There were a lot of things I wanted to hate about Gear of War 4. Its heaving machismo, which sees burly men pummel away their woes with automatic rifles. Its relentless glorification of ultraviolence, which splatters your screen with red stuff at every given opportunity. And its adherence to a now decade-old cover-based combat formula that wasn’t particularly innovative the first time around.

Then I spliced open an insect-alien thing with a chainsaw and forgot about all that. You see, Gears of War 4 is a game that knows what it’s good for and delivers this with an almighty torrent of bloodshed. It ain’t clever, but Xbox One’s latest exclusive sure is big and stupid and fun.

And I am totally OK with that.

Playing with the boys

Let’s be blunt for a moment, the only reason Gears of Wars games have a plot is to give you an excuse to blow shit up. For this reason you can’t judge GoW4 too harshly for being nigh-on impenetrable to newcomers. Basically, when you first leap into things the world of Sera is at peace, and then it all kicks off. Dramatically.

Set 25 years after the Imulsion Countermeasure weapon was released in Gears of War 3, you get to play as J.D. Fenix - the son of series stalwarts Marcus Fenix and Anya Stroud. But fear not, long-time fans: young J.D. still has a neck that’s as thick as a tree trunk and a winning way with snarky one-liners. Juvenile wit runs in the family it seems. That and a predilection for gargantuan firearms.

More so than any glorified grunt, it's these hulking chunks of lethal weaponry that are the stars of GoW4. It's no coincidence that the scene where everything clicks into place, where you think ‘now we're in business’, is set in an armoury. This game fetishises gunplay as though it's life's holy grail, and while you can rightly feel queasy about such a fawning worldview it's entirely necessary for such a reductive shooter.

Return to hell

All Fired Up

From Uncharted to Tomb Raider and Shadow of Mordor, most third-person games try to mix up combat by incorporating an element of stealth into proceedings. Otherwise you'd be running and gunning all the damned time. Being profoundly dumb at heart, GoW4 has no time for such namby-pamby nonsense.

Variety comes from the DeeBee robots and Swarm enemies you gun down, and the tools at your disposal to do this. Barely 15 mins will pass by without your being handed another emissary of destruction, and pretty much all of them are ridiculously entertaining.

As much as shotgunning a robot in the face isn't high art, developer The Coalition knows how to exact the maximum amount of gurn-inducing pleasure from this base activity. And then it’ll fling a fighter jet that's just begging to be brought earthbound your way.

After stumbling over a relatively sedate first act, GoW4’s Campaign Mode is blisteringly paced for the most part. The way waves of new foes are introduced forces you to constantly lunge forward from balcony to burnt-out car. Sitting back and hoping for the best is a sure-fire recipe for having your guts shot out in disgustingly graphic fashion.

Better than Oculus?

Everything’s better in HDR

No amount of gore can distract from the fact Gears of War 4 doesn’t really bring much that’s new to the series. There are a couple of fresh moves, such as the ability to drag an enemy from the other side of cover then stab them senseless or to leap over an obstacle and kick them in the face, but that’s about it.

Fortunately, next-gen graphics do a lot to obscure this flaw. Following on from the stunning Forza Horizon 3, it’s another exclusive title that gets the absolute best from Microsoft’s console. Especially if you’re playing on the new Xbox One S with HDR enabled.

There’s a visceral level of detail to swirling weather effects, while explosions scream out of your TV with unparalleled brightness and intensity. Although you’ll rarely have a chance to take a breather and admire GoW4’s graphical prowess, it’s truly impressive. If you’ve already gone out and bought Microsoft’s latest console, then this is an essential purchase. And for old-school Xbox One owners, it’s a far superior franchise return than last year’s Halo 5: Guardians.

eSports ahoy

As with any shooter these days, Microsoft is making a big deal about GoW4’s multiplayer. This extends well beyond a co-op campaign mode and into a slew of game modes and monthly DLC that’s free to play in public matches. Overwatch may not be quaking in its boots, but what’s on offer is satisfyingly frenetic nonetheless.

The first of the game’s fresh modes, Escalation, is intended to be as esports-friendly as possible. Designed as the successor to Gears 3’s popular Execution match-type, it sees teams engage in a multiple-round tournament of short-range combat, with both aiming for a majority win. What’s added is a tournament-style structure and fiendish distribution of special weapons.

During each round hyper-powered weaponry is left at locations across the map that must be contested by both teams. The Dropshot - something I swear I’ve had at the dentist - is one such instrument of death: it launches forward an explosive drill when the trigger is held. Upon release the pointy bomb comes careering downward to deal enormous splash damage.

The next box

Return of the Horde

Another new mode in which you’ll slay is called Dodgeball. As the name suggests, the rules are similar to the American high school game invented by Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn.

Each team begins with five players. If a player is killed they’re out of the match; the first team to be completely wiped out is the loser. It all sounds simple until the added complication: each time a team-member scores a kill, it revives a fallen ally. In other words, the opposing team has the irritating bouncebackability of an infestation of mice - fail to get rid of every last one of them and they'll come back in force to make your life a misery.

Fun though that is, we suspect most people diving into GoW4’s multiplayer offerings will instead make a beeline for the Horde 3.0 mode. A five-player co-op affair that ramps up your adrenaline levels through 50 waves of Swarm, DeeBees and boss challenges, this classic mode has been updated with a new class-based system and the use of a Fabricator which allows you to scatter fortifications across the map. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are also Gear Cards that’ll add bonuses to your character.

Fear not, none of this stuff comes close to over-egging a relentlessly explosive pudding. It also does a fantastic job of getting to the essence of Gears of War: Space Invaders with a thermonuclear warhead up rammed up its arse. If I’m going to stick with any of these multiplayer modes over the coming months, it’ll be Horde 3.0.

You and your mates against the world. What’s not to like about that?

Stuff says... 

Gears of War 4 review

As stupid as it is entertaining, Gears of War 4 nails the series’ formula without moving it forward.
Good Stuff 
Breathless gameplay
Looks amazing in HDR
Horde multiplayer is good fun
Bad Stuff 
More of the same, for better or worse
Campaign mode is slow to kick off