True to the franchise that spawned it, Gears of War 4 is a shooter defined by the utility of clutter. Wooden boxes splinter, rock faces crumble, and glass windows shatter from the ceaseless volleys of shells, rounds, and grenades that you, the player, are taking cover from. There you sit, crouched behind the debris, tracing the movement of your sub-reptilian enemies, waiting for the briefest respite. And when it finally comes, you stand up and reduce them to mincemeat – provided they don’t do it to you first.
When the blueprint is laid that bare, it might not seem like much. But, like most video game innovations, the strength of it resides not in its conception, but in the sheer adroitness of its execution: the perfect slam of your hulking hero sliding his back into a sandbag, the ka-chick of the clip entering the rifle in a flawlessly-timed “active reload,” the wordless yaa that escapes from his lips as he dodge-rolls away from a screaming rocket. The two numbered sequels that followed the series’ audacious 2006 debut managed to refine the formula, if only nominally – a “meatshield” here, a couple new guns there – par for the big-budget course.
But that was all years ago. The series’ familiar foes, the Locust, are dead and gone, blown to hell and back by a doomsday device straight out of Lex Luther’s playbook. Legions of disparate titles have aped the series’ signature cover system, including the world-beating Grand Theft Auto V. Marcus Fenix’s wall-cowering days seem to be behind him. Yet now, half-a-decade later, lead by an unproven studio dubbed The Coalition, Gears 4 lumbers onto the fore, lever-action shotgun in hand, ready to raze the planet all over again.
Given all this still-fresh history, it isn’t all that surprising that Gears 4 adopts the airs of the unapologetic throwback. Like most pseudo-reboots, it trafficks unapologetically in nostalgia for a barely-bygone age, cashing in on latent goodwill that the name conjures in the mind of the core audience. This is perhaps best embodied by the campaign’s opening prologue, in which you control various anonymous moribund soldiers as you experience firsthand the violent (and arguably irrelevant) history of the series’ fictional world, Sera. Soon after that, you find yourself donning the too-hefty boots of J.D. Fenix, Marcus’s son, who resembles exactly in both speech and manner a version of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake who decided become a piece of corrugated man-meat instead of a treasure hunter.
For a time, the Coalition endeavors to make the 25 years between Gears 3 and 4 mean something. The youthful spunkiness of J.D.’s crew of “Outsider” bandits contrasts nicely with Marcus’s old growling band of calcified curmudgeons, and you spend the first few levels of the game (or “acts,” as the game terms them, in yet another emblem of its self-seriousness) battling cybernetic agents of the vaguely-defined crypto-fascist government that has sprouted up in the interim. But once another suspiciously-familiar race of sub-reptilian beings rear their ugly heads near the game’s midpoint, it goes back into the familiar “mantle, cover, shoot” routine that the series has staked its name on from its inception.
The sense of familiarity extends to Coalition’s approach to enemy and weapon design – one gets the sense that they aimed to first do no harm. Where previous games featured a few distinct boss encounters of varying quality, this entry opts for a handful of better-crafted “Swarm” monstrosities that pull quintuple-duty throughout the campaign. These include the agile “Pouncer,” who fires massive quills and tackles your compatriots, and the gargantuan “Carrier,” who launches ghastly missiles from his chest and pounds your armor into dust. The new weapons that you blast these creatures with all display the series’ trademark sense of gleeful, creative violence, but only the mounted sawblade launcher lingers in the memory for long, and scarce ammo ensures that even the most adept player will be relying on the series’ signature chainsaw-equipped Lancer rifle for most firefights. This same attitude applies to the multiplayer – while fans will surely find themselves giddy with the details, for the rest of us it’s simply more flavors of the same chaotic squad-on-squad wall-hugging that you’d expect.
When Marcus dons his dubiously-iconic do-rag once again, the music swells, as if to highlight a moment of supreme badassery.
In carrying so much of its series’ tradition forward, Gears 4 has also unwittingly adopted the series’ checkbox mentality, a spreadsheet of features expanding forever outward. Of course, blame for this shouldn’t necessarily be placed solely at the feet of the Coalition. As a so-called triple-A games series, progress in Gears of War was always expected to be methodical, a sluggish climb up a shallow curve. But even by those standards, Gears always felt particularly iterative, not only in design, but in a mathematical sense – raw numbers climbing upward, slowly but surely. It reflects a theory of quality that is strictly quantitative, with inputs like X new maps, Y new guns, a campaign that is Z hours long. And the expected output, of course, was a favorable reception: a 10 out of 10, if you will.
While this slightly-retrograde philosophy might doom a less earnest project, for Gears 4, it’s merely part of the appeal. It’s a tacky but thoroughly pleasant reminder of what we remember as simpler times, back when a game could just be about cover-based shooting, when developers felt that dumping millions into baroque campaigns of love, loss, and headshots seemed to make some sort of sense. Gears 4 grants emblems of this period an almost totemic magnitude, almost to the point of kitsch. When Marcus dons his dubiously-iconic do-rag once again, the music swells, as if to highlight a moment of supreme badassery.
Perhaps this is the unavoidable fate of the aging tentpole franchise – to stumble into its middle years with artless bravado; to continue checking the same boxes again and again; to know no rest until there is no goodwill left to pump. For Gears‘ part, it was nice to see Marcus put on that do-rag again, to wade through another thousand corridors of clutter to try to save the world.
But Gears isn’t top dog anymore; and one must wonder if it can settle for being the best representative of a noble, but dying breed.
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