Gears of War 4 PC Review - Controls, Gameplay, & Windows Store

By Published October 07, 2016 at 8:22 pm
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The Gears of War franchise may be 10 years old, but this fourth title is only the second to make its way to PC. Third-person shooters in general have never had as big of a following on PCs as they have on console. Gears of War, it seems, has become something of a gold standard of third-person shooters for play with dual-shock controllers. We’re here to give it a pass on the keyboard and mouse.

There are good reasons for the success of the franchise. With a controller, the dual thumbsticks of an Xbox controller suit maneuvering through cover and “locking” to walls. Then there's the trademark thickness of the characters; even normal humans stand out against other games. Against a backdrop of superfluous gore and chainsaw-guns, the Lancer, Gears of War 4 has established itself as one of the meatiest, most visceral shooters on the market.

One of the perennial remarks about the Gears of War franchise has always been the game's character design. Every male character seems have a jaw like a brick, or Robert Z’Dar, and the armor looks built of heavy metals. Now, the Gears of War franchise is five majors titles in, with novel, comic, and board game adaptations. The odd, not-entirely-human look of the characters has become a dedicated part of the franchise, and GoW4 remains true to that aesthetic. The Coalition may have taken over development from Epic, but they’ve also come a long way in design from the first Gears of War. One of the characters in this game -- Del -- even appears to have a neck. As with all the previous titles, females characters still look pretty human. 25 years older, Marcus Fenix still looks more like a bicep drawn by Rob Liefeld than a human.

Gameplay & Controls

Besides being our first experience with the Windows 10 store, this was also our first real experience with Gears of War on PC. We’ve played the originals on Xbox with the Xbox controller and were a little skeptical about how the game would play with a mouse and keyboard, given Gears’ traditional favor for dual-thumbstick input, but it worked out well. Controllers have always worked fairly intuitively for the games, and that’s largely because of the movement patterns -- cover-based movement systems, as revolutionized by Gears, just get less “confused” by analog input than by keyboard input.

Ultimately though, we were impressed with how the new game plays on the mouse and keyboard setup. The Coalition's new UI displays what direction your character is actually going to go in much more clearly than the old Epic one, another major benefit for PC. The old UI graphics showed a man near a wall and an arrow that pointed in some direction. The Coalition cleaned it up a bit for Gears of War 4, and now you get a big fat arrow pointing in the direction your character is going to go.

Under the default key bindings, rolling, running, taking cover, and leaving cover are all bound to the space bar. This is the same way it’s done with a controller. The good news that on the PC you are able to separate rolling/running and entering/leaving cover. We found this to be a nice feature, since otherwise you end up jamming the space bar for just about everything, and at times ending up everywhere you don’t want to be. And in previous GoW titles, running in anything other than a straight line tended to end with the character taking cover against a wall. Playing with a mouse and keyboard however makes it far easier to aim yourself while running; the turning is also just a bit sharper in this game generally. The importance of this fine tuning couples well with Gears of War 4’s heavy use of weather effects, giving players tons of flying debris and lightning strikes to avoid.

The storms in Gears of War are one of the features that The Coalition has really put in the forefront of the game. And it is, visually, very impressive. There is a genuine sense of intimidation with these storms when the wind tears down buildings and blows enemy AI off screen -- and that sense of intimidation only slightly lessens when presented with humorous ragdolls from storm winds.

Some consistency and immersion problems arise when you actually have to interact with the storm, though. And there are very specific points where this is seen: In one scene, a car is blown into a bridge, tearing a chunk out of the bridge. A terrifying image, in theory, but as you cross the bridge seconds later… perfectly fine. The wind that picked up a acar just a moment earlier has no impact on our heroes, speaking either to their brutishness or to an overly dramatic car. As for that terrifying lightning, it nicely forms a little maze you can navigate in just a few moments, serving as a sort-of mini-game focused on navigation input. When you actually to interact with the weather, it doesn’t quite maintain the tension.

Story & Departure from Epic Days

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Something that struck us about Gears of War 4 was its name. Specifically, The Coalition suffixed the game simply as ‘4,’ instead of a subtitle or, less sensibly, just calling it “Gears of War.” This only dawned on us because of another game: Mass Effect - Andromeda, where Bioware went out of the way to say that they didn’t want it to be referred to as “Mass Effect 4.” This is because it’s going to be a new starting point the series, and that sounds a bit like Gears of War 4.

In this rendition of the franchise, we’re positioned 25 years after the original series and starring some new characters and new enemies. A new team took over development and Cliff Bleszinski had departed, and that’s reflected in this moving-on in the game’s storyline.

Not every enemy you fight is analogous to an old Locust unit, but the main ones are to grant some familiarity. The Locusts are accompanied by new robots as controlled by the “COG,” completely new to the GoW games and serving mostly as basic, barebones enemies; they move slowly and shoot at you, Imperial style, but they’re new to universe.

The setting (at that point) is new as well. A city is being built by robots, it’s uninhabited by people, and it’s got a big weather shield to protect against red lightning storms that sweep the planet. The city is being built and controlled by the COGs, who declared martial law and have become seemingly tyrannical following the war and development of robots.  On the other hand, our players live in a village of renegades that’s powered by a windmill and a water wheel, almost with a romantic touch to the atmosphere. This is all because after Gears of War 3, humans lost all fossil fuels when they destroyed the locusts, so now humans are looking for new energy sources and are rebuilding civilization after the long and destructive war.

So, it's not exactly the most original setup. Apocalypse event, AI takes over, and humans now are outlawed in a land they once ruled. There's even an energy crisis to create a sense of constant urgency – that's just about everything we need for a standard post-apocalypse story. In the very least, the atmosphere is new and interesting and, despite its somewhat cliched storytelling backdrop, the environment is visually compelling and unique enough to get excited about during gameplay.

We’re eventually taken through old, abandoned ruins and then back underground, just like the previous four games. We were taken from something new and interesting, right back to where it all started 10 years ago. For fans of the franchise, this feels like a bit of a let down. But this game is a little different from the rest of the franchise. Only the first game ever made it to PC, for one, so for dedicated PC gamers, this is the second Gears of War title for them to get their hands on. If we look at Gears of War 4 as the fourth game in a franchise, parts of it really start to feel formulaic; however, as the second game, it feels quite different. You’ve got all the new bits -- the robots, the storms, the (actually) new Swarm units -- and some of the old bits. In this light, Gears of War 4 feels a lot like a strong sequel -- new ideas against old ones.

Characters, Visuals, & Conclusion

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Characters in Gears of War have always had a quick wit. They make quips during the best of times and the worst, making for an enjoyable bantering and bickering throughout the story. Gears of War 4 hasn’t lost that, and we’d say that The Coalition has heightened the character design and development over previous releases.

The main character, J.D. Salinger Fenix and best bud Del, have a near constant back-and-forth repartee. When Marcus Fenix joins in for a bit, his Brock Sampson-like complaining is by itself entertaining. This bit of playfulness has helped characters throughout the franchise feel more endearing, and it continues to work in Gears of War 4.

We’ve talked about Gears of War’s unusual character design, but ignoring that, the detailing on the models and meshes manages to strike a powerful mix between optimization and fidelity. Details like scars, blemishes, and imperfections appear to have actual depth on the character model; they don’t look like a texture applied to the character’s skin.

Environments were similarly impressive, with attention given to make sure each area feels separate and unique, and not just a copy-pasted tileset. At least, until you’re underground. The color temperature in each area conveys a lot as well -- each area gets a bit darker as you progress through the game. When you get underground, the reds and oranges on the Swarm make enemies pop against the darkness of the covers, accented further by brightness of the early levels. The environment and atmosphere presentation clearly paint Gears of War 4 as a new beginning for the franchise, keeping the dark story elements with a splash of humorous banter to lighten the mood.

When the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition came to Windows earlier this year, we were quick to note the similarities between the new Windows Store and Games for Windows - Live from almost 10 years ago. Like how many of the games that were released under GFWL were locked to Windows Vista, Gears of War 4 is locked to Windows 10 only. This is a title that we'd generally recommend for folks who enjoy third-person shooters and a focus on story, but just know going into it that you're dealing with an 80GB download and a store which often breaks in ways that require re-downloads. The store also doesn't allow verbose specificity of file install paths, so you end up with some files all over a drive in ways that might not be desirable – though at least they can be installed off the C drive, this time. We also had issues copying the files from one PC to another due to corruption and permissions issues, eventually necessitating two downloads of the same 80GB game, despite being used in the same physical location on the same LAN.

The good news is that, unlike EA's Origin, we weren't limited to a set number of hardware changes during testing. No issues were found with our copy when used between 10 different video card configurations and two different platforms.

As a game, though, we'll highlight Gears of War 4 for its generally superb visual fidelity, particularly during cut scenes, and for innovating on an aging franchise. At least, somewhat innovating – some of the core game will feel formulaic to players who've been through all of the existing Gears titles, but anyone who's had a long break or hasn't played since the last Gears PC release would probably enjoy Gears of War 4. In the very least, the likeable and witty characters bring it all home, and almost seem intentionally placed to calm down players after what is sure to be a stressful evening of trying to use Windows Store.

When Games for Windows - Live was launched, it was designed to create an experience more like the Xbox 360 on your computer. And now the Windows 10 Store is doing the same thing -- bringing the Xbox One to Windows 10. They’re living up to this goal. When the first details about the Xbox One were released, one of the major (initial) complaints was that the console was always online. Well, the same is true of Gears of War 4 -- no internet, no game. When you launch the game without being connected to the internet, you’ll be stuck at the title screen. The good news is that if you do try to run the game from two different computers on the same account, you’re given the opportunity to kick the other player from their session. The bad news is that if loading the game while someone else is playing, and if you decide not to kick them… they’ll be kicked anyway.

Visually, Gear of War 4 is excellent, and in the beginning, it really creates something new to the franchise. As things go on, though, the game really starts to feel like the previous games. The characters are likeable and witty, and easily controlled on PC, despite a decade of dedication to consoles. The weakest points of the game are its distribution -- on the Windows Store -- and how the game will play to longtime fans that wanted something a bit different.

Editorial: Keegan "HornetSting" Gallick
Video: Andrew "ColossalCake" Coleman
Video Host: Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke

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