Friday, October 21, 2016
It's been a minute since players have had the opportunity to shudder at the sound of "Boom" as an alien bellows it followed by a grenade launched in your direction. Gears of War Judgment was the last iteration of the series and wasn't as well-received as the previous three entries into the series. Since that game's release, Microsoft bought the IP and handed the reins over to The Coalition and their hard work has just seen release in Gears of War 4.
Omnicomic reviewed Gears of War 4 via a review code provided by Microsoft Studios.
Gears of War 4 is set 25 years after Marcus Fenix and crew set off the Imulsion Countermeasure which completely eradicated the Locust and Lambent from Sera. In the time since, the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) was formed to protect the remaining population by walling off major cities and imposing the COG rule upon the citizens. Naturally, the concept of martial law doesn't sit that well with everyone, prompting the creation of a group called the Outsiders that lives outside of COG rule and raids COG territory to survive. The player gets to follow J.D. Fenix, Del and Reyna--the former two have deserted the COG after finding issue with First Minister Jinn's approach while the latter is high up on the Outsiders hierarchy.
As stories go, the narrative in Gears of War 4 is an interesting inversion of right and wrong as defined by the previous three entries into the series. For those three prior adventures, the premise was always that the COGs are the good guys, fighting to save Sera from being overrun by the Locust and Lambent hordes. In Gears of War 4, the COGs are the "bad guys," but it's not as simple as saying they're villains in the traditional way. Instead, they're fighting to preserve the hard-fought freedoms their parents fought for against the Locust/Lambent enemies. And while First Minister Jinn is protecting the remaining inhabitants of Sera by walling the cities, there are those such as J.D. Fenix who prefer to not have to live under such an iron fist--even if it is for their safety.
The Coalition does pretty well at first with the story, diving into some themes such as rebellion that are relatively untouched in the previous three games. That's mainly because Gears of War thrust players right into the thick of the Locust invasion and the following two games were focused on getting the heroes through the war and saving Sera. The first act slowly presents different pieces of the puzzle for the player in the new world, but as the player progresses the game quickly becomes familiar to fans of the franchise. This doesn't dampen the player's enjoyment of the game;; rather, The Coalition makes it clear that they're looking to move forward with their new toy while paying homage to the past.
Another theme that remains strong is that of loyalty and family; in fact, many of the trailers for the game emphasize that. The original Gears of War trilogy basked in the notion that you trust those around you implicitly in order to survive and it's a notion carried on here. J.D is the estranged son of Marcus and Reyna's devotion to her mother are two sides of the family coin and add in an interesting component to the character dynamics. It's a good way to tie-in Gears of War 4 with the original trilogy by leaning on these themes and seeing Marcus rendered in 4K glory is a marked improvement over his earlier appearances graphically.
When Gears of War first hit consoles in 2006, it was revolutionary for the Xbox 360 primarily because of the new gameplay elements introduced; the most notable of which was the cover system and that's in full effect in Gears of War 4. The cover system still isn't without its flaws though, as there were quite a few times where J.D. would make a run for cover only to get stuck standing up right next to cover amidst gunfire. Players new to the series are given a great tutorial in the form of a prologue that throws back to the previous trilogy.
The prologue takes place near the tail end of the war--right before the Imulsion Countermeasure is detonated to liberate Sera. Players are given tips on all the core aspects of the game for the tutorial and shortly thereafter, including a new capability to yank and execute. Since the game relies so heavily on cover, close-quarters firefights have always been a little trick and now players can reach over cover, grab/pull an opponent towards them and then execute. There are plenty of familiar battlegrounds for players to maneuver and flank their opponents, implementing the cover system to great effect.
And since the series has moved on from Locust/Lambent, it's pretty refreshing in the opening stages to square off against robotic opponents. It doesn't fundamentally change the gameplay, but it does offer a welcome update of an opponent who's not bellowing at you while looking to tear you limb from limb. The Coalition did a great job of getting you ready for a big skirmish based on the placement of cover objects only to show you that it was just a misdirection and the real combat is up ahead. Gears of War 4 gives the game room to breathe by not throwing battle after battle at the player.
The battlegrounds are filled with weapons that are staples of the Gears of War series as well some new ones that mix things up a bit. The Overkill is a really fun weapon, as it's a shotgun that fires two blasts in quick succession--living up to the double-barreled moniker that made shotguns famous. The DeeBees have their own version of a sniper rifle in the EMBAR that fires in a manner similar to that of the Torque Bow, only you can't hold the shot for nearly as long. These weapons join ones like the Lancer, Frag Grenade and Gnasher, the inclusion of which helps give the game a throwback feel.
As mentioned earlier, Gears of War was a pretty big deal when it hit Xbox 360 ten years ago and a lot of that had to do with the stunning visuals. A decade (and a console later), Gears of War 4 will have an equally as large impact visually. Gears of War 4 is one of the first Xbox One titles to support 4K and HDR and the impact is immediate. There was a pervasive sense of drab hanging over the original Gears of War trilogy and Gears of War 4 eschews that for a world that's rife with color and contrast, all of which is only enhanced by the addition of HDR.
The game looks beautiful without HDR as well and the campaign runs consistently at 30 FPS (multiplayer hits the 60 FPS mark)--a likely necessity due to the beautiful environments and changes thrown at the player. Windflares for instance are a new addition to the series and represent something of an atmospheric phenomenon that's overwhelming when it arrives for the player both visually and strategically. The menacing weather pattern that resembles a massive tornado with lightning is further buoyed by the game's support of 7.1 that offers a fully immersive audio experience.
Campaign aside, Gears of War 4 also offers multiplayer options in two flavors: Multiplayer and Horde 3.0. Multiplayer pits players against a variety of opponents, including versus human opponents as well as bots. The core playlist includes Warzone, Team Deathmatch, Dodge Ball, King of the Hill, Guardian, Arms Race, Execution and Escalation. Many of the playlists will be recognizable to fans of the series (or FPS shooters in general) with the exception of Arms Race, for instance, which requires players on a team to get 3 kills with 13 weapons and Dodgeball which respawns a teammate with the death of an opponent and the goal is to be the last team standing. Ten multiplayer maps at launch and new DLC maps will be released every month with the added bonus that they'll be free for public play.
Horde 3.0 takes the idea started in Gears of War 2 and improves it to a third iteration. In Horde 3.0, up to five players fight to survive up to 50 waves of increasingly different enemies with a boss every 10 rounds. The addition of the Fabricator mixes things up a bit as it centralizes fortification of items but runs on deposited power. From the Fabricator, players can build everything from barriers to sentries to weapons if the situation calls for it. It even allows players to revive a fallen teammate by returning their COG tags to the Fabricator. Horde 3.0 also relies on five different classes--Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Sniper and Engineer--that offer a variety of combinations for keeping gameplay fresh.
Gears of War 4 shows that The Coaltion was content to stick with made the franchise so popular. In many ways, it's a pretty safe attempt at continuing the franchise in a way that doesn't tread on the things that made it so popular in the first place. J.D. and crew are a lot less dour than their predecessors, but it could be chalked up more to the better circumstances of the world they're living in. The dialogue is pretty entertaining and the writers clearly preferred going for levity as opposed to constant drama. The gameplay is familiar to fans of the series and the core modes (Campaign, Multiplayer and Horde 3.0) all sport subtle improvements that make them feel slightly different. Gears of War 4 will definitely find an audience with fans of the series, but it also serves as a good jumping on point for those who never got the chance to check out the original trilogy.
Gears of War 4 is available now.