Gears of War took the industry by storm when it first came out for the Xbox 360 back in 2006. After Epic Games delivered the final entry in their Gears arc though, the series entered a transitionary period, which has been an interesting one, to say the least. With 2016’s Gears of War 4, the series’ new custodians The Coalition delivered something that was solid, yet far too conservative. Taking over a beloved franchise as a newly formed studio, they wanted to prove that they could deliver a quintessential Gears of War experience. And they certainly did that- Gears of War 4 may have caught plenty of flak for being unambitious, but no one could ever say it wasn’t a good Gears game.
With Gears 5 though, The Coalition has greater ambitions. It isn’t a radical re-invention of the formula. It’s still very much Gears of War, even in the new things it attempts. This is, instead, a smart expansion of the core ideas of the series, taken into new and exciting directions, directions that have been tinkered with to fit with the series’ identity rather than the other way around. As a result, for the first time in many years, it feels like Gears of War is back amongst the industry’s big boys.
"For the first time in many years, it feels like Gears of War is back amongst the industry’s big boys."
The excellent campaign is where these changes are most apparent. Picking up some time after Gears of War 4, Gears 5 once again focuses on the new blood that its predecessor introduced, with the old guard of characters like Marcus and Baird supporting the new generation from the sidelines. But while Marcus’ son JD served as the protagonist in Gears of War 4, in Gears 5, Kait Diaz is very much the star of the show. You begin the campaign playing as JD, but after the introductory act, you step into Kait’s shoes, as she tries to unravel the secrets of her mysterious past, her heritage, the Locust, and the new and dangerous threats that the perennially-ravaged world of Sera now faces.
While the threat of global, apocalyptic wars has always driven Gears of War stories in the past, the narrative impetus this time around is much more personal. That’s not to say the threat of global, apocalyptic war doesn’t exist here, but The Coalition instead lets Kait and her personal arc dictate the pacing and tempo of the story. It’s a decision that pays off very well. After so many instalments that have focused on widespread catastrophe, Gears 5’s much more personal tale feels like a welcome change of pace. And for those who’re looking for high stakes, there’s still enough here that you won’t be left unsatisfied or disappointed.
It helps that Gears 5 is great at telling its story as well. Cutscenes and cinematography are top notch – the transitions between cutscenes and gameplay are especially remarkable – and the writing impresses every step of the way, almost constantly hitting all the right notes. That said, like Gears of War 4, Gears 5 does suffer from the issue of tone-deaf party banter, which goes in a little too hard on attempts at humour. Thankfully though, this is mostly restricted to a few throwaway lines outside of cutscenes, and doesn’t happen nearly as much as it did in Gears 4.
That said, as good as the story and storytelling are, the meat of the campaign is its open world-like areas. Gears 5 isn’t exactly an open world game though- you won’t find yourself in a huge, open map that is bustling with activity and is begging the player to spend dozens upon dozens of hours exploring every one of its nooks and crannies. Instead, structurally, these large, wide sections of the game act more like hubs, similar to what you might have seen in, say, God of War and Metro Exodus. The main purpose of their existence is to connect the smaller arenas and larger set-piece levels take place in, rather than being the centre of attention in and of themselves.
"After so many instalments that have focused on widespread catastrophe, Gears 5’s much more personal tale feels like a welcome change of pace. And for those who’re looking for high stakes, there’s still enough here that you won’t be left unsatisfied or disappointed."
Players are now given the freedom to do things that Gears of War games haven’t usually allowed. There’s room for exploration, to look for areas of interest on the map that might yield Relic weapons, extra upgrade components, or enhancements to abilities. Sailing about on your skiff, one of your companions might spot something interesting in the distance – a crashed plane, or a half-ruined structure – and whether or not you stop to take a look is entirely up to you.
Not only does this feel like an organic way to direct the player’s attention toward something, these side missions are also a lot of fun. They’re usually bite-sized combat encounters, where you enter an area, get through a single encounter, and get your reward at the end of what’s usually a five- or ten-minute-long firefight at most. It’s quick and snappy, while the rewards you receive are also always pretty solid. As such, these side missions rarely ever end up feeling like a chore. In fact, even when you’re in the game’s more linear missions, there are still plenty of large areas with branching paths that encourage exploration, thanks to many collectibles – which do a great job of building up the series’ lore and backstories – and upgrade opportunities.
As far as the open world areas themselves are concerned though, Gears 5 leaves something to be desired. When you’re going from one place to another, there isn’t really much else for you to do. The open hubs are static and mostly desolate, and the only thing that breaks the monotony is the dialogue between Kait and her companions. It helps that sailing the skiff is a lot of fun, and it’s fast enough that going from one place to another doesn’t ever take too long. Even still, having something interesting to do or see in the open world areas – or anything to add a little more dynamism to these places – would have made them infinitely better, and as they exist right now, they feel like something of a missed opportunity.
Speaking of missed opportunities, the skiff is something else that I feel Gears 5 could have done a lot more with. As I mentioned, sailing the skiff around the game’s maps is a ton of fun- it’s incredibly easy to control, it has a great sense of speed, and skidding and drifting around tight corners feels fast and snappy. It’s just a shame that the game doesn’t utilize it a bit more.
"Players are now given the freedom to do things that Gears of War games haven’t usually allowed."
Veteran series fans will also be glad to know that in spite of that freedom, the tense and thrilling firefights and major set-piece moments that Gears has always been known for don’t get pushed to the sidelines. When you enter an area where a main mission is supposed to take place, it’s business as usual, with expertly crafted combat arenas and encounters- which, thanks to excellent enemy variety, will always keep you on your toes.
Gears 5’s most obvious changes are apparent in how it’s structured, but things are different in the moment-to-moment gameplay as well. Combat continues to be at the heart of the experience, but feels a lot more layered than it has in the past. That’s thanks almost entirely to Jack, the floating bot that returns to the franchise after taking some time off. This time, rather than being a silent and effectively invisible partner, Jack plays a role in combat.
The bot comes with Assault, Support, and Passive abilities, which can range from making your squad temporarily invisible, to blinding enemies with flashes, to giving you shields to buff up your defense, to shocking enemies with its zapper. As you play more, you earn more abilities for Jack, but in an interesting twist, these can also be upgraded. Scattered throughout Gears 5’s levels – both big and small – are components that are used to upgrade Jack’s abilities, while completing side missions can also reward you with Ultimate enhancements for these (such as adding seeker drones to a shock trap). At any time, you can also respec Jack entirely for no added cost and repurpose him as you see fit.
It’s not a huge new mechanic, but Jack is surprisingly useful in combat. Using the invisibility ability, you can get past security turrets; by upgrading one of his passives, you can direct him to revive a downed teammate; if there’s an enemy in a distant position or behind a tricky cover spot, you can send Jack over to flash it, causing it to be blinded and temporarily stunned, rendering it vulnerable for a precious couple of seconds. Not only do all of his abilities enrich the combat experience, the drive to find more components and upgrades also makes exploration and tackling the side missions that much more attractive.
"Combat continues to be at the heart of the experience, but feels a lot more layered than it has in the past."
Combat has improved and expanded in other ways as well. Unlike previous games, you aren’t immediately forced into fights the second you step into a new room with enemies. Often, these enemies won’t be aware of your presence, giving you the opportunity to use rudimentary but effective stealth mechanics to thin out the herd and make things easier for yourself in the following encounter. There were other moments that took me by surprise as well- the one that comes to mind immediately is shooting ice out from under the feet of advancing enemies, making them drop into the frozen lake below.
Just as it is with the game’s open world areas, these expansions to the Gears combat formula are just that- expansions. The Coalition hasn’t replaced the Blades of Chaos with the Leviathan Axe here. Gears 5 still feels like a Gears experience, but it comes with just the right amount of additions and innovations to help push the series forward into new and exciting directions.
But the campaign is only half the story in any Gears of War game, and happily, multiplayer in Gears 5 stands toe-to-toe with the best the series has had to offer, even if it doesn’t shake things up as much as the campaign does. Gears 5’s multiplayer’s biggest strength is how full-featured it is. There is, of course, the Versus mode, which offers various different competitive modes, from staples like King of the Hill and Deathmatch to other variants that have unique victory conditions, such as only being able to respawn teammates when you kill enemies, or winning a match by getting three kills each with every single weapon. Versus mode by itself is packed enough that The Coalition could have easily launched the game with nothing else to offer in the multiplayer department, and it still would have been a solid package.
Thankfully, there is a lot more on offer here. The series’ signature Horde mode returns, and is still the star of the show on the multiplayer side of things. Sitting down for a complete session of all fifty waves, each getting progressively stronger than the last, is an exhausting and intense affair in the best way possible, and is an incredibly rewarding experience. The progression feels excellent, as you slowly build up your defenses and help your squadmates in sticky situations, while the added wrinkle of hero shooter elements helps keep things interesting as well. Combining passive and ultimate abilities with Horde’s typical action makes for an excellent experience.
"The campaign is only half the story in any Gears of War game, and happily, multiplayer in Gears 5 stands toe-to-toe with the best the series has had to offer, even if it doesn’t shake things up as much as the campaign does."
Though Horde mode still remains the best part in Gears 5’s multiplayer component, not too far behind is Escape, which is a brand-new mode. Escape sees three players teaming up and finding themselves in the heart of a Swarm Hive. You plant bombs in the Hive, and with a single weapon and limited ammo, are tasked with making it out alive. Escape forces the player to think in interesting ways. Using melee and stealth where you can to conserve ammo, managing your resources, and picking up new weapons, temporary buffs, and more ammo for your weapons is key if you want to get very far.
Add to that the fact that Escape, too, has hero shooter elements similar to Horde, and it becomes yet another that inherently offers a ton of replay value. There’s also a map builder here, which allows you to connect tiles to build your own Escape courses, and also to edit various elements, like the enemy types, availability of ammo, and more. The map builder should only serve to add even greater replay value to the mode.
For anyone who’s played Gears of War and dabbled in its multiplayer offerings before, none of this will sound like the fresh take on the series’ formula that Gears 5’s campaign is. On the multiplayer side of things, this game chooses to iterate rather than re-invent. But given the fact that Gears of War’s multiplayer is the one thing in the series that has constantly remained at the top of its game, and hasn’t really felt outdated or aged as time has progressed the way its linear campaigns were starting to feel, I don’t think it’s an issue that Gears 5 isn’t more ambitious in this area. What is here is excellent and familiarly addictive, and there’s a lot of it- enough to keep fans occupied for a long, long time.
Whether you’re playing Gears 5’s multiplayer offerings or its campaign, the game is absolutely gorgeous. In terms of art design, there’s much more vibrancy and life than the series was once known for- this was something that The Coalition initiated in Gears of War 4, and takes to new heights in its sequel. What’s even more impressive though, is the technical side of things. From the character models to the animations to the environments and the way enemies pop and explode when they die, Gears 5 displays an incredible attention to detail across the board. On the Xbox One X, where it runs at 4K and 60 FPS, it is, without a doubt, one of the best looking console games ever made.
"Gears 5 is one of the best looking console games ever made."
In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call this one of Microsoft’s best games this console generation. It’s a package that’s brimming with content, and has top-notch stuff on offer for you no matter what you’re looking for. With its campaign, it successfully revitalizes a franchise may had feared was becoming stale, while with its online component, it continues to be on the top of its game, the way the series always been since the day it was born. Gears 5 proves unequivocally that like the planet of Sera, though it may have seen some tough times, there’s still plenty of life left in it.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Excellent, meaty campaign; Lots of opportunities for exploration and going off the beaten path; Side missions are fun and snappy; Traversal is a lot of fun; Typically thrilling and intense combat encounters; Engaging story, propped up by solid writing and great performances; Stellar visuals; Multiplayer component is brimming with content; Escape is a great new addition; Horde mode is as amazing as ever.
Open world areas feel lifeless and static; The skiff is underutilized.