PolyNerdic Review: Gears of War 4

I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I wanted or needed a fourth Gears of War game…well make that a fifth since Gears of War: Judgement is a thing (an oddly maligned thing that I actually found to be alright if not outright enjoyable in its own right)…but here we are with a properly numbered “fourth” entry in the series.

The question, as always, is simply: is Gears of War 4 worth your time or is it an attempt at a new studio using an existing property in a lame cash grab that falls flat on its face?

Back in April, Game Informer released concept art for the game and I recall many, many people throwing a tantrum at the reveal that the main characters would not be Marcus, Baird and Cole but rather three new characters, one of whom would be Marcus’s son JD.

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While there were some subtle tweaks to the designs these early images weren’t far off from the characters in the game and having played it to completion I can safely say that the knee-jerk reactions calling these characters “hipster-ized” and “dorky” were totally unfounded and the trio above made for pitch perfect additions to the “lore” of Gears.

The story starts with JD, Del and Kait about to raid a COG settlement for supplies.  Very early on it is established that JD and Del are COG defectors living among the Outsiders and are not entirely welcomed by their new brethren.  These early levels do a great job of establishing a familiar tone while showing you how much the world has changed since the war with the Locusts (the old days getting their time to shine in a great Prologue series of levels to start the game).  During the raid you find yourself in a settlement under construction with massive construction robots everywhere and this is where you encounter your first taste of one of the new enemy types robot soldiers called DBs that come in a variety of types and sizes.

Don’t worry though, chainsawing through them is every bit as fun as it was to cut up Locusts in the old games.

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It wouldn’t be a Gears game if things didn’t escalate quickly.  After barely escaping by the seat of their pants and nearly losing their village in battle with the COG forces the second type of enemy arrives, a monstrous horde that JD, Del and Kait dub the Swarm.  After a nightmarish sequence with the Swarm that sees Kait’s mother taken, JD is forced to turn to his father for help.

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The quest to uncover the secrets of the Swarm and rescue Kait’s mother becomes the prevailing story of the rest of the campaign.  Like its predecessors the game moves very fast as intense firefight after intense firefight whips you at breakneck speed through the game and can very easily see you finishing it in one sitting if you have the time.  This is honestly one of the campaign’s biggest strengths and weaknesses as it grabs hold of you and leaves you wanting to keep playing but also isn’t a long enough game to sustain that kind of momentum.  I often found myself realizing out of the blue that I had torn through 3 or 4 chapters of an act without realizing I had done so (I believe at least once during the livestream announcing that I had no idea the previous chapters had ended).

Apart from the standard Gears gameplay, the developers brought back one of my least favorite parts of Judgement, Horde Mode style sequences tucked in the middle of the campaign.  I have nothing against Horde Mode by itself, it is a lot of fun to get some friends together and fight off waves of bad guys (although Horde Mode 3.0 has this weird mix of DB and Swarm enemies) but I don’t like having the momentum of the story being broken by these sequences forcing you to build defenses between waves of attackers.  I may be mistaken but I believe there were at least three of these moments in the game and I couldn’t wait for them to end once they sprung up in predictable fashion (riding a massive lift, when a radio call for help is being made, etc).

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The developers also threw in a couple of really great alternatives to the standard gunplay as well, a sequence piloting giant construction bots while being escorted by a missile packing helicopter (which admittedly plays similarly to the regular game but with tiny enemies you can stop on) and an excellent motorcycle sequence after meeting up with Marcus and trying to escape from the COG forces, dodging explosions and trees as you flee.

Hazard environmental conditions are nothing new to the series either (Razorhail, Kryll and Imulsion to name a few) so in keeping with that tradition Gears of War 4 brings massive storms known as Windflares.  These lead to some interesting firefights as you can shoot certain environmental objects free and create havoc with the enemies.

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Gears of War 4 can also be played co-operatively and having played it solo I can honestly say that it probably is best an experience shared with at least one other person.  There are moments where the AI controlling the other members of the party goes braindead and usually at a time when you really need their support.  For example, about halfway through the game you encounter an enemy called a Snatcher.  As the name implies, if it downs a member of your three person party it will pull them into its underbelly and carry them off.  The other members of the party then have to shoot the glowing sack containing the trapped person until they are freed.  It sounds simple but if you happen to be the one it grabs and tries to carry off there is a good chance you’re a dead man as the AI will run around missing completely, shooting the wrong parts of the beast or not even shooting at all.

The single biggest complaint I have with the entire game is the absolutely abrupt and unsatisfying way the campaign ends.  There is an interesting and fun yet not overly difficult fight with a massive monster and then one cutscene later (wherein Marcus says the words “The fight isn’t over…”) and the game ends.  I know that this is the beginning of a new trilogy but the ending is blatant sequel baiting in a manner I haven’t seen since Halo 2.

Before I give you my final verdict I need to point out that I barely played the new Horde 3.0 as none of my friends are playing the game yet but I dabbled in it by myself.  Horde Mode is ripped straight out of the single player sequences I didn’t care for with the added layer of making you collect “power” from the fallen enemies and banking them in a “fabricator” that will then let you build defenses.  Playing by myself I was just reaching the point where I could afford turrets about 5 waves in, which was sort of detrimental to the Horde experience but it’s probably better with other guns on the field pooling resources.  I also did not get to play around with the different classes available. I also gave the multiplayer a wide, wide, wide berth.  I have never really cared for the community surrounding a few multiplayer games and Gears is one of them.  I also don’t find the “roll around, shotgun people in the face” technique that dominates Gears multiplayer to be all that enjoyable either.

With those facts in mind, I did not factor those modes into my final score.  My score is based entirely on the single player campaign and the single player alone.

Final verdict: Gears of War 4 is quite good and frankly surprised me by showing me that I had a need for more Gears that I had no idea was present.  Idiotic AI partners and the frustration that comes with them during boss fights, defense sequences and unsatisfying ending aside it was a very enjoyable and fun ride start to finish.  8 out of 10

I’ve already uploaded the entirety of my run through the game to Youtube and included it below for the benefit of those who wish to take a look.

-Shad (@PolyNerdic)

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