Reviews

Gears 5 Review – Gears of War Is Back, Baby!

The Xbox has been hurting when it comes to exclusive games while the Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch have been busy putting out strong titles that could only be played on their respective platforms. Gears of War 4 should have been the return of one of Xbox’s biggest franchises, but The Coalition were put in a difficult position having to take over something with such a strong legacy. What they created was good. It wasn’t great, though. It didn’t match the original trilogy. Now The Coalition are back and they’ve tossed away the “of War” part. Gears 5 is looking to bring the series back properly.

I’ve always loved the Gears of War lore, but I’ll also be the first to admit that the storytelling was never going to win the franchise any awards for writing, even though it did have genuinely poignant moments. Its giant slabs of meat known as characters became likable with proper development over time, though. It may have been the embodiment of macho dudes shooting stuff, but the Gears series connected with people. Although they weren’t the best written the Gears of War games had heart. If you didn’t feel something when Dom find his wife in Gears of War 2 or when he sacrificed himself in Gears of War 3 for the rest of Delta squad then you have no heart. And when Marcus Fenix sat down on the beach at the end of Gears of War 3, I admit to nearly shedding a tear.

Available On: Xbox One, PC
Reviewed On: Xbox One X
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft

The Story Of Gears 5

When Gears of War 4 came around the stakes were high; with a brand new development team at the helm they had to prove they knew how to make a Gears game, not only in terms of how it played but also in how the story was told. The same over-the-top, macho cheesiness had to be there, but mixed in with stronger writing. It failed to make an impact, though, and for the life of me I struggled to remember anything that happened in the game without visiting the Wikipedia page.

This time around JD Fenix takes a step back, leaving Kaite Diaz to act as the driving force for the story, her mysterious connections to the Swarm that acted as the cliffhanger for the last game forming the main plot point for Gears 5. Although Kaite was a little bland the first time around she’s much more likeable in Gears 5, and with stronger material to work with actor Laura Bailey turns in a commanding and memorable performance. While the story is certainly hokey at points it captures the old Gears of War feeling of being hokey in all the right ways, and even manages to hit some genuinely strong emotional beats along the way. Gears of War 4 struggled to hold my interest with its narrative, but Gears 5 had me invested from the start.

A large part of that is because of a couple of brave choices the writers make, especially when it comes to JD Fenix. He was the lead characters of Gears of War 4, so just having the son of Marcus Fenix step out of the main role is surprising, but they do a lot more with him than just that. It irks me that the trigger for his story arc is described rather than shown and that his time away from Kait is never explored, but it’s still an interesting character arc for him. Considering how bland he felt in Gears of War 4, it was needed. I do, however, wonder if his part of the story is going to get filled out in DLC, which would feel like a cheap move.

There’s another risky move that The Coalition makes later by giving players a big choice that will directly affect how the rest of the franchise plays out. I hope they’ve properly thought this through and planned it out, otherwise it could wind up feeling wholly unsatisfying and like there should never have been a choice in the first place. The Gears franchise has always been linear, so giving players more agency in how the story will play out in future games is a bold move that could easily backfire.

Of course, the old Gears crew still play a role in the story, especially Baird who basically gets to be a crazy engineer for most of it. Marcus Fenix continues to be a gruff badass, and like Baird and Cole his use in the story feels nicely balanced – enough for fans to feel happy, but not enough to overshadow the new Delta squad.

Not everything manages to land with the grace of a ballet dancer, though. Like I mentioned earlier I enjoyed the idea behind JD’s story arc but the execution was a little clumsy. I’d also have to say that while Del is generally a lot of fun in the story he doesn’t actually get a while lot to actually do, the same of which can be said of newcomer Fahz who gets a good character arc but never the time needed to properly pull it off.

Flaws aside, though, this is a story that manages to juggle stupid humour, touching moments and drama rather well. Sure, it occasionally drops the heavily armoured ball, but let’s just considering how far this damn series has come: there’s JD who is dealing with having Marcus Fenix as a dad, some delving into how keeping things from friends can be dangerous and some properly touching scenes. The Coalition even play around with some political stuff, such as how early on you’re attempting to persuade independent villages to pack up their stuff and join the COG. Marcus Fenix acts as a constant reminder of what Gears of War was and what it is now, his gruff manner and general badassery contrasting nicely with the new generation of characters and the things that the story tries to tackle. Is it all deep, compelling, thoughtful stuff? Fuck no. This is still a balls-to-the-wall action game, but the fact that Gears 5 even tries and mostly succeeds in adding a little more depth to the bombast is downright impressive.

Sure, But Is The Combat Still Awesome?

Roadie-running into a fight in Gears 5 is like slipping on a pair of comfortable, familiar pyjamas before chainsawing someone in half. Back when Gears of War first arrived on the scene in 2006 (Jesus, has it been that long?) it may not have been the first to do cover-based shooting but it defined what cover-based shooting should feel like. Thirteen years later Gears 5 hasn’t changed the core of the combat much and yet still feels like the example to which all others should be compared.

Hitting the button to take cover feels satisfyingly smooth yet still heavy, just like a massive slab of walking meat slamming into a wall should feel like. Leaning out, firing, mantling and moving around are all second-nature if you’ve ever played a Gears game before and still feel great. And of course all the staple weapons are here, including the iconic Lancer which remains one of the few default weapons that I’m happy to have equipped at almost all times. You never know when someone is going to need chainsawed in half, after all. There’s a smattering of new weapons, too, like suped up Lancer that sports a kickass grenade launcher instead of a chainsaw or even the Cryo cannon which lets you freeze enemies in place.

The encounter designs are as strong as they’ve ever been, with a handful of new enemy types tossed into the mix. The old Gears problem of combat areas being overly obviously still exists thanks to the abundance of conveniently chest-high cover indicating a fight is about to happen, but that doesn’t matter because each battle feels like it has a little something different. Even toward the end of the campaign I still wasn’t feeling tired of slamming into cover and popping some heads.

All this wonderful, sadistic and satisfyingly fun combat is entombed within a campaign that runs around ten hours and is packed with fun set pieces. The Coalition know when to throw you into another massive firefight or when to let you breathe and just soak up the world. A highlight for me was a lengthy sequence inside a half buried rocket factory that included a giant spinning centrifuge which mowed down anyone stupid enough to be in its path. There’s even a fight inside theatre complete with rotating state. I’d perhaps argue that the highs of the original trilogy aren’t quite reached, but then again it’s just as likely that’s my nostalgia speaking, too.

Of course, the whole campaign can be played in co-op as well with you and two other people able to get into the action. This can be done via local, online or a mixture, which is absolutely brilliant. The only caveat is that sometimes a third player will have to take on the role of Jack the robot who gets his own playstyle but isn’t quite as entertaining.

You Don’t Know Jack

Where The Coalition tries to mix up the classic Gears combat is by making Jack, your robot companion, a part of the action, too. He’ll float around and occasionally electrocute an unlucky enemy grunt from time to time, but now he also packs active and passive abilities that you can swap out. An early example is a blinding flash that can force enemies out of cover, but later you can also deploy a shield, turn your squad invisible for some fun flanking or just.

These abilities alter the core of the combat by quite a bit. In fact, in Gears 5 I spent less time in cover than I ever did in the series before thanks to Jack. Things like invisibility, the armor-boosting Stim and flash give you opportunities to get out of cover or perform riskier flanking moves. On the easier difficulty settings Jack doesn’t feel important, but if you ramp the challenge up his abilities begin to become more vital to the action. In other words, he’s a great addition to the action and helps bring something a bit different to the classic formula.

But Jack also brings a very light smattering of RPG mechanics in the form of his upgrades. By gathering up generic components scattered around the levels you can use them to upgrade Jack’s abilities, focusing more on the ones you like. There are even ultimate forms of each skill, although these get unlocked by exploring the game’s two mini open worlds. Speaking of which…

Is Gears 5 Open World?

No. Although rumors ahead of the game’s release suggested that the Gears franchise might be switching to an open world I’m happy to say that Gears 5 is still a linear game for the most part. I’m happy about that because a linear experience allows for better pacing and set-piece construction. However, there are two levels within the game that do dump you into large, open spaces that include secondary missions you can complete for rewards.

Both areas are big enough to need a helping hand when it comes to getting around, which is where the Skiff comes into play. These sail-powered badboy is surprisingly good fun to slide around the two open environments. It isn’t so fun in co-op, mind you, because while one person gets to enjoy driving the Skiff around like a lunatic the other person controls a lousy radar turret that is mostly useless.

The spaces are mostly just wide open with very little to discover. The actual interesting areas are marked by flags and are indicated on the map, so the sense of discovery is lacking. These smaller areas contain minor side-missions that typically boil down to shooting some stuff before snagging an upgrade for Jack, but there are also Relic versions of the regular weapons to find which feature ornate skins and different stats compared to their boring counterparts.

These open spaces are an intriguing addition to a series that is so known for its linear nature and tight pacing, and it’s certainly good to see The Coalition experimenting with what makes the franchise tick. But while I did find the first area somewhat enjoyable by time the second one came around a while later my patience for them was worn out. They hit the game’s pacing hard and even the characters seemed to know this, constantly asking why we were stopping when there was something else needing done.

Still, the allure of upgrading Jack is enough to divert your attention from the main mission and make you hunt down all the possible side-missions. I’m not against these little open areas being in future Gears games, but they need to be redesigned so that they don’t clash with the pacing quite so much, or so that they at least do something different. Across the ten hour campaign you already do a lot of shooting, so having the side-mission just do more of the same isn’t the way to go.

Gears 5 Is Technically Impressive

Running on the Xbox One X Gears 5 targets a buttery smooth 60FPS and somehow manages to nail it, only occasionally dropping a few frames and never to a degree that impacts the actual gameplay. Considering how incredibly sumptuous the game looks the fact that it consistently hits blows my tiny little brain out of my ears. The star of the show is the lighting engine which bathes the environments and characters in gorgeous light.

The level of detail that The Coalition have stuffed into the levels is also jaw-dropping at times, sitting up there with the likes of God of War. I was playing on the Xbox One X but was tempted to fire up the game on PC just to see how much more could be squeezed out of the game with the extra power a PC can afford.

Facial animations are also impressive during the cutscenes which helps sell the story and strong voice acting.

This is easily among the best looking console titles to date, and I’d highly recommend checking out Digital Foundry’s stellar video breaking down the tech.

There were a few hiccups in my time with the game, mind you. I got stuck on infinite loading screens twice, and encountered several instances where events wouldn’t trigger, leaving me and the A.I. standing around like morons hoping that the game would catch up with itself. Both of these issues seem like they might be connected to online servers, which is frustrating if you’re playing solo. However, The Coalition are aware of the problems and an update was issued on the same day I published this review.

Multiplayer

The campaign in Gears 5 is nothing short of superb and is easily worth the price of admission on its own, but the Gears franchise has always boasted a robust multiplayer, too, so obviously we’ve got to chat about it. This is where things get a little more awkward.

Straight-up Versus the classic Gears of War multiplayer experience across seven modes and for the most part The Coalition has kept the traditional balancing, meaning the Gnasher shotgun is king, although it isn’t as entirely dominant as it once was. It can be a harsh landscape, the franchise veterans having already gotten back into the groove and are now bouncing madly from wall-to-wall while single-shotting people into oblivion. If you’re willing to stick with it, though, Versus mode can be a rewarding place.

Meanwhile Arcade takes the standard Versus mode and tweaks it in some fun ways. Each selectable character boasts a unique ability, plus their own unlock trees for weapons and perks. Every kill and assist earns you skulls which can be spent in the match to get bigger and better gear with which to do more killing. It’s a fun mode that ultimately feels more forgiving for new players than the standard Versus, perhaps because there are less Gnasher shotguns to contend with. I don’t think it will have the same staying power as Versus, but it’s a nice change of pace.

On the co-operative side of the multiplayer fence Horde mode is once again back and pitting teams against waves upon waves of enemies. It can be a grueling fight, taking up to around 2-hours to complete all fifty waves. It feels so bloody good to do it, though. Like before nabbing kills means you can purchase defenses and other handy things, but now there are also perks for each character thrown into the mix, including Ultimates like how Dell can summon up a couple of helpful drones.

Personally, Horde mode is the very best of the Gears multiplayer. It’s frantic, it’s fun, it has a bit of depth to the mechanics and it’s hugely replayable.

And then there’s Escape, a brand new mode with a unique premise; you and two other people play as Hivebusters, which is to say lightly armed and armored folk who get themselves deliberately captured so that they can infiltrate Swarm hives. Once inside they release a deadly chemical, and then race to escape. The first part of Escape gives you nothing but basic weapons, so the light stealth mechanics from the campaign give you a chance to thin the herd a little. Before too long you get access to more powerful gear. It’ feels weird in a Gears game to willing run past enemies and leave them alive and the four maps get dull quickly, but more are promised and there’s even a rudimentary map editor in beta at the moment.

Behind everything, though, is a slightly annoying and convoluted progression system that wouldn’t feel out of place in a crappy mobile game. Basically you can earn all sort of cosmetic items in the form of cards, which the game confusingly refers to as Supply. These are things like skins, emotes and blood splatters for your guns, and you’ll earn Supply simply by the amount of time you spend in the game, so skill level doesn’t matter when it comes to earning this stuff. Whenever you get a duplicate item the game will automatically turn it into scrap which you can then spend on getting specific Supply item.

Then there’s Tour of Duty which is a sort of season pass, with each season offering up different rewards for beating challenges like killing a certain type of enemy. Items earned during the Tour of Duty won’t be found in regular Supply, and are more linked to a mixture of skill and time.

Finally, there are microtransactions in the game where you can swap real, hard cash for Iron that in turn is used to buy items. These items are exclusive to the store, so you can’t get them through regular play.

It’s not an overly complex web of systems compared to many other games out there, but for Gears game it’s needlessly overwrought. As for the microtransactions it’s a shame to see them including. Still, they’ll help fund the development costs of future map packs which are going to be free which will help keep the playerbase together rather than splitting it up.

While I find the progression system more of an annoyance than a worthwhile addition it can be largely ignored if you choose, and the actual multiplayer action is Gears at its best, albeit still missing Gears of War 3‘s awesome Beast Mode. Between Versus, Horde and Escape there’s plenty of variety, and even though it might not have been to my tastes the progression system and Tour of Duty will probably keep a lot of people invested in the action until updates come along.

It’s also worth noting that Gears 5 features crossplay with PC, helping keep the multiplayer community healthy for quick matchmaking. Of course, this also means you can find yourself up against people playing with a mouse and keyboard, although the game does actually support mouse and keyboard on the Xbox One if you fancy levelling the playing field. Or you can opt to turn crossplay off altogether.

So Is Gears 5 Worth Playing?

While Gears of War 4 was ultimately a solid entry in the venerable franchise it wasn’t really the big return that fans were hoping for. As someone who has been with the series since it first launched in 2006 I’m happy to say that Gears 5 is a much superior game, boasting a great singleplayer campaign and fun multiplayer, all wrapped up in a visual and audio package that’s second to none. The Coalition have taken their younger cast of characters and fleshed them out, creating a compelling new Delta squad that can never replace the original band of Marcus, Baird, Dom and Cole, but that certainly succeed them.

The icing on the cake is that Gears 5 is on Xbox’s Gamespass, meaning you can pick it up for the cost of a months subscription to the service. For a price like that there’s really no reason not to don the armor, pick up a Lancer and chainsaw some Swarm in half. Gears is back, and hopefully it’s planning on staying for a while.

4 out of 5

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