With a 6.9 Metacritic user average, Gears of War 4 isn’t a fan favorite. Different consumers have different reasons for disliking it, but its campaign was the worst offender. Regardless of its launch status, it’s now a fully featured multiplayer game with thirty-four maps. Horde 3.0 is arguably the series’ best, but there’s less room to argue against how poorly The Coalition handled Gears of War 4‘s campaign. If Gears of War 5 wants to honor the series’ legacy, it needs to learn from its predecessor.
Taking Steps Back
After Gears of War 3 and Judgment‘s full four-player co-op, Gears 4 reverts back to two players. As a minor change, it signals The Coalition’s first and least egregious mistake. While Gears of War in its heyday was the most played Xbox Live title, the series never skimped out on its campaign. They were the full package: Compelling single-player/co-op experiences with dedicated online communities. Gears of War 4 is lopsided. The multiplayer and Horde mode offerings are great, but the campaign feels like it was surgically attached later in development.
Where to Begin?
Narratively, four-player co-op may have been a bit too much to ask for. Regardless, however, every campaign section except for one scenario featured Kait, JD, and Del. The Coalition could have at least incorporated three player co-op at the minimum, but apparently that was too much. The Coalition would rather play it safe than design inventive co-operative set pieces centered around three players. A stern two-player limit makes the development team’s job easier.
Aside from the butchered co-op, Gears of War 4‘s main concern is its pacing and combat design. The entire first two acts out of this five-act game exclusively feature robots as enemies. This makes sense within the story’s context, but it doesn’t make it any less stale to play through. Think back to the most satisfying parts of the older games.
- Pulling off headshots with the longshot or boltok
- Gibbing a locust with a gnasher or sawed-off
- Chainsawing through a locust, watching the blood splatter on-screen
- Goring locust with a well-placed torque bow shot
- Weapon-specific executions
Gears of War 5 Needs to Ditch Robots
None of this carries impact against robots. Killing locust in creative and violent ways felt so good because of the combination of their reactions, blood, and gore. Pieces of machinery don’t splatter blood. They don’t leave behind fleshy, gooey entrails. They don’t react the same to gunfire and explosions. Several factors influence how it feels for a player to engage with a game’s combat systems. These include:
- Visual cues
- Sound design
In addition to the tightly refined core shooting mechanics, Gears of War felt good because the locust were interesting adversaries. Gears of War 2, 3, and Judgment continued to introduce new locust varieties, enhancing combat’s potential. After overcoming waves of enemies, finishing encounters with sprays of blood and gore served as intensely gratifying book-ends to these arena fights. Unfortunately, the visual cues, sound design, and animations against that machinery don’t heighten combat in the same way they heighten fights against a berserker or theron guard in the older games.
It’s Not All Bad
To be clear, Gears of War 4‘s campaign does get better as its third act rolls around. By the time it introduces the swarm, this game’s replacement for the locust, combat improves. If Gears of War 5 has any hopes of cementing the franchise’s legacy in a similar fashion to the original trilogy, it needs to ditch those robots.
By the end of the fourth act, players are consistently introduced to the different swarm enemy types. Some are literal copy and pastes of their locust equivalent with a different appearance, such as the standard drone/grunt types, whereas others are variations on existing locust. The trackers(yes, they are robots), this game’s replacement for the tickers, leave behind an area of effect shock after being killed that lasts a few seconds. Tickers, on the other hand, exploded and that was it. Beyond these variations, Gears of War 4 also introduces entirely new enemies to the mix such as the pouncers and snatchers.
Pouncers and snatchers are some of the most fun to fight because they force mobility. Gears of War is at its best when players are fearing for their lives. Pouncers hop all over the place, launching projectiles and pouncing onto players. Snatchers are four-legged freaks that can swallow a player whole, giving the team a small window of time to save their comrade.
Exciting combat scenarios were so few and far between in the campaign. The Coalition tried to mix things up slightly with intensive weather effects. Lightning rains down, serving as an obstacle from point a to point b while wind impacts movement and grenade throws. They’re interesting ideas on paper, but I can count how often they occurred on one hand. A stronger commitment to weather could have gone a long way in some of Gears of War 4‘s most hectic fights.
One can only imagine a wind flare going off in a courtyard as players contend with juvies and pouncers. Horde 3.0’s biggest strength over the campaign is its disconnect from any narrative nonsense. This allows a healthy mix between the robots and swarm, forcing varied approaches as the wave count increases. The campaign only mixed robots and the swarm in one instance; A missed opportunity.
Gears of War 4 is far from a bad game. Longtime fans will most likely love the multiplayer and horde mode as I did, but that campaign needs massive retooling. Its new cast lacks the old games’ wit and charm while nearly 40% of its campaign is a straight dumpster fire filled with boring firefights. If The Coalition wants to step it up, they need to reexamine their approach to campaign combat and level design. Give us more swarm varieties, more set-pieces, more interesting environmental hazards, and more writing on the level of “Ah shit. They’re gonna mess up my fucking tomatoes!”