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Gears Of War 4

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: The Coalition
Release Date: Oct. 11, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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Xbox One Review - 'Gears of War 4'

by Brian Dumlao on Oct. 11, 2016 @ 12:01 a.m. PDT

Gears of War blends the best of tactical action games with the best of survival horror titles, thrusting gamers into the harrowing story of humankind's battle for survival against the Locust Horde.

Buy Gears of War 4

The Xbox 360 introduced some new games that would go on to become successful series. Of those titles, Gears of War resonated with people the most. It was a technical showcase for the then-new Unreal Engine 3 and helped Epic Games to convince other companies to use its tech. The gameplay was fast and visceral, with chainsaw kills and curb stomps becoming recognizable traits. It championed the idea of swift movement and refined the cover mechanics introduced by titles like kill.switch and WinBack. The tight campaign encouraged co-op, and the team-based multiplayer adopted a Counter-Strike model of one life per round at a time when few games in the genre dared to do the same. After two sequels with the original studio and a prequel by People Can Fly, Microsoft commissioned the newly formed studio The Coalition to continue the franchise on the Xbox One. After getting acclimated to the system with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, the team introduces a proper sequel with Gears of War 4.

GoW4 starts off very differently from the earlier titles, with a speech given by the first minister of the COG. As she tells of the heroics of veteran COG soldiers who have fought to bring Sera the peace it enjoys today, a retired Colonel Hoffman recounts the major battles. You play as a nameless soldier in a raid of a UIR base that is developing a weapon called the Hammer of Dawn, a soldier involved in the protection of the capital city during Emergence Day, and a soldier holding off a ragtag base before the Imulsion Countermeasure goes off. Though it serves as a tutorial and a good way to see some of the major events from a different perspective, it's also a good refresher for those who have forgotten about the series' plot or have not been exposed to it before.

After this lengthy prologue, you're finally taken to the main story. You play the role of JD Fenix, son of the legendary war hero Marcus Fenix. Twenty-five years have passed since the Imulsion Countermeasure, and the COG have slowly been rebuilding settlements to get humanity back on track. There are some humans who oppose COG rule and have cast themselves as Outsiders who live off the COG grid. Along with his friends Del and Kait, JD spends his time infiltrating COG settlements to get supplies for the village that has housed them. However, a botched theft of a COG fabricator has put the group on the radar, and COG forces are hunting them down. On top of that, a new threat has arrived that decimated their village. While on the run from one army, the group sets out to find this new threat and rescue any survivors from the village.

The first thing players will notice is that the cast consists of likeable characters. The rapport between the three friends and the people they meet feels genuine, and a big part of that is due to the performances of the voice actors. Sprinkled throughout the dialogue is humor and wit, which gives the game a more lighthearted feeling than before, but not to the point where it's annoying or becomes a parody. You'll grow attached to them faster than you would Delta Squad.

The second thing you'll notice is the tone, which spins the original vibe in several different directions. If you were to split it into thirds, then the first third of the game feels less like Gears and more like any other third-person shooter. It feels odd to fight svelte robots in a series known for burly creatures. Even if it seems like robots don't fit thematically, the game has you employing different strategies from one fight to the next.

The next third of the game shifts from a typical third-person shooter to a horror game. Now you're fighting against an enemy dubbed the Swarm, and the creatures pop out of nowhere. Breaking a pod that's being used as cover can reveal yet another enemy. It's a great change from the first third and a good transition into the last third of the game, where things start to calm down and the familiar pacing of a Gears title takes over.

For the most part, the gameplay mechanics that players loved from the series is still present. Taking cover, initiating active reload for stronger shots, bleeding out and having smart AI to revive you from death are all here and relatively untouched. The old weapons are also unchanged, but there are a number of new firearms to play with. Some are variations of existing guns, like the shotgun that fires off two shots in succession or the rifle that has better than average zoom but also has shots that need to be charged and fired before the charge is lost. Others are new, like the Dropshot that sends out a projectile that plants itself in the ground before exploding.

In addition to new guns, GoW4 outfits players with a few new moves. Grenades can now be planted anywhere to act as mines. It's a neat move that's good for multiplayer, since you'll often revisit parts of closed arenas. More useful is the vaulting kick, which has you knocking people from cover and leaving them vulnerable for a shot or a chainsaw kill. Similarly, the snatch-and-stab has you reaching behind cover to grab an enemy opposite from you and dragging them to your side in a stunned state. From there, you employ an execution with your knife by stabbing them in the jaw or chest.

As a whole, the combat feels just as fulfilling as before. It also feels richer, since you'll see the more advanced Swarm soldiers using things you'd typically only see in multiplayer. They use both the vaulting kick and the snatch-and-stab, which I learned firsthand when one of them reached over and killed my character that way. There's a higher tendency to revive fallen comrades if you don't dispatch them right away, and the Swarm soldiers also get braver if they see you executing one of their brethren, so they'll keep attacking until your animation ends and you bleed out.

The most impressive aspect of GoW4 is the environment. Cover is now partially destructible, as concrete barricades chip away when hit by bullets to slowly expose you. Other pieces of cover, like flesh pods and wooden boxes, can be completely destroyed with enough firepower. You can shoot weak parts in barricades and structures to unleash a torrent of pipes and other debris that crushes anything in their path. Electrical sections of windstorms create good chunks of land that become as perilous as minefields, since touching a bolt of lightning results in instant death. Then there's the subject of wind, which is present anytime you're outside. Most places have enough to let vegetation sway constantly, but the most perilous winds actually affect your movement and throwables, like lobbed and launched grenades. It'd be a lie to say that it wasn't fun having Mother Nature act against you in already-harrowing situations.

Before talking about the multiplayer modes, it should be noted that GoW4 provides a bevy of options in how to play them. As expected, you can play either ranked or player matches, with the former granting XP for finishing and winning while the latter lets you play with and against bots to hone your skills. There's a specific setting for those who are searching for a team of online players to go up against bots all the time. There's even LAN play, a rarity on the Xbox One. The only thing missing is actual split-screen versus play, which is a shame since it was available on the first game on the Xbox 360.

There are eight modes. King of the Hill and Team Deathmatch are pretty self-explanatory. Escalation takes King of the Hill and lets the winner choose the weapon layout for the next round. Warzone takes the Team Deathmatch idea but gives everyone one life and instant death. Execution takes that same premise and allows bleeding out but forces players to perform an execution move or use explosive weaponry to have their kill count. Arms Race uses the standard Team Deathmatch rules but forces each team to get three kills with each weapon until every one of them has been used. Guardian has one leader per team hold all of the respawn tokens, so their elimination means that the team loses the ability to return after death. Finally, Dodgeball changes things up by having kills count as a means to allow a teammate to respawn.

The map design is quite good, as it follows the ethos of the original maps. Essentially, the maps seem rather sizeable, with enough of a gulf between both spawn points. Though there are some good elevation spots, most maps tend to have an agreed-upon spot in the middle where fighting gets heavy. There are some classic maps that are fan favorites, like Gridlock, but some of the newer battlegrounds are just as good as previous games — if not larger in size. Overall, the 10+ map collection is well designed.

One of the newer additions to the multiplayer is a team radar ping. You can get an overlay of your current camera viewpoint that highlights all of your teammates in white. It also highlights the locations of weapons and ammo spots, and it informs you whether they've already been pilfered. It is a useful enough tool for those just learning a map, but the lack of a toggle means you won't rely on it all of the time, especially since it darkens up the screen just enough to make opponents more difficult to see.

Though the multiplayer doesn't have the semi-destructible cover of the campaign, the addition of the vaulting kick and the snatch-and-stab works wonders, as cover is no longer very safe. Unless you're far from the action, there's a good chance that you'll be suddenly killed if you forget about this mechanic. The stabbing part of the snatch-and-stab counts as an execution move, so you'll get a guaranteed kill, but you'll still leave yourself wide open for death if anyone is close by. It is the same risk/reward system that players have been coping with since the second game, and it works fine.

It'll take some time to determine how often the public will use those new moves and guns. Based on the tendencies of the community during the review period, the Gnasher is the preferred way of executing others if you want to do it quickly and without much exposure. That was the case when the public beta was unleashed months ago, and there's a feeling that the new dual shot shotgun may also be in heavy rotation as time goes by. There could be a reprieve for this often-relied-upon strategy, as there are enough new weapons that weren't available in the beta that players may want to try. We didn't detect any lag when we were playing, but we only had multiplayer sessions with press and Microsoft employees, so there's still a chance that things can go south when the game gets a wider release.

GoW4's final big mode is Horde, and like everything else in the game, it has gotten some big updates while retaining what made it special. The core objective remains the same in that you and your squad of five people are trying to survive up to 50 waves of enemies that increase in difficulty. Like the campaign, the enemy variety is what sells this mode, as your approach to battle changes depending on who you're facing. The bots may seem easy until you reach the annoying rolling ones and the shielded flyers. It doesn't take long before things get hectic. The larger set of enemy types is enough to tempt lapsed Horde fans.

One of the difference makers is the fabricator, and even though it isn't the focal point of enemy's attacks, it is the single most important thing in the mode. You can use the fabricator to make fortifications, such as barricades, decoys and turrets. Unlike the campaign, the fabricator's energy cells don't regenerate between waves. Instead, players have to pick up energy from destroyed enemies and bring it back to the fabricator so it can be used to produce other goods.

Another thing you'll have to pay attention to is your class, which doesn't initially seem to make much of a difference. Once you discount their starting weapons, three of the classes are pretty similar to one another. The only ones that have specific inert abilities are the Engineer, who can repair and upgrade the fabricator, and the Scout, which gets bonus energy for whatever they retrieve on the field and deposit. You don't need to have all classes represented in your squad.

There are two interesting aspects of the multiplayer modes. The first is the card pack system. Using the coins earned in Horde mode and ranked multiplayer matches, you can buy card packs that open up a variety of things. They can be extra bounty cards, which are ongoing goals that give you sizeable XP bonuses when they're completed. There are also class power-ups for Horde mode, with card duplicates being used to level up the existing cards into more powerful perks. The other cards include character skins, weapon skins, and profile emblems; all of these can be turned into scrap, which can then be used to craft other cards that would normally be earned from packs.

The second interesting item is the Season Pass. The game is promising to release 24 total maps for the game, with two being released per month. Best of all, those maps are being released free of charge for everyone. The catch is that the maps are only free if you're playing ranked matches, as you'll happen upon them when you're doing your map rotation. If you plan on playing those new maps in private matches or for LAN sessions, you'll have to pay for them. Like the coin packs, we don't have any idea how much the maps will cost at this time, but it is good to know that there is a plan to ensure the online community isn't going to be fragmented the moment a new maps hits.

The first three entries in the Gears of War series showcased how powerful the Xbox 360 and Unreal Engine 3 are when used correctly. The same can now be said of the fourth numbered game for the Xbox One. The level of detail has benefitted from the new hardware, as the textures look great. It is perhaps even more noticeable now that you see buildings under construction and a small village at the start of the game; both provide more color than seen in the entire series thus far. The number of characters that can be on-screen at the same time has increased, so the battlefield can look more crowded. Particle effects are a big deal, but they're reserved for environmental effects. That isn't to say that the game has cut back on the smoke and explosions, but there are other things that take advantage of the new power. As far as frame rate goes, it follows the same blueprint as Ultimate Edition in that the campaign and horde mode are all set to 30fps, while the other multiplayer types go to 60fps with no drops in either scenario.

While it is fine for the console, GoW4 really shines graphically on the PC. Like many of Microsoft's recent releases on the PC, there are a ton of options to tweak, including asynchronous compute toggling, field of view, particle density and various degrees of anti-aliasing. There are a ton of options to suit most rigs, and it translates very well in practice. In fact, using a mid-range setup that included 16GB of DDR3 PC1333Mhz RAM, an Intel Core-i5 3570, and a Radeon RX 480 8GB, we were able to get an average of 75fps according to the in-game benchmark at 1080p with everything in Ultra settings. This applied to all game modes, so the PC is the preferred platform for the game. For those who intend to play on both platforms, know that the cross-saving is smooth, so there are no extra steps needed to carry progress from one machine to another. Also note that the benchmarks for Ultra ate up around 4.12GB of VRAM, so you might want to plan accordingly in you have less than that on your card.

Audio-wise, the series was always very solid, and that streak continues with GoW4. Sounds like the iconic chainsaw ripping through flesh and steel are as pitch-perfect as ever. The voice acting of the new cast mixes in well with the veterans, and as mentioned before, the script gives them a chance to cut a little looser than before without dramatically changing the tone. A few lines may be repeated, but it isn't something you'll notice much in the heat of battle. Meanwhile, the musical score feels like the original game, with a nice blend of action and terror at the appropriate moments. The familiar riff that plays once a zone has been cleared still serves as nice, clear punctuation to end every fight.

If anything, Gears of War 4 shows that The Coalition can handle the series going forward. From the single-player to the co-op and multiplayer, every aspect of the game sings with quality as they successfully blend old traditions with new mechanics. There's already a ton of content in the game, which is great at giving you many possible ways to access it all. While the PC is the preferred platform to play the game, the Xbox One version is no slouch, as it still comes up with a solid experience. Overall, action fans will have a blast with this title.

Score: 9.0/10

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