With an engaging campaign, smart Horde mode additions, and a cast of characters that go beyond being the stereotypical "meatheads," Gears of War 4 is an impressive achievement. The Coalition has not only successfully transitioned the series from its previous stewards, but clearly took the time to improve upon the formula as well. This just might be my favorite game in the entire franchise.
Set twenty five years after the events of the last (numbered) game, Gears of War 4 opens with a tutorial that jumps through a few well-known events in the series’ past. This serves as an effective introduction for series newcomers, and allows for a little bit of fan service by including some otherwise impossible cameos. Afterwards, you’ll take control of the new generation: J.D., Kait, and Del. The campaign follows many of the beats you would expect from a Gears game, but there are some extremely impressive action set piece moments that brought the Uncharted series to mind. The first one involves a motorcycle chase through woods while being firebombed from above by a massive gunship, which, naturally, you’ll have to take down. I don’t want to spoil how it plays out, but let’s just say I literally pumped my fist afterwards.
I was also pleasantly surprised at just how much levity the characters inject throughout the game. These occasional light-hearted moments help to reinforce the overarching theme of the importance of family and help break up many of the otherwise serious story beats. J.D, Kait, and Del do a great job of selling their history, and the little things they tease each other about helped endear them to me. Of course, Marcus delivers the greatest laugh-out-loud line in the game, but why shouldn’t he? He’s paid his dues.
The moment-to-moment gameplay of Gears 4 hasn’t changed too substantially, so you’ll still be roadie running and snapping to cover as per usual. Turtling up is punished a little more than in past titles, as there are several ways both you and enemies can knock each other out of cover. First of all, you can straight up snatch someone out of it, setting up an execution. If that’s not your style, why not try doing a sweet hood-slide over the top and punt an enemy away from it? Later on, you’ll run into environments where you can destroy cover, or where the cover points constantly shift.
Instead of a single enemy force, Gears 4 features two: the robots of the Cog hunting you (known as DeeBees, which always sounded funny when said aloud), and the Swarm, who are totally not the Locust. Totally. Trust me. Eventually these factions fight each other (and you) at the same time, which leads for some interesting combat prioritization down the road. While the Swarm largely feel like fighting the Locust of old, the DeeBees are generally a lot simpler to fight - opting for an appropriately robotic slow march forward to keep pressure on you.
As with all previous games in the series, you can play the campaign in Gears 4 in either splitscreen or online co-op. Though the previous game allowed for four players to join the fun, you’re restricted to two players here. Gears has always been a great cooperative experience, and that still holds true with Gears of War 4.
Much like its predecessors, you’ll be glad to have a friend along as there are moments in the game that go a lot smoother with another human making decisions. Late in the campaign you’ll fight a boss that requires solving an extremely light puzzle. Rather than help you out, the AI instead chooses to ignore the objective, dragging the encounter out needlessly. Once Snatchers, an enemy who can down multiple players and “consume” one of them, get mixed into the combat, the AI also seems to make fairly bad decisions on how to handle them. With a friend, these sections become much more manageable.
The five-player Horde mode returns with a few major upgrades, earning it a new version number! Horde 3.0 builds on the fortification aspect of Horde 2.0 in a couple nice ways. At the beginning of a Horde match, your team will have to grab a Fabricator - a miracle machine that can build all sorts of items - and then drag it to the point of the map you want to defend. Unlike last time, there’s no restriction on where you can build your fortifications - allowing you to add all sorts of choke points. Because you can choose to defend any point of the map, I found that it takes a little more time to learn what works best. Generally, as long as you can prevent enemies from gathering around your Fabricator, you should be okay.
Killing enemies during the round drops Energy, which you must bring back to the Fabricator in order to fill its reserves. Energy is shared across the team so communicating about what sorts of items you want to build and deploy will be pretty important, especially at higher difficulties. As with previous iterations, weapons and leftover Energy disappear from the arena each round, so be sure to grab what you need before the next round. Eventually, you can deploy a weapon locker to the battlefield where you can store weapons and fill their ammo reserves until they are needed. Don’t need that Mulcher just yet? Save it for a rainy day.
Horde 3.0 also lets players choose their class from the following: Heavy, Scout, Soldier, Engineer, and Sniper. Each class has their own starting loadout and special abilities. For instance, the Engineer has the passive ability to build all fortifications at a reduced cost and begins with a free Repair tool. As you continue to play Horde, you’ll level each class up independently, and will be able to gain additional skills at higher levels. You can also set "Bounties" to go after for each Horde round, which give you various boosts to currencies and XP after successfully meeting their requirements.
Skills and Bounties are earned through cards obtained in the now ubiquitous randomized treasure box, which is purchased using gold you earn for completing rounds of the various multiplayer modes. Much like Hearthstone, you can trash cards to gain scrap, then use said scrap to craft cards you’d like to use. If this isn’t your thing, you can always pony up some of your hard earned cash to buy the treasure boxes.
I would be remiss in failing to mention that Gears 4 is a part of the Xbox Play Anywhere initiative, which allows cross-platform play (and saves!) between Xbox One and PC players on Windows 10, with the exception of matchmade PVP multiplayer. While you can't play combo co-op in this manner, you do see which friends are on which platform with handy little icons on the screen.
The Gears of War series has always offered a solid, flexible co-op experience, and Gears of War 4 is no exception. Though I would have liked for the campaign to keep the four player mode, it’s still a great amount of fun. Horde 3.0 feels like it’ll have a decent set of legs due to the more flexible maps and experimentation with class/skill combinations. The Coalition has proven that the series is in good hands, and the future seems very bright indeed.