The closing stinger of Gears of War 4 was a surprising one for a number of reasons. The clear implication that series newcomer and second fiddle Kait Diaz’s bloodline could be tied to the Locust was in itself a shocking reveal, but even more shocking was that I found myself captivated by, and wanting more of, a Gears of War narrative. The original trilogy never managed to sell the stakes or develop its characters in a way that felt must-play, it was always gameplay first.
Though I wasn’t sold on the new cast right away, over the course of this new trilogy’s first two entries, they’ve really come into their own and bring a personable quality that you wouldn’t expect from Gears. The tight, four-act campaign has a surprising amount of heart and a wonderful sense of humour, thanks in large to the inclusion of Rahul Kohli as a new character whose arc from tool to dyed-in-the-wool Gear is among the game’s best. Placing Kait at the centre of the game’s narrative is justified through and through as the plot unwinds, resolving questions of her heritage while providing commentary on hubris during wartime and just how necessary some risks are at the end of the day. There’s a sublime plot device that exposits a lot of the plot in a clean, if slightly ambiguous, fashion though its absence from the final two acts is noted as the endgame clicks over from calculated to bombastic, blockbuster storytelling.
Gears 5’s abrupt ending caught me off-guard and, in the end, it does feel like the game suffers somewhat from trying to set up the trilogy’s conclusion in that it robs itself of a satisfying resolution. That being said, this doesn’t make Kait’s quest for self-discovery a bad one, it’s a narrative high-point for the series, it’s just it’s hamstrung by being a ‘middle’ act in a grander scheme.
It took me just under ten hours to get through the game’s story, though admittedly I didn’t stop to take in all of the sights the two open-world hub areas had to offer. The number of side quests and things worth exploring in these areas is bound to pad the game’s runtime as Gears 5 does a terrific job of tugging on threads set up in previous games and other areas of the universe’s canon. It’s refreshing to see The Coalition not resting entirely on their laurels and letting the game’s mouthwatering gunplay shoulder the burden of carrying the game, though I got the sense at times that these miles-wide expanses you traverse were more so an excuse to get the skiff into the game. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the science of how this parasail-ski hybrid exists, but I never questioned it in the moment because it’s so damn fun. It makes the miles of often-empty tundra a pleasure to navigate.
Gears’ bread and butter has long been its visceral violence and gunplay that borders on fetishistic. Long-term fans of the series will be pleased to know the game does nothing to tone down the confronting gib-happy combat. I wasn’t a huge fan of the defence-focused chapters shoehorned into the last game’s campaign, it felt like an attempt to get the series’ wave defence mode into the narrative which, in the context of the story, felt clunky and needless. Fortunately, The Coalition has scrapped these in favour of a return to the traditional Gears arenas, full of hip-high walls and columns to take cover behind. It’s what Gears has always paid the bills with and to see course correction in that regard was pleasing. With co-op a central cog in the Gears experience, the developers have added a new way to play, giving players free control of Jack, the Baird-built multipurpose bot. With a fully-fledged skill tree, Jack fast becomes a real asset in the game’s many nuanced skirmishes, adding a semblance of strategy and contemplation to how best to tackle certain enemies. To see Jack make the leap from cute, video game answer to Star Wars’ BB-8 to a functional, playable arm of the team is a testament to the team’s willingness to press forward and innovate on their strengths.
There’s a lot to sink your teeth into when it comes to the game’s competitive and cooperative modes with Versus, Horde and Escape bound to consume plenty of your time post-credits. The game’s multiplayer has long been an industry mega power and with a lot of small improvements on the formula, players are bound to be pleased with the final product. There’s no shortage of game types and the game’s near-dozen maps appear to have been designed with all modes in mind. One of the best improvements is the inclusion of Tour of Duty, an excellent and more importantly free ‘battle pass’ replacement for the much maligned loot boxes that plagued the last game. With challenges to focus on, it adds a little bit of a pursuit for players locked into the grind of multiplayer plus it’s free, meaning there’ll be no segregation within the online community and that’s always a positive.
The Coalition have been hard at work fleshing out the Horde experience, executing the best instance of the mode the series has seen since its inception. Opting for the ‘hero’ route, with passive and ultimate abilities adding a real reason beyond aesthetics to pick certain characters, they’re extremely useful for when your back is against the wall. Whether it’s Kait’s ability to cloak or Marcus’s Living Legend ultimate that turns him into an automatic headshot machine, players can more often turn the tide back in their favour when all looks lost. The unrelenting Locust swarm drop ‘power’ during their demise which can be used for a number of things as you micromanage in between waves. You’re able to either pour points into passive perks specific to your character such as critical hit damage — a handy option — or by depositing them into the Fabricator, they add to the team pool which can be spent on defensive measures and a greater arsenal hours in during the tougher waves. They’re small changes, but it’s more than enough to set this version of Horde apart from its lesser counterparts.
The brand new mode on the block is Escape, the Gears answer to Call of Duty’s often cinematic objective-driven modes. A complete departure from the ‘hold your ground’ spirit that the rest of the franchise has based itself on, Escape’s main goal is exactly what its name suggests. After deliberately getting kidnapped by a Snatcher and deploying a toxic gas inside the Swarm nest you hightail it for greener pastures, mowing down countless denizens of the deep along the way. It’s a great idea in theory, but it comes off feeling a little half-baked with labyrinthian maps that are all carbon copies of each other, while the sheer lack of ammo throughout feels counter-intuitive to the run and gun culture it attempts to promote. That being said, it’s a super cool idea that, with a few tweaks, could become a flagship co-op modes in Gears with ease.
Gears 5 looks absolutely sumptuous running on the Xbox One X, with its steady sixty-frames per second and 4K a new benchmark for the platform. Those charged with the map and environmental design in this game deserve much of the credit for the game’s disarming visuals with the much-marketed blizzard-beaten landscapes a clear highlight. As it always the case, the game varies its locations a lot but each and every one of them is a wonderful example of art direction that really makes this particular instance of the Gears world, now a decade old, authentic and grounded. The hulking character models in Gears have always left themselves open to ridicule, though they’ve never looked better than this particular game which is fortunate because no other Gears has been more about its characters. With a number of heartrending character moments, the expressions of despair hit home harder than you’d expect.
It certainly looks the part and it goes a long way to sounding the part, too. With sound design right out of the top drawer and quality voice-acting to boot, it’s fair to say that this Gears hits all of the right notes. From subtle things like the the signature ‘omen’ chimes being sprinkled throughout the game’s beautiful score to less subtle things like a Drone’s sternum being separated from his body with a Lancer chainsaw’s turning teeth, it’s an excellent example of how great sound design can propel a game’s production from good to great.
Gears 5 does so much right it’s hard to even fault the small issues I had with it. It’s a robust, complete experience that offers so much bang for buck, especially for those aboard the Game Pass gravy train. With a genuinely enthralling campaign that sets the pace for where the series is still going in future and provides a ten-hour crash course for the game’s other modes, Gears 5 is another much-needed feather in the cap for Xbox’s first-party stocks.
THE XBOX ONE VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Gears 5 is a big, loud blockbuster that brings so much to the table, it’s easy to under-appreciate it. By building on the stories set in motion by its predecessor, Gears 5’s narrative journey is a benchmark for the series so far with well-rounded characters that are far easier to love when compared to the original trilogy’s gruff, motley crew. Once you throw a polished, brutally competitive online facet, Horde’s best iteration and the promising Escape into the mix, Gears 5 becomes a package too hard to refuse considering the clear value on offer. The story’s driving force might be “bound by blood” but Gears 5 is bound for greatness.