On Sera, the Earth-like setting for the Gears of War franchise, everything wants to kill you. The most pressing threat comes from the COG, remnants of the militaristic government player-protagonist Marcus Fenix served in the first three games. Without an existential threat distracting them in Gears of War 4, they’ve gone from kinda fascist to totally fascist, and from the start they’re on your tail. And that’s just the problem on the ground. Overhead, unrelenting lightning storms buffet the planet so violently it tears villages apart. More frightening horrors await underground.
Gears of War 4 has the unenviable job of following a trilogy of war epics. They featured grim, sprawling battles against the Locust, a seemingly infinite horde of monsters from the bowels of Sera, a sort of martial rebellion from an over-industrialized planet on the brink of destruction. As Fenix, a growling musclebound soldier, you managed to stop them. Just barely. Twenty-five years later Sera remains a disaster area populated by a precious few humans, half-abandoned and left to rust.
In a situation like this, you can’t immediately jump into telling another sprawling war story. That would feel dishonest, and, frankly, repetitive. Nor can the franchise’s new developers, The Coalition, offer an entirely different kind of story. There are fan expectations to reckon with, and Sera is so well defined—its crumbling cities, its brown and gray palette mixed with the ludicrous, hyper-realistic gore that practically birthed the last console generation—that it doesn’t lend itself to narrative innovation.
Gears of War 4 Might Feel Familiar, But It’s Still Refreshing
Gears of War 4 features a surprisingly emotive and often funny story amidst its grim setting, and the gunplay is as terrific as it’s always been. Old man Marcus Fenix is the best.
The new protagonist, JD Fenix, has all the personality of a wooden plank. Some of the level design is lacking, and encounters mid-game get repetitive.
Instead, Gears of War 4 must traverse the narrow line between complacency and innovation. It succeeds to a surprising degree. Gears of War 4 feels like a series refreshed, with a new, lighter tone orbiting the fundamental realities that always aligned the Gears cosmos. These realities are twofold: first, family and human connections are vital and sustaining, even in a world where everyone wears armor the size of a car; second, everything really is trying to kill you, which is why the guns have chainsaws on them.
The game’s most accomplished transformations are tonal and narrative. The earlier installments developed by Epic Games featured stories as complex as anything in blockbuster gaming, but bombast and grim brutality overshadowed their occasional depth and bursts of emotional resonance. Gears 4 remains just as brutal, but lighter and friendlier. It possesses a newfound affection for bright, earthy colors. Sera remains a sad, cruel world, but with a more quiet sort of mourning. Gears 4 feels almost autumnal: Sera is decaying after a long summer of war. It even offers a touch of slapstick emerging from the inherent silliness of a place where everyone believes the best solution to any problem involves explosions and chainsaws.
Within that framing, Gears 4 endeavors to tell a more intimate story. Mysterious insectoid terrors calls The Swarm kidnap people. The heroes set out to find them, beset by the COG, which inexplicably blames them for the disappearances.
The heros are young and almost optimistic. JD Fenix, whose father Marcus who won the war against the Locust, rebels against the COG with his friend Del and Kait, an ally from a community in the wilderness. Kait is a vivid, refreshing character, a strong, emotionally complex woman who dominates the narrative spotlight by sheer force of personality. Her mother is among the missing, and Kait’s journey to save someone she loves provides emotional grounding for much of the story. JD is the most disappointing character. His swashbuckling heroics are so cliche that in a better world, or game, he would have been cut entirely, with Kait taking on the part of Marcus’s daughter instead. There’s a great potential for conflict in a character trying to fill the hero’s shoes, but JD is so lacking in charisma that it’s completely lost on him.
The lightness of Gears 4 ends at the surface. Beneath, where the Locust once teemed and the Swarm now emerge, the bloody heart of combat and gore remains largely unchanged. It’s a simple, familiar rhythm of carnage. From a third-person perspective, you take cover, shoot, and flank whole armies worth of aggressors. Each battlefield is a mess of broken pillars, abandoned vehicles, and other objects that provide useful cover and the opportunity to plan maneuvers and modulate the range and tempo of each fight. Some encounters, particularly in the game’s second half, feel inspired and dynamic, but others drag and blur together. A shooter lives and dies based on the terrain of its battlefields, and the level design here is simply too conservative. It feels like Gears of War has always felt, and it crescendos into an oddly melancholic repetition. I enjoyed my time in the trenches, but I felt numbed by the onslaught. I haven’t spent much time with the cooperative or competitive multiplayer modes, as it’s still pre-release, but I imagine the rhythms there will be as comfortable and gory—and likely as repetitive—as the single-player offering.
Late in the game, one old character, a survivor of the Locust War, tells another that he almost misses killing monsters and living at the brink of a grisly death. “I know what you mean,” the other fellow replies as he surveys the corpses you’ve left in your wake.
The fourth installment of Gears of War tells a lighter, more personal tale, but it always returns to the defiant thrill of survival. The silence of the music cutting out and the guns going quiet after the end of a terrible battle. The deep breath. It’s what the old character here is getting at, I think. In a place like Sera, where everything wants to kill you, the opportunity to fight—and win—is a blessing. I missed it, too.