In Gears of War 4, a new saga begins for one of the most acclaimed video game franchises in history. After narrowly escaping an attack on their village, JD Fenix and his friends, Kait and Del, must rescue the ones they love and discover the source of a monstrous new enemy.
Gears of War 4 - An Old Friend Returns
There's an old adage: if ain't broke, don't fix it. This applies well to quite a few games and particularly Gears of War 4. It's the first proper mainline sequel to Microsoft's flagship in roughly five years and while it doesn't reinvent the wheel, it's feels like an old friend returned for the better.
Developer The Coalition, fresh off their successful remaster of 'Gears of War Ultimate Edition' - seem to have benefitted from focusing on where it all began. There's a purveying sense that this game knows exactly what it is, as if developing the original game gave them a two year crash course into what devotees and casual fans love about the series.
For the record: I approached this review as a casual fan. It's always felt like a series with a limited range but potent action and deft pacing. The games felt like they were intent on giving the player what they wanted first and foremost. This meant great set pieces, insane violence, and continually escalating fights that demanded strategy, and for the player to learn the nuance of its fluid cover gameplay.
With that said, let's focus on the campaign: GOW4 delivers all of that and is arguably the best in the series. It hangs the action and balance of the series' best while introducing the right amount of new elements to feel fresh. At the same time, the mechanics are thankfully identical to the best the series has seen (GOWIII), and there aren't overblown attempts to change the core gameplay. Everything has a new coat of polish that doesn't deter from the grit of its gameplay, and between the new environments, new characters and stupid-fun new weapons, there's enough freshness to make it feel like your returning old friend has learned some new tricks. It's important to note that a core tenant, co-op, is as good as ever here. Encounters and environments demand experimentation, and doing so rewards teammates that truly communicate/execute on the battle field. If you can, play the campaign with a buddy - it's just much better.
Aside from the marvellous campaign are the well established modes of (team) deathmatch and Horde 3.0. The latter is the fan favourite and this iteration streamlines with a 10 wave system and 'treats' those that make it through to incredible boss fights. The character progression system effectively rewards players too, this time focusing on a perk-like 'card' system that gives tangible and immediate benefits that can actually be felt on the battle field (no 3% accuracy boost perks here). Like the single player campaign, this mode is best experienced with a friend; but if you're intent on playing solo you can actually experience a variety of lone wolf situations that expand on the experience and may entice more than just solo-focused gamers.
The deathmatch mode continues the 'familiar' feel of the other modes but without coming off stale. We're treated to the similar modes of past, some esport-friendly modes such as Escalation, and the persistent 'card' system extends well between this mode and Horde 3.0. Actually, there's a synergy in the cards that, while extending the same benefit in both modes, actually creates a different sort of advantage in each mode because of the style/pacing. This unexpected benefit gives something to players seeking a multiplayer experience but also rewards players who decide to fill their plate when it comes to the games various modes.
Aesthetically, you won't find many games on the market in 2016 that look better than GOW4. It's apparent in budget, tech, and sheer effort that Microsoft wasn't going to let one of its crown jewels out the door without that shine. The Gears series has always done a marvellous job at helping us focus on its prettiest parts and this iteration is no different in pleasing the eye.
Aside from this, the sound design is as crunchy as ever and the somehow strange (somewhat questionable) pleasure we players derive from the chainsaw is even more impactful this go-round. The music, while verged on the 'canned big moment crescendo' scale at least fits when you stop focusing on how perfectly mundane it is.
Speaking of crescendos, the story toes the line of average but endearing. We're not breaking new ground here but we are seeing bros at their bro-iest and in that regard, it's consistent. The groundwork is well-laid out for future development/games and while the story slogs in the second half (and is questionably ended), The Coalition again carries the torch at a similar pace to what's come before it.
The big takeaway here is that if you enjoyed Gears of War when it came out, or any of its sequels - this is a safe if not refreshing purchase. It dials down the pretence and sells you on its action, its polish, and its ability to be itself.