Gears of War 4 is a classic case of why you should never judge a game by its cover. Underneath the bombastic, testosterone-fuelled frat boy surface lies a hidden intellect that utterly defies expectation and proves that Gears is still at the forefront of both evocative storytelling and genre-defining gameplay design. True, the game doesn’t entirely escape from the limiting confines of its perceived meat-headed mentality, but nevertheless the overall experience is one that prophesises a bright and innovative future for the franchise.
Set twenty-five years after the cataclysmic, yet world-saving events of the previous game, Gears of War 4 casts you in the role of J.D., son of the legendary hero, Marcus Fenix, in a world struggling to recover from the traumatic events of the past. With humanity’s population decimated in the aftermath of the Lambent Epidemic, the COG – the ruling government organisation – have constructed immense walled cities to contain the survivors and safeguard the future of the human race. Not all, however, accept such a ruling, with many, including J.D. and his friends Delmont and Kait, choosing to ostracise themselves from the totalitarian regime of the COG and take their lives into their own hands.
It’s a set-up rich in opportunity, and while the development team successfully translate that potential during the latter stages of the story, the opening moments are dull and mired in the ridiculousness many would expect from the franchise. The initial instigation for the conflict completely spirals out of proportion, and the lengths the early brooding antagonist goes to in order to retaliate against your squad is simply ludicrous. It doesn’t help that early levels have you gunning down legions of mundane and lifeless robotic tin cans, all of which feel like a flimsy placeholder for something greater further down the line. However, once you’ve scrapped enough buckets of bolts to send even Optimus Prime into a cold sweat, the narrative finally begins to develop into something extraordinary.
The entire experience from that moment onwards immerses itself in the persona of the survival-horror genre. The tense, spine-tingling sense of trepidation envelops you and your squad as you descend into the unknown to combat the mysterious Swarm, a horrific race of grotesque creatures that are threatening humanity’s very survival. Your quest to discover the source and scale of the infestation is near-perfectly paced, with just the right number of grandiose set-pieces and character-driven moments of rest bite alike.
It’s a feeling aided by the haunting environmental design; the decaying ruins of abandoned military installations and decimated cityscapes perfectly compliment the horror-esque vibe. I found myself frequently glancing nervously over my shoulder for the next Swarm ambush, and it’s all thanks to the brilliant level design. The only really spanner in the works comes in the form of the final boss encounter. The build-up to this moment is exhilarating and well thought-out, but the eventual confrontation simply feels too easy, even on harder difficulties. The problem stems from the glaringly obvious hints waylaid to you by your A.I companions, who effectively handhold you throughout the entire battle. During the rest of the game, the back-and-forth banter between your squad-mates is compelling and hilarious – thanks in no small part to the stellar writing and character development – but during the game’s climax it almost entirely evaporates all the challenge from the gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, the third-person mechanics of Gears of War 4 are as good as they get. No other game like it manages to achieve the level of mastery demonstrated by Gears. The gun roster is universally outstanding, with each weapon blazing hot lead in an exhilarating sensory experience that utterly captivates you. The Lancer is, once again, the stand-out of the arsenal, and the added close-combat mechanics only add to its feeling of battlefield excellence.
Alongside the established armoury come several new additions: the Dropshot and the Buzzkill. The latter hurls ricocheting saw-blades while the former launches an explosive drill that can be detonated at will. I thoroughly enjoying using these killing machines to mix up my usual deadly dance of bloody chaos, and I hope that The Coalition includes them in future titles.
In addition to the sterling singleplayer campaign comes the return of competitive multiplayer and Horde Mode. The former is as brutally intense as always, yet it is the latter which is the integral cog in the network. Teaming up with friends to fend off waves of ravenous creatures might just be the standout co-op experience of the year, and I can see myself have endless hours of blood-soaking fun for months to come.
With Gears 4, The Coalition have created an intricate and masterfully crafted experience the fits together with all of the complexity and beauty of a Swiss clock. It takes time to wind-up my mechanisms, but when you do the effect is truly wondrous to behold.