In the movie business, summer is the season for blockbusters. Kids are out of school and theatres are air conditioned: the perfect combination of supply and demand. Michael Bay supplies the giant robot fights, and the people show up.
When it comes to video games, fall is blockbuster season.
With the annual launch of “Madden NFL Football” in late August, the flood of major game releases begins. Your Call of Dutys and Assassin’s Creeds and what have you — they all tend to launch between September and December, with few exceptions. Games are expensive, $60 apiece in the case of these types of games, which is why they tend to launch during the holiday season.
The holiday season is responsible for a disproportionate piece of the annual video game market. The long and short: People give games at gifts!
This holiday, when it comes to Microsoft’s Xbox One, there are two major blockbusters: “Forza Horizon 3” (which is already out), and “Gears of War 4” (which launched this week). No giant robots to speak of…
Oh no, wait, yeah, there are some giant robots in “Gears of War 4” actually:
I’ve spent the last two weeks with “Gears of War 4”; I can tell you definitively it’s a delightful and gruesome game that’s well worth your time.
What’s so good about “Gears of War 4”?
The story of “Gears of War” involves hulking space marines, clad in armour that looks more akin to hockey padding than functional gear, fighting hordes of alien monsters (a species called “Locust” in the series).
What you actually do in “Gears of War 4,” however, is much more exciting than that premise.
At its heart, “Gears of War 4” is a tactical third-person shooting game. Run into cover, move from place to place, flank your enemies, take them out. It’s a game about assessing situations, and quickly, tactically, tackling them.
Step into a room, look for cover and flanking positions, then prioritise enemies:
Most shooters tell you to run in head first, guns blazing — the ultimate power fantasy. “Gears of War 4” asks you to be smarter. Running in head first, satisfying as it may be in the moment, will likely result in your demise. Quickly.
As a result, there’s a rhythm to the gameplay of “Gears 4” that’s deeply rewarding. Hear me out!
Taking cover is key, and you’ll spend much of the game carefully choosing when to pop up and fire one of your four weapons. If you get pinned down, there are plenty of places to run (or leap, as need be). And that’s when it becomes a rhythm: duck, prioritise enemies, pop-up, move or reload, repeat.
Every step of the process feels musical: using the right weapon for the right moment, improvising as necessary. Movement is heavy and slow, which is to say that every move must be deliberate. The minute-to-minute gameplay of “Gears 4” demands discipline and creativity. It asks that you repeatedly analyse situations, carefully choose your actions, and respond accordingly.
There’s even a mechanic — a signature of the series — called “active reload” which turns reloading your weapon into a minigame you play in the middle of all the action. A meter appears in the upper right corner of the screen and starts moving; if you press the reload button when it reaches a shaded area, your gun reloads faster (and potentially stronger). You don’t have to use the active reload mechanic, but it’s there if you’d like — like a guitar solo, in this analogy.
Active reload even comes with a musical accompaniment — a jingle that plays when you nail the minigame. “Gears 4” is rife with musical cues, from the active reload jingle to a signature noise when you’ve cleared an area of enemies.
Between the gameplay and all the musical cues, playing “Gears 4” can feel a bit like conducting an orchestra — dancing between enemies, keeping one eye on your squadmates while leaping from section to section.
What do I get for $60?
“Gears 4” has a lengthy single-player (or co-op) story mode, online multiplayer, and a third, very popular mode that’s making a return: “Horde” mode. In the latter, you (and four friends or online strangers) fend off wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies. You’ll set up defences (turrets, etc.) and try to tough it out as long as you can.
The good news is there are no bad modes in “Gears 4.”
It’s a fantastically well-designed, gorgeous game from top-to-bottom. I say that unequivocally, as someone who hasn’t liked a single “Gears of War” game in the past. Like the “Uncharted” series exclusive to Sony’s PlayStation platform, “Gears of War 4” feels like a carefully-constructed project — a demonstration of what can be done on Microsoft’s Xbox One, and now on Windows 10.
Most importantly for Microsoft, it’s the kind of game that sells consoles.
It’s also one of the first games that Microsoft’s publishing where you automatically own it on both Xbox One and Windows 10 if you buy it on either platform — your $60 technically gets you two copies of the game, in so many words, but they’re both tied to your Xbox account. It’s a nod toward a future where Xbox games are playable on consoles and computers and who knows where else.
The holiday video game season is officially upon us, and the actual holiday season is just around the bend. When you’re making your lists this year, be assured that “Gears of War 4” is a safe entry for you or the Xbox One owner in your life.