'Gears of War 4' campaign bigger, familiar, a family affair

Passing the torch ... er ... lancer.

The Gears franchise is back with new lead characters, larger enemies and giant robots. In short, “Gears of War 4” is bigger than ever.

There is still a lot that is familiar to Gears fans. The look of armor and equipment hasn’t really changed at all, so diving into the action is easy, powerful and as frantic as always.

But it is a new generation of Gears as three characters take the lead in the franchise. It is also a bit more lighthearted overall with the banter than in the past.

Marcus is going to show the new kids how it is done. Are they ready to pick up the mantle?

The Locust threat has been squashed, but it came at a terrible price. The game starts off through some flashbacks of important battles and bridging the gap between “Gears of War 3” and this title.

Peace appears to have blanketed the land, but in truth, conflict between the haves of the Coalition of Ordered Goverments (COG) and the have-nots of the outer settlements flares from time to time over scarce energy resources. This is where the new characters, James “J.D.” Fenix, son of Marcus Fenix, Kait Diaz and Del Walker, step in and move the game forward.

While familiar faces do return to the game, the focus is squarely on these three, telling a story of survival, danger, and family ties. Indeed, about 2/3 of the storyline is concentrated on a missing family member.

The weapons are very familiar with the typical grinder, lancer and others available in the player’s armory. A few new ones offer some long distance punch with a Buzzkill that fires off ricocheting, spinning saw blades and a Dropshot weapon that shoots out a bomb with pinpoint precision.

There are also some new moves players can pull off. Enemies can now be drug across barriers and finished off with a kill move easily. Of course, the enemies can do the same thing to players, so act quickly if you are up close with just a cover barrier separating the distance.

Because the world is undergoing reconstruction after the wars, heavy equipment is also available for players to use to their advantage. A mine loader makes quick work of enemies while a huge mech robot offers protect and extensive firepower.

Weather also can play major role in combat. Wind flares create hurricane force winds, affecting shots, creating opportunities with flying debris, and generally making movement hard. There are also deadly lighting strike associated with the storms that linger on the ground, creating an electrical minefield for players to traverse.

The enemies will seem very familiar, but there are some notable additions. The Swarm behave so much like the Locust that players will think they are just reskinned foes. The lesser Swarm creatures do give off that vibe, using weapons or charge abilities that are reminiscent of the Locust.

There are some other creatures in the Swarm that are very new and very deadly. Snatchers have a scorpion-like tail that can one shot a player. Once the character is down, the Snatcher will rush forward and grab the downed player, drawing it up into its body to take away and become fodder for the Swarm.

As a grabbed player, there is nothing you can do to escape. You have to rely on your squad mates to deal enough damage to the Snatcher and free you.

Pounders are about the size of dogs, but they have quills in their fan-like tails with which they shoot. They also leap onto players, dragging them to the ground and slavering over them. Again, characters need to be rescued by their teammates while trying to fend off the Pounders.

If the Swarm wasn’t bad enough, the government is also after the trio, sending out robotic troops in an effort to bring them to justice. The robot attackers are fairly regimented, using cover and weapons to attack.

Two of these robotic enemies do present a different challenge. The Guardian is a flying drone with a shield that can absorb quite a bit of damage before going down. There is also a ball that fires off electricity when it gets to you. Kick it away before it can explode.

“Gears of War 4” is bigger, more dramatic and full of things that make it a worthy addition to the franchise – insane battles. The enemies don’t really feel that different from previous entries, and while there are a few notable additions to the armory, the basic weapons are just as good and familiar as they’ve always been.

“Gears 4’s” story does let us investigate a new path with new characters while bringing back some familiar faces to help the new kids along. The game does come to a very emotional ending, but it is not a finale by any stretch of the imagination.

Overall, the title feels like a half step forward, remaining relatively safe with tried and true weapons and enemy behaviors. The additional guns and foes raise the power levels in combat, but mowing down the bad guys with whatever was at hand has been the Gears way.

Perhaps this is the opening title for a new trilogy featuring J.D., Kait and Del. Perhaps there are more new challenges along the way.

Regardless of the future, “Gears of War 4” campaign does provide what Gears fans love about the franchise. Now let’s see what’s cooking in Horde 3.0.