In Gears of War 4 you live from guitar riff to guitar riff. Life is lived in between the twitch moments. Under heavy fire and a wall slowly crumbling in front of you…do you have the reflexes to reload, move from cover and eliminate the immediate swarm threat? This game shines in these moments, but it always has. The Gears series can be considered the gold standard of third-person action games. This series ‘invented’ the cover based mechanic you see in many popular games today. Gears is one of the sole games that truly pays attention to the environment. It’s a game that wants you to feel the action. However, it’s the moments in between the action that fail to live up to the expectations set forth by the early action sequences, and quickly become the focal point for this discussion.
A Return to Formb- Good and Bad
Gears of War 4 is a what most people would call a return to form. It takes everything that worked with the previous Gears entries and brings it forward to the next generation. From the cover mechanics to the roadie run, everything that you liked about Gears is here in Gears 4. Cast favorites from the original game make a quick appearance and Marcus is asked to bring new fans into the fold while allowing his son and his friends, (JD..,..) to find their own footing and establish themselves as the forerunners for the story going forward.
The problem however, is that Gears has yet to find a formula for action AND story telling.
Gears has always been an action game first, with story filling in the gaps. Which might have worked back in the day, but becomes a glaring omission today. Levels are perfectly designed for combat. Cover is placed strategically, giving you options for how to dispatch a swarm horde. But when the fighting is over, you’re left with four people who don’t know what to do with themselves. Conversations that are supposed to build a connection between player and character happen off screen. These interactions rarely happen face to face, unless it’s a cutscene. The fate of these characters never has the depth that the game wants. Moments of peril aren’t “oh shit” moments but “oh okay..yeah” moments. You are essentially shuffled from one shooting gallery to the next, with a cutscene stapled here and there to break up monotony.
The Problem With Shoot ‘Em Ups
Gears 4 reminds me of one of my favorite games, Streets of Rage 2. A classic beat ‘em up whose main gripe is the repetition. You start a level, moving left to right, beating up every enemy that’s in your way. Sure there might be a new enemy type to deal with, or some type of environmental danger, but the cycle is the same. Clear a level, move to a new level…rinse and repeat. Gears 4 follows this pattern of shooting gallery to shooting gallery and the most frustrating part is that the game doesn’t have to be like this. Had the team behind Gears put more effort into the transitions between moments of action, I think we would have a perfect gaming blockbuster. Sadly, that game doesn’t exist.
My gripe–Gears has less to do with the actual shooting and killing of the swarm than it does its sole focus of only killing the swarm. Playing through the game solo, I could see where human interaction could add to one’s enjoyment of the missions. The game stresses teamwork and while the AI is pretty good, it’s no replacement for a human companion and it definitely shows during key moments in the game. As much as I like the AI, there were times when a character would ignore my cries for revival, ending with a chainsaw in my chest and having to restart the checkpoint. A key boss battle that requires four player teamwork leaves me carrying the entire load plus some. Even with the extra work, I never felt overly worked. In fact, it made the guitar riff that follows the completion of a checkpoint even more enjoyable.
Gears of 4 War is a great action game. It has everything one would want from a cover based shooter. But the older I get the more important a game’s holistic experience becomes. Gears 4 is lopsided, but for many that’s okay. The gameplay is there. The game feels like those that came before it, and fans of the series will feel at home with the latest entry, but for me that’s not enough. I want action and story. I want an experience that takes everything into account. And while I enjoyed my time shooting, covering and reloading I knew early on that I didn’t want to spend my time living guitar riff to guitar riff. Because like life, some of the most important things happen between those guitar riffs.