When it debuted on the Xbox 360 in 2006, “Gears of War” was a sensory marvel. Its run-down world where humans squared off against barbaric aliens was not, as it is now, one of so many dystopian playgrounds filled with burnt-out cars and derelict buildings. There was a griminess to it, accentuated by the game’s desaturated color palette, that gave it a look that would be much imitated. (“Fallout 3’s” super mutants, for example, always struck me as walk-ons from the “Gears” universe.)
From the start, “Gears of War” set itself apart from so-called run and gun games. Up to that point most shooters were built around strafing — moving from side to side to make your avatar a difficult target. “Gears,” on the other hand, stressed what its developers called a “stop-and-pop” approach to shooting whereby players ducked in and out of cover clamoring for tactical ground.
For those of us who, at that time, were accustomed to playing shooters like “Quake,” “Gears’” third-person mechanics added an expressive physicality to its avatars. Characters didn’t so much as scurry behind walls and barricades as throw themselves against them like athletes. (The game trumpeted its own analogy with football by making one of its soldiers a talkative ex- player.) Moreover, when characters leapt over obstacles you could sense the weight of their equipment bearing down on the velocity of their movements. These details contrasted favorably with many first-person shooters where players glide around environments like floating cameras.
And then there was the violence. “Gears” did for shooters what “Mortal Kombat” did for fighting games –shamelessly cater to the gore-hounds in its audience. I’m not into horror movies since I tend to over-empathize with the actors on screen, but depictions of violence against polygonal characters don’t rattle me in the same way. In “Gears,” chainsawing an opponent or reducing one to meaty bits with a shotgun blast always struck me as more outlandish than revolting.
If you’ve played any of the previous games, it should be an easy jump right into “Gears of War 4.” Its new campaign picks up a quarter century after the events of “Gears of War 3.” The game focuses on a new band of heroes, two of whom are former soldiers who defected from the COG, the coalition of governments, in order to be free of its totalitarian bureaucracy. We’re introduced to them while they are attempting to steal a “fabricator,” a device for making weapons, from a COG facility. The goal of these would-be Robin Hoods is to aid a group of outsiders who took in the AWOL soldiers.
Their plan hits a snag when they run into robot sentries guarding the base. My friend and I — another longtime fan of the series — found these early skirmishes underwhelming. The robots and our smack-talking protagonists reminded us too much of “Borderlands.” Yet we needn’t have worried over whether Microsoft’s new development team, The Coalition (which took over the development of the series after Epic Games sold the rights), had decided to push the game in a more overt lighthearted direction. After you return to the outsiders’ village, it’s attacked by unknown aliens who lay waste to it but not before the mother of one of your squad members locks your group in a building for its own protection.
Your journey to help a teammate find out what happened to her mother takes you into territory that looks increasingly like living viscera. Playing the game on the second-highest difficulty, “Hardcore,” I was treated to plenty of firefights that left my palms sweaty. It’s a forgone conclusion that I’ll play through the campaign again, with another friend, on the highest difficulty level, “Insane.” Although I did encounter a number of technical issues — framerate slowdowns in the campaign and lag in multiplayer matches — the mechanics are so well polished, and the enemy encounters so well choreographed that I can’t wait to revel in the experience with as many friends as possible.
I’m also looking forward to sneaking more time in with “Gears of War 4’s” multiplayer modes. As much as I’m drawn to Horde — an old staple of the series, where players work together to repel waves of increasingly difficult enemies — newer modes like Dodgeball and Arms Race also have caught my attention. The former encourages a series of power plays since downed teammates don’t respawn unless players on the opposing team get knocked out, while the latter is an exercise in chaos in which your weapons are constantly changing, making it difficult to settle into a rhythm when you never know if your next firearm will be a short, medium or long-range weapon.
Sorry all of you “Pokemon Go” players, “Gears of War 4” is my social game of the season.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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