(This post mentions some late-game details for Gears of War 4. Just a heads-up.)
Ten years ago, if you were to ask me which of Microsoft’s two flagship gaming franchises would better stand the test of time — the space-marine first-person shooter Halo, or the gritty, cover-based Gears of War — the choice would have been obvious: Halo, by a country mile. Gears, as fun as it was to play, as influential as it would become, was an overly macho game for dudebros whose entire modus operandi was best summed up by its flagship weapon: an assault rifle combined with a chainsaw. You didn’t just kill your enemies, you dismembered them.
The signature Gears execution was the curb stomp, a gleeful reference to the excruciating scene from American History X. The series’s soul-patched protagonist, Marcus Fenix, bears a striking resemblance to the lead singer of Smash Mouth. Even the franchise’s steward — a frosted-tipped bad boy by the name of Cliffy B — signaled an instantly dated game aimed at pop-punk teens and hardcore gamers disenchanted with the world. (Full disclosure: I was one of those teens, and when I went to buy the first Gears of War game in 2006, the clerk at FuncoLand had to read the ESRB’s “Mature” rating — “Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language” — to my mom before he sold it to me.)
The subsequent Gears games mainly coasted on the strength of the first, which was built on a rock-solid game-play loop known as “stop-and-pop,” an inversion of Halo’s run-and-gun which required players to hunker down behind cover and intermittently peek out to squeeze off a few rounds. The series had bright spots — fighting through the internal cavities of a giant worm stands out — but by the time series nadir Gears of War: Judgment rolled around at the start of 2013, the chainsaws and gibbing felt rote. It didn’t help that Judgment’s protagonist was the franchise’s worst supporting character, Damon Baird.
So it was surprising that in 2016, I ended up enjoying Gears of War 4. A lot. Definitely far more than I enjoyed last year’s Halo 5: Guardians, which came across as sterile and lifeless.
The spec bump from the Xbox One has done wonders for Gears, a series that until now had trafficked exclusively in shades of brown and crimson. Environments — including a history museum, a robotic settlement under construction, and a never-ending mine shaft — pop with color and detail. One particularly inventive scenario has you taking cover behind malfunctioning machinery that intermittently disappears, forcing you into the open. Occasional, predetermined wind storms add a dose of physics-based fun to the proceedings as debris smashes around the screen pulverizing enemies.
But what I appreciated most was that, having taken some time off to reassess, the series is now ready to stop taking itself seriously. Part of that might be that the franchise is now developed in-house at Microsoft, rather than by its former third-party developer Epic Games. Gears was always B-tier sci-fi, but there’s now a goofy self-awareness to the proceedings. There is a faint whiff of slapstick that was absent from previous iterations.
There are touches throughout that are so stupid and laughable that they have to be intentional. When new protagonist JD Fenix is reunited with Marcus, his dad, JD solemnly hands Marcus his old do-rag. (Gears of War 3 ended with Marcus finally removing his bandanna after having it on for the entire trilogy.) The pageantry of Marcus putting on his old, crappy bandanna 25 years later is a solid wink. A late-game level that has the player piloting mechs veers into gleefully stupid territory once the game informs the player that — despite being in an enormous walking robot that shoots saw blades like bullets — they still need to take cover behind buildings, just as they would on foot.
And there’s a slight nostalgia to the proceedings, with a handful of well-liked characters from previous games showing up to lend a hand. Also included is the dreaded Baird, who in his old age has been stripped bald like Mr. Clean and given a disgusting goatee. It is a character redesign so comically heinous that I can only assume those who created it hate Baird as much as the game’s audience does.
Gears of War 4 is not without its faults. The campaign has some instances of poor checkpoint spacing, and when played solo, enemies aggro to the player character in very transparent ways. After one match, I already know that I probably won’t spend much time with the game’s versus multiplayer component. None of the new weapons in the game stands out, but some credit goes to developer the Coalition for refusing to rest on series laurels. The classic Gears power weapon, the Hammer of Dawn, which calls down a gigantic laser from space, is used once in the game’s first 20 minutes and then never seen again.
Did we need another Gears of War game? Absolutely not. But it’s a pleasant surprise to find that a series which began as the unholy result of a lab accident involving Sum 41, Bawls energy drink, and the Saw movies is capable of slight growth and self-awareness.