Xbox One
Highly Recommended
4 stars
Amazon
See Price
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Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Game Itself
4.5 Stars
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
4.5 Stars
The Audio: Rating the Sound
5 Stars
Replay Factor
5 Stars
Bonus Content
1.5 Stars
Bottom Line
Highly Recommended

Gears of War 4: Ultimate Edition (Digital)

Street Date:
October 7th, 2016
Reviewed by:
Review Date:1
October 6th, 2016
Game Release Year:
2016
Platform:
Xbox One
Publisher:
Microsoft Studios
Developer:
The Coalition
ESRB Rating:
M (Mature)

Editor's Notes

'Gears of War 4: Ultimate Edition' (digital) reviewed. Review was done using a standard Xbox One with some time spent with the Windows 10 version. The digital 'Ultimate Edition' includes early access (4 days early) to 'Gears of War 4' and the Season Pass among other digital content. Being a Play Anywhere title, the digital version nets the user access to both the Xbox One and Windows 10 versions, which are cross play for multiplayer. The HDR setting was not tested. Also not reviewed is the limited time inclusion of the previous four 'Gears of War' games which come as backwards compatible digital 360 titles. Some of the screenshots in this review have been provided by the publisher.

Introduction

The 'Gears of War' series debuted in 2006 on the Xbox 360 and was a massive success, spawning two sequels, a prequel, a remaster, and numerous novels and comic books. Microsoft retained the IP after the original developer Epic went their separate way, and then handed the keys over to The Coalition. The Coalition is a Canadian company wholly owned by Microsoft. It began life in 2010 as a Kinect-focused studio, but was shuttered and then resurrected to take over 'Gears'.

The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

Whenever a system-selling franchise turns to new developer, there is trepidation. And with 'Gears of War,' it's been years since the glory days of the 360 saw the franchise continually make its mark. So right off, 'Gears of War 4' faces an important question, "has the franchise made a triumphant return?"

Well after tearing through the campaign, I am happy to say that new developer or no, 'Gears of War' has returned.

'Gears of War 4' is set 25 years after the events of 'Gears of War 3'. The Locust War has ended and Marcus Fenix retired to a quieter life with his sweetheart Anya. They produced a child, JD, who would grow up to follow in his parents' footsteps and become a Gear. However, at some point prior to the events of 'Gears 4', JD deserted the COG and joined up with a band of stranded (now called "Outsiders"). He made friends with Del and Kait along the way, and when Kait's village is captured by a pack of glowing, violent aliens, the three set off in search of them.

Gears of War 4 publisher shot

I'm pleased to report that the shooting has evolved to a near-perfect level. The incremental enhancements to the roadie run, close-quarters cover, and enemy behavior come together to make a potent cocktail of brutality. The fights are juxtaposed with non-shooting segments occasionally to keep me on my toes, like dashing through a massive electrical storm or dodging through gulleys on a motorcycle.

Gears of War 4 Review

There are several new weapons and enemies similarly designed to subvert the mechanic of cover without displacing it, including the two stun moves showcased in the multiplayer beta earlier this year. Several Swarm enemies do not use guns but instead hop around the battlefield, shoving Gears out of cover if they stay still. It all translates into a smart level design that encouraged me to keep moving around the battlefield, using cover when necessary but also taking risks to expose and destroy the enemy.

Gears of War 4 Review

The Coalition recently stated that they would be remiss if they excluded the characters and storylines of previous 'Gears' titles. 'Gears 4' reminds me a lot of the first game, where I had no idea what to expect going into it. Some of the characters have returned, and of course the setting of Sera is familiar, but most of the storyline is a mystery. Even after finishing it, I still have a lot of questions, but I immediately want to begin another playthrough to glean every last morsel of info. I got to know JD, Del, and Kait along the way, but there are still a lot of gaps in their motivations and origins. Unlike the cookie cutter campaigns of many shooters, 'Gears 4' doesn't feel the need to give all of the answers all at once. Exposition is doled out slowly through each act, with the first two acts in particular being nearly opaque. I wished the pace of those acts had been a bit quicker, or perhaps expanded on the backstory of the main characters, but I was never bored. Of course, the search for answers is rarely ever tidy in the 'Gears' universe, and much the same is true here.

Gears of War 4 publisher shot

The pace of the narrative may be unpredictable, but the combat is relentless without being exhausting or dull. The enemies in the first two acts are composed almost completely of the robotic "DeeBees." They are slow and weak, even the advanced units, and only serve as an appetizer for combat against the Swarm. The Swarm come off as typically faster and stronger on an individual level than the Locust Horde. They also benefit from the enhanced AI that governs the player's NPC teammates. They flank and rush the player whenever possible, and usually do not let downed allies crawl around on the ground for too long before reviving them (which can also be exploited to flush them out of cover). I very much enjoyed using the new cover moves and weapons to poke holes in enemy formations, and frequently swapped weapons on the battlefield to play with the new toys instead of sticking with the gnasher/lancer combo like I usually do.

That NPC AI has some facepalm moments but is by and large better than we've seen in previous outings. At least one of my squadmates would stay close to me and quickly revive me if I fell, and would crawl right up to my own cover if they were downed. They quickly move out of the way if you want their cover spot. The only consistent pathing problem is when there's no cover at all - then the ally will move right in front of my crosshairs and block my shots instead of hanging back and being conservative. Usually there is plenty of cover to go around, so it's not game-breaking. Co-op campaign is still far more fun. 'Gears 4' only permits two-player co-op, but it can be done online or local split-screen, and even LAN.

Gears of War 4 publisher shot

It would not be a 'Gears' without some silly campaign set pieces. These are kept to a minimum this time around, but one boss fight in particular towards the end of the game was almost controller-throwingly bad. The explosion-heavy Michael Bay moments, like the motorcycle racing and mech combat, are more cool than gimmicky. As for the Swarm enemies, some of them are carbon copies of the Locust (drones) while others are alarming (juvies) and even disturbing (snatchers). The design is the right mix of familiar and strange - even an experienced 'Gears' fan is going to get some surprises.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

'Gears of War 4' is a looker on the Xbox One. (Even without HDR). Textures and environments are highly detailed, water and lighting effects are amazing, and the models are impressive. It carries on the excellent work we'd seen in the 'Gears of War' remake last year, and takes it even further. On the surface of Sera, the windflares and accompanying lightning blasts are thrilling. The art design for the Swarm is equally good, if a bit conventional (shoot the glowing spots). The crystalline, mutated Speaker in particular is superb.

In campaign the framerate is limited to 30fps but rarely deviates from that number. The 60fps is limited to multiplayer, which always remains steady unless lag is a factor. There is a large map selection at launch and they are all available for Horde as well. Some of the old maps, like Gridlock, are timeless classics but look better than ever.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

'Game of Thrones' composer Ramin Djawadi is responsible for the music and he takes the established soundtrack into darker, more ominous territory. The end result is very good. Similarly the sound design is equal parts old and new. The guitar riff and weapon noises are nostalgic, while the creepy menu music has been replaced with new and slightly less creepy menu music, and the screeches of the Swarm are less camp than the growly Locust. Voice acting is of an extremely high quality, especially Kait (Laura Bailey) and Oscar (Jimmy Smits).

Replay Factor

Gears of War 4 publisher shot

The campaign is of average length. Completing it solo on Hardcore took me exactly 8 and a half hours. In general it's a bit easier this go around because the NPCs are decent at reviving, and co-op with two competent humans will be easier yet. As usual there is the standard set of COG tags and collectibles, and plenty of Easter eggs for returning fans.

'Gears 4' features the first proper Horde mode since 2011's 'Gears 3', and it's about time. The fundamental format is the same: 50 waves, four difficulty levels to choose from, and a boss appearing on every 10th wave. There is a reworked leveling system to take advantage of the shiny new microtransaction store, made up of boosters and packs (all of which can be bought using in-game currency as well). Bounties act like the mission of the day from other games. Completing a certain amount of waves or other objectives grants bonus experience or credits.

This iteration of Horde has a class system, expanded from 'Judgment'. Players can choose to be a heavy, scout, soldier, engineer, or sniper. Each class has a different starter loadout matching its theme and can be further customized through the use of skills, chosen before the match begins. I prefer the scout class, which excels at moving around the battlefield and collecting energy. Energy powers the fabricator, a 3D printer places by the team at the beginning of the match. Energy is pooled collectively and any team member can cash in by buying fortifications and weapons from the fabricator. Unlike 'Gears 3', fortifications can be moved around and are not limited to static locations. The engineer specializes in building things, so as a scout I just deposit my energy when I can and leave the building to others.

Gears of War 4 Review

This is the most fun I've ever had with Horde, and I have played many, many hours over the last few 'Gears' titles. The emphasis on teamwork adds a new element of strategy and planning, but the lone wolves who just like to blow things up are still very useful. Furthermore, when a player dies they can be revived at the fabricator with their COG tags and some energy, so they don't have to sit out for the rest of the round anymore (unless the team is oblivious or poor).

The low server population in the pre-release window has prevented me from experiencing full human multiplayer, but 'Gears 4' includes a co-op versus mode. It can even be filled with all bots if you enjoy a thoroughly single-player experience in your multiplayer. The versus suite is a blast, with older favorites like king of the hill and execution joining new types like dodgeball and arms race. I have been spending a lot of time in arms race because of the variety in weapon types - there are 13 weapons and the team is forced to swap out every time they get 3 kills, so you won't be seeing yourself gibbed by the gnasher for the entire match. Just as I had mastered killing enemies with the Markza, we swapped out to the overkill shotgun or some such, which dramatically changes the dynamics of the match. Versus has loads of options for social, ranked, and competitive play, and a good selection of maps with more scheduled to arrive every month.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

As noted at the beginning, the 'Ultimate Edition' includes the season pass (at a $10 discount) and a few other bonuses. These include skins, emblems, and booster packs. The big draw for many players will probably be the four day early access, a value I will leave for you to decide. As for the season pass content that has already been announced, it consists of more emblems/boosters, permanent map access (for private matches only when those maps are not in the public rotation), and a Developer Playlist where new features can be tested prior to public consumption. In short, not worth $50 or even $40 unless actual content is included.

Microsoft's new Play Anywhere feature works like a charm with 'Gears of War 4'. It is a seamless experience to play some campaign levels on the Xbox, load up the Windows 10 version, and then resume playing right where I left off. Horde, versus, and all character advancement and achievements are all shared and I experienced no bugs or delays in this process.

Final Thoughts

'Gears 4' gives me the same sense of wonder and excitement playing through the campaign as I first had with Marcus and Dom a decade ago. It is a 'Gears' for a new generation, and The Coalition has risen to the occasion to give a top notch package with heaps of production and replay value both. The Ultimate Edition specifically is not worth its hefty price tag, but 'Gears of War 4' itself should not be missed.

Multiplayer Mode(s)

  • Online Co-op
  • Online Versus

Motion Controls

  • No

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