Hands-on: Gears of War 4 is rebuilding what made the series so special to start with

The truth of Gears of War has been grossly distorted over the years. Now largely perceived - perhaps most by people who haven't partaken in a great deal of Locust extermination of their own, but by this point that hardly matters - as a blunt, brash, belligerently bro-focused shooter, more concerned with gory spectacle and generic, braggartly badassery that delivering anything for the more thoughtful shooter aficionado, in actual fact Gears of War was anything but.

It's all about the maths. The maths will be running through your head during every second of a Gears skirmish. How many seconds’ sustained fire it's going to take to drop that priority enemy. How many seconds’ exposure you can take before death. How much time might be removed from or added to the equation by the actions of other, differently tooled players on both sides of the fight. The shifting importance of each potential target, taking in everything from basic threat level, to proximity and path, to any important routes, power-ups, or positions they might block or hold. Gears of War is a constant tug of war - its claustrophobic battlefields more spatial puzzle-box than slaughterhouse - in which you pay for every move you make with a currency of risk and recalculation.

Now of course, all of these elements have been lessened or lost as the series has crashed on. Gears 2 upped the explicit spectacle but preserved the combat purity. Gears of War 3 turned the lights on, cranked up the colour, and amplified the action to full-blown war story, with a doubled four-player co-op cap that brought impressively huge battles but bloated the scale and muddied the focus. Gears ended big, but there was price. But now Gears of War is starting again, in more ways than one.

Gears of War 4 might be set 25 years later, taking in a new war against a - sort of - new enemy, but it's also resetting everything right back to day one. We'll see the instigating event this time. We’ll experience the new equivalent of Emergence Day. We'll be in this war from the very start. But most crucially, and most excitingly, we'll experience it in a way that takes the series back to its earliest values, before escalation and expectation twisted and skewed the intent of those more innocent days.

Maintaining that parallel, protagonist JD Fenix - along with his friends Kait and Del - is no grizzled, put-upon war-bastard. He's been trained by the CoG, but he's only ever lived through peace-time, and hasn't experienced an iota of the conflict that shaped his father, Marcus. And with a fresh set of eyes in-game, it's abundantly easy to see Gears of War for the first time, all over again. Without the trappings and tropes the first trilogy accrued - both narratively and systemically - it's impossible to miss the basic class and cleverness that made Gears so important in the first place.

Two-player co-op. Smaller, but vastly more demanding battles. A tiny squad trying to survive the night during a catastrophe they don't quite understand. It's Gears 1 alright, except that it's not quite. Because while this Gears of War is self-aware enough to understand the need to get back to the series’ gameplay roots, it's also aware that the journey needs to feel different.

Playing through several hours of Gears 4’s campaign, the result feels like both a perfect reinvigoration for series stalwarts, and an excellent jumping-in point for those who missed out the first time around. ‘Early’ fights - my hands-on starts mid-way into Act Two, and continues a while into the next - are classic Gears 1 and 2, aggressive battles of attritional one-upmanship with an uncanny habit of escalating to a just-manageable degree as soon I'm starting to feel too comfortable.

The pacing of such encounters is excellent. Mopped up the stragglers from a close-range skirmish in a small mansion antechamber? Now a helicopter gunship is hurling hot leaden death and rockets through a large hole in the wall. Mastered the rhythm of duck, move and retaliate needed to stay on top of that one? Oh look, a squad of robotic ground-troops are now gathering at the end of the corridor ahead. They're a way off yet, but their resilient, heavy units are steadfastly on the march, and will be here in no time if you don't get to work. Look busy. Focus. Dig in and start fighting for every advantage you can make.

Those robots are the Deebees, Gears of War 4’s new CoG faction. Created as a means of delivering a morally-clean, humanoid enemy to fight before the reveal of the game's not-quite-Locust subterranean monsters, they're anything but filler, delivering all the important tenets of Gears combat in a refreshingly remixed fashion.

Standard soldiers will mill around, reshaping available space as you appraise strategic options. The big guys will put on the pressure, pacing steadily forward while soaking up huge amounts of damage, before triggering an internal time-bomb and charging ahead when close to death. Rolling explosive units fulfill the role of Locust Wretches, flooding the ground as they rattle toward you, but vulnerable to a swift, lofting boot if you can hit B in time after letting them get close. They're a risk-and-reward meta-game all on their own.

And then, in outdoor confrontations, you'll often run into the Guardians, front-shielded, flying turrets whose unpredictable, floating attacks will force you to think about cover in vertical terms as well as the horizontal, and perpetually raise the risky question of whether it's best to grind them down slowly or make a (potentially) kamikaze run deeper into the field to flank for a faster kill.

All of Gears’ fundamentals are present and correct, but they feel fresh and new all the same. And this invigorating update doesn't stop at the combat. Throughout the mansion sequence - and a little while beyond - JD and crew are accompanied by Marcus, now a co-operative NPC, and a brilliantly grouchy one at that. Time hasn't softened the once-leader of Delta Squad, but he too feels different. He's written entirely authentically, but his context changes him.

Without the similarly doom-laden attitudes of Dom and Baird to reflect his war-weary misanthropy, he now feels like the odd man out. The passage of time and the changes on Sera become undeniably clear through his presence. JD’s status as legitimate Gears protagonist is cemented by the new, more youthful look we get at an old hero. Also, juxtaposed with the lighter, altogether better-humoured new team, Marcus is now really, really funny. It's far more than a cheap nostalgia cameo.

As we move out through the mansion grounds and fight through wave upon wave of Deebees in ever larger, but increasingly more intricate surroundings, another evolution begins to present itself. Rather than changing Gears of War through new excesses and anarchic new weapons - there are fun new Deebee guns to be had, such as the medium-range EMBAR railgun, but nothing that fundamentally changes the series’ core values, as was the case with, say, Gears 3’s cover-invalidating Digger Launcher - Gears 4 gradually but confidently transforms the rediscovered base game through subtler, more organic means.

Level design, particularly through combat areas, begins to feel far more plausible and real-world, the elaborate, carefully considered placement of Gears’ waist-high-wall cover now running through and influenced by softer and more flowing environments. Fighting upward through a broadening rural field, multiple approaches, both direct and flanking, are available - and indeed demanded by the multifaceted assault of a full-strength Deebee attack force. But fundamentally, each moment of combat feels claustrophobic, close-range, and immediate. There's no getting lost in place or purpose here. Every move I make remains deliberate and important.

A little later, I reach the first of Gears’ trademark branching path sections, where I'm forced to break up the team into two units. I opt for a straight slog through the middle, and send Kait and Del far left along a narrower raised path alongside a riverbed. A storm now kicking up, I eventually hear a call for help from the other two. They've reached a barricade and can't pass. I can't destroy it by shooting it from afar any better than they can up-close. I can, however, fire a few shots to dislodge some currently secured junk that my position allows me to see further along their path.

I do so, and the wind sends it hurtling their way, crushing everything in their path, obstruction and enemy alike. The relatively simple system underpinning this set-piece refocuses deliciously a little while later, when I get hold of the saw-blade throwing Buzzkill. With the wind raging across the skirmish area, the gun's relatively lightweight ammunition is caught in the fray, the blades’ excessive power tempered by their liability to be thrown off-course. But at the same time, careful calculation of those curving trajectories opens up a new world of climate-assisted trick-shots, with the ability to tear previously unreachable targets clean in half.

This is what's so great about Gears of War 4. By going right back to basics, by reveling in the fundamentals of what made the series so vital in the first place, it is free to expand and grow at a steady pace in exciting new directions of its own, without the pressure of “Bigger, better, and more badass”. It's more dynamic, and more freeform, but it's still entirely Gears of War at its core, evolving from that rebooted starting point in a more logical and coherent fashion that allows it to be intricate and interesting rather than flashy or flamboyant.

That ethos is crystallised an hour or so later, when I reach the end of the castle section first seen in Gears 4’s gloomy, survival-horror tinged E3 reveal in 2015. Finally able to tackle the Pouncer, the leaping, marauding, dog-meets-xenomorph-meets-scorpion beast that appeared at the end of that demo, I discover a monster that initially feels alien and out-of-place.

It can run, leap, and bound around the arena, with little respect for cover configuration. It can perch itself on high-ground, to launch three poisonous spikes from its tail at terrifying velocity. It seems a far cry from Gears’ traditional, tense but methodical game-flow. But after prolonged exposure, it too makes total sense as a new expression of ‘pure’ Gears of War.

Its ranged attack is a devastating one-shot, more than debilitating enough to command fearful respect and disciplined use of cover. Its mobility and potent heft give it an evasion-forcing rushdown power to rival anything in the series’ history to date. Its bullet-sponge armour plating and more vulnerable, rarely-seen underbelly create a rigourous system of timing and opportunity all on their own. Gears’ three key pillars of combat are all present in one single enemy, capable of delivering the complete essence of the series’ battlefield experience alone.

And just wait until you're fighting three of them at the same time.

And so Gears of War 4 continues until I'm begrudgingly forced to stop, not long after conquering a grueling battle uphill to take control of - and eventually defend - a now-fortified CoG war museum. But it's a fitting climactic set-piece. The fight takes place on open ground, but demands detailed, chess-like destruction at every range. Then, rather wonderfully, once I've made it inside, I find the new squad confronted by the CoG’s old wars, not directly but by way of numerous dioramas and exhibits, presented with a propaganda skew that those who were present would probably balk at. Again, the sense of distance and fresh perspectives is affecting.

And then the assault, as dozens of Swarm - the new not-Locust, though the closeness of their lineage is currently unknown - follow in my footsteps. Seeing the siege from the other side is fairly terrifying, though a gun turret helps. For a while. But for all of the spectacle, as rampaging hordes charge up rolling hills from distant buildings, when the shit hits, it hits as it should, by way of tight corners, a tough, relentless fight through never-quite-enough-space, and a procession of bloody wins earned through grit, strategy, wit, and intimate, thoughtful focus.

Yes, the Swarm might currently be indistinguishable from the Locust in terms of function, but that's really the point. Because sometimes you do get it right first time. And when you do, sometimes too much evolution removes something. Sometimes you need to go back to go forward, picking up what you lost along the way and building your world around it more carefully the second time through. Right now Gears of War 4 seems to be doing that with great care and insight. I've never been more excited to see more of the same.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.