Screenshot: Microsoft Studios

When Microsoft bought Gears Of War from Epic Games two years ago, the tech giant clearly knew what it was getting: a technically accomplished, genre-defining shooter with a built-in multiplayer following and a fast, brutal tone. Microsoft, to its credit, didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken with its new buy. Instead, the company hired original Gears producer Rod Fergusson to head up its new development team, pointed them toward the Xbox One and PC, and let them get to work. The end result is Gears Of War 4, a game that iterates, as opposed to innovates, and does so with confidence and skill.

The Gears template remains as it has for the last three (technically four) games. Players take on the role of gun-toting musclemen on the war-torn planet of Sera, a paradise of waist-high walls and murderous fauna. Across three game modes—Campaign, Versus, and Horde—they duck behind walls, pop up to shoot, and then duck back down to give their recharging health bars a chance to do their thing. Up close, meanwhile, combat is brutally fast, with a couple of shotgun blasts (or a well revved chainsaw) reducing the enemy to fine red mist in a second.

The original Gears helped define the modern cover-based shooter, standardizing third-person perspectives and stick-to-wall cover. But few of the games that followed in its footsteps dared be this blindingly kinetic. Opponents vault over barricades, bounce from cover to cover, and mix balletic dives with close quarters combat like beefy extras in a John Woo film. At times—especially when facing down human opponents—the speed can border on the overwhelming. But for players who cut their teeth on the series’ fast-firing shotguns, grenade-launching longbows, and chainsaw-sporting assault rifles, all of the pieces are still in place.

The evolution of those weapons provides a useful window into the design philosophy underpinning all of Gears 4: Tweak and refine, but don’t rock the boat. The series-standard Lancer machine gun is still here, along with its slower-firing Retro variant. The shotgun—already the one-hit-kill weapon of choice for the more obnoxiously talented in Gears’ player base—has received an even-more lethal variant that can fire six times in the blink of an eye. And the game’s explosives have been rounded out with the Dropshot, a portable mortar that allows players to drop explosives directly into enemy lines.

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In other words, the game’s arsenal does little that’s exciting, but also nothing that’s overtly wrong. There’s no “Holy shit, I can’t believe they added that!” moment, akin to the first time you sliced into an enemy with your gun-mounted chainsaw bayonet. But there’s also no “Holy shit, I can’t believe they screwed that up.” Instead, shooting feels uniformly weighty and satisfying. It’s not flashy, but everything works.

In fact, the only thing that doesn’t work in Gears Of War 4 is its single-player Campaign mode, which gets bogged down with repetition, boring boss fights, and what might be the worst story in a series that’s never had narrative as a primary concern. Players take on the role of J.D. Fenix, the dishwater-dull spawn of original growling gun-lump Marcus Fenix, as he battles a corrupt robot army—and, inevitably, a new incarnation of the series’ placeholder bad guys, the Locust—for control of his hellhole home. Said battles inevitably take the form of J.D. and his squad gunning their way through hundreds of the same eight or so enemies across roughly a dozen hours and a bunch of cookie-cutter arenas. A boss battle or a vehicle set piece, most of which involve some basic puzzle solving and a desperate hope that you won’t be subjected to a sudden hard-to-avoid death, occasionally break things up. Despite the frustrations, those sequences are still better than when the game decides to slow down and reward the player with dialogue and story progress instead.

Let’s be clear: The writing in the Gears games has never been good, emphasizing out-of-place gallows humor as a way to cut through the waves of blood and the grim gray of the world’s environs. But it’s reached a nadir in Gears 4, where every other battle is punctuated by lazy sarcasm from the rest of your squad. (Examples: “Oh yeah, I’m sure the weather will cooperate. That was sarcasm, by the way,” or, “What do the generators look like?” “Like… giant generators.” “Oh.”) Marcus Fenix has always been a deeply boring character, but at least he’s not actively obnoxious, which is more than can be said for his banter-loving kid.

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The campaign does have two conceptual bright spots. The first are wind flares, hostile weather patterns that crop up from time to time to make navigation and combat more difficult. During a wind flare, cover breaks down, projectiles become unpredictable, and lethal lightning storms threaten to blast everything in their path. And while the game takes its sweet time mixing these meteorological obstacles with actual combat, once it does, it adds a new, dynamic element to the game’s tired warfare. The flares are just as harmful to your enemies as they are to you, and learning to navigate them adds a welcome twist to combat that’s in danger of becoming rote. Plus, they’re a visual treat, injecting warm reds and yellows into the game’s otherwise drab color palette.

The second strong point is a bit of a cheat, since it’s really just a tutorial for Horde, one of the game’s other modes. From time to time, players are forced to hold a location for several waves, using a Fabricator (basically a fancy portable replicator) to manufacture defenses and weapons for themselves. It’s not as satisfying as the actual Horde mode—mostly because success is rewarded with yet more awful comedy, instead of access to the game’s surprisingly robust progression system—but it serves as a great warm-up to the main event itself.

Screenshot: Microsoft Studios

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And make no mistake: Horde 3.0 (as it’s been dubbed) is the biggest draw of Gears Of War 4. The series basically invented the craze of multiplayer wave-based gauntlets, and it’s spent the last three games refining that formula to a science. This time, The Coalition has doubled down on Horde’s tower-defense origins, mixing the class-based combat from Gears Of War: Judgment with the buildable structures from Gears Of War 3. Both have been given welcome tweaks. Classes are no longer restricted to a handful of weapons. Instead, you’re able to buy new guns or scoop them off the battlefield at will. And the currency for building structures, Power, no longer accumulates with kills—instead you (or your team’s Scout, who gets a bonus for doing so) have to dive into combat to scoop it up, creating interesting moments that force you to weigh risk and reward.

And in a move that’s almost cruel, The Coalition has bolted an RPG-like progression system on top of the whole thing. Classes now have skills—represented by cards you receive from packs bought with either real or virtual money, just to twist the slot machine handle a little more—and the more time you spend with one, the more slots you unlock to equip them. These aren’t minor improvements, either; snipers can massively increase their headshot damage, while Scouts can boost their health to almost twice its normal amount. Good skill allocations can make the difference between the team making it to Waves 30 or 40—when increasing handicaps push the difficulty viciously high—as opposed to crapping out at 10 or 20. Horde mode already had a compulsive “just one more wave” quality to it; the addition of meta-game progression bumps it up to “practically addictive.”

Screenshot: Microsoft Studios

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Competitive multiplayer, meanwhile, has its own ranks and progression (although it shares an overall multiplayer leveling system with Horde). It has been split into three playlists, pegged to relative skill levels: Social, Core, and Competitive. Aimed toward the average player, Core contains two of the game’s new multiplayer modes, Dodgeball and Arms Race. The former is a fairly standard Team Deathmatch mode, with the added twist that the only way to revive teammates is to down an opponent. The result is a nice glut of “hero moments”—there’s nothing like being hunted as the last person standing, only to turn the tables and bring your team back in force. Arms Race, meanwhile, feels like an attempt by the developers to downplay the supremacy of certain weapons. Instead of scrounging guns off the ground, teams all carry weapons picked from a regimented list. Achieve three kills with one, and the whole team moves to the next, with the winner being the first one to make it all the way down to pistols. It’s gimmicky but fun, forcing teams to adjust strategies on the fly as their weapons get switched out.

The Competitive playlist has been balanced for high-level play, toning down weapon damage and removing features like auto-aim. It’s a good corrective to the sometimes too frantic tone of Gears combat, emphasizing more thoughtful deployments and actual use of cover. That goes even further in the final new mode, Escalation, which places three capture points on the map. Holding them accrues points, as in a standard King Of The Hill fight, but if any team manages to snag all three, the match immediately ends in their favor. The emphasis then, is on teamwork, holding territory, and dividing resources evenly, and, as a corrective to the occasional oppression of the over-powered “dive-and-shotgun” fighting style, it’s remarkably satisfying.

“Satisfying” is a good word for Gears Of War 4 in general. Outside of the later stages of the campaign—where, once you’ve chainsawed your 500th drone soldier or robot commando in half, you’ve pretty much seen all that you’re going to see—the game feels overwhelmingly solid. Multiplayer is thoughtful, without losing its vital speed. And Horde is as well executed as it’s ever been, keeping the bar to entry low while rewarding players who want to dive in deep. With its first stab at the series, Microsoft and The Coalition have followed the old Boy Scout rule: Leave it better than you found it.

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