Game: Gears 5
Developer: The Coalition
Available On: PC (Steam & Windows Store), Xbox One [Reviewed]
MSRP: $59.99 USD (Or Xbox Game Pass Subscription)
Review Code Provided
Gears 5 is a bold game in a season of ambitious titles. Where some studios are playing it safe with the end of this console generation, Gears 5 is intent on going out with a bang. With new protagonist Kait Diaz, a slew of gameplay changes, and the return of the Locust Swarm on the horizon, the battle for Seraph has never been better. Make no mistake, Gears 5 is a must-have, and dare I say it, a GOTY contender.
Presentation – 5 out of 5
Not Another COG in the Machine
Gears 5 has greater ambitions than simply rendering the world we all know. It has you sailing across crimson deserts as they’re torn apart by flaming tornados dynamically lashing out. You’ll fight across frozen lakes that refreeze before your very eyes if you shoot them apart beneath an enemy’s feet, watching the Swarm still flailing hand turns white beneath the surface. Dozens of buildings collapse around you as towering foes unleash hundreds of rockets.
Gears 5 understands it needs to be more than just pretty, which is saying something given how gorgeous it is, even on an original Xbox One. The sound design is perhaps the series’ best, with every impact, voiceover, and orchestral score hitting the mark. That is, save for the Enforcer SMG; it still sucks, but it’s the lone failure. Even the snub pistol has a crunchy weight to its shots that makes pulling off a headshot feel amazing.
The Coalition Makes It Look Easy
Cutscenes are used sparingly, with the vast majority of the story presented during gameplay. Any moment outside of the player’s control has immense importance and is presented without any loading screen. It’s a seamless presentation bolstered by marvelous performances from the entire cast, including a surprise return of a character from the Xbox 360 era I won’t spoil. Every actor gives it their all, including those required to speak an actual in-universe language like its their native tongue.
Gears 5 has the cohesive voice of hundreds of different creators, crafting a cohesive a world that’s worth exploring. A sheen of overwhelming effort glows across every moment. Throughout its entirety, Gears 5 is what you should expect from a top-tier AAA studio’s long, hard work. Most importantly, these settings and bombastic scenarios aren’t simply lip-service to the story. Environments alter gameplay in ways we’ll get into shortly, ensuring that all that effort didn’t just go to making a pretty face.
Gameplay – 4.75 out of 5
Across the Plains
When you start Gears 5, it deceptively shows all the familiar tropes of the series: linear levels, James Fenix leading the charge, and bombastic set pieces. It’s after the opening 40 or so minutes that everything changes. Not only do you step into the boots of Kait Diaz, granddaughter of the late Swarm queen, but the game design deepens drastically. Open world exploration, a new robotic party member, exploration centric progression, and all manner of dynamic environmental elements factor into arguably the largest Gears title to date.
Those averse to 80-plus hour open world titles need not fear, as Gears 5 instead tops out at around 20 hours, even if you pursue each side quest. Your skiff is the only vehicle in the game, offering rapid transport across thousands of meters of terrain in under a minute. It handles like a dream, and points of interest are always just within reach thanks to it. While there’s no vehicular combat, players will have to dodge storms while sailing across the game’s later desert sections. It’s a truly thrilling experience, feeling like a real journey rather than simple padding. Dialogue even shifts based on what order you achieve your objectives, ensuring a cohesive flow every step of the way.
Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto
Though the game’s numerous collectibles warrant going on that journey, you’ll be finding upgrades for J.A.C.K., rather than glorified tokens. Components to unlock and enhance abilities are strewn throughout even the most linear stages of the game, with substantial payoff. Completing side quests can result in such major boons as flash-freezing enemies, a tactical cloak while firing, and instantly reviving and buffing the entire squad. The revive ability even applies while you’re downed, ensuring you can pull a last-minute save if you’re clever about it.
The varied toolset offered is handled by two buttons, but you can swap between up to seven abilities at any given time. I personally only found around 50% of the component caches, yet even with that, J.A.C.K. became an invaluable asset to the team. In co-op, players can opt to play as J.A.C.K., but I was unable to test this during my playthrough due to server issues. No matter the mission you’re on, you have to maximize the helpful drone if you want things to go smoothly. On higher difficulties, J.A.C.K.’s an absolute necessity.
Play, As You Want
Gears 5 is the latest in a number of games to try and offer more than one approach to certain situations. To be fair, there’s some great options presented at times, like shooting out ice beneath an opponent’s feet so that they plunge to their death. The storm elements in particular are a highlight overall, with some missions capitalizing on battles taking place in environments literally tearing apart around the player. Scenario variety is at an all time high, using enemies from across the series in ways I’ve never seen before, including a few sections inspired by Gears of War 4. On a whole, it’s a great time.
That said, it’s not a perfectly graceful transition. Most notable, stealth gameplay suffers in the desert sections because some AI squadmates are scripted as detectable. You might be perfectly silent, stabbing Locusts in the neck with a smirk, but then Fahz moves to a new position and alerts the entire area to your presence. It undercuts the new gameplay opportunity, effectively forcing you to race against the AI seemingly having no idea how stealth works. It’s a series first, so not hugely shocking, and likely not to impact most, but best to be mindful. Hopefully The Coalition works out a means to nail this next time around, because the stealth sections that do work are immensely satisfying.
Fight Together, or Die Alone
This heavy emphasis on cooperative play is the one other sticking point fans will either be in favor of, or annoyed by. While the Gears series has always featured AI allies to accompany you, Gears 5 doubles down by making your teammates killable. No longer can they just infinitely lay prone on the ground, but instead require proper revival. This isn’t a major hindrance in most cases, but there was one catwalk section towards the end of the game that suffered from enemy fire causing splash damage wide enough to knock out the entire squad, leaving no one left to revive us.
To be fair, J.A.C.K.’s inclusion helps counterbalance things. However, when you’re relying more on Del or other companions to get the job done, it can get tedious how incompetent their positioning and responsiveness is; especially when J.A.C.K. has none of these issues. On the upside, the expanded number of AI allies you have at times ironically leads to far better boss fights. In the more scripted scenarios, they prove a vital asset, and add further wrinkles to some of the game’s best encounters. It’s a mixed bag, no matter how you shake it, but only a minor blemish on an otherwise excellent gameplay experience.
Story – 5 out of 5
Bound By Blood
Gears 5 is a surprisingly subdued yet critical step in the series. New lead Kait Diaz is effortlessly charming as a woman troubled by her ancestors past mistakes, and apocalyptic visions. It becomes clear soon that the Swarm have an interest in her, after her mother’s death, and so she and squadmate Del go off in search of answers. What follows is not only one of the series’ darkest storylines, but a harrowing journey that somehow also maintains brilliant amounts of levity between the heartbreak.
I’ll refrain from spoiling as much as possible, as Gears 5‘s story is best experienced with a fresh set of eyes. Understand that The Coalition heard fan’s complaints that Gears of War 4 wasn’t different enough for their liking. Goodness, did they hear that, and made a huge leap with what’s possible in a Gears title. How players respond to the game’s ending will doubtless impact future entries, though the game completely earns its final moments.
The Change Up
Gears 5 takes a huge risk in swapping its protagonists, not only showing a darker side to J.D. Fenix, but giving his former companions Kait and Del a stage all their own. In the hands of lesser writers, they’d be a handful of tropes wrapped in the token girl and token sassy black guy; instead, they’re brilliant. Laura Bailey’s portrayal of Kait offers far greater emotional depth than any past mainline Gears lead, but also an appreciation for the series’ lore.
In Del’s case, he’s literally one of the smartest characters in the room, both emotionally and intellectually. They couldn’t have picked a better person for Kait to go on this deeply personal journey with, making several late game events all that more harrowing as you fear for his and Kait’s survival. J.A.C.K.’s also adorable to boot, like your own personal flying R2-D2. Their dialogue never grows old, which extends to the rest of the cast as well. Even newcomer Fahz, who Kait rightly calls an “asshole”, manages to earn a begrudging appreciation by the end.
Throw the Book At ‘Em!
Up until Gears of War 4, Karen Travis was given free reign to flesh out the universe behind the games, and Gears 5 may be the first entry to fully capitalize on that rich backstory. From casual references of mandatory pregnancy programs instituted by the COG government to the origins of the Swarm, there’s a lot to process in Gears 5 that many games would’ve left by the wayside.
You don’t get this sort of inter-connective storytelling without considerable effort and research. It’s a triumph of The Coalition’s campaign team that years of narrative all culminate in a single piece of entertainment like this. Those without the knowledge are told all the critical information, and those daring to go beyond the games will be rewarded.
Polish – 4.5 out of 5
Gears 5 is gorgeous and delightful on every level, with a staggeringly smooth performance even on original Xbox One hardware. It runs with next to no loading screens or hitches, which is why our section is so short for this review. Instead, the only real issue with Gears 5 has nothing to do with engine optimization – but AI and networking. As stated before, the networking issues were a pain, though that primarily impacted my experience with the multiplayer portion of the game.
Worse for solo-play was the fact that companion AI just broke at times. J.D. Fenix in particular forced a checkpoint restart twice because he kept getting caught on or inside geometry. I guess he’s just bitter about becoming a secondary protagonist? There were a few other instances where the game’s enemy AI also grew confused if you tried to escape it out into the open world areas. It still fights you, but becomes far less strategic, instead blindly firing at you as they awkwardly shuffle around. None of these are deal-breakers by any measure, but are issues The Coalition needs to take into consideration for whatever comes next.
Final Score – 5 out of 5
Gears 5‘s campaign is the reason to own an Xbox One
Gears 5 is a bold step forward for the Gears of War franchise. Not only because it no longer has to share the same acronym as God of War, nor due it’s so packed with features that we had to do a separate review for the multiplayer component (that you absolutely should read!), but simply in that Gears 5 feels like a truly modern AAA title. Everything, from the writing to the presentation and mechanics is top-tier. You don’t want to sleep on this one, whether you play it on PC or console.