Monday, January 23, 2017

Review: Gears of War 4 (PC)

Over the last few years, Microsoft's been increasingly making rational business decisions. One of the less seemingly rational ones, however, is the introduction of XBox Play Anywhere. The idea is that if you bought an XBox game, you'd be able to play it on both an XBox and a Windows 10 PC (well, a PC that had a decent graphics card, at least). In theory, this is a nice perk for folks who've bought completely into the Microsoft eco-system. Except that I don't know why you'd have both a high-end graphics card PC system and an XBox.

There are several problems with this: first of all, if you have a capable PC, this definitely means you won't buy an XBox. Maybe Microsoft doesn't care, or maybe it's just a side effect. The second issue is that the PC ecosystem is still wonky. Some games, (e.g., Quantum Break), may or may not play on your system.

In any case, I wouldn't normally pay the absurd prices digital vendors ask for consumables such as video games. But over the holidays, Microsoft ran a series of Microsoft Reward specials that enabled me to convert Microsoft Rewards points to cash for the Microsoft App store. Since I had 20,000+ points, I took full advantage and ended up with a large app store bonus. The Microsoft app store, sadly is lacking in useful programs, so I picked up Gears of War 4.

Gears of War 4 belongs to my favorite genre of shooter games: the 3rd person cover-shooter. Gears of War has the reputation for being the series that introduced this genre to the world, so I downloaded the multi-gigabyte download to my D drive and started up the app. PC gaming has a reputation for being very complex, requiring lots of tweaking and tuning in order to maximize image quality while still retaining a high enough frame rate to be acceptable. To my surprise, out of the box, the app detected my system settings and picked a compromise that I could not casually improve in about 10 minutes of playing with the dials and sliders available in the settings screen. That made me feel like Microsoft had really done its homework.

Then, when I started up the game, upon the opening titles starting up, the game crashed. Not only did it crash, it crashed without a dialog box, without a log file for me to look at, or even any indication that there was anything wrong. The system snapped back to the desktop as though I'd quit using a keyboard short-cut. Not cool. I searched around for a solution but couldn't find an answer. I eventually stumbled upon this: a Universal Windows Program (UWP) game cannot be installed onto any drive other than C in order to run. What's this? Did we regress to the mid-1990s, where everything had to be installed into the C drive? Wow.

Other than that, the program had been mostly stable. In the last act of the single player campaign I ran into hard system crashes, but then again, my 8 year old PC is starting to get flakey in general, so maybe that's to be expected. In any case, once I figured out the C drive issue I could play, but I can certainly understand how the PC gaming ecosystem got its reputation as being unfriendly or even user-hostile, on top of being expensive and bulky.

The game itself is fun. Here you have to split your understanding between "fun as a game" and "fun as a movie experience." Games nowadays have movies driving a plot in between playable parts. Games like Uncharted 4, The Last of Us, or Batman Arkham Asylum have excellent plots, fantastic pacing, and a nice balance between game play and movie watching so you're never bored and have a good experience. A game like Rise of Tomb Raider might have better game play (including more complex but satisfying resource management systems), but much worse writing and plotting. Gears of War pretty much says, "Forget the story --- it's just an excuse to dump you into the Game Play loop."

Gears of War's game play loop, however is pretty bland! There are no resource management issues: you fundamentally have to pick up ammo or switch weapons. Sometimes the weapons left for you on the battlefield are a hint as to what's coming up. Several times, you have to play a "hold the line" scenario, in which you can deploy fortifications which can help you hold the line and even carry over resources from one wave of enemies to another. These are particularly fun and can withstand repeated play. But that's it. Now it's been a while since I got a cover shooter to play, so I had a lot of fun, but there's no way you would pick up an XBox just for this game, nor would you even bother paying money for it, since it's something other games do a much better job on. Nevertheless, as a freebie, it's a game that doesn't waste a lot of time, jumps straight into what it does best, and gives you loads to do.

There are a few mechanical niceties. First of all, the game always gives you at least one companion character at all times to play. Those companion characters can even take care of themselves and each other, as well as saving you if you get hurt badly (you can also crawl back to one of them to get "rescued."). Then I noticed the enemies doing the same, so the mechanics apply to them as well. Very sweet. The game is much less lonely than a Batman game or a Tomb Raider game as a result, which is a very good thing.

The story and characters aren't much to go by, though some of the banter is great at making fun of the game itself. The boss fights are fair, and the game never overstays its gimmicks. In short, this is competent, polished work. Just not inspired. If you have an XBox One (or a gaming capable PC) anyway, a sale might make this worth picking up. And it is one of the few games where configuring the graphics settings isn't an exercise in frustration. As such, I can recommend it if you enjoy 3rd person cover shooters.

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