"Aw shit," grumbles Marcus Fenix, war-weary hero of the first three Gears of War games, as robotic enemies descend on his secluded home in the mountains. "They're going to mess up my fucking tomatoes." Soon enough, they do mess up his fucking tomatoes, and Mr. Fenix isn't too happy. I didn't expect to laugh—or have so much fun—with Gears of War 4, the first entry developed by new Microsoft studio the Coalition.
With Gears of War, Microsoft has taken the same approach as Halo, passing the next slate of sequels to a new team. Halo went from Bungie to 343 Industries, Gears of War went from Epic Games to the Coalition. But while 343 Industries did an admirable job of showing they were technically capable of making a Halo game, that's proven less impressive as time's gone on. Maybe that's because 343's additions to Halo haven't proven fruitful—I'm still not sure what even happened over the last two games—or maybe there's simply been too many Halo games.
(I should note that I'm largely speaking to the single-player and story elements of Halo; I've heard the multiplayer in Halo 5 is top-notch.)
Gears of War 4 finds its own voice, one lighter and more comedic than the self-seriousness that sometimes crept into previous games, while remaining very much a Gears of War game.
It helps that it's been five years since the release of Gears of War 3—just long enough for fuzzy memories to start crystallizing into nostalgia. The years between makes Gears of War 4's visual upgrade even more impressive, especially if you're lucky enough to play on PC, where it really pops. Multiple times, I've stopped playing to pan the camera around and take in my surroundings. The last time that happened was…The Witcher 3? And though the trailers for Gears of War 4 pitched it as a darker game, that's not my experience in the opening hours of the campaign, which are more colorful and punchy than the series has ever been.
The game is full of smart touches, too, like properly settling you back into the world. Rather than forcing players through a ten-minute CG cutscene that recaps what's already happened—I'm looking at you, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—it weaves a tutorial into a playable prologue that walks players through everything from Emergence Day to the events that saved humanity. Later on, the game even embeds the mechanics of the series's famous horde mode, where players fight off waves of enemies, by making it part of the campaign.
And where Halo 4 and 5 stumbled,Gears of War 4 excels, introducing a satisfying new enemy to take on. (Again, I couldn't tell you who or what I fought in either game, or even what weapons I used.) This isn't another war against the Locust; so far, all of my attention (and bullets) have been focused on an advanced set of intelligent war machines called the DeeBees. Each DeeBee model fills a different role on the battlefield, each meant to disrupt your playing habits and force you to adapt. Shepard's are your standard cannon fodder, capable of hiding behind cover and coordinating basic ambushes. DR-1's are walking tanks that lurch forward, Terminator-like, clutching a rapid-fire shotgun. They're terrifying, require multiple people to take down, and even when you've pumped them full of lead, they default to a kamikaze mode capable of killing you instantly. The game regularly trots out a mixture of DR-1, Shepherds, and little bastards called Trackers, these Samus-looking balls of horror that, like the DR-1, are only interested in cozying up next to you and blowing up. Fortunately, you can tap a button that temporarily kicks them a few feet away, a move that never gets old.
These elements were clearly constructed to work in concert, as the enemy types push players to be on the move and constantly improvising; to stand still is to embrace death. Though Gears of War has been a series defined by hiding in cover, Gears of War 4 asks players to ditch spots almost as quickly they're discovered, a fact made clear by how quickly cover locations can fall apart. It makes the game refreshingly fast, at least by Gears of War's lumbering standards.
In other words, Gears of War 4 doesn't reinvent Gears of War, nor does it shy from playing with new ideas. As I write this, I'm on a flight across the country, and the only thing I can think about is how much I'll miss hanging out on the couch this weekend and playing more Gears of War 4. I haven't touched multiplayer, horde mode, or anything else—it's not what I'm here for. For me, Gears of War has always been about taking part in a bombastic sci-fi action movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. Gears of War 4 seems to have plenty of that. It's big, it's dumb, it's fun. It's more of the same, but for me at least, that's just fine.
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