Gears of War 4 (2016) opens with a formless efficiency. As First Minister Jinn broadcasts a speech commemorating the people lost in the war of prior games, the player is shuffled from body to body, firefight to firefight, as they witness the events leading up to the present peace from nameless (now) dead eyes. It is a tone that could have easily defined Gears 4 – anonymous soldiers fighting a constantly evolving enemy, where individual lives and stories are sacrificed in the name of an ambiguous “greater good.” This is the war familiar to games, a cold machine wherein a life is no more useful than the number it can take, and it would have been easy for the newly formed Coalition (the new caretakers to the Gears of War series, following Epic Games’ departure) to rely on this familiarity to carry their first game through to launch. But this intro is deceptive, being not a statement of tone but one of purpose. You are not, as it turns out, fighting as an anonymous cog in the machine of war – you’re fighting against that very machine itself.
Gears 4 is a direct sequel to 2011’s Gears of War 3, wherein the series spanning enemy The Locust were finally eradicated and some sort of peace established for those who survived. In Gears 4 this peace has dissolved into a battle against a totalitarian government and those still fighting for their freedom. It’s a civil war of ideologies rather than one between species, but what is a stake for many remains the same: the right to their own life. Gears has always had a hazy antiestablishment sentiment, but traditionally that has materialized as little more than a middle finger to the closest person in charge before going AWOL. In that respect, Gears 4 is considerably more nuanced, with the motivations of each side being foundational to the game’s plot and setting, while also simply requiring more consideration than past games made room for. The COG (a military unit now mostly responsible for keeping the peace) is stuffy and bureaucratic, but it is also safe and established, unlike the resistance which allows for individual freedom but may simply be leading the dwindling population into the wilderness to die.
It is unfortunate that Gears 4 doesn’t spend much time after the first few hours considering the positions of its two factions, but at the very least it serves to establish a dichotomy which informs the entire game: old vs. new, freedom vs. safety, family vs. self. That last one is the most important, as more than politics and philosophy, Gears 4 is about family. Like everything Gears has ever attempted, Gears 4 isn’t subtle about its symbolism, positioning every plot point around saving a family member or finding an old friend while reinforcing this through team-driven design and a need to rely on each other to have any chance of making it through. Again, it is not subtle, but in the context of Gears 4’s relentless barrage of explosions and gore it comes across as unexpectedly intimate.
Past Gears games have focused on the connection between squadmates, but wherein Gears 1-3 were an ode to brothers in arms, Gears 4 is bluntly subdued. The people you are fighting with are not only your family, they are all that is left of humanity. You will fight through thousands of robots and alien abominations, but a human face is a rarity to be treasured, and when someone is lost that loss becomes a weight that must be carried. That you will often be literally picked up off the ground by teammates is both a gameplay convenience, but also reinforces the weight that each character carries with them. Everyone has to survive or the mission is a failure regardless of outcome, preventing would-be lone wolfs from abandoning their squad to try to go it alone. You cannot afford to lose anyone else, not even for a second.
Some have speculated that this is the era of pop culture dads, to which Gears 4 contributes a greying, even more disenfranchised Marcus Fenix, father of paper-thin protagonist JD Fenix and owner of many, many guns. Marcus has been the series’ impersonal, no-nonsense face since game one, which makes it all the more surprising to find him now retired, broken, and empty and alone as his late wife’s mansion where he remains, waiting to die. He is still a massive wall of muscle with the voice of a drill-sergeant chain smoker, but he is also just a man, something he has never been or been allowed to be in past games. He is tired of war, of the COG, or the circles everyone is running in hoping that they’ll be the ones to finally break out. And it’s hard to blame him. Three games deep and Gears is feeling a bit crusty around the edges. The spectacle is fading, the path is well trodden, and the heroes a little dimmer than they were last time we saw them. Had Gears 4 attempted to simply repeat the achievements of past games, it would have been as lifeless as the realization that Gears, like every modern videogame franchise, will continue on indefinitely whether it ought to or not until, inevitably, it fails to produce and is unceremoniously taken behind the shed to be forgotten.
Gears 4’s achievements are in its intimacy and understanding of its history. Much of the game finds you in cramped, isolated corridors, fighting things you don’t understand for reasons you haven’t had time to process. It’s not a war so much as an attempt to crawl out of an abyss, alive for one more day. Gears has never felt as hopeless and frightening as Gears 4, nor has it ever recognized its characters’ mortality as effectively. It is one thing to watch a hundred grey soldiers die. It is another to see a son holding his father, beating his chest, screaming for him to come back. Gears 4 is the story of individuals, not armies, who are given both the space to breathe and cause for you to want them to. I can’t say Gears 4’s cast is exceedingly well developed beyond being simply very likable, but when so much is on the line that turns out to be just about enough.
Gears 4’s last few acts, unfortunately, try far too hard to repeat and surpass the bombast of prior games, replacing tight spaces and terrifying encounters with giant battlefields and absurd setpieces as it ramps up to the least climactic conclusion of any game in the series. The road to get there is also paved in some of the worst boss fights of the last few years – big, overly produced throwbacks to 2005 era game design with a hideous reliance on quick-time events. Gears has always had bad boss fights, but that Gears 4 inherited all of the problems of past games despite a new developer comes as doubly disappointing.
It is probably worth recognizing somewhere the difficulty The Coalition would have had as new developers of one of last generation’s most beloved series, but I’m not sure here is the place to do it. They’ve done a masterful job bringing the series into the present, and the changes in tone and narrative structure are more than just welcome – they were absolutely necessary. At the same time, few of the problems plaguing Gears since the beginning have been fixed, and now seem even more embedded in a cannon of otherwise exceptional games. That the end of Gears 4 so explicitly doubts the series’ new direction is as disappointing for how it affects this game as it is for the future of the series. At some point, The Coalition will have to step out of the shadow of its predecessors, and when they do I hope they trust that explosions can only go so far.