After Epic Games’ success with Gears of War 3 it was hard to think there’s going to be any way for the franchise’s new custodian (The Coalition) to carry the torch as successfully. After all, that game was one of the most feature packed releases ever on the 360. But it seems with Gears of War 4 they are willing to give it a red hot go and even reveal a few new tricks to carry the series into a new generation.
Before the new story unfolds the game lets players catch up with history through a series of playable vignettes that are effective in setting the tone the series is well known for. It’s been five years since a numbered instalment of the franchise, so this is useful in getting everyone on the same page and it’s also short enough to not distract you from the core storyline.
Gears of War 4 takes place a couple of decades after Marcus Fenix last faced the Locust and places you in the shoes of JD, an ex-soldier helping out a village during a time of rebuilding on planet Sera. With the government being overprotective of the human race there’s little room for free spirits wanting to lead their own lives. When villagers are snatched away by an unknown enemy, JD and his friends are forced to ask for help from a familiar face who’s not necessarily happy to see them.
Being the first part of a new series means there’s a lot of foundations to lay in the overall story arc and the game does an admirable job of avoiding unnecessary explanations. A shooter can have a story… Just as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the actual shooting parts. I’m sure there’s more to find out when the next game arrives.
As a third person shooter, your character is front and centre as you run, gun and dive your way through numerous enemy encounters. For a sequel whose origins date back to 2006, it might surprise to think how little has changed with those controls yet they are still remarkably solid. The Coalition’s work on Gears of War Ultimate Edition carries over and so it feels like the franchise’s transition to another developer has not impacted the game where it matters.
To keep battles fresh, there’s added variety in the encounters over time thanks to the factions you face off against which have their own types and unique attacks and the AI does a good job of missing up behaviours as sometimes they will charge in or stay back trying to pick you off from range. Additional action segments are included to mix up the spectacle but it’d ruin the surprise if I say too much here. Needless to say there are some crazy moments in store for players and it all looks absolutely amazing. Much like the original Gears of War, it’s a pretty good advertisement for the Unreal Engine.
As well as the campaign, there is an an extremely robust set of competitive multiplayer modes. These include the original Gears team deathmatch mode Warzone and territory holding variant King of the Hill as well as new additions to the franchise such as Arms Race, which cycles through the game’s weapons as your team accrues kills. I think that Gears always feels at its best when players are in each other’s faces blasting away and the old modes do really well in encouraging that kind of fighting.
Like Gears of War Ultimate Edition, online multiplayer is cloud hosted and runs extremely well. Even with my less than average Internet connection I was seeing little lag during hectic battles which is an impressive achievement. A welcome inclusion is the support for LAN based multiplayer which is becoming increasingly rare in modern games – I bet this game will soon become an easy choice for LAN parties.
Those wanting cooperative play beyond the campaign, the latest version of Horde is here and pits up to five players against fifty waves of increasingly difficult enemies. It’s good to see that the core elements of Horde remain intact but the developers have been willing to tweak the peripheral elements to add some twists to the gameplay.
The most obvious additions occur prior to the game beginning where players can choose the class that are playing which determines the load-out and bonuses bestowed. On top of that players can elect to use bounty cards (also used in competitive modes) from their collection to set goals that could win them bonuses such as additional XP to level their character.
Fortifications that players create now tend to focus around their mobile fabrication unit which is used to purchase additional defences in between waves. But it costs credits and forces players to move outside their fortifications to collect them from fallen foes which adds an extra level of risk during the mode which wasn’t present in the original mode.
Most of these modes are also cross platform so players from both Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs can get together and shoot things up. Initially some of the competitive modes were deliberately kept isolated from one another due to possible advantages of mouse/keyboard over a controller but The Coalition have begun to open more up which is probably going to benefit PC players more with a bigger pool to take part in.
Visually, the game is outstanding with some great choices in terms of artistic direction. The architecture will be familiar to veterans of past games but the increased use of colour helps to reinforce that it is now a very different world that the characters are living in, especially in the early sections of the game which creates a great first impression. Areas are laid out in a way to encourage using cover – working your way around enemies safely is a key part of gameplay.
However that adherence to the past game’s style of level design sometimes brings in some old, bad habits with invisible barriers blocking routes and making it a little too clear that the route through the levels is extremely linear. In one level a gurney blocked a doorway which you then had to navigate around to the other side. You’d think in the age of bulked up space marines and advanced games consoles, they wouldn’t be slowed by such obstacles and would push the gurney out of the way.
So, how did the game turn out on PC? Pretty damned good I will say. With support for higher resolutions the game definitely looks its best with a hulking graphics card behind it and I’m really impressed with how well it performs too. You will take a hit on your hard drive space though with the game clocking in at over 80 gigabytes.
To help you tweak settings there is even a built in bench-marking tool that will give you a good idea of any potential bottlenecks in your system; something I could see be handy for those players trying to figure what next to upgrade. There’s plenty of the usual graphical options in the game for you to adjust to ensure you get the best possible output. The game also makes use of dynamic resolution scaling to manage the load whilst keeping the frame rate manageable – if it’s happening I haven’t noticed it yet.
Running off my PC (i7-6700, GTX970) the benchmark indicated that it was the graphics card that was maxed out however the game was still running at a fairly stable 30fps at 4K which was more than enough for me during the campaign. Like the work done on Forza Horizon 3 and Forza Motorsport 6 Apex this is some impressive tech in action.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. I still find it amusing that ten years after the original Gears of War we still find the same old quirks in the Unreal Engine such as texture pop in. Having objects appear blurry then suddenly appear sharp as the texture loads seconds after you’ve noticed it ruins the illusion and the great work of the artists. Surprising to think that kind of issue still exists.
As another Xbox Play Anywhere title, your game save and progress carries between both versions and it works really well here. I’m guessing maybe the file sizes for saves is much smaller for Gears of War 4 than it is for Forza Horizon 3 but it was really quick and I again appreciated that with a slow Internet connection.
As another studio created by Microsoft to look after a popular IP, it seems that The Coalition has been far more conservative in their approach to Gears of War 4 than what 343 Industries was with Halo 4/5 in that they are not necessarily trying to outdo the previous developer but to ensure that their first new game is at a level that matches the best of it predecessors and it is safe to say that they did so VERY successfully.
Gears of War 4 is out now on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs.