Review: 'Gears of War 4' Is Unsubtle, But Still Best of Breed
True to the franchise that spawned it, Gears of War 4 is a shooter defined by the utility of clutter. Wooden boxes splinter, rock faces crumble, and glass windows shatter from the ceaseless volleys of shells, rounds, and grenades that you, the player, are taking cover from. There you sit, crouched behind the debris, tracing the movement of your sub-reptilian enemies, waiting for the briefest respite. And when it finally comes, you stand up and reduce them to mincemeat – provided they don't do it to you first.
When the blueprint is laid that bare, it might not seem like much. But, like most video game innovations, the strength of it resides not in its conception, but in the sheer adroitness of its execution: the perfect slam of your hulking hero sliding his back into a sandbag, the ka-chick of the clip entering the rifle in a flawlessly-timed "active reload," the wordless yaa that escapes from his lips as he dodge-rolls away from a screaming rocket. The two numbered sequels that followed the series' audacious 2006 debut managed to refine the formula, if only nominally – a "meatshield" here, a couple new guns there – par for the big-budget course.
But that was all years ago. The series’ familiar foes, the Locust, are dead and gone, blown to hell and back by a doomsday device straight out of Lex Luther's playbook. Legions of disparate titles have aped the series' signature cover system, including the world-beating Grand Theft Auto V. Marcus Fenix's wall-cowering days seem to be behind him. Yet now, half-a-decade later, lead by an unproven studio dubbed The Coalition, Gears 4 lumbers onto the fore, lever-action shotgun in hand, ready to raze the planet all over again.
Given all this still-fresh history, it isn't all that surprising that Gears 4 adopts the airs of the unapologetic throwback. Like most pseudo-reboots, it trafficks unapologetically in nostalgia for a barely-bygone age, cashing in on latent goodwill that the name conjures in the mind of the core audience. This is perhaps best embodied by the campaign's opening prologue, in which you control various anonymous moribund soldiers as you experience firsthand the violent (and arguably irrelevant) history of the series' fictional world, Sera. Soon after that, you find yourself donning the too-hefty boots of J.D. Fenix, Marcus's son, who resembles exactly in both speech and manner a version of Uncharted's Nathan Drake who decided become a piece of corrugated man-meat instead of a treasure hunter.
For a time, the Coalition endeavors to make the 25 years between Gears 3 and 4 mean something. The youthful spunkiness of J.D.'s crew of "Outsider" bandits contrasts nicely with Marcus's old growling band of calcified curmudgeons, and you spend the first few levels of the game (or "acts," as the game terms them, in yet another emblem of its self-seriousness) battling cybernetic agents of the vaguely-defined crypto-fascist government that has sprouted up in the interim. But once another suspiciously-familiar race of sub-reptilian beings rear their ugly heads near the game's midpoint, it goes back into the familiar "mantle, cover, shoot" routine that the series has staked its name on from its inception.
The sense of familiarity extends to Coalition's approach to enemy and weapon design – one gets the sense that they aimed to first do no harm. Where previous games featured a few distinct boss encounters of varying quality, this entry opts for a handful of better-crafted "Swarm" monstrosities that pull quintuple-duty throughout the campaign. These include the agile "Pouncer," who fires massive quills and tackles your compatriots, and the gargantuan "Carrier," who launches ghastly missiles from his chest and pounds your armor into dust. The new weapons that you blast these creatures with all display the series' trademark sense of gleeful, creative violence, but only the mounted sawblade launcher lingers in the memory for long, and scarce ammo ensures that even the most adept player will be relying on the series' signature chainsaw-equipped Lancer rifle for most firefights. This same attitude applies to the multiplayer – while fans will surely find themselves giddy with the details, for the rest of us it’s simply more flavors of the same chaotic squad-on-squad wall-hugging that you’d expect.