Critical Consensus: Gears of War 4 offers spectacular, familiar pleasures
The Coalition's first stab at the franchise is visually splendid and generously stocked, but light on new ideas
For game critics, loving Gears of War has been problematic since the very beginning. The rippling, testosterone drenched surface of Epic's franchise served as a distraction from its abundant qualities. Looking back, it's clear that the first game, released in 2006, provided the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era with the kind of moment that arguably still hasn't arrived for the current generation. It was a new visual benchmark, its sense of weight and physical force was entirely distinct, and - a year before the launch of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - it introduced the most credible new multiplayer experience since Halo. Nevertheless, for those who based their professional integrity on distinguishing good games from bad, to notice and appreciate any of this was to miss the square-jaws and lumpen dialogue that comprised its story.
"Gears of War 4 is about home and family"Polygon
Looking back now, it's clear that Gears of War was one of the defining series of the last console generation, influencing the creative direction of a large proportion of action games, driving the development community towards the Unreal Engine in droves, and with Horde mode in Gears of War 2, introducing a multiplayer concept that would be adopted by everything from Uncharted to Mass Effect. Even its marketing was influential: Gears of War's popular "Mad World" trailer might well be the origin of action games using pained, acoustic covers of popular songs to score their artfully spliced carnage.
Despite this estimable legacy, however, the reviews of Gears of War 4 are shot through with an almost apologetic tone; a need to address the (arguably misplaced) perception of Gears as nothing more than a dude-bro power fantasy. Polygon, which awards the game an impressive 9 out of 10, spends a full third of its review on story and characterisation, opening with a declaration that, "Gears of War 4 is about home and family."
"Gears of War as a series has dealt with accusations of hyper-masculine excess and an emphasis on gore and violence since it was first announced more than ten years ago. And it's not that those observations are wrong, exactly - the characters have always been larger than life, the men in particular wide and heavy, and the violence of the series has always been extreme and enthusiastic. But beneath or even in parallel to that aspect, there's always been consistent themes of friendship, of relationships of support and camaraderie that would seem corny in most other games but, somehow, work in Gears of War for a passionate fanbase."
The protagonist of this reboot - which was developed by Microsoft's The Coalition - is J. D. Fenix, the son of the original series' central character, Marcus Fenix. Both father and son play pivotal roles in the game's story, which Polygon describes as, "more focused, less sprawling story the last few entries... A lot of time is spent exploring the strained relationship between Marcus and his son, with a lot of perspective on both sides of the equation." The game's various other key characters all have their own emotional journeys, largely relating to those themes of family and friendship. "Gears of War 4's story and character time works as well as it does for several reasons," Polygon says. "The writing is matter-of-fact, avoiding over-stoicism and also overwrought fluff for the most part."
"This certainly ain't the grey-brown Gears of old...the diversity of what it shows is stunning"PCGamesN
If this is an area of weakness that The Coalition sought to address, then the abiding sense from the game's reviews is that it has made a significant improvement. Whether that's what the vast majority of Gears of War's players care about is another matter, of course, but The Coalition hasn't dropped the ball with the series' core strengths, either. Polygon praises Gears of War 4 as "simply a joy to play," and that sentiment echoes throughout the critical discourse.
The Daily Telegraph, which awards four stars, applauds the "muscular and endlessly gratifying thrill" of the gunplay, which carries the game through a slow start that serves, "as an elongated (re)introduction to that well-oiled Gears combat, flashing between cover-to-cover, switching between shotgun and rifle and familiarising yourself with the rattle of an emptying clip and the satisfaction of a well-timed, power-boosting active reload." There are two new enemy races to fight in place of the original series' Locust, and "weaponry...as exotic as the bestiary" with which to fight them. The need to switch between distinct weapons to fight equally distinct enemy types has always been central to Gears of War's appeal. Here, again, The Coalition has honoured its heritage.
The same is true of Gears of War 4 as a spectacle. You won't find a single review that doesn't proclaim it to be one of the very best looking games on Xbox One, and the same is true is the PC version. Indeed, PCGamesN calls it "a visual and technical tour de force," maintaining "searing frame-rates on 'ultra' settings during some of the most mind-blowing - if cheesy - set-pieces I've seen in games, while also inviting me to appreciate the vivid redness of sycamore leaves lazily billowing on a cracked yellow wall in a medieval town square on some parallel-to-Earth planet."
That last observation is crucial, because the beauty of Gears 4 goes beyond polygons, framerates and animations, and extends to art direction. "This certainly ain't the grey-brown Gears of old," PCGamesN says, before adding, "the diversity of what it shows is stunning... This is a far cry from the game that single-handedly started the stereotype of the 'murky brown war shooter', taking us instead on a historical tour of the vestiges of a world parallel to ours, yet still different enough to be mysterious; I almost felt guilty as I stomped around a scenic town as a giant mech, casually calling in airstrikes to smash my way through buildings. Almost."
"That's most certainly what Gears 4 is. A maintenance of the series as opposed to an injection of fresh blood"Jimquisition
Words like "jawdropping," "stunning," "incredible" and "breathtaking" are scattered throughout this and many other reviews, to the point where the handful of scores that fall below 8 out of 10 demand close attention. For Jimquisition, the website started by ex-Destructoid personality Jim Sterling, "there's nothing quite like Gears on the market. The sense of weight, the meaty impact of combat, the gruesomely satisfying way heads pop and bodies burst, any given Gears game has a baseline quality even at its worst thanks to its undeniably unique style." However, Gears of War 4 relies on that "baseline quality" a little too much, The Coalition happy to make the improvements necessary to maintain relative standards but, "doing very little to rock the boat and making minor improvements and evolving where needed."
"Such a tactic provides a game that's decent just because it's Gears of War, relying on the groundwork established across four older games to maintain the baseline. And that's most certainly what Gears 4 is. A maintenance of the series as opposed to an injection of fresh blood."
In a sense, then, the game's most ardent supporters and most vocal critics are in full agreement: Gears of War 4 absolutely meets the standard set by its forebears, which is either something to praise or lament depending on the individual. One suspects, though, that in the absence of new Gears, the public will be more than happy to settle for more Gears.