That may sound weird. Gears of War as a string has handled accusations of hyper-masculine excess and an focus on gore and violence because it was first announced a lot more than a decade ago. And it’s not that those observations are wrong, accurately – the characters will always be bigger than life, the men specifically wide and heavy, and the violence of the series is definitely extreme and enthusiastic. But beneath as well as in parallel compared to that aspect, there’s been regular themes of friendship, of relationships of support and camaraderie that could appear corny generally in most other games but, somehow, work in Gears of War for a separate fanbase.

New Gears developer The Coalition’s job with Gears of War 4 is many-fold. To bring the series back again to relevancy five years after it last had a direct effect; to serve as a standard-bearer for the Xbox platform; to legitimately lay claim to a house started by another studio. And, maybe, to accomplish something fresh with a string that appeared to reach its logical endpoint.

Oh, and make a great gaming.

The Coalition doesn’t succeed on all fronts. Gears of War 4 sometimes appears to have significantly more ideas than it has time or bandwidth to explore. This often results in a casino game that feels as though a refined reboot instead of something truly new or different. But Gears of War 4 serves as a powerful statement of intent, bringing Gears forward and competing with the present day vanguard of competitive shooters.

It’s also a hell of lots of fun.

As Gears of War 4 begins, decades have passed because the people narrowly survived the Locust War (with a good, playable history lesson that provides a short timeline of events). Following the events of Gears of War 3, the Locust threat was over, and humanity commenced to rebuild.

The line running right through Gears of War 4 is family

The survivors of the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or Cog, are in cities closely supervised by a government with a good grip in place. That is partly to guarantee the survival of a people almost snuffed out by the Locust War – the world is packed with propaganda that tells its story, like books and posters espousing the heroism and service of breeding for future years of the species. However, some survivors live beyond your walls of large, robot-built cities at odds with the Cog, participating in raids on certain Cog storehouses for supplies and moving into circumstances of cold-ish war.

Sitting somewhere within these factions is J.D. Fenix and his best friend Del Walker, who’ve gone AWOL from the Cog and joined an outsider group with their friend Kait Diaz. However when a mysterious new threat invades their settlement and steals away their family and friends, J.D and his companions visit the only neutral party they are able to think about to find help – J.D.’s father and Gears of War protagonist Marcus Fenix.

Gears of War 4 is a far more focused, less sprawling story compared to the last few entries, following a three friends through the forests and ruins of Old Sera because they look for their family and friends. It feels more action-horror than action sci-fi, and it could be as enthusiastically violent as previous games – sometimes a lot more so, as there’s a lot more combat chatter than before and J.D. is a less morose lead than Marcus ever was. However the line running right through Gears 4 is, as I discussed earlier, family. Considerable time is spent exploring the strained relationship between Marcus and his son, with a whole lot of perspective on both sides of the equation.

Meanwhile, Kait’s relationship with her mother Reyna and uncle Oscar gets some space to grow and develop aswell. And J.D., Del and Kait’s relationship also gets a whole lot of room to build up and grow – it’s not really a two-way street just how it often was in previous Gears games. If anything, my main character disappointment is Del, who gets little in the form of any character backstory or history, apart from being childhood friends with J.D. and having a less contentious relationship with Marcus.

The game’s overarching story works more effectively than its predecessors and even almost every other action games in recent memory, partly because it’s comparatively simple. J.D., Cait and Del need to get their friends back, and they’re following breadcrumbs to accomplish it. I also appreciated minor touches elsewhere, like small story occasions that are optionally triggered that subsequently affect later conversations slightly. It’s not game-changing, nonetheless it was a good touch.

Gears of War 4’s story and character time works aswell as it does for many reasons. The writing is matter-of-fact, avoiding over-stoicism and in addition overwrought fluff generally. In addition, it helps that Gears of War 4 is stunning. It’s easily the very best looking game on Xbox One, and numerous brightly lit daylight environments and a flood of color everywhere else, particularly deep reds and greens, take away the “muddy” and “monochromatic” qualifiers which were often flung at the initial Gears of War and its own sequels. From kinetic setpieces that feel ripped from action adventure franchises like Uncharted to quieter occasions often pierced by brilliant storms in the length, Gears of War 4 stands next to any other release this season.

But unlike a great many other action games, Gears of War 4 gives you time to explore spaces without fighting. Encounters can frequently be spaced apart by minutes, instead of seconds, rather than usually by cutscenes. The Gears of War series is definitely good at this, however the Coalition takes things a step further, often throwing red herrings the right path about whenever a fight might use. Previously, cover objects located strategically always meant a fight was going to start. In Gears of War 4, the overall game could just be fucking together with your head. It brings about a far more refined but evidently present sense of combat tension.

When that combat breaks out, Gears of War 4 strikes a solid balance of familiarity and experimentation. If you’ve played other Gears of War games, then your basics ought to be easy. You’ll have to count on cover-based gunplay and smart, strategic positioning throughout each combat scenario. Movement is incredibly smooth, and Gears of War 4 feels as though an all natural evolution of the series that commenced modern in-game cover systems as we realize them – regardless if Gears of War 4 is a clear step back from its immediate predecessor in a single notable regard, as campaign co-op play only supports two players.

It was simple to fall back to old muscle memory and appreciate how complex Gears’ combat is. The active reload system is a subtle but regular consideration in firefights with real effects in-game, for instance. Companion AI is greatly improved from previous games – I rarely felt screwed or boxed in by my computer-controlled teammates, which is such a universal problem in games with AI partners that its minimal occurrence here’s worth noting.

Gears of War 4 also refines and expands on the sense of push, pull and defend at the job in combat scenarios. I felt less safe sitting in virtually any one spot for lots of moments, because there are so many enemies with method of overwhelming a posture, whether through raw assault or weapons that circumvent any site-specific protection.

The brand new antagonists in Gears 4 underline this. DBs, automated robotic enforcers commanded by the COG government as a pacification force, are markedly unique of previous Gears enemies. Their patterns of aggression are incredibly not the same as the wilier Locust of previous games (and enough time I spent shooting at the brand new monstrous antagonists the Swarm). They fight in waves and also have little sense of self-preservation generally, which they replace by taking a whole lot of hits and, regarding larger foes, suicidal rushes once they’ve hit a specific damage threshold.

The Swarm has their own sense of give and take, and their biology has interesting effects on the battlefield. Most are born from fleshy pods all over the world, which can be utilised as cover – if the pod takes an excessive amount of damage, it’ll burst. If you’re lucky, that pod will be empty. If you’re not, things could easily get much more interesting in a rush.

Due to all this, Gears of War 4 feels more vigorous than other third-person shooters, including its predecessors. Environmental factors are also a much bigger factor these times. In the aftermath of the prior Gears games’ campaign against the Locust and the near destruction of the earth of Sera, the atmosphere is in circumstances of revolt, leading to powerful and destructive windstorms. In-game, it has various effects, from the cosmetic – i.e., plenty of rustling of vegetation and foliage, which looks great, but doesn’t do much – to the more dramatic regarding its influence on game mechanics. Wind can grow violently strong, which influences projectile weapons like Boomshots and grenades. In better weather, it is possible to destroy some support structures to trigger environmental violence on your own enemies (or yourself, if you’re not careful).

Most of these factors are woven together right into a game that’s, at a simple level, a joy to play. The guns are differentiated and interesting, each using its own quirks and use cases, and the feedback loop of shooting and hitting your target and nailing a dynamic reload and shooting more is incredibly strong. Gears of War 4 could possibly be much less complex in its environment design and enemy behaviors and it could be fun to shoot things. There are even multiple boss fights in the overall game that aren’t miserable guessing games punctuated by death, which another shooter beats its head against.

However, not every idea is prosperous. The huge battlefields that often defined Gears of War 3 are replaced by smaller arenas. This doesn’t make the Gears of War 4 less fun – there are a great number of great firefights waiting to occur, and big, fun moments. Nonetheless it can’t help but feel scaled back, which, in a sequel, could be a hard thing to reconcile.

I possibly could also see spots where in fact the Coalition seemingly considered adding major new mechanics and enemy dynamics but drew back. For instance, later in the overall game, there’s one scene where DBs are fighting the Swarm, so when you become involved, it becomes a three-way battle. But this never happens again. Similarly, a cutscene shows a bizarre interaction between a specific sort of Swarm creature and some type of DB, however the thread is dropped rather than picked back up again. And at a few points in the overall game, attempts are created to fold in factors of Horde mode, Gears of War’s wave-based survival staple, but they are arguably only successful half enough time, and take into account around 30-40 minutes of a casino game that took me eight-and-a-half hours to play