Gears of War 4

You gotta feel sorry for us humans. We just can't seem to catch a break. Whether you call it Earth or Sera (which looks an awfully lot like Earth), we're either fighting each other to the death or defending ourselves from some alien swarm. What did we do to deserve this? Wait, don't answer that.

While its plot is clearly an homage to the first entry in the franchise and is populated by recurring characters from earlier games -- or their progeny -- Gears of War 4 is a worthy entry to one of gaming's most beloved series.  Its adrenaline-soaked single player campaign is visually stunning, action-packed and most surprisingly, wryly funny and well scripted, and it's multiplayer modes -- including the beloved Horde -- add enough newness to keep it fresh and engaging.

Gears 4's tightly-written four act story begins with a clever Prologue that provides a combat tutorial while bringing players up to speed on the game's lore by reprising some key battles and events from the series. The plot proper begins with JD Fenix and his fellow outlaws, Kait and Del, breaking into a heavily fortified COG city to steal a tempting piece of technology on behalf of a struggling outlaw settlement. After the relatively measured pace of Act 1's first few moments, the story kicks into a breathless tempo that barrels to a somewhat disappointing conclusion eight to ten hours later. There are surprises along the way and while there is little respite from the action, there is plenty of engaging banter between the protagonists and even genuine pathos as the heroes journey into ever more challenging situations. The appearance of some familiar Gears faces does not wrest the story away from young JD, but adds complications and the weight of personal history. To reveal much more would spoil the fun. JD Fenix looks and acts like a beefed up Nathan Drake and provides a worthy, if unconventional, center to the story.

Gears of War 4 is visually a feast of color and detail, with incredible environmental detail, variety and weather effects that are above anything in recent gaming. Planet Sera is plagued by violent super storms with high intensity winds and jarring bolts of lighting, storms that are both hazardous, integral to the story, and potential weapons if properly manipulated. At times, the game was reminiscent of the excellent Enslaved: Journey to the West, as the heroes fought waves of mechanical COG soldiers in crumbling cityscapes and overgrown settlements. As the plot advanced and the enemies became more "biological," the game took on a more familiar Gears-like look, albeit one bolstered by current gen technology and high-end video cards.

Gears of War pretty much invented the genre of cover-based shooter, and by now the franchise has fine tuned its combat mechanics to an incredible degree. The game's new weapons are in varying degrees useful in specific combat situations but always fun to play with, at least for a while. At the "normal" level of difficulty (out of four), there is little chance of dying. Weapons and ammo are in abundant supply, and AI squad mates are almost always available for a handy healing. Most enemies -- whether organic or mechanical -- are bullet sponges and usually arrive in large groups with multiple variations of ranged and melee fighters. In honesty, some of the firefights can slog on just a little too long, and while the combat is varied, it is also very familiar to fans of the franchise, and there are precious few moments of calm in the campaign.

Like the recently released Forza Horizon 3, Gears of War 4 supports Xbox One/PC cross-platform play. It works fine with games being synched across both platforms, but the game was noticeably sharper and the framerate smoother on the Xbox. While my Nvidia 970 (not exactly state of the art) handled the game pretty well, the PC experience was not without some visual anomalies and bugs. The single player campaign can be played in co-op.

Not unlike the Call of Duty franchise, for many players, the Gears single player is a secondary consideration to the multiplayer modes, in particular the cooperative Horde 3.0, which has been re-tooled and now offers such improvements as class-based combat, the ability to use the Fabricator to laser print weapons and defenses, and of course a catalog of new firearms and fortifications. Even gamers who prefer the single player experience get to see what Horde mode is all about, as several story encounters feature mini-Horde mode battles, complete with timed waves. There is an extensive array of both familiar and new versus and coop modes, including Warzone, Team Deathmatch, Dodge Ball, King of the Hill, Guardian, and Arms Race.  Deeper game modes like Execution and Escalation offer an enticement for esports enthusiasts. Multiplayer character progression and battlefield abilities are enriched by a new persistent card system. Gear cards come in packs and can provide such things as new skins, XP boosts, or skills -- very useful in Horde mode. In short -- and unsurprisingly -- Gears of War 4 offers a deep and extensive array of activities for those who eschew the story and single player content.

But ignoring the story would be a real shame, as it is effectively written and stars characters who break free from the humorless machismo and posturing of the past games. It's a linear plot to be sure, and not without unanswered questions, but also an entertaining springboard for the near-relentless action and combat.Doubtless the best looking Gears game to date, Gears of War 4 is one of the most visually impressive games on the Xbox One, period (and yes, I am one of those who think that graphics matter). While the combat is familiar, it is also fine-tuned and polished for maximum challenge and enjoyment, whether in the multiplayer modes, or plowing through the campaign alone.