I hate Scions. I mean, I super-seriously-4.0 hate Scions. I hate Scions with Dropshots the most. Those are the worst. And, oh. OH. Two of them at the same time. I’m so dead. I’m so dead. I’m so dead. Aaaand, I’m dead.
I miss Berserkers.
It’s been 25 years since Delta Squad’s big day out in Azura. [SPOILERS] That’s the one when Locust queen Myrrah and her supercharged beetle-beast vomited molten lava all over the town hotel’s pool deck, and Marcus Fenix’s dad went Lambent, and the Countermeasure machine nuked all the Imulsion and the bad guys, and Dom’s knife that you’d totally forgotten about suddenly reappeared and wreaked its bloody vengeance for Mariaaaaaaaaa, and everybody lived happily ever after [/SPOILERS].
Now, Sera is recovering from decades of environmental catastrophe and civil war. Sort of. You know the thing how fixing one thing can break a bunch of other things? That thing. The weather has become increasingly volatile, the reassembled Coalition of Ordered Governments is goose-stepping on the brink of fascism, and “happily ever after” was cancelled.
And something else is slippy-slithering out of the dark.
OMINOUS MINOR KEY SHIFT.
This is The Coalition’s first proper Gears of War game. Okay, they also did the recent Gears of War: Ultimate Edition but that doesn’t count because it’s a remaster of the original and not their own. With 45 million sales and a $1 billion franchise legacy to live up to, that’s got to be some kind of intimidating. So, how’d it turn out?
After a nostalgic playable prologue sequence that’s also a convenient Stuff You Need to Know about Stuff that Happened and Other Stuff primer for new players, Gears of War 4 drops into a somewhat ponderous introduction to the game’s characters and setting. I don’t know if it’s the unprecedented abundance of actual, real colours, and structures that aren’t scorched heaps of rubble or what, but the whole first act feels… different. Not bad-different. Just, like, different-different, and definitely a significant divergence from a series that basically defined the brownpocalypse. New protagonist J.D. Fenix and his chums Del Walker and Kait Diaz don’t exude Delta Squad’s ludicrously over-compensating masculinity, but then, they’re not Delta Squad so maybe that’s the point.
Things really dial it up at the end of the first act, though, with the – ahem – emergence of a new enemy, the Swarm. You already know that I hate Scions, and I’m not even going to start about Carriers, Pouncers, and Snatchers, but I won’t tell you anything else about these guys except that they’re a much more formidable adversary than the Locust ever were. Playing in Hardcore difficulty, the AI is clever, unrelenting, and brutally efficient with its weapon handling, and flashpoint engagements are necessarily much more tactical than previous games. On Insane difficulty, I couldn’t even finish the prologue. Fine, whatever, I suck. Much like Gears of War 3, there’s no down but not out state in Insane, and most weapons will insta-kill you with one or two hits. You’ll suck too.
And once the game gets going, it gets going. Exploding from one plot point to the next, Gears of War 4 is a series of increasingly, outrageously ridiculous scenarios and set pieces, culminating in – wait, no, I won’t spoil it, but it’s amazing. And in between, there’s a mutant Brumak and a high speed pursuit on armoured motorbikes and lightning storms and swearing and a whole lot of wet gibs. What a trip.
Elsewhere, the game’s consistently brilliant co-op Horde 3.0 mode serves up the same wave-based mayhem as previous iterations, but with some interesting innovations. Players now choose one of five classes – Soldier, Scout, Heavy, Sniper, and Engineer – each with its own skills and bonuses to level up. Fortifications can also be placed anywhere on the map, and even moved around, and every non-heavy weapon can be refilled with an ammo crate. Including Boomshots, glory be. Balancing that out, however, Horde is now really hard, and everybody is going to die. Hilariously.
[Because I got a pre-release copy of the game, online matchmaking was a bust so I’m not officially including versus multiplayer impressions in this review. I have clocked about three hours playing versus multiplayer in private games with other local press people, though, and despite using dedicated servers in Europe, the connection has been very decent with almost no discernible lag. NICE.]