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Gears of War 4's campaign mixes guns and gore with storytelling and atmosphere

GameSpot's Scott Butterworth goes hands-on with the surprisingly story-driven cooperative campaign, which adds fresh weapons, enemies, and characters to the familiar Gears formula.

Freshman Gears developer The Coalition has spent 2016 revealing more and more about its first crack at the franchise, Gears of War 4. Back in April, we got our first real taste of the competitive multiplayer just prior to the public beta. A few weeks ago, we went hands-on with the updated Horde Mode 3.0 and came away feeling plenty optimistic. Now, piggy-backing on the much shorter segment shown at this year's E3, The Coalition has kicked open the door to its two-player cooperative story campaign, letting us play through a two-hour chunk of the game's earliest portion.

Surprisingly -- and perhaps deliberately -- my hands-on time opened not with action but with atmosphere. Amid the eerie calm of a foggy night, new protagonist J.D. Fenix and his companions Del Walker and Kait Diaz approached a darkened mansion. As we walked together towards the seemingly abandoned house, the characters' banter provided exposition the same way Drake and Sully's conversations filled the quieter moments of Uncharted 4, though the dark tone more closely recalled the tension and intimacy of the original Gears of War.


The original Gears trilogy grew increasingly personal and emotionally rich with each game; Gears of War 4 clearly intends to continue that trend. The game seems to be the most story-focused yet, setting up a deeply personal narrative and providing enough space for its quieter, more human moments to breathe. It's too early to judge the narrative as a whole, but I appreciate The Coalition's decision to take a page out of Naughty Dog's narrative playbook by letting its heroes converse between bloodbaths.

While the specific relationship dynamic among the game's leading trio was hard to pin down during those opening moments, their verbal exchange did allow me to glean some vital narrative framing: Following the apparent eradication of the Locust threat at the end of Gears 3, the reformed Coalition of Ordered Governments gradually evolved into a nanny state intent on protecting its beleaguered population at the cost of personal liberties. This led to the creation of the well-armed robots you've seen shooting up our heroes in various trailers. It also drove certain sects of the population to create Outsider colonies in order to live freely.

Kait's mother actually led one of these groups -- at least, until every member of her colony disappeared during an ambush by a new, unknown threat: the Swarm. Unaware of the Swarm's existence and convinced he's recruiting soldiers for some kind of insurrection, COG leader Ginn blames J.D. for the disappearances and sends her automated army to hunt him down. With Kait's mom missing and a horde of "DeeBee" robots in hot pursuit, J.D. and his friends turn to the one guy who could possibly help them: J.D.'s father (and the lone occupant of that seemingly abandoned house from the beginning), Marcus Fenix.


I didn't encounter any giant mechs during my hands-on time, but apparently they're in there somewhere.


Once inside Marcus's mansion, the game switched from banter to an actual cutscene, one simmering with unspoken tension between J.D. and Marcus. Like the earlier chatter among J.D. and his buddies, the dialogue only hinted at past events rather than spelling everything out. There was a subtext of shared tragedy and of clashing ideals. Marcus seemed grizzled and, in some ways, broken, while J.D. came off as defiant yet principled. The writing was somewhat heavy-handed, but the scene underscored themes of family, loss, and reconciliation that recurred throughout my demo.

Despite his reservations, Marcus agreed to help, and at that point, the campaign developed a more recognizable pattern of combat sequences, set pieces, cut scenes, and quieter walk-and-talk sections. They didn't always arrive in that order, though, and I noticed a deliberate sense of pacing that seemed careful not let the action drown out the character development and memorable story moments.

Shortly after their first exchange, for example, Marcus led the gang to his personal armory where I got outfitted with the iconic COG armor and was allowed to select from a huge array of weaponry. Later on, Del challenged J.D. to a game of rock-paper-scissors to see who has to enter a particularly scary tunnel first (spoiler: Kait beat them to it). Most importantly, though, after fighting right alongside J.D. and guiding me through the world for nearly an hour, Marcus was swallowed whole by a Swarm creature that seems to entomb humans in pods so they gradually morph into Locust.

In addition to these and other dramatic story moments, there were also, naturally, plenty of big dumb guns and muscles and explosions. The core Gears gameplay -- with slower-paced movement and a heavy focus on cover -- remained largely unchanged from previous iterations, but I noticed plenty of new ideas mixed in with the classic formula. Though environments consistently resembled some bleak, forgotten European fortress, the scope and structure of combat areas varied considerably. I fought my way through narrow corridors, massive open arenas, areas with verticality, and plenty more configurations on my way down the campaign's linear path.

I also found a greater mix of enemy types than past Gears. Those COG robots, for example, aren't as apt to take cover as the Locust, often opting to march straight into danger while other other bots flank, snipe, or lay down suppressing fire. And that's just the basic units. I also encountered heavy units that sprinted at me and self-destructed when defeated, as well as flying Sentinels with force fields that had to be disabled before I could land shots from the front.

The Swarm, by contrast, attacked me with Juvies -- perhaps the fastest, most agile enemies ever to appear in a Gears game, who Zerg-rush in overwhelming numbers -- and other, larger monsters like Pouncers, who flip stinging barbs from their tails and dive on top of any player foolish enough to get too close. And of course, the durable Locust soldiers returned, matching the hefty movement of the human characters and employing many of the same tactics: taking cover, lobbying explosives, and sneaking around for melee kills.

My demo also contained an impressive selection of new firearms. The Overkill is a four-barrel shotgun that fires both when you pull the trigger and when you release it, allowing to create either a wall of pellets or a concentrated cone of death depending on the speed at which you fire. It only seems to hold 12 shots, though, so I frequently passed up Overkills in favor of keeping my classic Gnasher. I did, however, seize every opportunity to use the COG bots' Embar rifles, an effective midrange precision rifle that requires to you hold the trigger until the two halves of your reticule meet in the middle.


In theory, the entire campaign takes place over the course of a single night...assuming you survive, of course.


And then there are the truly exotic weapons that appeared only rarely and in preset locations. The previously announced Dropshot, for example, fires a mine that travels straight ahead but drills straight down on command, allowing you to punish opponents huddling behind cover. The Mulcher is essentially a mini-gun that makes disposing of an onslaught of juvies much easier. And the Buzzkill fires saw blades that ricochet around the environment -- and the longer you hold down the trigger, the higher the rate of fire. All three of these exotics turned up at different points during my playthrough, which added a few welcome moments of excitement and empowerment.

In addition to these carefully placed power weapons, my demo was also peppered with unique gameplay scenarios and massive, playable set pieces built up around the action. After loading up in Marcus's armory, for example, our crew was attacked by a chopper that blasted huge chunks of the mansion to rubble as we tried to take out its engines. When we eventually succeeded, the body of the vessel crashed in the house and came sliding down some stairs directly at J.D.

Later, Marcus retrieved two motorcycles from a barn, which initiated an intense (but on rails) chase sequence that left me in charge of avoiding obstacles while still aiming and picking off enemies at break-neck speeds. This too culminated in a fight with an aircraft, only this time we had to face down a bomber jet during a sort of multistage boss battle. Honestly, it wasn't particularly challenging, but it was undeniably cinematic. Perhaps most memorable, though, were the frequent "windflares" that not only ripped environments apart in spectacular fashion but actually made movement more difficult as well.

Even considering the windflares' lightning-infused tornados, however, the story moments still stuck with me most. Beyond the narrative, the small chunk of the campaign I experienced felt familiar, but not necessarily in a bad way. The story mode seems tight, focused, and decidedly "Gears." If you're looking for a slightly predictable but well-executed take on the classic Gears formula with some thoughtful new ideas layered in, there's a strong chance Gears of War 4's campaign will ultimately deliver exactly the fix you've been craving. We'll know for sure when the game launches on PC and Xbox One on October 11.