Release Date: Sept. 6, 2019Platform: XBO (reviewed), PCDeveloper: The CoalitionPublisher: MicrosoftGenre: Third-person Shooter
If 2016’s Gears of War 4 was the Star Wars: The Force Awakens of the franchise, a sequel hellbent on feeding our nostalgia for the original, then Gears 5 falls squarely in The Last Jedi territory, a follow-up that branches out from an established formula to carve out its own path. For the most part, that new direction works, but a few glaring issues hold Gears 5 back from being a truly great installment.
Let’s start with the positives: Gears 5 is the most visually stunning Gears of War game ever made. The art design is absolutely incredible, adding bright color to a usually drab and grayish series. From the glistening ice of frozen lakes and snow covered mountains to deserts made of the reddest sand, Gears 5‘s landscapes are gorgeous and diverse, a tour through different corners of Sera that feels epic.
Despite the fact that this is the sixth installment in the series, Gears 5 feels unlike any of its predecessors in terms of its presentation, which goes all-out on the cinematic from the opening credits. In fact, Gears of War 4 feels sort of lowkey and pedestrian compared to The Coalition’s latest COG vs. Locust saga, even if the story itself stumbles at times.
Much of the game’s narrative focuses on Kait Diaz, finally getting the spotlight she rightfully deserved in Gears of War 4, a game that wanted so badly to be a story about the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter but told it through the eyes of J.D. Fenix, the questionable stand-in for the sometimes unbearably macho Marcus. While the Fenix boys appear in Gears 5, they play a supporting role to Kait’s quest.
With Kait as its rightful protagonist, Gears 5‘s story unfolds with a mix of fun mysteries and sudden twists, action movie tropes, weird science, and even genuine moments of horror. In fact, Gears 5 is the first game in the series you could even call “scary” since the original’s horror-tinged dive into the monster-filled nests below Sera. The game evokes the spirit of survival horror classics such as Resident Evil and Dead Space at times, although the high-adrenaline action setpieces put it closer in tone to Doom 3.
Laura Bailey, who reprises her role in Gears 5, is excellent as the voice of Kait, who is accompanied by her best friend, the techy Del (Eugene Byrd). This duo’s banter in between (and sometimes during) chaotic shootouts is delightful, adding much-needed levity to a plot that often brings despair for its characters. Kait and Del totally outshine the series’ original duo of Marcus and Dom because they have actual personalities and motivations that go beyond “killing Grubs” (Dom’s terrible, melodramatic Maria storyline notwithstanding).
Without delving into spoilers, Gears 5‘s narrative is at its very best when exploring the dark origin of the Locust (or the “Swarm” in this case). Gears of War 2 and 3 established much of the Locust backstory and Kait’s journey leads her to new revelations about the Swarm that won’t necessarily surprise the most eagle-eyed Gears fan but are fun all the same. It’s just too bad that The Coalition’s biggest addition to the single-player Gears of War experience also shoots Gears 5‘s story in the foot.
Open-world traversal is one of Gears 5‘s most touted new features, allowing Kait, Del, and the rest of the squad to take on missions in whatever order they want (mostly) on a big map that you traverse on an awesome skiff. The skiff itself is a complete evolution of past vehicle sequences in the series — which I’ve always found sort of underwhelming — and it’s fun as hell to drive it from location to location on Gears 5‘s beautiful maps. Seriously, riding the skiff on the red sands of Vasgar (Sera’s version of Russia, basically, but desert) is mesmerizing and almost looks like it belongs in an entirely different series.
Unfortunately, this open-world mechanic, which allows you to tackle main and side quests at your leisure, doesn’t do very much for the story’s pacing, which goes into a lull every time you have to drive your way through the game’s eye-catching, but very empty environments. The lack of activities and places on these maps might make story sense since this is a post-apocalyptic setting, but it also makes you wonder why an open-world is needed at all?
Most side quests aren’t particularly captivating and some are downright repetitive — you investigate an old building or wreck, clear out some bad guys, and scavenge for loot. Over and over again. There are some side missions and points of interest that do a nice bit of world-building, such as the story of two Outsiders (settlers who live in the wastelands beyond the protection of the COG) looking for a new home in the northern reaches of the planet. In fact, the writers have added quite a few letters, pamphlets, COG tags, and other things to collect, and most of them come with a story if you feel like diving deep into that kind of minutiae.
But if you play Gears of War for its fast-paced action sequences and twisting, spooky rabbit holes into the abyss, you might find yourself skipping a lot of this stuff for a more streamlined approach to what Gears 5 has to offer: a fun story held back by largely unnecessary driving sections. I really can’t think of a reason for this feature to exist other than to introduce the franchise to the era of open-world gaming, menial activities, and collectathons.
Exploring side locations do grant you additional rewards in the form of components, the resource you need to upgrade the new and definitely improved JACK, who is now all-in on the action, shooting and healing his way through the battlefield, hacking and unlocking doors now just a side job. You unlock several abilities for JACK as you progress through the game, such as the ability to hack enemies, a flash bang function that blinds the Swarm momentarily, squad healing, and a zapper (my favorite) with which the little robot can go head-to-head with the bad guys — all of which are upgradeable by finding components during story missions and side quests, and you won’t have to dig too far to find them for the most part. It’s a nice little RPG-lite mechanic that’s a welcome addition to the experience.
Overall, JACK is cute as hell and definitely the most supportive of all the AI characters in the game, which walk a fine line between kinda helpful and completely incompetent. Let’s just say that there’s a section of the game where your only COG companion is Del and it’s frustrating, as he hovers over you but basically refuses to heal you when you’re wounded. JACK, on the other hand, is delightful, coming to your rescue when you need him most and following orders like a champ. It’s clear that The Coalition put in a lot of work into getting JACK’s AI just right — and it’s a real highlight of the game — but did they sacrifice the rest of the AI in the process?
I noticed a few other technical issues beyond the subpar squad AI, such as enemies getting stuck behind walls or warping into the floor, menus freezing or glitching, and at one point the game completely crashed during a cutscene, forcing me to have to play through a difficult boss battle all over again. I’m not too worried about these issues though, as most games come with a few growing pains these days (especially before the necessary launch day patches), and I suspect The Coalition will iron out the rest of these wrinkles in due time.
The gunplay itself feels as tight and kinetic as ever, as you blast your way from cover to cover, turning the Swarm and a few other surprise monstrosities into hunks of meat that explode all over your screen. Sticking to cover with the A button is responsive and the studio’s tweaks to the recoil make shooting these completely unrealistic weapons feel immersive. New weapons include a new variant of the Lancer modified with a grenade launcher, which I absolutely love, as well as a Swarm light machine gun called the Claw, a slow and (in my experience) ineffective rifle that I was happy to scrap whenever possible. You also get to have some fun with a few new melee and heavy weapons, while all of the usual favorites (the chainsaw-toting Lancer and the Gnasher) are accounted for and will rarely leave your sight.
Fans thirsting for more of that sweet, gruesome Gears multiplayer will find that not too much has changed about the Versus mode. During my limited time with Gears 5‘s PvP modes — just a few hours — I sampled different modes and maps and came away mostly pleased with the overall experience. Yes, Gears 5 multiplayer is still a shotgunner’s paradise that comes down to who can pull the trigger faster. At first, this familiaritiy felt a bit groan-worthy, as most other weapons become secondary to the mighty Gnasher, but after a few rounds of King of the Hill (in which you have to capture and defend control points around a map), I started to fall in love all over again. Getting in your opponent’s face and blowing them up with one well-placed shotgun blast is still very addicting.
Other multiplayer modes include Arcade Deathmatch, in which you can earn additional weapons and perks as you progress through a match; the more traditional Warzone that gives each team one life to live; and the brilliant Arms Race, the very best Gears of War PvP match type, where players are forced to adapt to rapidly changing loadouts — a nice little remedy to Gnasher fever.
Maps I played include Asylum, Icebound, Bunker, Vasgar, and Training Grounds. While all of these locations offer the twisting and turning, cover-based action you’d expect from Gears multiplayer, it’s the treachorous Asylum that stands out with its tricky obstacles and the killer trains that will run you over if you’re not careful. Playing King of the Hill on this map is all I want do in Gears 5 multiplayer. It’s just so good.
Gears 5‘s Horde mode enjoys the same sort of familiarity, with a few minor tweaks that make it feel slightly newer than the last iteration. Characters, which range from Marcus and Kait to Sarah Connor from the Terminator franchise and Emile from Halo: Reach, bring special abilities to the battlefield, such as the aforementioned Spartan’s bubble shield — a nice little nod to Gears‘ older Xbox brother. You’ll use a Fabricator to create barriers, sentry guns, and buy weapons as you did in Gears of War 4 and you have the freedom to place all of this stuff wherever you want. Picking the most strategic points to set barriers that keep enemies out is key to your survival, especially as you begin to get cornered by more powerful waves. All of these resources are unlocked by collecting energy dropped by the Swarm and Locust after you finish them off. As I said, not much has changed here.
The Coalition’s most confounding addition to multiplayer is the cooperative Escape mode, which sees you team up with two other players to take on a series of rooms full of enemies. The goal is to outrun a lethal gas that you’ve set off to kill a Swarm hive living in each map and reach the extraction point. This race to the finish line is a noble attempt to add a new experience to the fold, but it falls short of being all that fun.
The mode is pretty straightforward as you make your way from room to room, killing slightly more powerful monsters and robots, with a handful of weapons and your character’s special ability at your disposal. Fall behind and the gas will get you (think the battle royale ring of death in this instance). Resource management is a must, as most rooms only give you whatever your dead enemy has dropped, although a few weapon caches are littered around the maps.
I found the three Escape scenarios I played — The Descent, The Mines, and The Gauntlet — to be oddly paced and sort of same-y, but a function that allows other players to make their own scenarios could be just what this game mode needs to become interesting. Mario Maker but the goal is to kill as many monsters as possible before the finish line? Yes, please. It’s just a shame that the maps The Coalition created as a proof of concept don’t really convey much excitement for the mode.
Gears 5 is a tug-of-war between innovation and tradition that gives the franchise some stunning new additions while, for the most part, remaining very familiar. Some things work and other elements feel a bit try-hard or completely unnecessary, but it’s great to see the Coalition taking risks after Gears of War 4‘s more nostalgic approach. The studio experimented and I certainly can’t fault it for that, as there’s just not enough of that happening in the formulaic AAA market these days. I just hope that the next time around, The Coalition gives a bit more thought to how certain innovations fit into the larger Gears experience.