How do you solve a problem like Gears of War? While the original trilogy had its share of emotional highs and intense, set-piece showdowns, games such as Uncharted and Rise of the Tomb Raider have since shown us there’s a bit more to cover-shooting than gunning down endless hordes of oozing, thick-necked beefcakes.
Admittedly, I can’t really imagine Marcus Fenix and co ever leaping around ancient ruins or flexing their intellectual muscle to solve puzzles when a swift fist or boot to the face would do just as well. However, that doesn’t change the fact that while its progeny was busy moving the genre forward, Gears has remained resolutely one-note, often to its detriment.
The latest instalment in the series, Gears of War 4, doesn’t do much to change this formula, but the small alterations that its new developers The Coalition do make have a surprisingly large impact on the rest of the game. You’ll still be pelting hundreds of meat sacks with thousands of bullets during the course of the main campaign, but you’ll do so with a greater awareness of your surroundings and a much wider range of tactical opportunities.
Set 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, the new game puts you in the shoes of JD Fenix, the son of Gears veteran Marcus Fenix and newly turned Gears runaway, whose attempt to loot a freshly constructed COG settlement built in the aftermath of the war soon goes awry. As he’s chased down by barrages of robotic “DB” soldiers, helicopters and eventually entire carrier planes, it’s an opening that eases you in gently while also making the most of Unreal Engine 4’s visual splendour to deliver some truly spectacular scenes of carnage. One section even doubles as a tutorial for the game’s new Horde mode, which sees you facing off against increasingly more powerful waves of enemies.
You’ll have precious time to catch your breath between each skirmish, but the game’s superb pacing meant I rarely felt overwhelmed. Bar a couple of sudden difficulty spikes, which were quickly overcome by a slight change in strategy, The Coalition seems to have mastered the art of knowing exactly when to increase the stakes and for how long without making each battle feel repetitive.
Indeed, the game’s constantly evolving enemies are key to the game’s overall structure. Just when you feel like you’ve got a handle on each type of DB, for example, they’re quickly thrown out in favour of the game’s new big-bad, the Swarm. These white, fleshy monsters still bear some resemblance to their robotic forebears – the bouncing, athletic “juvies” are the natural successor to the frantic, rolling Tracker bots, while the Drones replace your standard grunt soldiers – but they all possess a much greater level of intelligence, making them formidable foes when they appear en masse. Likewise, with new Swarm enemy types rolling in every couple of chapters, you’re constantly forced to adapt and build on what you’ve learned.
The same goes for the types of environments you’ll encounter them in, too. Whereas the Locust of old preferred to do battle in large, open arenas with easily identifiable cover, the Swarm are far less picky. Whether it’s the tight corridors of an ancient fort, dank, winding catacombs, or the control room of an old wind turbine, they’ll scrap just about anywhere, bringing a refreshing change of pace to each encounter. Cover is still in plentiful supply, but often it’s not particularly permanent, with one particular late-on highlight physically shifting all available cover every couple of minutes, forcing you to, quite literally, think on your feet.
It all makes for a brilliant game to play in co-op, too, as there are frequent sections where your group must split up in order to advance. This isn’t a new concept to Gears, of course, but with support for both online and local split-screen co-op, it makes your actions feel much more important when you can see your mate pinned down on the screen next to you. That’s not to say your AI companions don’t cut the mustard – indeed, they’re quick to revive you if you’re in a spot of trouble – but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as swooping in to save the day when your friend’s life’s on the line.
Sadly, the multiplayer modes are less enjoyable, if only because the vast majority of them descend into a frenzied shotgun fest that’s neither fun to play or particularly skilful. However, there are still a few gems to be found here, and I’d advise cutting your teeth on these modes first before throwing yourself into more traditional modes such as King of the Hill and Warzone.
Arms Race should definitely be your first port of call. This sees each team cycle through every Gears weapon over the course of a match. Kill three opponents and your team will switch weapons, and whoever uses them all first wins. It’s a brilliant mode that really forces you to learn the ins and outs of your available arsenal, and it can make for some quite interesting matches depending on each team’s progress. For instance, you could have shotguns versus sniper rifles, or the flying-bomb-firing Dropshot gun versus the buzzsaw-firing Buzzkill.
Dodgeball also has a tendency to descend into mindless shotgun blasts, but the hook is that each kill lets you revive one downed member of your own team, creating a kind of tug-of-war effort that can rapidly turn the tide of battle if you can hold out long enough. Rounds are also relatively short, so you’re not left waiting around if you don’t get a second spawn.
Even if you don’t end up digging the new multiplayer modes, though, the main campaign of Gears of War 4 still has plenty to offer. It’s an enjoyable romp of gory gunplay and its superb pacing always keeps you on your toes. There’s a fresh challenge to be found around every corner, and while it still might not be particularly revolutionary as general cover-shooters go, it’s clear the series still has a bright future ahead of it thanks to the efforts of its new dev team. With its eyes now fixed firmly on the future, Gears of War 4 is yet another great exclusive for Xbox One, and has every right to become the cornerstone of a brand-new trilogy.
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