Gears of War 4 can be roughly segmented into three disparate chunks: The campaign, playable either solo or co-op; Versus mode; and Horde. We received a review copy of this game prior to release, meaning that when it came to testing versus mode, we weren’t able to do so in a manner that reflects how the general public would experience the game. Initially, we held our review score for a week, and after thoroughly testing the online capabilities of the game across all three modes, our review has been updated with a score. For starters, let’s go over the parts we were able to experience first.
One of the truly great things about Gears of War 4 is its ability to respect the legacy of the four titles that came before it, whilst simultaneously forging a new path forward with intelligent re-invention of core concepts and structures. Following the events at the end of the previous trilogy, the Locust have been wiped off of planet Sera and an age of peace has fallen upon the land. New cities have been constructed and armies staffed by thousands of robotic soldiers, created by the COG to help humanity. At the fringes of society, however, there is rebellion: whole colonies have gone off the grid and reverted to a more rural lifestyle, living off the land and keeping to themselves. After an attack on their village that leads to their friends and families being captured, JD Fenix and his comrades, Kait and Del, go on a quest to rescue those they love. The game follows the traditional Gears 5-act structure, however it’s the smaller innovations throughout that make it the most impressive.
Establishing new characters in a well-known franchise and expecting you to care for them is tough, however, with a delicate hand, The Coalition has managed to forge a group of characters and friends that you want to spend time with and enjoy being around. The three leads are all young enough to have been born after the conflict with the Locust, so they’re not immediately grizzled and angry like the previous casts. There’s genuine humour and compassion shown to one another, even at the worst moments of their hellish journey. When this new approach to characterisation is combined with the gorgeous visuals and the new, more colorful world that’s presented, Gears 4 begins to feel more and more like its own game. All things said, the campaign is intelligent, well-paced and a joy to play.
Though we won’t get into specifics relating to the story, the new varieties of enemies and their strategies leads to some fantastic new combat scenarios. Enemies that rush, flank, attack defenses and snipe from afar must all be juggled at once, leading to some dramatic and difficult combat encounters. New weapons, like the charge-up sniper EMBAR, or the dual-shot shotgun, the Overkill, are fantastic additions to the game. The Overkill has completely stolen my heart – a shotgun that shoots both on the pull and the release of a trigger is such a smart and tactile piece of design that it’s amazing it hasn’t been thought of before. Combining these new weapons with old favorites leaves combat feeling both familiar and revolutionary. It’s truly magnificent.
Horde Mode makes its triumphant return with Horde Mode 3.0, introducing a number of changes to the revolutionary game mode – though it must be said not all changes are welcome. The core of Horde is unchanged: Up to five players can take on waves of enemies steadily increasing in difficulty over 50 waves, with every 10th being a much harder boss wave. Players are scored for fancy kills, staying alive and achieving bonus objectives as they appear. The intelligent enemy AI, wide variety of weapons and scarcity of ammo ensures that players have to be cunning and resourceful in order to overcome the fierce competition. New mechanics for attacking in and out of cover, combined with a number of new weapons and fierce enemy varieties means that even before any of the bigger changes, Horde 3.0 is an entirely different beast to its predecessors.
There are three main changes made to Horde 3.0 that players should be aware about. Firstly, all Horde games are now played on any of the multiplayer maps – there are no longer dedicated maps just for Horde. Secondly, there are no more bases to be built up around the level: rather, an Esky-sized fabricator can be dragged around to any point on the map, which is used to build defenses out of. These defenses cost energy, which is dropped by enemies when killed. The mobility of the fabricator and your defenses allows for entirely different strategies when playing, letting players adapt to threats more effectively. Finally, all players now select a class for Horde mode, which grants different starting weapons and minor abilities that change the way the game unfolds. For instance, the Scout class collects more energy from the field, whilst the Engineer can build defenses out of the fabricator for less resources. Ultimately, I found the class system to be somewhat clumsy. As no characters are locked out of building from the fabricator or from using any type of weapon, the whole system seemed pointless and needlessly confusing. It’s worth noting that I was only able to play a two player split-screen game of Horde, so maybe this will be different with a full five person team. I’ll have an answer by the time our full review goes live next week.
As it’s a game being released in 2016, Gears of War 4 has card packs filled with unlockables. There are dozens of character and weapon skins that can be acquired to let you customize your multiplayer character however you like. Card packs can also yield new, upgradeable class skills and bounties for use in Horde and competitive mode. Fear not, however: The Coalition have been very clear that no card that directly affects gameplay will be able to be used in the multiplayer, so all battle-scarred Halo 5 players can breathe a heavy sigh of relief. Class skills improve your abilities in Horde, allowing for things like extra ammo or faster construction times. These can be upgraded by destroying duplicates, allowing for more powerful abilities the longer you play. Bounties provide rewards for completing specific challenges, like getting a required number of headshots, or surviving a certain amount of time in Versus mode. These bounties stay with you until they are completed, so there is no cost to failing a card on a game mode. It’s easy to feel negatively when talking about card packs in $100 games, however, these are relatively harmless and easy to ignore. My personal distaste for the system led to me opening the packs, then never interacting with them again. Your mileage will vary.
As mentioned before, we haven’t had enough time to truly dissect the standard multiplayer mode with a proper audience of players, so we’ll be addressing that next week. I will also endeavor to play through the campaign again in co-op, to really put the game through its paces. Even without those final few checks, Gears of War 4 is still an easy game to recommend. The story is enjoyable and of a decent length, with the new weapons are some of the best in the franchise’s history. Horde 3.0 takes a classic game mode and intelligently re-invents parts, despite some stumbles with the card packs and classes. Though we won’t put an official score on until next week, I would gladly recommend anyone play Gears of War 4.
Luckily for all involved, there has been little to no quibbles with Gears of War 4’s multiplayer architecture since launch. A decent, albeit cosy community has taken up the game, and matches can be found relatively easily.
Online co-op and Horde are both easy to match into with friends, and have fewer niggles to complain about than previous Gears games. The campaign especially benefits from being played online co-op. The Gears 4 campaign is definitely best served played with a friend, and having each player on their own screen, rather than cramped onto one, makes a hell of a difference. Horde remains fun, and the larger group you can wrangle together, the better served you will be.
The standard online multiplayer modes are well executed and fun enough, but hardcore Gears fans will find more joy than I did. Traditional Gears strategies still dominate play, so expect this one to feel rather similar to the rest. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you: personally, I would have liked a bit of a change from the status quo.
The unlock system has seen a fair amount of criticism since launch, and I feel it’s justified. While on the surface prior to release it appeared an average player could simply ignore the unlocks altogether, it now appears next to impossible to complete higher levels of Horde without them. Similarly, the drop-rate for new crates is pretty abysmal, almost forcing players to purchase them with real money to remain competitive in Horde. In a game with huge swathes of intelligent, forward-looking changes, this seems like a real blunder.
In closing, I still feel largely positive about Gears of War 4 and would still recommend any and all check out the campaign. Play with a buddy and you’ll have a good time. The multiplayer is pretty similar to as it was in the past, which will either elicit excitement or not depending on your tastes. Finally, Horde 3.0 would be greatly improved without the card system. hopefully future balance changes will tweak some of the values for unlocking and applying new cards, but time will tell.