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Review – Gears of War 4

What’s this?

I don’t want to alarm you, but despite quite clearly having the numeral “4” on the end of the title, Gears of War 4 is actually the fifth game in the respectable Gears of War franchise. And when I say “respectable” I’m not even being my usual, sarcastic, devilishly-handsome self. The first game was critically beloved, a commercial success by every possible metric, exceedingly well-designed, and became a rubric for cover-based third-person shooting to such an extent that the industry’s continued – and continuing – milking of the series’ saggy teats has led most people to retroactively taint the Gears games themselves. A shame, really, because they’re all pretty great. Except this one, as it happens. This one is merely fine, just in quite a tired, predictable, faintly desperate way.

Oh, no. We’re not doing the Halo thing, are we?

Not quite, although the business parallels are undeniably similar. Epic Games didn’t want to make Gears of War games anymore, much like how Bungie didn’t want to make Halo games anymore, and so in both instances Microsoft invented a developer with the specific mandate of making more games in those respective franchises. In Halo’s case, the property was handed over to 343 Industries, a phenomenally inept pack of corporate stooges who bastardized Halo’s core gameplay, plot and characters, and slapped them back together in a Call of Duty clone wearing Master Chief’s helmet.

Gears of War 4 has, admittedly, fared slightly better. Its developers, The Coalition, at least had the good sense to leave the fundamentals of a Gears experience largely unchanged. The problem is that they left them so unchanged that the whole thing feels like a knockoff, second-hand Gears experience without any of the creative verve that gave the original trilogy its unique appeal.

I think you’re being a bit generous here.

Yes, well, hypothetical interlocutor, I think you’re a fucking idiot. Because Gears of War was a big, lumbering, curious beast, full of design decisions that shouldn’t have made any sense, and yet the whole thing fit so snugly together that you could scarcely see the seams. Its heroes, Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago, were titanic trapezoids who didn’t so much wear their armour as bury themselves somewhere inside it, but they gracefully pinballed from one piece of chest-high scenery to another. The game’s enemies, a chalk-skinned race of reptilian marauders known as the Locust, emerged from the ground with shotguns and assault rifles, but their tactics mostly included getting as close to the player as possible. It was a science-fiction game set on a planet with the architecture of Regency Britain. When the player was blown and stamped to mush by the rampaging Horde, the failure screen was accompanied by a lilting version of the game’s theme music played on a piano.

They strapped a chainsaw bayonet to an assault rifle, for fuck’s sake.

Gears of War was a hugely imaginative game that came to be, through no real fault of its own, synonymous with a lack of imagination in gaming. That’s just the way of things, sometimes. But its importance to the genre simply cannot be understated. Gears might not have invented cover-based shooting (Winback on the Nintendo 64 was the first to incorporate a close-to-modern cover system; Kill.Switch on the Playstation 2 was the first to make it a core mechanic) but it certainly popularised it, and it’s still, to this day, the most polished and competent version of the type of game it popularised.

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And Gears of War 4… isn’t that?

It isn’t. Yes, the gameplay is largely unchanged. But this is now a sci-fi game with robots that build giant walled cities; with the same old enemies that now refuse to emerge from cover; with the same handful of new ideas flagrantly repeated as though they’re fresh and exciting each time. The lustre has worn off, and the machinery underneath is too old and creaky to be as appealing as it once was. Nor, I would argue, is it really trying to be. That sense of creativity and experimentalism just isn’t there anymore. When 343 Industries released Halo 4, you could tell they didn’t have a handle on it. It looked better than ever. It had the same verbs mapped to the same buttons. But it was always slightly off. The new enemies and their weapons weren’t as interesting; they didn’t have that sense of individual identity that each species of the Covenant or their weaponry did. Master Chief’s objectives always seemed to be given in triplicate; the environments he navigated were always similar. It just wasn’t the same. Neither is Gears of War 4.

Okay. What’s it about?

Broadly, it’s about the Locust coming back. They’re called the Swarm now, they’re covered in crystalline growths to give them some visual distinction, and the plot ties itself in knots trying to justify it all, but functionally the Locust are back, for reasons that were entirely lost on me beyond the simple fact that the story must continue somehow despite Gears of War 3 having brought it to a fairly decisive conclusion.

So things have changed on *checks Wikipedia* the planet Sera. The global countermeasure that fucked up the Locust Horde at the end of Gears of War 3 also had catastrophic knock-on effects for Sera’s climate and ecosystem, leading to the Coalition of Ordered Governments – COG, Gears, etc. – to morph into a kind of police state led by Sarah Palin. The few remaining humans are mostly crammed into walled cities patrolled by security robots, and those who aren’t call themselves “Outsiders”, conducting raids on COG facilities for much-needed resources, and living in wooden huts while a new meteorological event known as “Windflares” wreck their shit every half-hour or so.

That doesn’t sound ideal.

It sounds bloody awful, which makes me wonder why nobody on this planet has thought about moving. Anyway, our heroes are a fresh-faced Scooby-gang of these Outsider types, nominally led by J.D. Fenix – the son of Marcus Fenix, which you can tell by his surname, and the fact he’s built like someone who just swallowed a kitchen appliance. What he does bring to the hero role is a new, insufferable smugness, and a tendency for asinine back-and-forth patter with his mates, who include a token black dude and a spicy young woman. To be honest, it all made me long for the gruff macho posturing of Marcus, at least up until the second story act when he saunters back into the narrative – sporting a tasteful dad beard, naturally – and proceeds to make the whole thing about him again.

Isn’t that a spoiler?

Shit, maybe. Although I imagine the people who are really, truly invested in the Gears of War lore picked this up around release, so I’m probably covered. Either way, I won’t spoil the absurd moment of fan service that occurs late in the story, because the game treats that as though it’s Sera’s best-kept secret, and to be fair it does amount to a kick-yourself plot reveal that I’m honestly gutted I didn’t sniff out ahead of time.

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You’re waffling, here.

Yeah, I know, but it’s in service to a broader point, which is this: Refocusing the story on the old menace and the old cast has the unfortunate consequence of suggesting that Gears of War 4 is a more faithful continuation of the series than it ultimately ends up being. Putting the particulars of continuity aside, the game’s pacing, structure and moment-to-moment encounter design feel lacking; not in any way that’s deal-breaking, but in a way that stacks all the irritating niggles atop each other. Death by a thousand niggles, if you like. And while the series remains as resistant to meaningful change as a Republican Supreme Court Justice, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the fundamentals were as imaginative and polished as we left them.

Isn’t there anything new?

Yeah, Gears of War 4 endeavours to mix things up once or twice. There’s a motorbike chase that’s essentially a steerable cut-scene, and another bit where J.D. and the gang zoom to the top of a mineshaft that’s… well, essentially a steerable cut-scene, really. There’s an attempt to make those city-destroying super-storms a gameplay mechanic; during them, debris piles held precariously behind flimsy construction barriers can be dropped on Locust heads, and the occasional bit of business involving the direction of the wind crops up, but these sequences are repeated so frequently that it eventually starts to feel like a bit of a joke.

The most significant deviation is a tower-defence mechanic that shows up three-or-so times, and has the player defend a central area against waves of enemies, with the assistance of a device that belches out turrets and suchlike between rounds. But the arbitrary currency you use to “purchase” things from that device is offered in such paltry amounts that you can afford maybe one auto-turret and some spare ammo per round, and neither of those purchases lasts long, so each round devolves into a regular gunfight anyway.

You don’t recommend Gears of War 4, then?

Let’s not be hasty. This is still a competent third-person shooter, and if you’re in the market for such a thing, even the worst Gears game offers a better version of it than most other titles. In that case, fill your boots. You can probably get it on sale now.

If you’re expecting something that equals the first three games, though, or even the spin-off, Judgement, which at least had the good sense to hire Tom Bissell to write the dialogue, then you’re shit out of luck. Gears of War 4 represents a fairly significant step-down in the design minutiae that makes for a truly memorable gameplay experience. It’s like inviting the family round for dinner and realising that someone has swapped your uncle with an alien; might look the same, but it drinks through its nose and speaks through its arse.

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