Gears of War, the undisputed heavyweight champion of cover-based, is one of the platform-exclusive franchises that has tempted many gamers to buy Microsoft, rather than Sony, consoles over the years. Recent iterations have disappointed, however. Recognising that, Microsoft entrusted development duties to a new outfit called The Coalition, and the resulting Gears of War 4 gives the familiar blueprint a much-needed flood of fresh ideas. As a result, this will be one of Microsoft’s most potent weapons in this Christmas’s struggle to achieve ascendancy over its console rival.
The action takes place a quarter of a century after the events documented in Gears of War 3. So, instead of playing as Marcus Fenix, you control his son James, known to all as JD. Like his old man, JD enlisted in the COG military organisation. But the planet on which the Gears of War games take place, Sera, has undergone massive changes during the course of 25 years. Now, the COG rule heavily fortified urban areas in a fascistly controlling manner, so JD has gone AWOL to live in a country village with a band of misfits who call themselves Outsiders. His first mission — along with sidekick Del and Kait, the franchise’s first central female character — is to raid a COG facility and steal a Fabricator, essentially a pumped-up 3D printer that can make weapons and fortifications.
Things soon take an unexpected turn: after returning to the village and fighting off hordes of COG robots (known as DeeBees) — a sequence which offers a taster of Gears of War 4’s revamped Horde mode — a new enemy called The Swarm appears, carrying off Kait’s mum Reyna. JD and his gang decide to turn to the now grizzled but still active Marcus Fenix for help, and head to his country mansion. At last, the weedy DeeBee weapons can be ditched in favour of Gears of War’s classic Lancer (with its built-in chainsaw) and Gnasher shotgun, and the quest to find Reyna’s mother and uncover the truth about The Swarm begins in earnest.
Gears of War 4’s single-player campaign easily stands up against the series' best. It ebbs, flows and mixes things up. At various points, 'windflares' strike: sequences with hurricane-force winds and deadly lightning, in which impressive physics allow you to take out loads of enemies using environmental objects, and to solve environmental puzzles. There are some on-rails interludes, which are not a high point, along with an escalating series of bosses, which are.
The Swarm make great enemies, thanks to their wildly varying forms, from the unarmed but fast and elusive Juvies (which force you away from cover) to the Pouncers, which will swallow you and transport you in their stomachs if you let them get too close, at which point you’re helpless until a colleague shoots you out of confinement. The single-player campaign can be played co-operatively by up to four people, although in solo mode, the AI controls your team-mates impressively.
Gears of War 4’s campaign isn’t that long at nine to ten hours, but it avoids any hint of monotony and, to a large extent, the grating Americanised vibe that prevailed in previous titles. It retains classic Gears of War techniques like the roadie run, the familiar arsenal of weaponry while introducing new strategies to dispatch the different enemies (although you still have to pump them full of unfeasible quantities of lead).
All of which stands you in good stead for the main aspect of the game: its multiplayer. Versus contains a vast number of modes, including all the best ones from Gears games of yore: Warzone, Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Guardian. A new game type called Dodgeball places a premium on respawning: every time you get a kill, one of your team-mates, previously consigned to a queue, is allowed to respawn. You’ll either love or hate Arms Race, which changes your entire team’s weapon every three kills. The objective-based Escalation mode clearly has e-sports in mind, and is only for the hardcore.
Gears of War 4’s Versus multiplayer is slick, fast, exhilarating and, crucially, can accommodate players of all abilities. There’s a progression system which operates across the Horde mode as well, and you can earn or buy Gears Packs containing cards that offer perks in Horde and some cosmetic accessories in Versus multiplay.
After giving it a big upgrade, The Coalition has decided to rename Gears of War 4’s survival mode, in which you see how many waves of enemies you can withstand, Horde 3.0. Its biggest change is triggered by the advent of Fabricators, which let you defend your chosen area with turrets, fences and decoys; killing enemies earns you the currency to build more defences. Horde 3.0 is incredibly addictive, but has one drawback: you now have to decide which class to play as, and if you choose the wrong one, you can be saddled with rubbish DeeBee weapons. The game should point that out more carefully, but it’s a mistake you’ll only make once.
Even though its core gameplay is wisely unaltered, The Coalition’s efforts have really freshened up Gears of War 4. The franchise has climbed back onto the throne it once occupied as king of the third-person cover-shooters, and if you're a fan of the genre, it’s an absolute must-buy, as it raises the bar once more. With Playstation VR currently grabbing the headlines, Gears Of War 4 is one source of bragging rights Xbox One owners can claim with confidence this Christmas.