Gears of War, the genre-defining third-person cover-shooter, has had a slightly chequered recent history – Cliff Bleszinski, the driving force behind the series, moved on to pastures new after 2011's Gears of War 3, implying he felt the franchise was stagnating, and 2013's Gears of War: Judgment wasn't great.
But GoW remains one of Microsoft's flagship exclusive franchises, and the decision to entrust it to a new developer called The Coalition proves to have been spot-on. For Gears of War 4 is every bit as epic as a Gears game should be. This is an Xbox exclusive done right.
Gears of War 4 review: What's the story?
Right from the start, you feel the benefit of a fresh perspective on the Gears of War universe. The single-player storyline finally manages to sidestep the series' gung-ho Americanism which grated with many. More importantly, the campaign never descends into monotony thanks to a series of clever change-ups and judicious new gameplay mechanics.
Online, where, Gears of War has always reigned supreme, it somehow manages to find an even higher, ahem, gear, with new gameplay modes and a comprehensive overhaul of the much-copied Horde mode, which The Coalition has seen fit to dub Horde 3.0.
After a flashback prologue designed to reacquaint you with that familiar control system, Gears of War 4's action begins 25 years after the Locust were finally defeated in Gears of War 3, and the planet Sera has become a very different place.
You find yourself playing as James "JD" Fenix, son of Marcus, who is living as an "Outsider" in a country village. You learn that the COG, led by the sinister First Minister Jinn, now exert near-fascist control over the cities. JD and a small band of villagers including Kait, a long-overdue major female character, embark on a raid of a COG establishment, aiming to steal a Fabricator – essentially a 3D printer that can create weapons and fortifications. To do so, they must take on waves of COG robots, so the first twist sees the goodies recast as baddies.
When the group gets back to their village, after a showdown with COG forces (which cleverly trails the revamped Horde mode), a new enemy arrives which they call the Swarm. Although JD, his sidekick Del and Kait survive, Kait's mother, village headwoman Reyna, is abducted. So the trio head off to enlist the help of JD's father, Marcus, now living a bucolic life in something of a country pile, in a quest to rescue Reyna. Back in tandem with Marcus, and kitted out in classic COG armour, the foursome embark on a suicidal quest to once again save the world.
Gears of War 4 review: Know your enemy
Although it isn't the longest – you're looking at eight to ten hours – Gears of War 4's single-player storyline (which can be played co-operatively) is superb, right up there with that of the Doom remake.
It ebbs and flows magnificently, with some top-notch boss-battles and some interesting sequences in which the planet's innate hostility intervenes: periodically, "windflares" hit, consisting of hurricane-force winds and deadly lightning discharges. Usually, you encounter those when taking on enemies, but you can use the conditions to your advantage, and sometimes you must use them to solve environmental puzzles.
There are a few on-rails sequences which are a bit weak, though, but at last Gears of War 4 uses a colour palette that extends beyond black and brown, and the new Swarm enemies are superb. The way in which JD and his gang work out what the Swarm are and how they came to exist is much more imaginative than anything we've seen in past games.
They are pretty varied in terms of size, shape and capabilities, so require a more tactical approach than in previous Gears of War games – although you still have to fill them full of vast amounts of lead. The so-called Juvies, which are fast and unarmed, will force you out from cover; while getting caught in the belly of a Snatcher, while hoping that your team will shoot you out of it, is a truly hair-raising experience.
Gears of War 4 review: Weapons revisit
Weaponry-wise, The Coalition has wisely opted not to mess around with a proven formula too much. There are some new Swarm ones, which cause major damage but quickly run out of ammo and, of those, the Buzzkill, which basically fires circular-saw discs, is the most fun – especially when you fire it into the maelstrom of a windflare.
But really it's all about the familiar Lancer assault rifle and Gnasher shotgun; the weapons that you pick up from COG robots are uniformly awful – both unwieldy and lacking in power – and you get the feeling that was intentional.
In terms of replay value, the single-player game has a varied array of collectables and many will surely opt to enlist co-operative help and crank up the difficulty levels.
Gears of War 4 review: Multiplayer is marvellous
But who needs single-player replayability when you have a multiplayer game which is so extensive and beautifully honed? Gears of War 4 even has a new mode, the objective-based Escalation, which has an eye firmly on the world of e-sports, and there are so many different games you can play in Versus Multiplayer that everyone will find something. The best initial way in is via a Social playlist, which mixes and matches modes and maps, allowing its participants to vote on what the next match should be.
Old favourites Warzone (in which you get one life per round), Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Guardian are present and correct. Dodgeball puts the emphasis on respawning: every time you kill an enemy, you respawn a team-mate, with dead team-mates relegated to a queue. Arms Race forces you to get to know all the weapons, as every time your team achieves three kills, everybody's weapon swaps to another one. It's very much a Marmite mode, as it forces you to use the inferior COG robot weaponry.
It's always impossible to make any certain predictions about multiplayer stability before a game comes out, but we spent many hours pre-launch playing the Versus Multiplayer, and only experienced one catastrophic crash (mercifully right at the end of a round). The matching seems pretty spot-on, although that is an aspect which is impossible to judge until servers are fully populated. But there were no visible problems with lag or falling frame-rates, which bodes well, and Gears of War 4 is very good at stripping in bots where needed.
A Gears Pack card system, which gives you some great characters, skins and bounties – multiplayer challenges – should prove popular, since you can craft your own cards. And it provides some really useful buffs and perks for devotees of Horde mode (in the interest of balance, they don't apply to the multiplayer). There's an in-game Credit system which extends across both Versus Multiplayer and Horde 3.0, so anything you do in those modes allows you to stock up on Gear Packs. And you can, of course, spend real money on them.
Horde 3.0 feels at the same time familiar and fresh. Its key new mechanic is the Fabricator: a crate which allows you to build defences, turrets and objects like decoys which attract enemies. Every enemy you kill drops power, which you can then take back to the Fabricator and which essentially acts as the currency with which to build new objects.
One new aspect of Horde mode requires a bit of attention, though: it has introduced the concept of classes, but your weapon load-out is hard-wired to your class. You can, of course, pick up weapons on the battlefield dropped by enemies, but you should pick your class carefully in order to avoid having to use one or more of the naff robot COG weapons. Gears of War 4 could do a lot more to explain that, and the Horde class system may prove to be controversial as a result.
So there are a couple of tiny niggles, but you really have to scrabble around to find them.
Gears of War 4 is a tour de force – so good that it's worth buying an Xbox One just to play it.
Online, in both Horde and Versus Multiplayer modes, Gears 4 is insanely addictive, with plenty on offer for the hardcore and the markedly less so, and its single-player game is the best any Gears of War game has ever boasted.
If you're a big fan of third-person shooters then Gears 4 is, quite simply, the new standard-setter.
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