Sera, Sera, storms are brewing in your eyes…
Gears Of War 4 (R18+)
Also on Windows 10 PCs
Copy purchased (Xbox Game Pass subscription)
Exactly why the inhabitants of the planet Sera seem to think it’s worth fighting for is a bit of a mystery. Sure it’s pretty, but underneath the surface lurk the murderous Locust Horde from the original Gears trilogy, and humanity’s attempts to defeat the Locust once and for all resulted in death, destruction, pollution and massive fatal storms called ‘wind flares’ that seem to occur at least once every two or three levels.
Life inside the human settlements doesn’t seem to be much better. It’s 25 years after the end of the war against the Locust, and it’s heavily implied that the Coalition of Ordered Governments- COG, Gears, get it?- are a teensy bit authoritarian. So much so that pockets of humanity have returned to living on the land in small villages rather than under the COG’s rule.
Enter our heroes; James Fenix (son of the original trilogy’s Marcus) and Del, former COG soldiers, and Kait and Oscar, two other ‘outsiders’ eschewing the COG in favour of the simple life. Our merry band are scavenging for supplies and aren’t averse to picking up a few stray bits and pieces that might not strictly be theirs to take, and this puts them on the government’s radar. First Minister Jinn thinks they might also be kidnapping people from these settlements, a claim which mystifies the team (and the player)- but something far more sinister is responsible for that particular crime…
I was a little disappointed that the game didn’t explore the COG-versus-the-Outsiders dynamic a little more. Despite being the gallant(-ish) heroes from the original trilogy, the games hinted at the COG not exactly being squeaky-clean and above-board, and the first act of Gears 4 has you fighting and avoiding the COG’s robotic “DeeBee” troops, with the occasional run-in with First Minister Jinn over the phone. And then the game shifts into a very familiar pattern- highlight between the brackets for spoilers:
(The Locust return. Apparently, the planet-wide countermeasure deployed at the end of Gears 3 wasn’t quite the knockout blow humanity had hoped for, and they’ve been merely asleep, regenerating into a new form.)
Short version- it’s a Gears game and Gears is Gears. You’re slow-moving but heavily-armoured; the battlefields are littered with debris that you can hide behind with about 99% effectiveness (an enemy on higher ground can still get a clear shot at you), and every enemy in the game takes about a million bullets to down, so be prepared to empty entire magazines into opposing soldiers’ heads. You are very rarely on your own; generally the player (or players, in co-op mode) form a squad of four, and you’ll need the firepower- as well as the ability to draw fire away from particular areas- in order to succeed.
This is a bit of a problem when you are playing solo; you always have a full squad, but the AI is not necessarily that great at times. It seems better at ‘reviving’ you if you are downed by an enemy, and they are- if not invincible- extremely unlikely to be killed in action. But they can die, which necessitates a return to the last checkpoint, and against particular enemies the AI teammates are worse than useless; against enemies that require precision or accuracy to kill, you’re basically on your own. This becomes an even bigger problem against enemies that try to capture you, Galaga-style- the AI will just plink away at its armoured spots, or worse, ignore it altogether. I also felt at times that the enemies knew full well your teammates were morons; frequently I would find myself the target of the entire enemy force’s fire, essentially pinning me down while the rest of the squad sat around with their thumbs up their Emergence Holes. Back to the checkpoint, everyone!
Adding to the frustration for solo players is that the game is not great at explaining things when the objective is not just “shoot everything and head to the waypoint”. Your squadmates are quick to provide general advice- and then provide it again, and again, and again, while doing literally nothing to help you. They can’t operate doors or machinery but will remind you constantly that they’re there to be used. This gets particularly annoying if you’re on the hunt for the game’s collectables- your team seems very impatient if you’re not immediately heading for the next objective- but one particular late mission puts you in charge of a weapon that hasn’t previously been seen in the game (and isn’t seen again) and gives you no explanation of how to operate it, save for your ‘team’ mates yelling at you. Minor spoilers, but here’s a YouTube video if you get stuck at the same part.
(And yes, that weapon was in Gears 3, but that was years ago.)
These are issues that can be solved if you’re playing with other human beings, rather than relying on the game’s canned AI, and I didn’t run into any situation where I felt like giving up (other than the weapon dilemma above), but it can be frustrating.
The game starts to slow down about halfway through and settles into a pattern of:
- the objective is to do the thing
- oh no, we can’t do the thing because something is broken
- go through a hail of gunfire to fix the thing that is broken
- go through a hail of gunfire to go back to finish doing the thing
Occasionally the game will throw a tower-defence section at you, borrowing inspiration from the online Horde mode and annoying me to no end after I complained about them in Sunset Overdrive. These aren’t terribly difficult, but sadly they also aren’t terribly exciting; build turrets, hide behind them to protect them from anything that does get close, and wait out the wave before returning to your slog through rooms full of enemies, collecting just enough ammo to make it through the next room full of enemies.
It does lighten up, though, and after the slog of Act 4 (which seems to have about fifty chapters), the fifth act gears up (heh) for a big finish and… mostly delivers. There is an escalation in weaponry to give you a bit of relief from the bleakness of the last few hours of gameplay, the final boss is satisfying to beat even if Captain Obvious and the Peanut Gallery are still there to remind you every five seconds of the thing you need to do (even when you’ve already done it a few times), and we learn the fate of Kait’s mother. And then… the game just ends, other than a Marvel-style ‘stinger’ post-credits. Whatever fate faces our heroes is presumably to be told as The Coalition prepares to launch the inevitable Gears of War 5, coming soon* to a console near you.
I played through the campaign and didn’t try the online modes; the game did try to entice me with loot boxes (boooo) and the promise of temporary stat boosts and new costumes for my Gear, but I bravely resisted. Still, if the Gears forums are any indication you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding a match and getting your chainsaw on.
So it’s Gears. It seems strange to return to this series after seeing much faster shooters doing the rounds (like, say, the Doom reboot which was released at about the same time) and seeing that not much has changed; it’s prettier, sure, but it’s still plodding, the enemies are bullet-sponges and the plot is Cliche City. But it’s still a tense, brutal, gritty experience and the satisfaction of unleashing your chainsaw bayonet on some chump is still there. I can’t see myself returning to try and knock it over on Insane difficulty (although I did beat Gears 3 that way), but if you’ve got a group together who are reasonably skilled at shooters, you should have a blast going through this one.
And now, because it’s been playing in your head whilst you were reading this, here’s Jefferson Starship.
* Well, presumably. As of the date of publication of this article, Gears 5 had not been officially announced.