Though it might just be “miserable old man” syndrome setting in, I think the Xbox 360 launch may be the last exciting console debut that I can remember, and probably the last one ever given how half assed, homogenized and sanitized the home console gaming industry has become. The 360 launch window had something for everybody: A Perfect Dark sequel for the mainstream blockbuster crowd, Dead or Alive and Ridge Racer for the weird asshole japanophiles (raises hand), Dead Rising for those somewhere in the middle, and the promise of something brand new and exciting on the horizon that seemed to be on everyone’s lips.
Halo 3 was still pretty far away at that point, but an all new shooter IP, more sinister and foreboding, was gurgling just beneath the surface, a gritty, hardcore “Mortal Kombat” to Halo’s more prestigious and staid “Street Fighter”. Add in that the team behind this potential world beater made it perfectly clear the 3rd person, over the shoulder influence that they had taken from the almighty Resident Evil 4 (which was and still is my favorite game of all time), and Gears of War pretty much had my full and undivided attention from the outset.
Gears had a weighty, tactile feel that was the perfect antidote to the inherent floaty-ness that always prevented me from connecting with Halo (and still keeps me far away from Destiny) and it’s horror bonafides were laid bare right in the production design of its signature weaponry, a machine gun with a chainsaw on the end of it, perfect for erupting gobs of arterial spray all over the screen and grossing out anyone else in the room, all lovingly rendered with the power of the then shiny new Xbox 360.
Though thoroughly enjoying that first Gears experience, I never felt the need to jump into any of the sequels or offshoots, busy as I was with the 360, PS3 and Wii’s near constant stream of fighting games, retro throwback downloadable titles and actual rereleased and remastered classics. But as the release of Gears of War 4 on Xbox One approached I began to buy into the hype, and decided I’d be once again jumping Lancer first into the post-apocalyptic hellscape of Sera to see what all the grisly fuss was about.
The fact that Marcus shares his voice actor with Futurama’s Bender continues to make him a little hard to take seriously.
Being an incredibly lapsed fan of the series, I’m less susceptible to the franchise fatigue that many have bemoaned in regard to number 4. Tenuous links to past installments, a somewhat questionable new/old menace in our heroes’ crosshairs, and less than noble aspirations towards story continuation all left some of the game’s target audience rolling their eyes. But for me only two things really mattered: did it look good and did it play well? The answer to both are an emphatic yes, though a small but troubling amount of the game’s technical wizardry seemed to burst at the seams on my vanilla Xbox One.
You’ll begin the game’s 8-ish hour story mode (the word “campaign” hurts my feelings) some 25 years after the Locust threat were seemingly wiped out for good, facing off against the robot soldiers employed by the reformed Coalition of Ordered Governments to keep what remains of humanity colonized and complacent. So yeah, robots here, government evil (Aren’t they all?), monsters gone. Or are they? By the time our ragtag bunch of freedom fighters, led by the son of former franchise poster boy Marcus Fenix, hook back up with daddy and uncover a new (Or is it?) threat against humanity deep underground, you’ll be having too much fun mowing down everything in sight to care much about the overarching plot.
Gears 4 definitely carries over that sensation of being a lumbering heavily armored badass, armed to the teeth, magnetically sticking behind cover to peek over and aim at foes both organic and artificial. Controls are as tight and smooth as ever, and there’s an almost never ending supply of hilariously violent ways to deal death to your adversaries (the buzzsaw shooter that called to mind the old pizza launcher toy from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a favorite) but I mostly stuck with the trusty Lancer.
Graphics are definitely showcase material, even on the stalwart launch model X-Bone. Textures from skin to steel to rock formations and lava, to foliage, grass and trees are lovingly executed. The characters’ mouths synch perfectly with the dialogue, clipping is at an absolute minimum and the framerate rarely dips below the locked 30 FPS in one player mode.
Now let’s all remember that time Megadeth made a Gears of War song and laugh about it. “Hello Marcus, meet the REAL Marcus!”
Online modes up the framerate to 60 FPS in the interest of keeping battles fast and fair, and though I tend to avoid that stuff at all costs (the stereotype of the 12 year old racist online troll exists for a reason), I appreciated the bits and pieces of the lauded Horde mode that were peppered throughout the solo adventure enough to perhaps even venture into those dangerous online waters to get some more of it.
The single player progression is varied enough to stand alone as its own presentation and still be well worth the price of admission though, unlike the typical glut of practically or genuinely online only (looking at you Titanfall 1 and Star Wars Battlefront) shooters. The “campaign” *shudder* avoids the typically brown/grey apocalyptic boredom that the series has been often criticized for by taking the player through robotic colonies under construction, the dilapidated Fenix estate, museums chronicling the humans’ hard fought victory against the Locust and abandoned ruins overflowing with lush, believable greenery, all while constantly looming “Windflares”, violent storms brought about by the environmentally careless means that man used to smite their enemies, threaten to tear the landscape apart in real time as our heroes attempt to traverse and battle across it.
The only downfall really is that the system’s performance sometimes can’t keep up with the carnage onscreen. I’ve read conflicting reports as to whether the overclocked processor on the new model Xbox One S corrects any of these issues but for those with the ability to do so, the PC version seems to be the way to go for the ultimate Gears 4 experience, which is kind of hilarious and sad given how many Xboxes the Gears franchise has sold over the years. The spooky exploration/big arena gun battle/repeat gameplay loop that this series is known for can grow tiresome as well, especially for those well versed in all 5 installments (a casual like myself, less so) but some big, fresh, unexpected ideas, especially near the endgame, had me genuinely surprised by the directions of popcorn action movie “so dumb it’s awesome”-ness that this game was willing to go in. Again, if only the framerate could keep up.
Even with those shortcomings though, and whether you’re brand new to Gears, and grizzled vet, or somewhere in the middle like me, Gears of War 4 is currently pretty much the only action horror shooter game in town, especially if you’ve already polished off Doom. You could say “It ain’t Shakespeare”, and you’d be absolutely right. Shakespeare never ripped an 8 foot tall lizard man to pieces with a machine gun mounted chainsaw, so fuck him anyway.