October 12, 2016 - 5:49 AM
Marcus Fenix is too old for this ... well, you know the drill.
Fortunately, the hero of Microsoft's "Gears of War" franchise has a son, JD, who's more than happy to pick up dad's old weapons. So as "Gears of War 4" (Microsoft, for the Xbox One, PC, $59.95) begins, it's fresh-faced JD and friends fighting the dictatorial Coalition of Governments on the planet Sera.
Sera may look at lot different to "Gears" fans who are used to seeing it swarming with Locusts, the insectoid killing machines that Marcus and company wiped out in earlier games. Not to worry: You can't keep a good monster down, and before long JD and his team are trying to rescue their loved ones from fresh mutations.
There are some creatively vicious critters in this new batch: One will swallow you whole and start digesting unless your squad-mates bust you out. And there are fresh weapons, like a gun that fires razor-tipped discs that bounce from foe to foe.
But "Gears 4" quickly falls into a familiar rhythm of firefights, initially against COG droids, then against the re-awakened, increasingly powerful bugs. Veterans know the routine: find cover, shoot, reload, move to the next cover, repeat.
It's a somewhat stale formula, broken up by the occasional mission where you're defending a village rather than taking the fight to the monsters. I found the single-player campaign tedious and repetitive until the very end, when it finally picks up some momentum — only to end rather abruptly.
Still, "Gears" aficionados will regard the campaign as a mere appetizer to multiplayer action. "Gears 4" delivers a beefy menu of online competition, with reliable standbys like Deathmatch and King of the Hill. There are some nifty new twists: In Dodgeball, a downed warrior can return to the battlefield if an opposing player is killed, while in Arms Race, your weapons are upgraded after every three kills.
If you're in a more co-operative mood, Horde mode lets you team up with four other humans to fight off 50 waves of droids and beasts, with a particularly nasty boss every 10th round. "Gears 4" adds classes to the mix, so you can focus on long-range sniping, building defensive turrets and barricades, or leaping into the fray with your chain saw-equipped gun.
Beyond the Marcus-JD family drama, "Gears 4" represents a changing of the guard in other ways. Franchise creator Epic Games has moved on, leaving the series in the hands of a Microsoft-based development team called The Coalition.
The new generation has done a worthy job upholding Epic's legacy. The weapons have distinctive heft and power, the enemies feel suitably squishy and the entire project looks spectacular.
Still, this is real meat-and-potatoes gaming that doesn't evolve much beyond "go there and shoot that." ''Gears" fans will be satisfied; anyone seeking a brainier challenge can move along. Two-and-a-half stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter @lkesten.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016