First Impressions: ‘Gears of War 4’ (Xbox One)

Want to play ‘Gears of War 4’? Best find a friend (or two) to help

After a couple of hours, I confirm what I suspected was true from the beginning: “Gears of War 4” is a lot of mindless fun, but only if you’re playing with friends. Oh, and eviscerating murderous aliens with a chainsaw-gun is probably one of the cathartic actions in video games. One of these revelations is more important than the other, but I’ll let you pick.

A quick note: As with “Deus Ex,” “Gears of War 4” marks my first foray into this venerable, decade-old Xbox series. (“Gears of War 4” is only available on Xbox One and PC.) What I knew about the previous four games (one prequel included) is that they involved a group of guys with near-infinite ammo fighting aliens. From what I’ve played of “4,” that’s a recurring theme.

What I’ve discovered so far is simple, chaotic madness drenched in viscous shades of red. The story, if you could call it that, picks up 25 years after the culminating events at the end of “Gears of War 3” with us in control of J.D., the son of Marcus Fenix, who was the hero of the first three games. We’re still on the planet Sera (kind of Earth-like), but society has changed because of dangerous weather patterns that now ravaged the planet. The altered Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) crafted walled-off cities to protect the remaining members of humanity on the planet. Oh, and martial law is in effect, preventing outside travel.

Our hero, J.D. (voiced by Liam McIntyre), and his rag-tag band of misfits survive outside the city, part of a group dubbed Outsiders (appropriate, I know). Boring prologue cut short, J.D. and his friend Delmont “Del” Walker (voiced by Eugene Byrd) meet up with Kait Diaz (voiced by Laura Bailey) and her uncle, Oscar (Jimmy Smitts), and the group sets off to steal from a local COG settlement. I assume you can imagine that not everything goes to plan, especially after massive windstorms and killer “Chappie”-like robots descend to dispense justice against our heroic thieves. (As the story progresses, you generally control J.D. and have Del and Kait as helpful AI.)

It’s at this point where I realize the true gem of this game: its cooperative functionality. I’m playing through the campaign with a friend, and it’s clear the game was built for co-op play. Three people (either online or via LAN) can team up to power through the hordes of baddies that never seem to stop spawning around you. Which works out fine, because there’s plenty of ammo and weapon drops to literally spray bullets around each level until everything but your team has stopped moving. For now, the sequence is basically rinse and repeat, with a few bits of story thrown. But that’s OK, because the co-op aspect more than makes up for it. (The game offers matchmaking for those whose friends don’t have the game but want to play co-op.)

As I said, I’ve never played one of these games before, so I’m not particularly familiar with the story. Some basic research remedied that situation, but I’m not sure it was necessary. Only during a handful of times during several hours did I not have enough information during “4” to be able to ascertain what was going on or what had happened in previous games. That’s in part because the game at the beginning gives a recap of what previously happened and in part because it simply doesn’t matter. Your goal is to progress, and to progress and be the heroes we all know we’re meant to be, we have to slay every enemy in front of us. (There’s even the classic “change of music” sound once all the area’s enemies have been wiped out.)

Played on the Xbox One, “Gears of 4” is a visually treat. Running on the Unreal 4 engine, the game’s graphics are vivid and crisp. The in-game animations, especially the combat ones, are sharp in their movements with few framerate issues or stuttering. The set pieces are the right amount of open without being large enough to get lost in. (This isn’t an open-world game, after all.)

For now, “Gears of War 4” is a lot of generic, gorgeous, gory fun. It does what it does well, and it isn’t trying to be something more. Game of the Year? Not so much. An enjoyable romp that makes me want to play the previous games (which came as part of the Day One bundle)? Oh, absolutely.

This is a First Impressions of “Gears of War 4” on the Xbox One. A full review will follow once the game is completed.

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