Is Gears of War 4 Worth the Return to Sera?

Developer The Coalition has a herculean task ahead of it with Gears of War 4. How do you continue a story that all but ended? How do you iterate on a franchise that set the bar for third-person shooters? How do you draw players back to a sequel in an era permeated with sequels? The Coalition’s answer, judging by the early moments of Gears of War 4’s campaign? Restraint.

The Gears of War franchise has always hid its nuance below the surface–beneath hulking soldiers and chaotic firefights, fiery explosions and testosterone-fueled dialogue. But patient, intimate moments always supplemented the action. And 20 minutes of the new campaign campaign suggest these moments aren’t just punctuation marks for Gears of War 4–they’re a necessary ingredient in a methodical sense of mounting dread.

Our recent demo at E3 2016 opened on a dilapidated fort long since abandoned by COG forces, during the war we fought through as Marcus Fenix in earlier titles. That iconic protagonist is gone, though, replaced by his son JD Phoenix, whose exact motivations are still unclear as we step into his shoes.

From the outset, there’s a sense of unease: JD and his two squadmates are unsure of themselves, timid, as if they’re running from something. JD lacks the confidence his father earned through multiple wars, instead speaking with nervous tones and indecision. He’s a capable soldier, but carries a certain desperate hope that left the older Fenix long ago.

JD’s squad is also encountering new enemies with grotesque life functions and bestial tendencies: “juvies” dart over bulbous larvae, “pouncers” leap at you with savage intent, and all the while, you’re hunting a mysterious beast you only see from a distance. This fort, the monsters within, and our reasons for being here, create a poignant sense of mystery that permeates the plot.

This section is also much more methodical in its combat. Tight corridors with glowing pods force you to choose your shots carefully: juvies may be leaping toward you at a frantic pace, but if your Lancer’s errant bullets puncture one of those pods, you run the risk of spawning even more enemies. It’s a clever way of making you consider your actions before enacting them.

Then there’s the battle with the pouncers. They leap from car to car, always telegraphing an impending attack, but not always following through. It’s as if they want you to think they’re coming for you, only to make you panic that much more. Oftentimes in media, it’s not the violence that’s so scintillating–it’s the anticipation of violence. It’s the build up. And in the fight with the erratic pouncers, that mounting sense of dread only slowly evaporates once the beasts are lying dead on the ground.

All of this isn’t to say Gears of War 4 won’t explode into a bombastic display of chainsaws and whirring sawblades–Microsoft’s E3 stage demo suggests it absolutely will, and toward the end of my demo, I was more focused on shooting everything in sight than the gloomy environments and creaky floorboards of abandoned churches. But it’s promising to know The Coalition isn’t afraid to dial back the action in favor of atmosphere and tone. In a series known for obfuscating its brilliant design beneath a gritty veneer and uneven storytelling, I’m eager to see where this newfound confidence might take it.

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