Fun gameplay additions enhance a game that's playing it a little bit safe.
The first Gears of War went down well for a lot of people, being one of the Xbox 360's standout titles. The graphics were stunning, the action was intense, and the story was epic, not to mention the cover system that would eventually revolutionise the genre. The sequel then improved on the original in every way, adding Horde Mode as well. The third game wavered a little bit, and Judgement was the last nail in the coffin for many, so now Gears of War 4 has the chance to revitalise the series and draw back old fans while also enticing those who never played the originals.
The story of Gears of War 4 takes place 25 years after Gears of War 3, and the entire game spans the duration of one night. The Locust war is over, and peace once again rules on Sera. That peace comes at a price, though. Humanity has survived the war, but Sera's population has decreased dramatically. To make matters worse, powerful and deadly storms called Windflares are slowly tearing everything apart. To ensure mankind's survival and the chance to rebuild society, people are being isolated in walled-off cities to be protected, with technologically advanced robots guarding them and performing all the dangerous tasks.
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Not everyone is happy about this, though. Many feel imprisoned, and some have actually joined a group called The Outsiders that live, you guessed it, outside the walls. The Outsiders are being hunted by the Coalition of Ordered Governments, and this leads to humanity fighting amongst themselves. J.D. Phoenix, the son of Marcus Phoenix, leaves the COG and joins the Outsiders, a decision that takes its toll on his relationship with his father. It doesn't exactly help that a new threat known as The Swarm has started kidnapping people, and this is where the story of Gears of War 4 kicks off.
The first thing we noticed in this new instalment is how much tighter the controls are. It's very responsive, and the cover system is better than ever, especially because of two new mechanics called Vaulting and Grab 'N' Stab. The Vaulting mechanic lets you easily traverse the battlefield without losing momentum by jumping directly over cover and obstacles without having to stop and take cover first, like in previous games. As an added bonus, if an unlucky guy happens to be on the other side of that obstacle, you can boot him in the face, and after it connects you can follow up with some quick and deadly knife-stabs too, and trust us, that feels good.
The other mechanic, Grab 'N' Stab, lets you grab an enemy that's on the opposite side of you, leaning against the same cover. You then pull him over to your side, taking him down in the stabbing phase of the motion, which also feels good too.
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The weapons feel heavier, more powerful and better to use as well. New tools of destruction have been added to your inventory, and they are not only very fun, but also add more strategy to the gameplay. The Dropshot fires a grenade in a straight line above the ground, and when you release the trigger, it will smash into whatever's beneath it with explosive results, letting you attack enemies that are currently in cover. The Buzzkill shoots sawblades that ricochet off of surfaces, opening up new possibilities when the bad guys are around the corner or in a tight space. Overkill was a favourite, though: it's a four-barrelled shotgun that fires one shot on the pull of the trigger, and another when the trigger is released. In other words, you can either hold the trigger for a concentrated slug, or really mess up someone's day in whichever direction you're facing.
There's a lot of enemy types in Gears of War 4, and many of them will require you to change up the way you play the game. The same tactics that work on the simplistic COG robot-soldiers will not be as efficient against, say, The Swarm's Pouncer, a four-legged enemy that really likes to jump on cars, on cover, or you.
Another new mechanic are Windflares, the deadly storms we mentioned earlier. These occur during the campaign, and when they do, they change not only the landscape, but also the gameplay dramatically. Powerful winds blow cover away, trucks come hurdling towards you and thunderbolts whip the ground. When we were playing we accidentally tossed a grenade into a headwind, which turned out badly for us.
It's great to see that the new studio for Gears of War is trying new things, but it's also clear to see that they are trying not to anger too many fans by keeping in what people loved originally. There are a few exceptions to this such as an epic sequence where you get to drive a motorcycle chasing after a plane, guns blazing. While the two new cover mechanics are great additions, I think we'll have to wait until the next instalment in the franchise before the studio feels confident enough to truly experiment with the possibilities they have in Gears of War. The fifth game is not a revolution, but definitely an evolution, ultimately playing it a little bit safe.
It's also obvious, like before, that Gears of War 4 shines the brightest when played with friends. Like the studio head Rod Fergusson told us during our interview, "co-op isn't the icing in Gears, it's the cake". This means that one player picks up J.D.'s lancer, and the other one gets to pick between his teammates Kait and Del. Of course, Gears of War 4 is possible to enjoy by yourself, but it's best experienced together with a trigger-happy friend with the same love for explosions as you.
Versus is back, and it's better than ever. With the new movement mechanics and the improved cover system, it's truly a joy to blow each other's heads off. It's still about sticking together, planning and communication, but most importantly, it's about kicking some serious ass. Gears of War 4 obviously brings with it some new modes to enjoy, and they're really fun.
Dodgeball works like a regular deathmatch, with one exception in that when you kill someone on the other team and stay alive for five seconds, you revive a dead player on your team. This means that if you are the last player on your team and you have three opponents, you can still dramatically improve your odds. Kill just one of the enemy players, survive for a few seconds, and now it's two on two.
Arms Race is completely chaotic, in a good way. Both teams begin the match with the same weapon and work their way through a list of weapons by killing off enemy players. For every three kills a team gets as a whole, they automatically move on to the next weapon on the list, and the first team to complete three kills with every weapon wins. This means that an entire team of shotguns could end up fighting an entire time of snipers. Pure madness. Pure fun.
Every mode also has its own ranking system. This means that if you're the bomb at Dodgeball, but absolutely suck at Arms Race, then the two rankings won't affect each other. The rankings are Bronze, Silver, Gold, Onyx and finally, Diamond. Every ranking also has three tiers, so there's a total of fifteen rankings.
Horde Mode 3.0
Horde Mode returns with a vengeance, and we like it. It's still all about five brave souls facing off against fifty waves of enemies with increasing violence. You also get a bonus-mission that can be completed during a wave for extra, and often much-needed, resources. Every tenth wave it's boss time, and it's completely random what kind of big monster is going to try to end you.
You can now play as five different classes, and they all have different roles to fill while you're tackling the enemies. The Scout class sticks to the front lines, and their assignment is to collect power from the corpses of enemies, which they have to bring back to the Fabricator, a military-grade 3D-printer where the power is used as a resource to create and fortify defences. The Engineer's mission is to use the power that is supplied to the Fabricator to create those defences, and also repair damaged fortifications. The Sniper class gets to find themselves a nice little vantage point to pick enemies off before they become a problem. The Heavy class has one job, and that's to do as much damage as possible. The Soldier class is the standard COG soldier, and is kind of an all-rounder.
It's entirely up to you whether you want a diverse team, or if you want five people playing Heavy and going absolutely bananas. You pick whichever character you want, and all characters can be all classes, and all classes can pick up all weapons on the map. It's only the loadouts and the skills that are exclusive to each class. Every class has their own skills. In fact, they have thirteen. You only have five skill slots though, so choose wisely. All skills also gets upgraded as you use them. Simply put, Horde Mode has never been more fun.
In short, it's obvious that the series is in good hands. Get your crew, grab your lancer, and get ready to chainsaw each others' faces off. Gears of War is back.