Friday, 25 November 2016

Gears of War 4 - Review

Developer: The Coalition 
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One (version played)

Much like Halo 4, Gears of War 4 is an exercise in emulation rather than a bold step forward for the iconic decade-old cover shooter. Developers The Coalition have a clear aim when it comes to how this latest chapter of Gears should play: make it feel like what you’ve played before.

To be fair, Gears of War has always been the meat and potatoes of modern third-person shooters. It’s not all that unique, nor is it all that exciting, it knows exactly what it is and does just that. There’s never been any pretentiousness to the series.

In that sense Gears of War 4 is no exception. Jumping the timeline forward twenty years, the game acts not only as the first instalment of a presumed new trilogy but rather like a modern Hollywood reboot; uniting the older cast with the young as it sets up a new stage.

This time around you play as Marcus’ son, J.D.; an awkward mix of space marine grunt, (the guy has a jawline built to break rocks), and pithy Nathan Drake quips.

It’s this weird combination of B-movie splatter and high adventure charm that sometimes leads to a severe crisis in tone. This is the kind of game where one moment you can be chainsawing through a hoard of aliens with a rifle, blood showering over the screen, to the next moment enjoying a few awkwardly written jokes between characters. Gears of War 4 jumps around in what it wants to be, tonally, in a way the previous games didn’t, and it never quite settles down.

Despite the mediocre writing and forced dialogue there’s a few interesting tidbits of world-building. Much like Halo, Gears of War’s world has always been oddly more compelling than the game designers seem to want to give it credit for. The game subverts the roles of the previous trilogy, with the biggest foe, at least to begin with, being an increasingly threatening and militaristic C.O.G., following the events of Gears of War 3.

If I’ve held off from writing about the gameplay it’s because...well...if you’ve played any of the games you’ve played it all before. The tight snap-to cover system, the pop-and-stop gunplay and the satisfying rumble of that chainsaw lancer as you rip the innards out of a nearby foe. It’s virtual paintball, only with more blood and guts.It’s the predictability of the combat, and The Coalition’s reluctance to experiment, slavishly aping the core design of the previous games, that makes working your way through the campaign such a bore.

The early acts pit JD and friends against an army of C.O.G. robots, a thoroughly dull set of foes that are more bullet sponges than engaging adversaries. Combat always goes the same way; pop up, hold the trigger and pour oodles of bullets into your target whilst they fail to react to being shot at until they suddenly die.

It might seem at least plausible to do this with the robot enemies, but once the Swarm, a sort of super-breed of the previous games’ Locusts, show up, they possess the exact same problem. Both enemy types also suffer from very little in terms of variety, with both having a regular grunt, a bigger grunt and then a smaller horde creature to at least force you out of cover from time to time.

The major problem with Gears of War 4’s campaign is, it’s only got one real focus, the shooting, which should mean it can laser focus on that one aspect and make it really compelling. Instead, battles become a repetitive slog. Even some later enemies fail to liven up the same copy-and-paste shooting galleries, thanks to, again, suffering from bloated health and uninspired move sets that fail to challenge the player in any reasonable fashion.

The environments likewise, seem to give up about half way through. After an explosion-riddled dash through Marcus Fenix’s estate, easily the highlight of the entire game, a good portion of the second half of the campaign sees fit to dump you in an ugly-looking mine as you slog through one bland fire fight after another.

The whole experience isn’t much of a challenge either. Your comrades will always dash over and heal you whenever you get shot down by an enemy, meaning you can be far more reckless and aggressive knowing that it’s very rare you’ll end up truly dying, since a teammate and simply rush over and pick you up. It turns some of the game’s encounters from boring to mindless.

And all this despite the game having plenty to work with. There’s a fun mechanic whereby pieces of cover are actually Swarm pods, meaning there’s a risk/reward aspect as hunkering behind the pod for too long and attracting fire could burst it and result in more enemies to tackle. The Swarm in general could have been an interesting idea, but instead the game settles for slight reskins of the previous games’ enemies most of the time.

No doubt many players will find themselves drawn to the multiplayer more than the single player campaign. and there’s no denying that it’s more engaging than Gears of War 4’s solo offerings.

Horde mode has been revamped to 3.0 and makes for a moreish brawl through progressively harder waves of enemies. There’s the usual minor layer of RPG mechanics to encourage more committed players to grind through for better rewards. Here again though, the lacklustre design overall harms this mode. The enemies certainly don’t become any more interesting to shoot at, with their limited variety and a rather bland selection of shotguns, lancers and sniper rifles to choose from.

Standard multiplayer is still standard multiplayer. Online shooters have come a long way in the past several years and with the likes of Titanfall and Overwatch (first-person shooters, I know, but close enough) doing the rounds, the fact that Gears of War 4 struggles to come up with barely any new game modes is disappointing at the very least.

Still, Arms Race, the re-titled version of Gears of War Judgement’s “Master at Arms” mode, is a blast to play. Nothing shows off the tight tactical nature that Gears cover mechanics can encourage than both teams only being armed with Torque Bows. Every so often, the weapon that every player is forced to use gets switched around forcing tactics and the pace of the match to change on the fly. It’s lively, fun and best of all unpredictable.

Gears of War 4 is like a reluctant sigh of “here we go again”. There’s little enthusiasm here, beyond the spiffy visuals and slick production design. The game underlying it is old and tired, and made to look even more so when compared to the recent re-release of the original Gears of War earlier this year. For diehard fans of the series' multiplayer this might sate their appetite, but it’s an underwhelming opening shot for the next phase of a long-running series.


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