No Cover Needed as Gears of War 4 Delivers (Review)

When I think about the Gears of War franchise, I don’t see it – I hear it. The revving chainsaw. Marcus Fenix’s no-nonsense attitude with his friends providing comic relief. Cole Train’s whooo! The melon-busting headshots. That is Gears of War. Oh, and some of the best third-person cover shooter gameplay ever.

The Coalition faces the same challenge 343 Industries faced. Working on a beloved franchise with a new team.

Does The Coalition deliver? “Oh yeah!”

New cast, familiar faces

Gears of War 4 cast

I’m limiting story spoilers to what we’ve seen in official trailers. We can (and will) discuss the story later next week once everyone gets a chance to play it.

JD (Liam McIntyre), Del (Eugene Byrd) and Kait (Laura Bailey) do a solid job in their first outing in Gears of War. Are they Marcus, Dom, Cole and company? Not yet. It’s not their fault. It’s just hard replacing the faces that propelled Gears of War into the prominent Xbox franchise we see today. Same thing with Master Chief. There’s just no replacing them. At least, not in one game. But they are a great foundation for the start of the new Gears saga.

Here’s the basic premise. 25 years have passed since the end of the Locust war. There’s peace. But that peace is about to be shattered in more ways than one. A new threat is emerging. Our heroes call them the Swarm. And they are taking people. Kait’s mom is taken and serves as the main story told in a single day on Sera (the planet Gears of War takes place on).

One man can help, but JD is reluctant to ask. We’ve seen him teased in the story trailers. Marcus Fenix is back! And his intro is fantastic. The grizzled vet of too many battles to count isn’t too old for this shit. Marcus agrees to help the trio find Kait’s mom with very little convincing. You’ll find out why.

Marcus is Gears of War. His throaty yelling as you engage DeeBees and the Swarm is a welcome sound to any diehard Gears fan. Honestly, Marcus’ intro is up there with my favorite gaming moments of the past few years – Doom’s fantastic campaign and Rocket League’s pure fun gameplay.

And he isn’t the only old Gear to show up. We heard his trademark ‘whoo!’ in the launch trailer. And yes, Cole Train is even better than you can imagine.

Cole Train GoW 4

JD and Del provide the comic relief as they banter about whatever new predicament they find themselves in. They skirt the line between cheesy and fun, but land on the fun side most of the time. All three voice actors do a great job selling the seriousness of the situation while also keeping the light-hearted, fun dialogue between cutscenes.

Gears of War 4’s story feels like a Gears game. A dangerous situation with plenty of fun dialogue to go around. And a few set pieces that will make your jaw drop. Hell, if I didn’t know it was developed by The Coalition – I would have assumed Epic Games did it.

I can’t wait for everyone else to play the story. It’s a hell of a lot of fun and The Coalition nails the Gears of War vibe.

There is one part I wish we saw more of, and I hope The Coalition approaches it in a future Gears game. Parts of Gears of War 4 feel like it wants to be a horror game. You flick on the flashlight attached to your Lancer as the surrounding area is plunged into darkness. The screams of the Swarm echo around you. But each instance is short-lived. The lights come on, and the usual Gears of War action returns.

I want The Coalition to embrace these horror moments in a standalone game. Game Director Chuck Osieja and Xbox’s Phil Spencer recently teased about other genres in the Gears of War franchise. After playing Gears of War 4, a horror game would be perfect.

Two new enemies, (mostly) same fight

Gears of War 4 juvies

You’ll be pouring countless clips, sawing countless bodies and causing countless explosions in your fight against DeeBees and the Swarm. Each fight doesn’t feel all that different from previous Gears games. You reach a certain area, enemies show up, you bounce between cover and kill them all. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But The Coalition adds several new obstacles and enemies to freshen up the combat loop.

For one, windflares add a new dynamic to some of the encounters. The Coalition nails the feeling of being caught out in a massive storm. You feel rushed as soon as the wind begins to whip up around you. Running around the battlefield is a chore and don’t even think about using grenades. Well, you can – just be sure you’re not facing the wind when you throw them. They’ll fly right back in your face.

Same goes for new weapons like the Buzzsaw. You thought a chainsaw attached to a rifle was absurd? How about a heavy-weapon that shoots circular saw blades?

Battles during these fierce storms are made slightly easier thanks to suspiciously well-placed debris. Shoot the barriers holding them in place and watch huge pipes and gas barrels go crashing into the Swarm.

Another difference is the number of mini-boss enemies (think Boomers from the last trilogy). At least, I don’t remember fighting as many. The Swarm has several that are a pain in the ass to take down every time they show up.

Gears of War 4 pouncer

We saw this ugly bastard during the first trailer. It’s called a Pouncer and lives up to its name. You’ll have to contend with quills shot from its tail, and it loves to jump on you. This will prompt a QTE where you mash ‘B’ while either your friends or AI get a chance to kill it. But I found an easy way to take them out. Stick a Frag grenade on them. One is more than enough to turn them into mush.

Unfortunately, the rest aren’t so easy.

snatcher concept art

That’s the Snatcher and it will give you the biggest headache if you tackle the game solo. It also shoots quills, but these pack an extra punch. One hit and you are down. And you better hope a teammate is nearby. If the Snatcher reaches you, it grabs you, tucks you away in its stomach and makes a beeline for the exit. Your teammates have a short time to shoot its belly to free you. If the Snatcher gets away, you’re dead.

Playing solo? You’re dead. Your AI teammates do a great job reviving you. But fighting? Not so much.

Gears of War 4 carrier

That big sucker is called a Carrier. It’s a chore to take out in story and Horde modes. Every so often its stomach is exposed as it fires flying projectiles at you. This is your target. But be prepared to dump some rounds in it. And dodge (or shoot) the flying projectiles coming your way. Explosives (grenades, Boomshot, Torque Bow, etc.) help, but you’ll be fighting them for a while.

The normal enemies are called different names but feel like enemies we faced off in previous Gears of War titles.

Juvies are like Wretches but much more agile. And give whoever did the audio design for them a raise. Their screams are haunting.

On the DeeBee side, Trackers are small balls that roll up to you and explode. Think Tickers and you’re on the right track.

The DR-1 is the DeeBee version of a Boomer. It’s bigger than the other DeeBees and can take and dole out punishment. What stands out with DR-1 is they enter a self-destruct mode once they take a certain amount of damage. They’ll rush towards you and try and explode right beside you. Just aim for the head, and you’ll be fine. Imagine a Brute/Elite from the Halo series, but with a bomb.

As for enemy AI? I played on Normal, and the AI was decent enough. Snipers hang back, but the other enemies aren’t afraid to push towards you. Even more so if you rush after them. I was downed plenty after rushing forward a little too much. But the game is easy if you hang back. You should consider upping the difficulty to Hardcore if you are familiar with the series at all or plan on playing with friends.

An expanded arsenal

Gears of War 4 Kait shooting

New game means new guns. And yet, I played most of the game with my trusty Lancer/Gnasher combo. Good for pretty much any engagement. But you’ll pick up new weapons as you encounter certain scenarios. My favorite? It has to be the Buzzkill. How can you pass on a heavy weapon that shoots ricocheting saw blades? Bouncing saw blades around cover is a blast.

The EMBAR is sure to be a new favorite. It’s a sniper rifle with a charge mechanic. But you’ll need to time your shots. Hold it too long, and it won’t fire. Same goes if you don’t hold it long enough. There’s a short window where you can get your shot off.

Other weapons include the Dropshot, Tri-Shot (heavy) and Salvo Rocket Launcher (heavy). They all do the trick. Turning enemies into bits. But I’ll pick the Torque Bow or Boomshot over them any day of the week.

Looks good, sounds even better

Gears of War Marcus' home

Gears of War 4 is a looker. If it weren’t for Forza Horizon 3, I would say it’s the best looking Xbox One exclusive.

I played through the story on Xbox One. But it shines with a capable PC. A GTX 970 gets you a mixture of high and ultra settings on ‘Recommended’ (leaning more ultra). Particle effects are stunning as sparks fly from DeeBees and blood splatters from the Swarm.

Rain trickles down your armor. Fabric and trees whip around as windflares tear through the landscape. And the gore. C’mon, I can’t talk graphics without mentioning the bits and pieces flying around as you rev your chainsaw through the midsection of a Drone. The Coalition did exactly what they needed to do. It looks like Gears of War and sounds like Gears of War.

The in-engine cutscenes are a sight to behold.

You’re in for a treat no matter which platform you play. But the PC version obviously shines with 60FPS on both campaign and multiplayer (Xbox One is limited to 30FPS in campaign). PC settings also include handy descriptions on how each setting affects performance.

Sound design is everything you expect from the franchise. From saw blades whizzing past your head to the trademark pop when you nail a headshot. I love the sharp zap as windflare lightning strikes near you.

And The Coalition tapped one of the best composers in the business to handle the music. Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones and Pacific Rim) brings his talents to the franchise. You can almost here teases of ‘Light of the Seven’ in Gears of War 4’s main menu theme.

I do have one complaint. It can be hard to hear the music when the action heats up. But you can tweak the audio settings to bring the music more to the front if you want. Thunderous shotguns, or Djawadi’s music? It’s a tough call. Both sound excellent.

Other websites and YouTube channels will have in-depth technical breakdowns, but I didn’t notice any frame rate dips or graphical glitches. At least, none that pulled me away from all the explosions and bullets whizzing by my head.

Multiplayer and Horde

I’m going to write separate articles on multiplayer and Horde, but both are extremely polished. Shooting my shotty from the hip is like riding a bike. Here are a few things I noted during my playtime in multiplayer.

– I’m interested to see how people feel about the Enforcer (SMG). It’s not that accurate outside of mid-range, but it can tear people down in a hurry up close with an active reload. I’m curious to see the shotgun/Enforcer dynamic once thousands of people start playing.

– Speaking of active reloads, you can’t do them immediately after one anymore (I believe this mechanic was present in the beta earlier this year). There’s a meter that takes about 10 seconds to fill up before allowing another active reload. It’s especially noticeable when using power weapons like the Torque Bow and Longshot. The second shot can be an active reload. But not the third. You can melee to cancel the reload animation to get around it.

– The maps I’ve played so far feel great. I haven’t had a chance to play through them all or all the game modes, but what I’ve seen so far is solid.

– Grabbing enemies across from you in cover and mantle kicking add new dynamics to close combat both in multiplayer and story. Sitting in cover isn’t always safe anymore. You can tap ‘B’ if you’re on the receiving end of either one, but you’ll need to be quick.

– My shotgun skills are still a little rusty.

– Horde is going to consume plenty of long nights.

– It feels damn good to be playing a new Gears of War.

How I played

I completed the campaign in just over six hours (six hours, two minutes to be precise) playing on Normal by myself. And gathered about 25% of the collectables. Normal is too easy for most shooter fans. I died only a handful of times across the entire story.

Hardcore/Insane playthroughs should approach 7 to 10 hours (or longer) depending on how many people you’re playing with (and their familiarity with the franchise). Even longer if you’re trying to grab all of the collectables. If you play shooters at all, bump the difficulty to Hardcore.

Gears of War 4 is just what I wanted

Gears of War 4 Marcus

After playing the Gears of War 4 beta earlier this year, I knew the franchise was in good hands at The Coalition. Playing the campaign only solidifies it. It’s been three years since we last saw Gears of War. Five if you skipped Judgment. And the franchise doesn’t miss a beat.

The gameplay is tighter than ever, and the story hits all the right notes. I’m already itching for Friday to get here so I can run through it again on co-op with my friends.

I’m sitting here trying to think of something I didn’t like about Gears of War 4, and I’m drawing a blank. Sure, I would have liked The Coalition to embrace the horror element a little more – but what’s here is great. Maybe locking 60fps on Xbox, but we’ll be waiting on Project Scorpio to see those numbers.

It looks phenomenal, plays smooth, sounds amazing and most importantly, is Gears. For a new team tackling the beloved franchise, what more could you ask for in their debut?

Disclosure: Microsoft provided a pre-release review code.