Gears of War 4 Review

I really didn’t realise just how much I needed a new Gears game until I revved up that iconic Lancer Assault Rifle’s chainsaw attachment and tore through a hapless grunt. Not only is the franchise not done with me, I realised; I’m not done with it. Gears of War 4 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s not content to leave familiar designs untouched either. It’s a lightly pared-back, almost back-to-basics game that lays a solid foundation for what comes next.

Twenty five years after victory over the Locust Horde, human society is slowly building itself up again. The Imulsion Countermeasure might have destroyed humanity’s enemies, but it also wiped out the planet’s fuel supply and sent the climate into disarray with violent windflare storms plaguing the landscape. Much of the population lives cooped up behind tall city walls under Coalition of Governments’ martial law. Some reject this way of life, though, residing in small village settlements living off the land and scavenging COG bases to survive. JD Fenix is one such Outsider; son of previous series protagonist Marcus Fenix, he and his fellow squad of outlaws are about to encounter a new threat in the form of the monstrous Swarm, seemingly an evolution of the Locust.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” was clearly the philosophy at work in designing the core gameplay of Gears 4. A third-person shooter with tight cover mechanics, chunky weaponry, and even chunkier foes, gameplay feels near-identical to previous offerings. The “Active Reload” mechanic (a small QTE each time you reload that allows you to boost the damage of the next clip at the risk of jamming your gun) is present and correct, “roadie run” sprinting is silly as ever, and you can still take downed-but-not-out enemies for a hostage stroll.

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Slight tweaks to the gameplay largely feel like an effort to enable more gung-ho players to tear their foes apart. You can now hold down a button while running at cover to auto-mantle it, keeping on the move. Enemies on the other side of cover can be grasped and yanked towards you, stunning them for a combat knife kill. These simple additions allow for new risky and aggressive options in the battlefield, a vital shake-up in for a cover-shooter that could occasionally devolve into hiding behind cover to take potshots. More options to take on threats proactively are always welcome.

Gears was never the most colourful franchise, but Gears 4 makes the effort to inject a wider selection of hues from the spectrum into its levels. There’s still a near-omnipresent use of Unreal Engine GreyBrown(TM), but the palette is livened up by splashes of colour from inclement windflares as well as an increased use of foliage in environmental design. The world feels more organic this time, nature clawing its way back to some semblance of stability after years of ravaging war.

Story-wise, Gears 4 is a mixed bag. First and foremost amongst its problems are the characters. JD Fenix is a charisma vortex; a characterless cypher devoid of a single notable trait. Say what you will about Marcus being a typical gruff space marine type, at least they leaned really hard on all the clichéd personality traits that came to define his character. JD’s squad mates Del and Kait are better; while Del’s expository dialogue tends towards snoresome, his in-game chatter is quite entertaining (his continued disgust at a particular action you can pursue throughout the game had me doubled over), while Kait is an all-round well written character with arc and everything. In fact, it would make much more sense in this story if Kait were the main character. It would’ve been nice if JD’d had enough personality to help invest me in his story, but at least I get to root for Kait on the way.

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Fortunately, Gears 4’s story deals quite well with suspense and mystery to draw you in. There’s a lot of unanswered questions about the state of the world posed in the first hour or so, and it’s genuinely enthralling to explore the changed land. There’s a certain reverence for the preceding series, and more than a little bit of self-parody that’ll bring a smile to longtime fans’ faces. The gameplay and story both start to chug a bit in the second half, but not so much that it ever becomes a slog. Overall, Gears 4’s smaller scale of story feels like a refreshing reset that lays enough tantalising questions to make me excited for what’s coming next – impressive as the fifth game in a series.

If you’re a very popular little boy and have lots of little friends to run around with, Gears 4 has a lot of legs. Drop-in/ drop-out co-op returns, and Gears 4 is even more fun with a friend (just like every game, ever) with the bots doing a pretty good job of running medical errands. All the Gears multiplayer classics return, improved by the new movement options supporting aggressive playstyles.

Even the now-rare holy grail returns: split-screen local multiplayer! However, on my TV set it ran with substantial black bars at either side of the screen, reducing the screen size by a distracting degree. I’ve found this to be a common complaint, yet I do know people for whom the black bars do not show up.

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Horde mode returns under the desperately innovative monicker “Horde 3.0”. Luckily, Gears 4’s Horde mode is more creative than naming convention suggests. Classically, players would team up to defend a small area against waves upon waves of enemies while building fortifications such as razor wire and sentry turrets to aid the effort. Horde 3.0 shakes up the concept through the addition of five classes: engineer, heavy, scout, sniper, and soldier. Dividing players into clearly defined roles helps the team co-ordinate to divide resources and efforts, as well as providing clear roles and perks for each class: engineers are better at building and repairing fortifications, while scouts gain bonuses to close quarters combat. As the running theme goes with Gears 4’s core gameplay, Horde 3.0 retains the best parts of its lineage whilst adding beneficially novel improvements.

Aside from some lacklustre character writing, Gears 4’s most egregious feature is undoubtedly microtransactions. Unlocks and bonuses tied into this system end up being incredibly useful for progressing deep into Horde 3.0, and the process of unlocking chances at new loot packs is incredibly slow; you can complete a full 50-wave run of Horde mode and still not be able to afford the cheapest pack. Were pack bonuses merely cosmetic, this would be forgivable. But after paying the price of a premium AAA game at launch, players should not have to endure such a frustratingly slow unlock system that’s clearly designed to incentivise micropayments. It’s an unpleasant shadow over an otherwise excellent gaming experience.

What really makes Gears of War 4 work is that it just gets Gears. It easily could’ve gone the same way as 343’s Halo games; that is to say a pale facsimile of previous works. But Gears 4 is smart enough to know what to keep and what to tweak to bring the series forward, and for fans of the series there’s a lot to love here.

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Inside Review

You’d be forgiven for wondering just what the hell Playdead’s been doing in the six years since Limbo released. Much has changed since then; Limbo landed when highly-competent, independent games were still something of a novelty, and its relative simplicity might not hold up if it were released today. Six years of change has eroded and reformed the gaming landscape, all while Playdead toiled in near-silence on their spiritual follow-up to Limbo, Inside.

Honestly? It’s been worth every second. Inside is an incredible game that’s short of almost nothing to prevent it being labelled a legitimate masterpiece. It expands upon Limbo in every single respect while wearing that beating heart on its sleeve.

It’s absolutely imperative to play it knowing as little about the game as possible, more so than the many other recent games that invite that recommendation like The Witness, Undertale, and Pony Island. Don’t waste a first impression of this game by watching a playthrough. This one’s absolutely worth a naked, hands-on experience and I hope you’ll forgive any vagueness on my part regarding Inside‘s narrative and systems.

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Inside starts in the same fashion as Limbo: a young, nameless boy is dropped into a dark forest and must move forwards. You don’t know why the menacing, uniformed men are combing the woods with flashlights and rabid dogs. There’s no dialogue. There aren’t even any worded tutorial tips. You’re given even less to go on than in Limbo; at least in that game you had a clear objective in finding your sister. Here you’re just a boy on the run in an oppressive and deadly world with a much less clearly defined goal. Maybe the boy has a plan. Maybe he’s just forced to press forward out of circumstance. It’s up to you to play through and decide for yourself, inferring what you can.

Controlling the boy is a simple matter since there’s only three inputs: move, jump, and grab. But there’s so much mechanical variety built upon that bedrock. As well as simple platforming through the 2.5D environments, progression is often tied to environmental puzzles. There’s a staggering amount of variety to these puzzles, making use of elements like physics, gravity, momentum, light and shadow, musical cues, AI observation and manipulation, mind control, timing, and object placement. The game’s short 3-hour length means that you’re always confronting new obstacles and you won’t see the same puzzle twice. Even potential frustration over difficult puzzles is mitigated for two reasons. Firstly, there’s never too much environmental clutter to distract you from the solution; you can often see every relevant object onscreen at once. Secondly, checkpoints are forgiving without feeling insulting- death is quite common, yet you never lose more than a few seconds’ worth of progress.

Inside’s real achievement is its carefully maintained atmosphere of creeping horror. You’re in a cruel world dogged by beings that exude a dispassionate and ruthless air. You’ll experience fraught chases that perfectly evoke the terror not experienced since you were a child running hysterically from something fearsome, as we’ve all done at some point. It’s not necessarily those moments that’ll stay with you, though. Inside’s horror is largely of the more understated kind, tipping its hand to let you glimpse at snippets of a world gone horribly wrong. Relatively calm moments are still permeated by an all-encompassing unease and quiet atrocities are laid bare to play on primal human fears.

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The 2.5D world is rendered in a highly desaturated palette, with only the occasional touch of real colour. Thick mist lingers in the background while murky waters ripple calmly. This moody world with its faceless denizens of ill intent envelops you with an immediate sense of foreboding, yet there’s a strange beauty to all the gloomy architecture. The mechanical emphasis of grasping and lugging objects around work in perfect unison with spot-on animation to give the game’s environments and characters a tangible, tactile quality that only serves to emphasise the horror.

The game’s sound design contributes as much to the atmosphere of dread as its visuals. Mostly there’s just the pitter-patter of the boy’s footsteps accompanied by his breathing, which changes when the boy becomes more panicked. In a few choice moments of revelation, though, music crests and swells to perfectly punctuate the tone of the scene in contrast with the usual feeling of being left alone with your thoughts in the quiet.

Inside shows Playdead’s mastery of storytelling without words and slick atmospheric direction all in one. You’ve got enough to build a story of your own that might differ from those inferred by each and every friend that plays it. You’ll agree on the broader details of Inside’s story, yes, but there’s a rich well of hints and other elements to wade through and discuss. I have a feeling that there’s more to Inside than they’re letting on. Chase all of the achievements and there just might be something to see for your troubles. In any case, do yourself a favour: play this game, in one sitting, alone. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Quantum Break Review

It’s been 6 years since Remedy released the magnificent curiosity that was Alan Wake, an ambitious project with a clear focus on narrative. But while that game was a love letter to horror in the vein of Twin Peaks, Stephen King, and Twilight Zone, Quantum Break is a time-travel Sci-Fi story. The televisual influence that saw Alan Wake “Season 1” separated into “episodes” is even more evident this time because Remedy only went and professionally produced a bunch of 25-minute-long TV episodes to sandwich between each act of the game.

Quantum Break begins with Jack Joyce returning to the University of Riverport, a city he hasn’t visited for 6 years since a major falling-out with his brother Will. The city’s changed a lot since he was last around, with extensive restructuring taking place thanks to Monarch Solutions, a nebulous corporation that seems interested in aggressively asserting its presence. Jack is visiting his old best friend Paul Serene, who alongside Will, is involved in a very ambitious project at the University: a time machine. Jack helps Paul test the machine’s capabilities, which (predictably) leads to its malfunctioning, and both men are caught in a wave of energy as the world around them begins to warp. With Paul trapped in the machine, Jack escapes with his brother Will while rapidly learning that his proximity to the time machine’s breakdown has gifted him a level of control over time. This isn’t enough to save Will, however, when a much older-looking Paul arrives in command of aggressive Monarch troops and boasting time powers of his own.

Jack’s mission to save Will and fix time as it rapidly breaks down (the world around you periodically freezes in what’s referred to as “stutters”, which become more severe and frequent as the game progresses) is facilitated through stretches of third person cover-based combat peppered with linear exploratory sections laden with narrative extras and tidbits.

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In combat, Jack controls very much like a standard cover-based shooter protagonist, automatically ducking behind nearby cover and handling a range of guns from pistols and SMGs to rifles and LMGs.

Where Quantum Break mixes up the standard cover-shooter fare is in the utilisation of Jack’s powers of time manipulation. You can dash a short distance in a fraction of a second, triggering slow-motion upon stopping to shoot at startled foes. You can hold down the dash button instead to trigger a sprint while the world around you slows to a crawl, which lets you outrun enemy fire and manually dispatch foes with high velocity Superman punches. You can hurl a glob of stopped time, freezing an enemy in their tracks, and pump bullets into the bubble while they’re helpless. Charging up the same attack causes a sizeable blast of time-disruption in the area, functioning essentially like a powerful grenade. You can trigger a bubble shield around you that slows time for caught enemies and reflects back any rounds fired your way, giving you time to breathe, recover, and reload.

Most confusing within the context of “time powers” is Time Vision, which is exactly the same as whatever “Sixth Sense Vision” is offered in games like Tomb Raider, Far Cry: Primal, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I’m not quite sure how “ability to manipulate and withstand fluctuations in the flow of time” trickles down into “ability to see enemies, explosive objects and narrative expository objects highlighted through walls”, but there you go.

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On a tangent for a moment, I’m a bit tired of the “Detective Vision”, or “Survival Vision”, or whatever each game decides to call its version of that mechanic. While it’s undoubtedly useful for highlighting objects of interest in cluttered environments, I find that it tends to diminish my immersive experience somewhat. I’m prone to leaning on it a bit too heavily, continually re-upping my Special Vision as I progress for fear of bumbling past important details. Stopping to trigger my ESP and spinning 360 degrees every few seconds does not a good experience make, and I think I’d rather be encouraged to explore the environment as it was meant to be seen.

Anyway. Back to combat. While you’re encouraged to make use of cover, Quantum Break isn’t built to be played too conservatively. Enemies are fairly aggressive, and will attempt to flank you while your stupid face is glued to cover. Staying still isn’t safe, so you’re forced to make use of your time powers to protect yourself against the odds stacked against you by manipulating your enemies. While potential for experimentation isn’t quite as ripe as I would’ve liked (I was hoping for a Dishonored-esque level of power combination, but then few could hope to match that), the game does a good job of making you feel like a real glass cannon.

Unfortunately, the combat’s lack of depth isn’t helped by the dearth of variety. Enemy types are limited to normal soldiers, soldiers in suits that negate your time powers, and finally heavily-armoured soldiers that you need to circumnavigate to shoot at the weak spot on their back. Add in the linear, boring design of the arenas you’ll find yourself in, and after a while the game feels very repetitive.

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Quantum Break is flush with non-combat sections, navigating (unfortunately underused and easy) environmental puzzles and a strong focus on storytelling through whatever narrative objects you can find in the world. Like in Alan Wake, the quality of this optional content is very high, and while it took me the better part of the game’s first Act to settle into the rhythm of reading reams of this content, I was soon lapping it up with fervour. Remedy really has a talent for storing both important revelations and frivolous amusement in their side content to enrich their world and characters. I particularly overjoyed by a series of emails in which a character outlines his manuscript for a schlocky Sci-Fi action movie called “Time Knife”.

However, slower expository sections are plagued with the same issue that afflicts a lot of games: the Slow Walk. I don’t know why Remedy, and every other studio that does the same, thinks it’s a good idea to arbitrarily limit the player’s movement for minutes at a time, but the shift in pace is maddening and in a game that encourages the player to seek out every nook and cranny for delicious detail, it’s not a design decision that promotes exploration.

A lot of the buzz surrounding this game surrounds the fact that Remedy actually produced a professionally-shot series of live-action episodes that comprise the “Quantum Break show”. These focus not on Jack Joyce but rather revolve around a cast of side characters forking for Monarch Solutions. Making use of the same actors whose voices and likenesses are lent to their digital counterparts, the show is pretty good. It’s not an especially high-budget affair, with a production quality equalling that of a particularly accomplished web series rather than that of a network show. Nevertheless, the actors acquit themselves admirably, none more so than the incomparable Aidan Gillen who creates a deliciously nuanced antagonist (I refuse to label him a villain) in Paul Serene. Performances are really good all around, though, and Remedy’s record of blending digital and live-action imagery reduces potential dissonance between the video game and the show.

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Events in the game and the show are both affected by information you gather and decisions made in the game. At the end of each Act, control shifts briefly from protagonist to antagonist as Paul Serene is forced to make a decision between two courses of action. As bizarre-a proposition it is to shape the kind of man your main antagonist is rather than the protagonist, it’s also an effective insight into the the character and the decisions he must make.

The nature of the storyline branching with Paul Serene’s decisions could be criticised for the lack of effect on actual events, save for the fate of some minor characters. I don’t really mind this, though, since Quantum Break’s narrative is rife with themes of determinism and inevitability.

Quantum Break is overall a very linear affair. Environments don’t feel as open or “natural” as the areas Alan Wake’s Bright Springs presented us with, and while the game places us in exquisitely detailed environments, there is a certain lack of variety to proceedings. You’ll fight through samey grimy urban environments and sterile offices, rendered with a predominantly grey or white palette. Perhaps I’m noticing it more because we’ve been so spoiled for colourful releases recently in The Witness, Firewatch, and Stardew Valley. It’s a shame because Alan Wake’s atmosphere was deliriously thick with character and tension, but the areas of Quantum Break lack that personality.

This relative blandness does, however, emphasise the spectacle of the fantastic, and the game offers the fantastic with aplomb. Shifts and manipulations of time are paired with trademark ripples of clean-shatter particle effects that ooze style. As time stutters and shudders, the whole world twists and shifts around you with an unnerving, almost sickening quality. Sometimes you’ll progress through levels mid-stutter, humans frozen and airborne objects hanging suspended. I was impressed that such objects would shift and continue to hang in the air should you brush up against them. You’re not the only one with the ability to move undisturbed by stutters, however: Monarch soon employs Striker teams equipped with stutter proof suits. These foes pose extra danger since your time stop ability doesn’t affect them, neutering a major offensive ability of yours. Taking these more difficult foes out feels all the more rewarding as they pirouette and freeze midair, their vital packs leaking neon-yellow fuel like lifeblood.

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Even the sound design hammers home the reality-breaking effect of your abilities. The sounds of battle and the soundtrack itself warp and change when you trigger your abilities, punctuating each outburst of your powers with a rush of auditory energy.

Quantum Break’s crowning achievement is its story. The game presents us with a high-concept and deeply thought-out Sci-Fi narrative with a fascinating antagonist in Paul Serene and an interesting and well fleshed-out cast of side characters from both the show and the game proper. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unfulfilled promise, though. There are some revelations that aren’t pulled off with enough gravitas to feel important and while I respect Remedy’s dedication to preserving some mystery, I’d like to have been able to peek behind the curtain of some developments a bit more before the end of the game.

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But the weakest link by far in this story is the protagonist. Although Shawn Ashmore provides a strong performance, Jack Joyce is an uninteresting cipher. His ability to blow away Monarch soldiers with ease (and seemingly without care) is explained through hints of a criminal background that I’d like to have seen explored. All of the shielded vulnerability and complex rebellions of the younger Jack that are alluded to in some of the side content are absent in the man we control through Quantum Break’s shooting gallery. Jack is undoubtedly stubborn and determined to rage against the odds, but that’s not interesting. Alan Wake was an average, troubled, fearful, flawed character. Jack Joyce is just another bestubbled guy with a gun, and not a very interesting character to inhabit.

Quantum Break is an excellent and thought-provoking narrative wrapped up in a competent game. The quality of the writing and world building, as well as the relatively high-quality live action segments, build a compelling narrative that makes me wish for more. With slightly more deep mechanics, more variety of play and simply more time to let the story breathe, Quantum Break could’ve been something very special indeed. As it is, I’m not sure it’s much more than a memorable oddity.

Day One Updates (Halo 5, Don’t You Want Me?)


As I write this introductory sentence, it’s 01:01AM Wednesday morning, the 28th of October 2015. I’ve formed the habit of glancing at my TV for the last couple of hours, because Halo 5 has a 9GB day one update. See, I work from 12 noon to 8PM, it takes about an hour to get home, another couple of hours to cook and eat tea as well as have some much-needed interaction with my housemates. I knew it’d take a while for the game to install; I set off the process several hours ago, but for some reason by Xbox One waited for me to try to launch the game before telling me that a 9GB update is required to play the game.

I could have gone offline and continued update-less, but since games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 have crucial single player content locked in their day 1 updates, I feel more inclined to launch with the most up-to-date version available to me.

I understand the usefulness of day one updates. I know there’s a substantial window of time between sending a game off for certification, manufacture, et cetera and the actual release date of the game, within which window the developers are able to squirrel away at fixing bugs and the like. That’s a fine and useful way to use day one updates. It’s also understandable to gate multiplayer modes in day one patches to stop people who manage to get their hands on the game earlier than the general public from zooming ahead of everyone else.

Another argument is that day one updates allow for developers to ignore disc storage restrictions, but that can be fixed by splitting content between several discs if needs be. If you’re releasing a AAA game, it’s not that much of a monetary stretch to print extra discs. You can even funnel the money from the deals with Mountain Dew that everyone mocks you for.

But 9GB? For some people with fast internet connections due to geographical or economical reasons, that’s a paltry amount of data. For everyone else, though, it’s a royal pain in the unmentionables. I’ll admit that my work hours limit the amount of evening playtime available to me, but a system that gives the game a three hour slot to install itself on the day of purchase, and yet fails to meet that timeframe, is not a good system.

We’re increasingly moving away from a place where the majority of a gaming experience can be enjoyed without an internet connection, or where gamers have to passively jump through hoops for potentially hours just to enjoy their new purchases. It’s a complicated issue with lots of niggling caveats on both sides, but what I think the core of the matter lies in the question: “Does the player benefit in any meaningful way despite having their access to said product arbitrarily restricted by their internet connection, when the problem can be worked around in other ways?”

It’s now 01:23 and I don’t think there’s been another percent of progress yet. I know my answer.

Image credits: forbes.com