsenal—the DeeBees have all new guns to play with. I especially like the new Overkill shotgun, which packs an even stronger punch than the Gnasher. You fire your first Overkill round by pulling the trigger, and the second when you release, giving it a nice one-two-punch.
It’s great to see all these new enemies and guns, but the core gameplay and structure feels very much like what we’ve seen in the past. When Gears of War 3 released, it was widely praised as a solid third-person shooter that did just about everything right, but still felt an awful lot like the games that came before it. In a lot of ways, the same applies here.
Everything works a little better than before, or at least it feels that way, and movement and cover in particular are very slick. You can leap barriers on the fly; snapping into cover is a breeze, if perhaps too sticky at times; and combat is tight and rewarding.
Still, the campaign felt repetitive and a little lackluster, especially at first. It gets better as you get deeper into the game’s story and face off against more challenging enemies and encounters, as well as some great mini-bosses. The final chapters have a nice twist as well, though I was less thrilled by the final boss than I hoped I’d be. All told, I finished the campaign’s eight-or-so hour campaign and felt like playing again. And the new windlfares are really neat, though I wish the game did more with them.
I also played some in split-screen, which is just two players now rather than four. It works great, and is still the best way to play the game.
The campaign isn’t terribly long, terribly deep, or terribly memorable, but it still manages to be a lot of fun. It feels very much like the beginning of something bigger, and perhaps the developers really were going for the “hero’s journey” with its humble beginnings, more lackadaisical story and mood, and then up the ante when #5 comes out. I didn’t love the campaign, but I certainly didn’t hate it, either, and there’s plenty of fun to be had especially with a friend.
The world looks gorgeous on both Xbox One and PC, though PC looks much cleaner and richer. Indeed, PC has a wealth of graphics customization options. Turning them up too high will bring even a relatively powerful gaming PC to its knees. I got a warning when I loaded the game up on PC saying my GTX 970 has compatibility issues with the game, so if you have that card you might want to consider upgrading. I didn’t encounter any of these problems, but I certainly wasn’t able to max out graphics without breaking the game.
Still, what I was able to achieve at 60 frames-per-second looked absolutely fantastic.
On both Xbox One and PC, but especially on PC, the game is stunning. And it’s not hiding behind a brown filter, either. Its colors are eye-popping, from the green of the trees to the dark red blood. (You can turn off gore and profanity in the settings but it’s more fun with blood. Such is life.)
Does it look as amazing as Gears of War did way back in the day? Of course not.
There’s so many incredible looking games today, it’s hard to make any of them stand out anymore. But Gears of War 4 is still a looker, and thankfully the game gives you enough time between killing sprees to soak it all in.
Speaking of 60 frames-per-second, that’s what’s on offer in multiplayer, which is about as slick and shiny and fun as you could hope.
While I enjoyed the campaign, I’d say it’s “good” rather than “great.” It’s the sort of campaign I’d play again, but am not itching to play again.
On the other hand…
While we won’t know how great multiplayer is until we’ve had some weeks with it open to the public, as it stands, multiplayer in Gears of War 4 is fantastic. (Note: Since the campaign has co-op mode, it is also “multiplayer” but not for the purposes of this section.)
Versus is a beautiful, violent cacophony of color and mayhem. Whichever mode you choose to play, and whichever map you land on, the quality of design shines through.
The tight mechanics make for fast, fluid action, and everything from racing across a map next to a teammate, to dying in a splatter of blood and limbs in a close-quarters fight, is a joy to behold. The Coalition has really put something special together with multiplayer, both because it’s familiar to past games, and because it still feels fresh.
Of course, not everyone enjoys third-person competitive multiplayer games (I admit to preferring first-person on the whole) but I found Gears of War 4′s multiplayer incredibly satisfying, though still tilted toward in-your-face shotgun shoot-em-ups.
There are plenty of modes to choose from. Standard Team Deathmatch, of course, and the elimination-based Warzone to name a couple. More interesting is the new Dodgeball mode, which allows you to respawn dead players by killing an enemy and then staying alive for five more seconds. Escalation is similar to Control in Destiny. Teams battle to control three rings, scoring more points by holding two out of three. The twist? Holding all three at once means automatic victory. That adds a whole new risk/reward system to the equation. It’s a simple change, but also brilliant.
In other words, Versus is packed with content. Eight modes, ten maps, and competitive mode replete with rankings and competitive play. The Coalition and Microsoft hope to make it an eSports hit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it became just that. It’s an entertaining and chaotic and bloody enough to make for good spectating.
Horde 3.0 brings cooperative play to multiplayer, pitting players against waves of increasingly dangerous foes. Players can build fortifications to withstand these enemies using “power” which you pick up off dead baddies. You can place fortifications anywhere you like on the map, too, which is nice.
Meanwhile, characters are siphoned into five different classes—Scout, Sniper, Engineer, Heavy, and Soldier—each with their own set of skills. It’s a lot of fun, and will be even more so when servers fill up.
Both Horde and Versus are built around a card-based system that provides everything from emblems to weapon and character skins to special XP bounties and class-based skills. You can upgrade skill cards to make them more powerful, and equip them to gain perks in matches (or make your character look cool.)
You earn these by playing or via cash money in the form of card-filled crates, which is a bit of a shame. Micro-transactions in full retail games are always unfortunate, though at least some Gears of War 4 post-release content will be free. In particular, new maps will be free, though the free versions will be available in rotation (buying a Season Pass gets you permanent ownership of all maps.)
But even without purchasing any DLC or the season pass, there’s plenty on offer here between the campaign, Horde 3.0 and Versus.
A decent campaign that’s nothing to write home about doesn’t drag Gears of War 4 down so much as it doesn’t really lift it up either. I wish I could sing the campaign’s praises, but the most I can offer is a shrug. I don’t regret playing it by any means, but it’s nothing particularly special. It’s a competent, enjoyable, and somewhat conservative experience.
Thankfully, the complete package is another story, offering a really great 6o-FPS multiplayer experience on Xbox One and PC, with cross-play and cloud saves that make playing on either, with or without friends, a breeze.
The amount of quality content in multiplayer, and the ability to change Horde difficulty levels and play casual or competitive in Versus, makes Gears of War 4 a terrific deal, especially given the quality of the product. Micro-transactions and a season pass give gamers with deep enough pockets and hardcore fans more options, but you won’t need to spend a penny past asking price to have a good time, especially with free rotating maps.
Add to this the fact that you get both the PC and Xbox One versions with a single purchase, and you have a pretty tremendous value.
I give Gears of War 4 a Buy rating on my Buy/Hold/Sell scale. Get in on the action while multiplayer is at its peak rather than waiting for a discount.
Gears of War 4
Platform: PC, Xbox One (Cross-buy.)
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Released: October 11th, 2016