We've had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Gears of War. Like many, we were totally sucked in by the concept of the first game, but we also thought it was somewhat lacking. Easy on the eye, but totally lacking a soul, Gears of War was a little bit underwhelming - but it learnt from its mistakes, and it learnt fast. While Gears of War 2 gave it character, and 3 perfected the cover-based formula, Gears of War 4 gives the series a chance to start afresh, on a new console, with a new set of characters in place, and some very familiar gameplay.
The story here can be a bit confusing to begin with, if you haven't played the previous games (or have simply missed a few out), but it doesn't take too long to find your footing. Luckily, rather than getting overly involved in complex sci-fi geo-politics, the plot here instead boils down to a really simple, personal tale. You play as James Fenix, son of the legendary Marcus Fenix of Gears of War fame, and are part of a group of "outsiders" - those who live outside the city limits, and steal from huge, military-industrial complexes to survive.
Unfortunately, after making off with one of the biggest hauls you've ever managed to nick and retreating back to camp, something spooky goes bump in the night. Your outpost is attacked by a new, and mysterious breed of creatures that ransack the town, and kidnap the vast majority of the populace, including female lead Kait's family. With your home in ruins, your people missing, and your life in tatters, it's up to you to hunt down these creatures, find out where they're coming from, and bring Kait's family back.
A cover-based shooter, Gears of War 4 sticks to familiar ground. Rather running and gunning, the game forces you to take things a lot slower, and stick behind anything that's tougher than you are if you want to survive. Though you may be heavily armoured, and have arms the size of tree trunks, you can't actually take too much in the way of direct hits without going the way of the locust. Lucky then, that pressing A when vaguely in the vicinity of anything solid will see you automatically dive behind it as through your life depends on it, ready to pop out and fire off a few shots at your enemy.
But even though it's been designed to be played in co-op, Gears of War 4's story mode co-op feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Although you can have a friend tag along, either in split-screen, or online, you can only bring one friend along for the ride. While Gears of War 3 had a four player (online) co-op campaign, the fact Gears 4 has dropped the player count to two is disappointing to say the least.
The split-screen mode also leaves a lot to be desired. Not only do you end up playing in an irritating letterbox (at least make use of the full screen!), but if you play in co-op from the very beginning, the game's tutorials are delivered in a font so incredibly small, you'll need a magnifying glass to make it out. It's hard to believe anyone actually tested this out.
Regardless of whether you're playing alone, or with a friend, though, you'll never be alone in Gears of War 4, as you'll always have a gang of buddies with you. The main trio are Del, the easy going, wise-cracking joker of the crew; Kait, a pouty yet relatable character whose parents have been pinched, and James, the burly son of Fenix. The fourth character changes as you go through the game, but saying anything more would be a spoiler - needless to say, you've always got plenty of backup should you need it.
While sometimes, playing a game designed for co-op play on your own can leave you feeling like you're missing out, Gears of War 4 actually handles it really well. For the most part, the AI's really good - so advanced are your team-mates that you can actually leave them to clear sections on their own, and they'll mostly actually manage it. If you don't fancy facing off against an enemy, you can simply find somewhere to hide out, and let your buddies handle the battle for you.
What makes Gears of War 4 special, though, is the enemies you'll be facing off against, and how you'll have to work together as a team to defeat them. The baddies this time around are something known as the Swarm - a breed of monsters that seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to the locust of old, yet are somehow... different.
Much like the locust, the swarm come in several different "classes " of enemy, each of which requires a markedly different approach. From the fast and jumpy "juvies", which swarm out of holes and scale vertical walls at lightning speed to get to you, to the more standard drones, which can shoot back (and use your weaponry, too), things only get more terrifying the larger they get.
Arguably the most "holy crap get me as far away from that thing as possible" foe is called the snatcher - a thing of nightmares on stilts that spends most of its time doing one of two things: either holding back from a distance, firing one-shot-kill poisonous darts from its tail (luckily, you're given warning when it starts charging these up - if you hear the telltale sound, find cover now), or tip-tapping its way across the level, hunting for knocked down/bleeding out people to swallow, and take away. Yes - take away. The snatcher will snatch you, and then run off with you - if it manages it, it's game over, and back to the last checkpoint for you.
All of this adds a genuinely terrifying edge to snatcher encounters - while it may just be a game, no-one wants to get carried away inside the belly/womb of a giant and creepy-as-fupp insectoid monster. Usually in Gears of War, getting knocked down isn't the end of it - you'll start bleeding out, but a friend can come and restore you back to health at the touch of a button, having you back on your feet quicker than you can bellow "REVIVE MEH". But the snatcher changes all of this - whenever there's one around, if you ever get knocked down, and ever start bleeding out, you are in grave danger. Either your friend revives you in a second, or you're on a one way trip to spending the rest of your life inside a monster's belly.
Luckily, your friend/AI companions can save you from your untimely fate - but if they're anything like our AI friends, they'll tend not to. While the AI may be pretty great generally, there are some areas they really fall down - and prioritising saving you when you've just been eaten by a giant monster is one such area. It's not like the swarm don't make it easy for them - in a happy coincidence, many of the swarm have a habit of highlighting their most vulnerable bits in a day-glow orange, so even in the dingiest of ditches, you can find your target, and shoot them. In order to save your life, all your team mates have to do is shoot the snatcher's giant, orange glowing belly a few dozen times, and it'll spit you back out, before leaping away to plan its next move - but most often, they'll be too busy crouching behind cover to notice...
Speaking of dingy locations, while Gears of War may have a reputation for being brown and colourless, Gears of War 4 is a damn pretty game at times, to the point where you'll find yourself stopping just to admire how good things look (and maybe take a screenshot to remind yourself). From lush green gardens outside giant gothic mansions, to intricate cave networks, where water drips from stalactites into still, placid puddles that have formed in the basins they've carved out of the rocks, even at the bottom of a mine, things often look very, very pretty - and equally often, very, very creepy. Just around the corner from every gorgeous vista is a thick, vein-like tendril, an exploding orange sack, or a skeleton still in its armour, stripped of its skin.
And then there's the set pieces. Providing a much needed break from the run -> secure area -> repeat format, Gears of War 4 provides several chunks that totally change up the gameplay. From tearing across the countryside on the back of a motorbike, as Marcus takes potshots at a gigantic plane, to shooting up the side of a cliff while gripping onto a metal cable for dear life, dodging falling debris - and giant iron support structures - as you go, it's great that the game tries to mix things up a little bit, even if the latter section does feel a little bit too scripted.
But Gears of War 4 doesn't get everything right. For one, while the script for the most part is an entertaining buddy drama, it also has a few weaknesses. The first is a lack of emotion - if anything, it's almost too light hearted. When people get kidnapped, and you're worried they might be dead, you'd imagine that might affect the morale of the squad - but instead, you're there joking and joshing along like nothing had ever happened.
Then there's "oh s**t". Almost literally every single enemy encounter in the game will start with "oh s**t". "Oh s**t, windflare", "Oh s**t, snatcher", "Oh s**t, juvies", "Oh s**t, there's more of them" - EVERYTHING starts with "oh s**t". And not only does it very quickly get annoying, but it also makes your team sound like they're incredibly thick. In the middle of an emergency, which is more important - telling your team mates what's up, so you can save their life? Or taking the time to curse it first?
And while the aforementioned set-pieces do try and keep things feeling fresh, they don't quite manage it. Instead, Gears of War 4 can get very same-y at times, as you run to a location, have to clear out/defend it against enemies, then run to another location and do exactly the same thing. When you're facing off against the same enemies, doing the same things, in similar looking locations, even the best gameplay in the world won't be able to stop it feeling a bit too similar.
Then there's the other usual Gears frustrations. The Gears favourite machine gun/chainsaw combination, affectionately known as the lancer makes its triumphant return, but it comes with the same issues that have bugged us for years. The whole idea here is that holding the melee button will start your gun's chainsaw spinning, and all you have to do then is run into someone to tear them in two. The only problem is, it's a bit hit and miss. Sometimes, holding the melee button to start the chainsaw bit will make you nigh on invulnerable, and you can run around, putting the fear of god into enemies as you try and find something to make contact with, simply shrugging off the bullets that come your way. At other times, one bullet is all it takes to make you jump enough to stop your chainsaw dead, meaning when you run into the enemy expecting to saw them in half, things don't go quite as you'd planned. As you often end up only relying on your melee attacks as a last ditch attempt at saving your own life, it can get frustrating when you expect to topple your nearby opponent with your chainsaw, but instead simply stand there slack jawed as they smack you upside the face.
Still, for the most part, Gears of War 4 is something of an Xbox One tour-de-force. Keeping its sense of humour intact, and with a plot that'll hook you in rather than leave you questioning just what exactly's going on, Gears 4 provides more of the same winning gameplay, with a new (if familiar) set of enemies to keep things feeling fresh. Providing some great co-op moments, and plenty of equally memorable times if you're playing on your own, this is well worth picking up.
Format Reviewed: PC