Gears of War was one of those franchises that emerged almost fully-formed. A confident, ferocious co-op shooter set in a gloomy yet bro-tastic world where everything was a little outsized and a distorted guitar riff signalled enemy defeat, Gears was a hit. Many imitators equally obsessed with waist-high walls and ultra-violence popped up, but none could match the mechanics or heavy metal meets fantasy vibe of Gears.

That's because although it seems simple, a Gears game is a very specific entity treading a number of very fine lines. You can't mess with the formula too much without getting too camp, too silly, or too serious – something franchise steward The Coalition is all too aware of. Although Gears 4 marks the beginning of a new saga, studio head Rod Fergusson's first rule was that the game had to feel like Gears. But it couldn't just feel like any of the Gears titles – the studio wanted to return to the dark, tense uncertainty of the original game.

A New Generation

Gears 4 is set 25 years after the Locust War. Imulsion is gone, so Sera's remaining human population relies on wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources. Most humans live in large cities under the watch of a new Coalition of Ordered Governments led by an almost dictatorial First Minister Jinn. However, some feel too much freedom has been relinquished in the name of security at these cities, and so choose to beyond their walls as Outsiders. Upset with the treatment he received as a COG soldier, Gears hero Marcus Fenix is one such man, and it is at his ranch – the start of the game's second act – that our hands-on session begins.

The first thing I can't help but notice are the game's vibrant colours. The natural world is recovering after the war, and according to studio head Rod Fergusson, that shifted the series' art ambitions from 'destroyed beauty' to 'reclaimed beauty'. Gone is the brown-on-brown aesthetic of the original trilogy, replaced by a wider colour palette that includes some vibrant greens, blues, and pinks. It's a visual treat. I'm playing single player in the role of Marcus's son JD, who alongside his friends Kait and Del was present when a new mutant threat called the Swarm attacked a nearby village, kidnapping everyone else present.

Among the disappeared was Kait's mother, but it seems that wasn't enough to prevent suspicion falling on our heroic trio, so now they are seeking help from a somehow even more grizzled Marcus Fenix. As outsiders are being blamed for the disappearances, a COG army soon shows up in the form of a pile of robots called DeeBees – somewhat dim-witted machines presumably created by Judgment protagonist Damon Baird. Negotiations quickly fail, and the chainsawing begins.

Gone is the brown-on-brown aesthetic of the original trilogy, replaced by a wider colour palette that includes some vibrant greens, blues, and pinks. It's a visual treat.
Gears of War 4 hands-on
Gears of War 4 hands-on

The second thing I can't help but notice is the campaign's glorious destruction. Some cover is now completely destructible, but even stuff that isn't is torn up by bullets. Paired with some stunning weather effects – which see flailing enemies cartwheeling into chasms, bullets curving, and debris flying across the screen – this adds another layer of verisimilitude to the hostile world.

Combat is instantly familiar, but it has seen some refinements. You can now hop over cover without breaking stride, and if there happens to be an enemy on the other side, he'll be kicked in the face and momentarily stunned, allowing you to dispatch him quickly and easily. There's also the 'yank 'n' shank', whereby an enemy is pulled over cover from your side of it, then aerated with a knife.

Most of the new weapons distinguish themselves well enough. My favourites are the a boxy four-barrel Overkill shotgun, which is great for panicked up-close enemy liquidation; and the Buzzkill, an improbable mix of tool and gun that fires high damage ricocheting sawblades. It's the kind of gun a kid comes up with: "it fires spikes for extra damage!", but it's massively fun to use. I find less use for the Markza rifle and Enforcer SMG, the good ol' Lancer proving a more than adequate substitute for both.

The larger DeeBees are the more interesting ones: towering, heavy robots that close distance quickly by jump-jetting over cover, while drones and even helicopters pepper the ground with machine gun fire and missiles. They're all fun to battle, and all explode in especially satisfying ways.

This wouldn't be a Gears game without a clumsy vehicle section or two, and one is provided early on by a motorcycle escape sequence that somehow seems too ridiculous even for the Gears universe. It's one of a few moments that breaks the otherwise serious (for a Gears game) mood, but the moment of levity is appreciated. The Coalition says it is aiming for intense, mysterious, heavy, brutal, and intimate, and it has broadly succeeded – notably by ratcheting up the body horror by introducing a new enemy faction, the Swarm.

Gears of War 4 hands-on
Gears of War 4 hands-on

Some of the Swarm feel like Locust by another name. Juvies are essentially Wretches with a penchant for parkour, drones are Locust drones that have been sneezed on, and larger enemies are substitutes for the Boomers and Butchers from other games.

However, there are some great new additions including the Pouncer, a large panther-style creature which knocks you out of cover and if you aren't careful will dive on you and eat you; and the snatcher, which swallows you whole. Both increase your reliance on co-op partners and/or AI teammates, with teamwork something The Coalition wanted to encourage.

"We were always looking for emergent co-op mechanics," says lead campaign designer Matt Searcy. "It's important to us that we have a great solo campaign, but all the time we were looking for: it's awesome solo but better in co-op. Co-op doesn't make it easier, it just makes it more fun."

The Coalition is hoping the game's competitive modes appeal to a wide range of players, from new to pro level

I played about 40 percent of the campaign, so I can't make any massively declarative statements about its story, but shooty-shooty-wise, it's money. Shit blows up real good, and looks great doing so. Having finished early, I managed some hands-on time on the game's PC version as well. Admittedly, I was on a grunty PC with a high end Nvidia card within (almost all of the game's bazillion graphics options were turned up to ultra), but it's a special looking title for sure. As you’d expect, it’s much clearer and sharper on PC than Xbox One, and there's a distinct lack of motion blur.

I also managed a couple of chapters of the game on Hardcore difficulty, which made the game more enjoyable thanks to much more aggressive enemies. "There's this menagerie of enemies that look crazy and different, but each one has a very specific role, a thing it can do to the player – sometimes two or three things," lead campaign designer Matt Searcy says. "That's what creates a puzzle of an encounter, and that's the reason I think the game shines at the higher difficulty levels. Some games at a higher difficulty level are whack-a-mole but faster. But I think in our game it becomes more strategic, and the decisions you make become way more important, because when the game gets harder everything from your cover movement to when you choose to be aggressive to what weapon you choose is part of the puzzle, part of the enjoyment of solving an encounter."

bring a friend

Gears of War 4 hands-on
Gears of War 4 hands-on

"Generally campaign rules them all and you have these two stepchildren," Fergusson says. "For Gears 4, we had full engineering team for all three pillars [campaign, Horde, competitive] from the very beginning. We want all three aspects of the game to feel highly polished and balanced and are of equal value."

The Coalition is hoping the game's competitive modes appeal to a wide range of players, from new to pro level, and as such, has instituted a tier system. It has also tuned up its matchmaking, created a ton of maps, allowed private matches that can include crossplay, and will avoid splitting the community with DLC maps by keeping two in free rotation and only requiring one of a match's 10 players to own a map for it to be available. It is also opening up e-sports to everyone via a points system that allows you to qualify for major tournaments just by playing in you lounge, and there's a new mode, co-op versus, that pits up to five humans against only bots. Training wheels, if you like.

The first versus mode we play is Escalation, a mode designed for e-sports. Three objectives are up for capture, and you win by accumulating 210 points or by nabbing all three – a sweet rule that allows for come-from-behind victories regardless of the score. It's a first-to-seven matches type deal, and the team that loses a round gets to place a weapon on one of a few neutral spots. Then respawn timers increase by two seconds, and the next round begins. The Coalition calls the mode "purposefully complex", but it's easy to see that some great stories will emerge from Escalation, and even though we were soundly defeated, I really enjoyed it.

Next up was Arms Race, a goofier mode where everyone starts with a Boomshot, and once your team has three kills with that weapon, it automatically swaps out for something else, and so on. You move down through 13 weapons in total, ended up with the Boltok pistol. You get some hilarious match-ups, like when one group has sniper rifles and the other has pistols, and because the weapons generally become less powerful, it's easy to gain lost ground late-game. To call it chaos is an understatement.

The final mode we played was Dodgeball, a ruthless mode where once you die, you're out… unless someone on your team gets a kill, bringing you back into the game. Teamwork here is crucial, and 4v1 situations quickly turn around if the majority team isn't careful. It's a tense mode that rewards conservative play and staying close to your teammates, and I loved it (and not only because we largely dominated).

As far as versus goes, I feel like The Coalition has been really smart with game modes, and really tried to avoid the scenario where only those that play 24/7 are in with a chance. All the modes we played had great comeback mechanics, allowed even the worst players to contribute, and encouraged team work. You can't ask for more than that. I'm even excited about the new spectate tools, a powerful suite of camera options that were made with casting in mind. "Hopefully all those things will ground the viewers so the game is much more understandable," says Fergusson.

applaud horde

It's obvious from what I've seen of Gears 4 that The Coalition has put a lot of effort into every mode, but for me personally, Horde alone will be worth getting the game for. This time, the mode is built around your team's Fabricator, which does everything from constructing defences to supplying guns to bringing back teammates. It runs on power that is dropped by defeated enemies (don't think about this part too hard), and like everything you lay down, it can be relocated whenever you like, and upgraded too.

Gears of War 4 hands-on

There are classes in Horde now which I was initially very dubious about, but as noted in my sprawling interview with The Coalition, the fact that you can level up and unlock various skills now actually allows you to play right through Horde with things like a sniper build. One class you'll definitely need is the Engineer. Anyone can build defences, reload sentry guns, and repair fortifications, but the Engy can do it for a lot less power, so he or she usually just roams close to the Fabricator and keeps the base intact.

Likewise, anyone can pick up power from downed foes, but the Scout gets double the power for doing so with one caveat: they must collect the power while enemies are still around rather than between waves. That sees them making risky runs out into the open between adversaries to get that precious juice, so when I played, I upgraded my shotgun damage and health to be something a close combat machine as well. Elsewhere, the Sniper, Heavy, and Soldier classes all get bonuses with certain weapons, as well as their own skills and upgrades, of course.

There are also bonus objectives that give you supply drops, and you can construct a weapons locker that allows you to save good weapons until you really need ‘em. The locker also slowly refills and reloads weapons, which is great if you have two sniper rifles – you never run out of ammo!

Anyone who knows my history with Gears and co-op in general won't be surprised to learn that I absolutely love the new Horde mode. It's much more fleshed-out and replayable than before, but still easy to dive into, and I can't wait to get five people in the same room for a massive LAN session. Interviews pulled me away from it too often and we only made it to level 48, so I'm keen to beat 50 and then do it all again on a different map or with a different class.

Huge Difference Really

Before I go, I've got to mention HDR. Available on newer TVs, it's a technology that in lay terms makes things look substantially better. It only works for games that support it, though, but Gears 4 does. "It's incredible what it does for the image, but there's an art support side to it as well, it's not just the technology," Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson says. "When we first turned on HDR, there were a bunch of artefacts and we were like, 'Oh! This is what happens when you turn on HDR when you haven't prepared for it!' So we had to go in and solve some real problems in terms of how do we do art that can handle LDR and HDR? But, it's definitely worth playing in HDR."

Gears of War 4 hands-on

Having seen Gears 4 running with half the screen HDR and half not, I'm happy to give it a big endorsement. It makes a huge difference, to the point where detail that is not present without HDR can be easily discerned. It was very noticeable, especially displaying bright things like the moon, fire, and reflections in armour. "Everybody says the same thing, which is: you can talk about 4K all you want, but the real game-changer is HDR," says creative director Chuck Osieja. "It's a thing that when you look at it, you actually see the difference between the two. It's amazing."

I've played enough of Gears of War 4 close enough to release that I feel like this could almost be a review, and in case it's not obvious, it would be a positive one. I never even finished Judgment, and was feeling pretty burned out on the series in general, but now I feel reinvigorated. It's awesome to see that the game's PC version is getting a ton of attention from The Coalition as well – along with Forza Horizon 3, it's a great game for UWP to have in its collection, and it's a Play Anywhere title to boot.

"As a new studio working on Gears, it was very important for us to make sure we created a confidence in the fans that we understand what Gears is, that we love Gears the same way that they do, and that we're gonna take care of their baby the same way they would," creative director Chuck Osieja told me in Vancouver. I think any fears I had have been put to rest, Chuck. I hope others feel the same.

Matt was flown to Vancouver to check out Gears 4 courtesy of Microsoft.