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‘Gears of War 4’ Is The Best in the Series. But Is It Enough?

What does it take to get a score of 9/10 these days?
Image: Microsoft

This is part of Motherboard's feature about the development of Gears of War 4. Follow along here.

The Coalition, Microsoft's new developer in charge of the Gears of War franchise, had two, well defined goals it wanted to accomplish with the release of Gears of War 4. First, it wanted Gears 4 to feel like a Gears game. Second, it wanted it to be a technical showcase—one of the best looking games on the Xbox One and the PC.


After finishing the story mode and dabbling in its online modes, I feel confident in saying that The Coalition achieved both of its stated goals, but the big budget video game market is so competitive these days (especially in the shooter genre) that I'm not so sure that means Gears 4 will earn the critical acclaim the team is hoping for.

Gears of War had a tremendous impact on shooters when it released in 2006. It didn't only popularize the use of Unreal Engine 3, which became so common during the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 generation of games, it also introduced a whole new way of playing shooters.

Image: Microsoft

Up until Gears, shooters mostly played like derivatives of Doom. There's a room full of enemies, the player has some guns, and he strafes around them in circles and shoots until there's nothing left to shoot. Gears modified that formula by making players take cover. Pressing the X button made protagonist Marcus Fenix slam and stick against the wall, which he would then peek around to take a shot. Rather than march right into a room full of enemies, players now had to move from cover to cover to flank the enemy. Gears technically wasn't the first to do this (Kill Switch is an example of a game that did years earlier), but it made it popular.

When I visited The Coalition, I spent a lot of time talking to the developers there about how much work went into recreating that feeling on a new engine and console. The team would run the original Gears next to Gears 4 and tuned the animation of Fenix slamming into the wall until it was just right. There were big placards in the area where the gameplay designers sat that listed the rules for a good Gears encounter: "Create a Front," "Introduce enemies in Waves," "Build to a Climax".


A lot of care went into making sure Gears 4 lives up to its name, and it worked. As was always the case with Gears, it's all about the details.

Image: Microsoft

For example, the most common enemy in Gears of War 4 is the "juvie." It's a slimy, pale, humanoid creature that usually attacks in large packs. They can't take a lot of bullets, but they juke from side to side as they run, and so many of them attack at the same time, eventually the safest thing is to fall back.

Internally, Gears of War 4 developer The Coalition calls this type of enemy a "flusher," because they're designed to make the player abandoned cover. It's annoying by design, which might make you miss some of the subtle details that make it work so well: the way it's able to bounce off walls and railings, or the extra satisfying, squishy pop it makes if you kill it with a headshot.

And yes, as The Coalition wanted, it's one of the best looking games I ever played. Environments are crammed with details: crumbling walls, rusting machinery, lush vegetation, and oozing, glistening tentacles. There are jaw-dropping set-pieces, like a motorcycle chase after an airplane, or a teetering ride up an old mine shaft.

It's the best looking game I played on my Xbox One to date, and since buying a copy there also gets you a copy that runs on Windows 10, I tried it on PC as well, where it looks even better.

It looks amazing, it sounds amazing (I recommend playing it with headphones), and is in my opinion easily the best Gears of War game yet.


Is that enough? I doubt it.

Image: Microsoft

The problem is that it's only the best Gears game, as opposed to something completely new. The fact that the first Gears was so novel in 2006 is what made the series popular.

This month, Gears 4 will go up against Titanfall 2, Battlefield 1, and Call of Duty: Future Warfare. That's some tough competition, but they are all sequels and slight twists on existing ideas. The only thing working in Gears 4's favor this time is that it's been a few years since we got a new game in the series.

It will probably sell well, but even The Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson told me that it's unlikely Gears 4 will earn that rare 9/10 score on Metacritic, which aggregates reviews from around the web.

These days, to get a score like that a game needs to be perfect and considerably different from what came before. As The Coalition told us in our feature about the development on the game, it only had the resources to make something perfect this time. Now that that foundation is in place, it will have more resources to explore new ideas in a sequel.