A decade ago, Gears of War became the killer app for the Xbox 360. The cover-based combat, the healing factor, and above all the squads combined in a mix of rail-shooter and multiplayer that was, frankly, brilliant. And Microsoft is hoping that Gears of War will bring fans back into the fold with Gears of War 4, an updating of the franchise, at least in theory, to the point where they’re hoping to bring back fans with a custom Xbox One.
We’re departing from our usual structure here because we weren’t just sent the game to review. Microsoft, in fact, sent us the custom bundle that’s in stores, tempting gamers. But is it worth the money?
Ten years ago, Gears arrived when I was two years out of college. I was flat broke, my relationship was inching towards the toilet, and I owned a GameCube on the verge of being forced out of commission. So I spent a lot of time over at the house of gamer friends playing Gears, and I admit I was jealous of their Xbox 360s, just a bit.
Now, as a married man, when I pulled the console out of the box, my wife muttered “All-black electronics, is that too much to ask?” I’d imagine I’m not the only husband hurriedly explaining that it’ll fit behind the TV, no problem, either.
Yes, those are claw marks and they are, in fact, textured into the console and controller. They even tuck the COG logo on the back of both. It’s really neat, if, perhaps, a bit unnecessary. That said, the bundle, while not the best Xbox One deal, is an excellent bargain. You get the 2TB Xbox One S and a wireless controller, and the full edition of Gears of War 4, plus a free two weeks of Xbox Live, and some in-game goodies. Considering the ultimate edition of the game and the console separately alone are $500, $450 is a pretty good deal, especially if you’re jumping into the current generation of consoles for the first time. But what about the game? Is it worth trading up, or adding a second console?
Well, just how intense is your nostalgia? See if this segment from early in the game seems familiar:
Yeah, it’s, well, it’s Gears of War: Pretty, fun for a bit, but ultimately shallow. The Coalition has, in the presentation, undeniably turned out an absolutely beautiful game. You’ll walk your giant Gears through scenic farms, robot-built cities, and more as you try to unravel the mystery of why you’re being shot at, which is more or less the game’s plot (hint: It involves aliens.) Gears of War has always been a pretty, goopy alien shooter and nothing has changed across the eight hours or so you’ll spend in the single player campaign.
There’s a bunch of mechanics the game introduces, but the problem is there’s not really a reason to use them. OK, you can sneak up on enemies in cover, but why bother when you can just get behind some cover and shoot it out? The maps are fairly straightforward affairs with lots of convenient waist-high walls and pretty pyrotechnics, and occasionally you pick a path through the level, or experience some fancy weather effects:
But that’s about the extent of it. While it’s fairly brisk and doesn’t linger in any area too long, but it doesn’t feel particularly novel, either.
Of course, multiplayer, particularly Horde Mode, is the big appeal here, and the game builds on the tower defense idea and emphasizes teamwork with different classes. You build emplacements, fight waves of enemies, and repeat. Playing through the main campaign in co-op can be fairly entertaining, too. Still, if you’re not into multiplayer in the first place, you’re probably in the wrong place. And that’s sort of the issue, in the end.
Gears of War 4 ultimately tries to have it both ways: to be a modern game and to not change anything in the intervening decade. And it ultimately doesn’t work. The original game was so novel, and so successful, that the cover-based shooter is practically a genre unto itself. No franchise survives by just polishing up the trim and hoping nobody notices, and the same is true of Gears. To draw attention in an era of gaming where Pokémon GO can draw more eyeballs that Marcus Fenix can fire bullets, hopefully the franchise will have more than just “The same, but prettier.”