Gears of War makes its grandiose return on Xbox One and PC, and those sorely missing the series can rest easy knowing that the franchise is back and better than ever.
Gears of War: Judgment was the biggest misstep the property has ever weathered. People point their fingers at several dropped features and mishandled game mechanics for the game's underwhelming debut, but the reason it's such a divisive entry in the series is because it did something different. It deviated from the longstanding and successful formula present in the initial trilogy in an attempt to mix things up, and it fell flat on its face so spectacularly that Epic Games was ready to shelve the IP for roughly 10 years before Microsoft opted to snatch it up. For those wondering, no, Gears of War 4 does not follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned and rarely lauded prequel.
Rather, Gears of War 4 is a spectacular return to form in lieu of an attempted evolution of the series. It brings back beloved and all too familiar core gameplay mechanics, reunites fans with a universe they believed came to a close back in 2011, and resurrects the much-adored Horde mode. Not only does it hit these must-haves, but it does so with the immense set pieces and over-the-top gore that the brand is known for. Furthermore, tweaks to the existing multiplayer infrastructure make it feel a little more modern amongst the current sea of online shooters, although that's not always for the best.
What diehard fans of Marcus Fenix will dive into first, however, is the campaign mode. Picking up 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, players are introduced to Marcus's son JD, his best friend Del, and the outsider Kait. After in-game events unfold, the trio set off to confront a pair of new threats in the form of The Swarm and a revamped COG army that's composed entirely of robots known as DeeBees. The ensuing narrative is, at times, hokey. It's not some of the most well-written content in gaming, but it will occasionally sneak up and surprise players – making them laugh and maybe even shed a tear in some instances.
As for the gameplay itself, the faction composition makes any given chapter feel fresh. There's no telling which blend of characters will show up next, and that keeps the action progressing nicely. Meanwhile, the blockbuster set pieces that are synonymous with the IP are largely brought on by frequently reoccurring changes in the weather, known only as Windflares. These immense storms allow for some unique moments during the narrative, but they pop up so often that they begin to feel a little monotonous and quickly lose their intended impact on the player.
That redundancy issue aside, after the campaign has come to a close, fans will feel completely satisfied with the venture. Gears of War 4 expertly sets the tone for the installments that will inevitably follow it, and the direction it's headed has a lot of promise to say the least. While the wait to see how this new story will unfold is sure to be a lengthy one, the multiplayer aspect is once again a saving grace that is set to ensure that consumers get more bang for their buck.
Based on the early offerings of the game, at least from a pre-launch perspective, the online features and corresponding servers seem rather steady. The ever-violent multiplayer battles remain set at a blistering 60 frames per second throughout, and the cover-based combat remains as relevant as it has ever been. New modes like Dodgeball make for a nice reprieve from the tried and true methods of play, but there are still the core competitive modes that are sure to appease longstanding followers.
Of course, it wouldn't be a return to form without Horde mode, and The Coaltion has handily delivered on that front. Building upon the successful formula that Epic Games left behind, the revamped feature allows groups of up to five players to work together to set up defences in a bid to make it to the next round. The inclusion of 'Classes' this time around also helps by giving those involved a dedicate role, ensuring that everyone remains in constant communication with one another. Therein lies the beauty of Horde, and fans will be thrilled with its newest form.
While all of this is well and good, the biggest change to multiplayer doesn't stem from the addition of new or returning modes, but rather the implementation of the game's collectible card system, Gear Packs. Gone are the days of levelling up in order to unlock new character or weapon skins, with card packs now occupying a prominent role within the game. Admittedly, this is pretty par for the course, ensuring that Gears of War 4 follows in the footsteps of other titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Overwatch, and even Halo 5: Guardians. Much like the latter two titles, future content (such as maps) will be rotated into the ever-shifting mix of battlegrounds for free, but this doesn't always justify the model that's in play.
Despite being somewhat expected in this day and age, there are problems with this system that the developers have caused. Largely, those hoping to gather enough in-game currency to purchase packs without investing real-world dollars will find themselves in an incredible slog. Unlike the aforementioned Overwatch, these crates do not come easy, and anyone hoping to save up for a Gold Gear Pack (which more or less guarantees them a character skin) will be spending a lot of time grinding for them.
Gears of War 4 is a worthy successor to the trilogy that came before it. The story features a familiar face or two, but remains focused on the new line of characters. The online component adds new and altered multiplayer modes, but keeps the gameplay locked into what made the originals so endearing. Gears 4 is a painstakingly crafted love letter to those that have a meaty soft spot for the franchise. Aside from the costly cosmetic-focussed transactions, this is the exact experience that fans have been waiting for.
Gears is back. If that doesn't deserve a Cole Train-inspired "Woo, baby," then I don't know what does.
Gears of War 4 is available for Xbox One and Windows PC on October 11, 2016.
Microsoft provided Game Rant with a digital copy of Gears of War 4 on Xbox One for review purposes.