I'm popping in and out of cover, picking off an army of gooey-looking monsters with a ridiculous chainsaw-gun. I'm bouncing from wall to wall, hoping to surprise my online opponent with a shotgun shell to the head. I'm gleefully yelling at my four teammates as we try to survive a seemingly impossible boss, and laughing as we're swiftly mowed down. Yep, Gears of War is definitely back.
Playing Gears of War 4 (out now for Xbox One and Windows 10) is like catching up with an old friend from college. You're still sharing the same dumb inside jokes, but you've also both matured a bit. Gears 4 is often a wonderful nostalgia trip for fans of Microsoft's meaty third-person shooter series, but its memorable new cast and fresh combat mechanics do just enough to make it feel like an exciting new chapter rather than a lazy greatest-hits album.
If It Ain't Broke…
Gears of War 4 doesn't mess too much with the series' signature third-person shooting, and why should it? Gears essentially invented the modern cover shooter as we know it, and bouncing between walls and barricades while mowing down squishy enemies still feels fantastic.
That said, there are a few new combat mechanics that make Gears 4 feel fresh. You can now vault over obstacles while running, and bouncing in and out of cover feels snappier than ever. But nothing made me smile quite like yanking enemies out of cover and instantly executing them —
a sequence affectionately known as the Yank and Shank.
You can now stun your opponents by either yanking them or kicking them while vaulting, leaving them open to a brutal execution — if your opponent doesn't counter, at least. These mini-exchanges add a visceral close-quarter-combat element to Gears of War, and successfully landing a Yank and Shank is one of the most satisfying feelings I've gotten from an action game lately. Going for yank kills is risky, but they're so damn fun that I found myself attempting them at every opportunity.
Slicing up monsters with your chainsaw-mounted Lancer rifle is still a blast, as is turning your opponent's head to red goop with the Gnasher shotgun. But some of my favorite weapons in Gears 4 are the new ones, including the satisfying Enforcer submachine gun, the chargeable Embar sniper rifle, and the Dropshot, a unique take on the grenade launcher that lets you rain spikes of death from above.
The New Crew
Just like its gameplay, Gears of War's storytelling has grown up a bit while hanging on to the campy nature that's made the franchise so endearing. It even kicks off with a brilliant prologue that brings new players up to speed while channeling some serious nostalgia for old fans. The beefy (but loveable) bro-soldiers of the original trilogy have been replaced by JD Fenix (son of original protagonist Marcus Fenix), Kait Diaz and Del Walker — all of whom look less like cartoony military caricatures and more like normal human beings.
As with the original trilogy, it's the dynamic between these characters that kept me invested. JD and Del joke around like the childhood friends they are, while Kait's sarcasm and weariness reflects her rough upbringing outside of safe city walls. Gears 4 plays up the strained relationship between JD and his dad, while still allowing an old, bearded and cranky Marcus to have some of the most hilarious one-liners in the game.
Gears 4's basic premise centers around a mysterious new enemy called the Swarm that starts snatching folks up from rickety villages and armored military bases alike. This sets the stage for one of the most fun and well-paced Gears campaigns yet, with plenty of huge cinematic set pieces that are balanced out by quiet, funny, and downright eerie moments
You'll go from massive cover battles and thrilling motorcycle chases to creepy crawls through underground caverns, and no act overstays its welcome. The game's deadly DeeBee robots and squishy Swarm monsters are both fun to fight, and a handful of wave-based survival sections do a slick job preparing you for the multiplayer Horde mode. From its refreshingly colorful city areas to its slimy, Swarm-infested catacombs, the game looks stunning on Xbox One, and will likely look even better if you have a powerful enough PC.
As with the solo campaign, Gears 4's multiplayer hits a sweet spot between familiar and fresh. Staple modes like Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill are still plenty of fun, as are new ones such as Dodgeball, which lets you revive dead teammates by getting kills, and Arms Race, which is a joyous race to get kills with every weapon in the game. There's a robust ranking system for competitive players, as well as a versus co-op option that lets you fight against bots without fear of being demolished by a group of teenagers jacked up on Red Bull.
But Gears 4's real selling point just might be Horde 3.0, a refined take on the series' patented wave-based survival mode. The goal is still to fortify your base and survive 50 waves of unrelenting enemies and huge bosses, but now there's a class system that forces you to specialize in a role and communicate even more closely with your teammates.
This mode marks some of the most fun I've had yelling at my friends over Xbox Live, even when we died over and over. Better yet, it's an excellent showcase of Microsoft's new Play Anywhere program — I played Horde 3.0 with one friend who was on Xbox One and two others who were on Windows 10, and setting the whole thing up was completely seamless. Just about all of Gears 4's multiplayer modes are cross-platform, except for ranked versus — because why should an Xbox One player suffer the hand of a mouse-and-keyboard sniper?
If there's one gripe I have with Gears 4, it's with the unlock system. Borrowing from other modern shooters, the game now lets you buy "Gear Packs" full of random loot via either in-game currency or real money. As exciting as it is to score a cool new weapon or character skin, I kind of miss how previous Gears games let you unlock characters and items by completing specific feats. Despite a recent patch that lets you earn credits quicker, working towards Gear Packs often feels like a grind.
Brothers 'Till the End
Gears of War 4 isn't the genre revolution that the original Gears was, but by smartly building on an excellent formula, it doesn't need to be. The characters are memorable, the environments are stunning, and the new weapons and mechanics feel incredibly thoughtful. And yes, taking a chainsaw to a slimy humanoid monster is still one of the most satisfying things you can do in a video game.
Newcomer developer The Coalition have crafted a thrilling new take on Gears of War that evokes plenty of nostalgia while still establishing a fresh status quo for the series. It's enough of a triumph that Gears of War 4 is simply another great Gears game — the fact that it's allowed the series to grow up a bit makes it that much better.