Photo courtesy of Microsoft.

The “Gears of War” series is one of the cornerstones of the Xbox library: a powerful, often brutal experience designed in a way that plays up social interaction between players and even its characters. The original entry in the series was like nothing else before it: a brash, dark and horrifying action shooter that took the intensity and violence of popular arena games like Quake and turned it into a third-person war game that redefined the genre. As the series went on, the “gamer bro” culture that surrounded other series such as “Call of Duty” had tarnished the allure of the franchise, and with so many other titles on the rise, Microsoft shelved the series until the right time arrived. “Gears of War 4” comes at exactly that pivotal moment for the gaming industry.

At face value, “Gears of War 4” is a shinier carbon copy of the previous games in the series, with everything from the plot to the gameplay remaining similar. Everything that makes “Gears” what it is can be found here: the crazy weapons ranging from chainsaw bayonets to powerful shotguns, the gory style and the witty banter between characters.

While this acceptance of the tried and true formula could have ruined the game, it in fact makes it one of the finest shooters to be released this year.

The gaming industry is deep into the era of prettied up nostalgia. From the endless remasters of old games to the countless sequels of decade old franchises, the industry keeps chugging along, nicely running on the fumes of what made it successful in the first place. This game, however, doesn’t just simply ride on the coattails of longing for the good old days. It takes everything that made “Gears” great and polishes it to perfection. The gameplay is better than ever, providing a special kind of rush and energy that no other series has been able to truly replicate. The classic modes outside of the campaign that often define the series, Horde and Versus, are at their finest. Horde mode, the classic defense mode in which players fend off increasingly difficult waves of enemies, is still the definitive co-op play experience. Versus multiplayer, which includes classic modes like king of the hill and and elimination, is just as fresh and exciting as ever while adding in some fun new challenges such as Arms Race, a mode in which your weapon changes with each life. The real strength of the game, however, is in its story.

The “Gears” series has always been a series much deeper than it is given credit for. It tackles heady themes including social structures, the nature of violence and the duty we have to one another. That ability to tackle themes greater than “shoot stuff because we’re the good guys” is just as powerful here, and when looked at in depth, “Gears of War 4” isn’t just a game about a group of young soldiers fighting monsters from beneath. It’s a game about bonds between people, whether it be bonds of blood or the bonds forged through struggle.

The game follows JD Fenix, son of previous series protagonist Marcus Fenix, and his friends Del and Kait as they fight to save the people of their outsider village from a mysterious new threat. Their struggle to save those closest to them forces these characters to not only examine their bonds as a group, but also to face the demons of their pasts and find meaning in their relationships with  the people in their lives. It’s truly powerful writing and the nostalgia factor of including the older Fenix as part of the story really gives nuance to the relationship between him and JD, as well as JD’s relationships with all people.

By harking back to the past, “Gears of War 4” examines it in a new light, a viewpoint that takes the game beyond the confines of a thoughtless shoot ‘em up and turns into a war story that has meaning. It’s perhaps the finest tale of family and sacrifice released on the Xbox One yet, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s fun as hell, too.

Rating: B+