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Gears of War 4 might have moved away from being a muscle-clad ‘bro shooter’, but The Coalition isn’t stripping the franchise of its identity.
By Adnan Riaz
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: The Coalition
Platforms: Xbox One (R), PC
Release: 11th October 2016
Gears of War 4 is the renaissance of Microsoft’s acclaimed cover-based shooter franchise. Just as JJ Abrams was tasked with reinvigorating the Star Wars series, The Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson has taken on a similar role here. Fergusson was very much the right-hand man of Gears of War series creator Cliff Bleszinski during their time at Epic Games, where the duo delivered a stellar Gears trilogy before they parted their separate ways. Fergusson has returned to Gears, though, taking his new place as the visionary that the Gears of War franchise needs (and deserves) going forward. Gears’ future is now in safe hands with The Coalition. Gears of War 4 might have moved away from being a muscle-clad ‘bro shooter’, but The Coalition isn’t stripping the franchise of its identity. The fan-favourite aspects have been retained for Gears of War 4, but it’s evident that The Coalition isn’t ready to play it safe as it pushes the series in a bold new direction.
The story of Gears of War 4 picks up 25 years after the events of Gears of War 3, but The Coalition eases players through this massive transition in time. The studio treats players to an opening segment that not only delivers on the fan service front, but it’s also a beautifully crafted prologue that sets the tone for the game. The Coalition taps into Gears’ rich universe and retells key moments from Sera, ranging from Aspho Fields to Emergence Day to Anvil Gate. Players relive the iconic moments as characters from Gears’ past — and those that are still present — all the while having another opportunity to battle the Locust again. The prologue’s flashback segments are combined with the present-day narrative, as the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) is commemorating the end of the Locust War. It’s hard-hitting nostalgia at its best. It also builds up momentum for story events waiting to unfold, specifically the new threat emerging on Sera: they’re called the ‘Swarm’.
The Swarm has taken the place of the Locust as the main enemy in Gears of War 4. The designs for some of the new enemies, such as the Pouncer and the Snatcher, are simply amazing. That’s coupled with their unique abilities, which can make them unpredictable, dangerous foes to face in the campaign or Horde mode. It’s not all brilliant for the Swarm, though. The Swarm designs for the Drone and Grenadier, for example, look too much alike. When they were Locusts, they were easier to identify and distinguish from one another. For a new type of enemy, the leader of the Swarm isn’t really established as a formidable force. It kind of weakens their threatening appeal. Gears of War 4 really needed a General RAAM-like character to reinforce the story, but it failed to deliver one in The Speaker (who’s the closest thing to the Swarm boss). The Swarm is also undermined by the DeeBees, mechanical robots developed by DB Industries that work for the COG. It’s either a toss up between fighting the Swarm or the DeeBees (or both sometimes), and considering that so much time is spent fighting the latter in the first part of the campaign, it slows down the narrative and the eventual emergence of the Swarm.
The new trio leading Gears of War 4 — JD Fenix, Delmont ‘Del’ Walker and Kait Diaz — take their place front and centre in the story. The Coalition establishes the new heroes in a similar style to the leads in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with Gears of War’s fan-favourite characters playing much more of a supportive role. JD, the son of war hero and former lead protagonist Marcus Fenix, is a likable character. His story arc centres on his estranged relationship with his father. The tension between Marcus and JD can be cut with a knife, which is really effective in so many different segments. John DiMaggio, the voice of Marcus, has delivered his best performance as Marcus. He plays the role of the father, the mentor and the friend in Gears of War 4, though events that have unfolded since the Locust War have contributed to his transformed personality. DiMaggio’s acting steals the limelight, making an old warhorse like Marcus one of the best factors of the entire story, even though he’s no longer the lead protagonist.
Despite the story clocking in shorter than previous titles, Kait is Gears of War’s first true leading heroine to shine in the series. Her story arc, mainly revolving around rescuing her mother (Reyna), is somewhat more important than JD’s in the grand scheme of things. It is filled with moments of brilliance, which is only reinforced by The Coalition’s choice to have Laura Bailey voice her. Bailey is clearly in her element. Bailey’s vocal range is highlighted through the impassioned delivery of Kait’s lines, instantly making players connect with her and sympathising with her cause. Del, unfortunately, is one of the weaker characters out of the trio. His friendship with JD is meant to be similar to that of Marcus and Dom’s relationship. The problem is that the campaign doesn’t really delve into the duo’s history, leaving something to be desired. It’s a shame, sure, but another entry in the Gears of War franchise could instantly change the chemistry between the two.
Horde, undoubtedly, is the one mode that has been polished and refined in Gears of War 4. At the heart of Horde’s mechanics is the Fabricator, a transportable device that allows players to access different fortifications and weapons (all for a price, of course). The Fabricator is significant in the campaign, too, so players are essentially walked through a tutorial of using the device before heading into Horde. It’s certainly an upgrade from Gears of War 3’s Horde features, which is also strengthened through the introduction of five classes — Engineer, Scout, Soldier, Heavy and Sniper — that players can choose from. The more the player ranks up, the more versatile their classes become. It helps on the higher difficulties, especially when dealing with the boss waves every tenth wave. When it comes to searching for a public Horde match, the flaws are present in many forms. Joining a session in progress is blocked, loading screens are long and idle players can’t be kicked from matches. It’s definitely an aspect that The Coalition overlooked, unfortunately.
The online matchmaking is an area that The Coalition will no doubt be improving with each new title update. It’s temperamental at the minute, with servers crashing spontaneously without warning. The addition of modes like Dodgeball, which follows the same rules as the sport, will become an instant favourite among veterans and newcomers to the series. Arms Race is another mode that feels like one of those community events that the developer would introduce at different points in the year. In this case, however, it’s one of the best modes to be included in the online. Trying to cycle through each weapon tier the fastest creates for competitive action-packed matches. The multiplayer is hindered by the microtransactions scattered throughout the online. Online has been stripped of the core level progression system the franchise had. Players will level up and, well, that’s about it. Unlocking items will require players to purchase packs from the store and hope none of the unlocks are duplicates. Sure, duplicate cards can be scrapped for credits in order to build new cards, but it’s far too low how much in-game cash the player actually receives for doing this. The in-game currency dished out after each match has been patched after the backlash that came from the community during the early access of Gears of War 4, but it’s still unbalanced. The rewards nowhere near match the amount of time that players have put into the title.
With visually striking environments and a beautifully crafted score from Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, Gears of War 4 re-establishes the franchise’s reputation and places it at the centre of Microsoft’s core exclusives. Gears of War 4’s mechanics are excellent, with new features like climbing straight over cover whilst running and yanking players over cover and shanking them being welcomed additions. Spending more and more time on Gears of War 4 does make the flaws apparent, but The Coalition has truly outdone itself when it comes to the campaign, Horde and online. It’s a love letter to the fans of the series, though it doesn’t neglect newcomers from falling in love with the franchise’s staple features and unique style. The renaissance has happened, and just like The Force Awakens, the franchise is ready to enter a new and exciting period.