FBT tries to avoid hitting Marcus’ tomatoes.
Being an XBox series, Gears of War passed me by. But the recent remaster of the trail-blazing original is now on PC, and I took a punt. And punted it back. It wasn’t for me, it felt too similar to all the other trail-blazing games of the mid-00’s - yet Gears of War 4 caught my eye; it being on XBox for PC during my free trial might have had something to do with that, but when my trial ends, I’m buying it. Not from Microsoft Store though.
25 years ago, Marcus Fenix chainsawed his way through the last of The Locust Horde, an underground gang of human-mutants. Since then, Marcus had a son, lost a wife and became a recluse while the ‘Coalition of Ordered Governments’, a somewhat utilitarian state, has been busy building huge Mega City One style walled cities while so-called Outsiders, who rejected CoG’s rule survive in the ruins outside.
JD, Marcus’ son, and pal Del have deserted CoG and become for-hire scavengers, raiding factories for supplies the Outsiders need. But after defending an Outsider base from CoG who want their stuff back, a mysterious creature attacks, kidnapping everyone but JD, Del and Kait, an Outsider who’s mother ran the place. Suspecting the Horde has returned -and with CoG chasing them down- there’s only one man JD can trust...
Turns out Marcus’ wipe-out actually caused the Horde to go into a kind of chrysalis stage, and emerge as a new life form, The Swarm. They have a lot of variations, and the numbers. The main grunt is the Juvie, which we discover is a reconstituted human like the ones missing from the Outsider base and CoG towns. There’s some pretty freakish monstrosities like the Snatcher which can gather you up in its belly for cocooning but the rest are surprisingly solid enemies; I was expecting the usual shouty mutant beasts that zombie-style charge but Juvies aside, who race at you whooping like a gang of angry monkeys, those guys duck, cover, pick up weapons, behave tactically and shout unintelligible insults. One did a mantle over my cover and kicked me in the face; they’re not to be messed with.
There’s nothing startlingly original here, in fact the whole thing feels like Mass Effect 2; we’ve got outposts who are wary of a central government, missing colonists, Juvies for Husks, Robots, Collectors and clearly a larger force behind it all. That's not the only time this reminds you of something else. There’s huge storms that ravage the planet and send trash and rocks flying like the storms in Mad Max Fury Road, and then it goes Pacific Rim with us in giant robots battling equally giant mutants, while JD and the gang have a distinct Firefly vibe to them. But it doesn't feel derivative, just cool and cinematic.
G4 is effectively a 10-hour chase shooter as we try to reach Kait's Mom before she’s presumably turned into a Juvie - there’s just enough narrative (what The Swam are up to, COG’s paranoia about the Horde’s return, JD and Marcus’ alpha male estrangement, Kait’s story, nods to the previous trilogy) to keep you from skipping the cut-scenes and get a little invested in it all. Occasionally there’ll be a nice bit of business like using some Horde corpse with a catapult to knock out a turret, a storm to fight through or some spooky level to explore, but really it’s just ‘light ‘em up!’ and that’s great; I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed a bullets-everywhere throw-down shooter. It’s a thrill ride. It's like Bulletstorm without being awarded for hitting the Swarm in the ass.
Narratively, GoW4 largely serves to set up Gears 5 – in fact, this is less a reboot and more a preboot. Gear 5 is the main game, this is just the warm up and there’s some padding, like riding a bike while Marcus sits on the back which feels out of place, and some bits grate, like replicator units – it just tips you off to an old-school wave battle, the good old ‘keep them back while I open/close/hack/find/fix/break this’, that was getting old when the original came out. For much of the first third, we’re fight CoG’s robots – robots are never fun to fight, even in Mass Effect 2 but those guys sound like Robbie The Robot and make it feel a bit light and inconsequential. The levels are great, especially an early one where we fight out of Marcus’ house but robots just aren’t ever thrilling to put down. The real meat is The Swarm.
But JD’s ragtag gang keep things moving along; they have some great lines and moments like JD boldly claiming he can evade security bots then instantly getting rumbled, Del constantly misunderstanding irony, Kait the back-to-nature Outsider talking about windmills to the dumbfounded techie CoG boys, and the entire team demanding JD stop saying “All clear” because it never is. But the biggest laugh is Marcus losing his shit because we have a firefight in his greenhouse and keep hitting his prize tomatoes; “They fucked my tomatoes up, god damnit! Add that to the fuckin' list! ... fuck you guys!”
JD came in for a fair bit of flack on release; he’s no chip off the old block, but for me that’s a good thing. Instead of a constipated old timer, JD is cut from the Captain Reynolds cloth. Aware, heroic and as good with a one-liner as he is a Lancer, I think JD makes for a great lead, and while Del provides the comic relief and exposition, Kait provides the plot - while being as good at putting down Swarm as the lads. And Marcus works incredibly well as a sidekick; yelling, scowling and having no patience with those ‘kids’ and the daft names they come up for this new strain of Horde; it’s like having Duke or Doomguy as your wingman.
GoW4 knows we’ve been here before, and much like the Wolf reboot it meets that familiarity head-on by giving us a modern take on why we love old shooters. There’s some nice GoW throwbacks (I didn’t know the tomatoes thing is a call-back to GoW3 where Marcus f’up a friend’s tomatoes, which makes it even funnier), there’s path choices, areas that would be familiar to vets of the original trilogy, and tons of cameos by over-sized men I don’t know. Marcus does though, and keeps hugging and patting them. The machismo reaches almost homoerotic levels, like an 80s Arnie movie. Those guys have definitely done mid-air armwrestles.
GoW4 is a perfect reboot – it offers a new take but keeps the original’s tone intact, letting newbies like me get into it without getting flummoxed by references to the original trilogy that are there for the fans. It’s one of those games you knock out across an evening or two, not because it’s short but because it keeps the momentum up past your bedtime. To get the best out of it though, play it back to back with Gears 5; a lot of the plot threads are revealed there, giving this game even more depth on a replay. I can’t wait for Gears 6.