This has been such a strange console generation for Microsoft. Despite dominating the market the previous gen, with a tremendous amount of exclusives and giant chunks of their biggest franchises existing as a whole on just the Xbox 360 alone, the 8th console generation has thus far been somewhat dry. Xbox 360 saw five separate Halo releases and four Gears of War titles, while this generation has only seen one (Halo 5) and two original titles (Gears 4 and now 5) for each respectively and one remaster, Halo: MCC and Gears Ultimate. To be fair, both of Microsoft’s flagship titles have gone through quite a bit of reworking — Halo reinventing itself to be more like its competition and Gears of War having to more or less start from square one in terms of its universe after the deliberate final chapter that was the third game. Now, Gears 5 has gone even further than that, reinventing the series’ gameplay rather than the story. But did they go far enough?
As we don’t normally cover games where the multiplayer and single-player are such separate entities, I’ll be covering each on their own so I can focus on them in a more cohesive manner.
Gears 5 picks up immediately after the ending of Gears of War 4, set 25 years after the events of the Locust war’s end. We’ve entered a new era of rebuilding for the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or COG, and a new generation are forging their own adventures through a new and potentially more dangerous threat. Leading the pack is JD Fenix (son of the legendary Gear that helped bring an end to the locust war, Marcus Fenix) who, along with his friends Del Walker and Kait Diaz, has uncovered the threat of the Swarm. Mutated, feral versions of the Locust, the Swarm lack the militarized structure of the Locust horde, but make up for it with rabid, aimless violence. It’s been a few months since the flames of war sparked again in the previous title, and JD, Del, and Kait have formerly joined the COG in order to help bring down this new threat. However, after a particularly vicious attack on a COG settlement ends in JD making a disastrous decision, the world of Gears is thrown into the same broken, scattered chaos of the original Locust war.
Swapping from JD to Kait, we find ourselves thrust into the heart of a darker, more psychologically tormented story than Gears has ever ventured to tell. Struggling with haunting visions of the long-dead Locust Queen and discovering a disturbing ability unknown to her before, Kait sets out on a mission to discover answers, leaving the COG behind. Fighting through the rabid and grotesque Swarm (the new Reject and Stump infested machine creatures are especially gruesome), the answers she finds set the stage for what could potentially be the most intriguing story in the series history, but we’ll go over that a little later. Joining her are Del and the trusty robotic companion Jack, who together make up an odd-ball three-player co-op very unlike that of the previous two or four-player co-op modes seen in the series thus far. While gameplay with Kait and Del is carried out identically to all the previous games — the same tried and true cover shooter design the series is known for — the Jack player is instead more of a helping hand.
Offering an upgradable and robust suite of powers that they can bestow on the Kait and Del players, Jack takes a backseat role to combat (although he does have some minor defenses if need be). Throughout the world, you can find upgrade packs to allow him even more abilities, and by game’s end, Jack will make you nearly invincible. Jack’s abilities are all available to you in single-player as well and you can give him orders as to what you want him to do during combat scenarios.
Of course, that isn’t really the big change. You’ll often hear media and marketing call a new entry in a series “the most ambitious one yet,” and while it can often just seem like meaningless fluff (in theory, a sequel should strive to be more ambitious to begin with), in the case of Gears 5‘s there really isn’t another way to put it. Shockingly, Gears 5 introduces an all-new open-world element to the series, allowing players to venture forth an all-terrain skiff across two distinct open-world settings. While you can just go straight to the next story objective, a series of special side-quests lay scattered throughout the world, each with unique locals to explore, and can even add additional lore for eager fans. The main reason for taking on the quests, of course, is to find additional upgrades for Jack, and you can also find a set of Relic weapons. Relic weapons are seriously amazing, and I tried to hold onto as many as I could, as they offer special modifiers not found on the standard versions. The Relic Longshot, for instance, offers an extra bullet upon getting a perfect active reload, and the Relic Boomshot fires three rounds at once — it’s a game-changer, and it’s exciting to find new relics to see what they do.
Gears of War 5 gorgeous. Most likely being the final first-party Xbox One title, The Coalition has put everything they’ve got into this game and it obliterates most of what’s on the market. From a stunning color pallet and a deliciously detailed world, Gears 5 is a game that’s clearly meant to help move Xbox One X systems before the release of Xbox Scarlett next year. I especially adored the use of tension-building pitch-darkness in places, which is clearly meant to highlight the HDR capabilities of Xbox’s more powerful console. Of course, Gears 5 is also available on PC if you want to really crank this game to its limits, which I highly recommend (especially seeing as how the campaign is locked at 30fps on the original Xbox One console).
All of these elements are game-sellers in my book, but it is worth wrapping back around to the story, which is personally what I was looking forward to the most. While it’s pretty common-place to mock the universe of Gears as being loud, dumb bro-action, the series is actually a pretty nuanced anti-war tragedy at its core. Having been invested in the comics, novels, and games themselves, I adore the gritty horror-action of this universe and was looking forward to how this ambition would pay off with this new entry — especially after multiple trailers promised a creepier, more conflicted story than previous entries. While I enjoyed the campaign a lot, it also has some serious stumblings that ultimately make a lot of the storytelling seem misguided at best and completely out to lunch at worst. From an incredibly predictable twist (that could have been guessed going all the way back to Gears 2) to some underwhelming payoffs that the trailers dressed up as being major conflicts, it falls sadly flat in a lot of areas. If you recall the dramatic and heart-stopping marketing of Halo 5 (which showcased a clashing of heroes and a potentially compromised Master Chief) that resulted in a story that’s barely a blip in the grand scheme of things.
The worst of it, however, deals with the game’s unwillingness to cross lines that it draws for itself, especially with one of the characters. I won’t spoil who, but a character is made objectively irredeemable early on in the game, and much of the rest of the plot centers on them most likely being one of the main antagonists. This promise of upping the ante in terms of conflict fizzles out into them just being accepted as a hero again and the horrible thing they did ends up being brushed off. Admittedly, I do feel like this game is trying to do something innovative with its story, it’s just failing at it. I’ll give credit where credit is due, though. There’s a great moment towards the end of the game that sets the stage for what will probably be a very interesting Gears 6 — but that isn’t necessarily a point in Gears 5‘s favor to say that it makes the next game something to look forward to. There’s also a lot of wonderful time spent with classic Gears trilogy heroes, like Baird, Cole, and Marcus, which is a treat. One of my favorite characters in the series even gets some nice moments, which made me incredibly happy.
Overall, the campaign is absolutely the best from a gameplay perspective and offers a tremendous amount of content to explore and enjoy. The three-player co-op is intriguing and could be a great way to introduce a friend who isn’t familiar with the genre to enjoy it with you as well (finally a Gears I can play with my wife). Be aware though, that the story may leave you somewhat underwhelmed, which is a real shame.
Gears of War‘s multiplayer established the birth of a new breed of cover-based shooting back in 2006 and the core of that blood-soaked experience remains as fun today as it was then. Offering an expanding selection of game types, Gears 5‘s multiplayer aims to fine-tune the already nearly perfect versus experience of previous games with tweaked controls and new balancing — and of course new and devastating weapons. While no new movement abilities have been added (like the mantle kick/pull and meat shield tactics introduced over the course of the other games), Gears 5 opts to give the way we handle weapons a new spin. Melee, for instance, is now a swing of your combat knife rather than a slam of the butt of your weapon — which opens up weapons like the lancer and retro lancer to having melee attacks for the first time in the numbered games.
Now the iconic lancer chainsaw is bound to the RB button, which also doubles as reload still, and holding it down will rev up (as well as launch into a retro lancer charge). This also works with the new Grenade Launcher Lancer, a variation that swaps out the blade for a miniature mortar that can devastate a crowd. All of the target reticles have also been redesigned, which is a first for the series. Personally I find that they’re leagues better and more helpful with accuracy that the previous entries’ vague hexagonal sights. The most major change comes to the Gnasher (shotgun), which has proven to be the most difficult to balance across the last decade of Gears games. While many fans (including myself) would argue that the original Gears 1 Gnasher was perfect, none of the other games have managed to successfully balance the weapon to a satisfying degree. Whether it’s the damage being too random, the choke being too tight, or the thing just missing entirely, it’s been the bane of both players and developers throughout the series as it’s been tweaked time and time again. Gears 5 attempts to completely overhaul the weapon to a degree it’s never been before, and it sort of works.
While the basic concept of the Gnasher is the same as always — it’s a shotgun that’s capable of blowing targets to bloody chunks at close range — the way it functions is massively retooled. For starters, the Gnasher’s reticle has been redesigned to now show scattershot hits, meaning you can see whether or not the buckshot hit its mark. Boosting this up, even more, is the fact that the buckshot actually burns marks into your opponent for a few beats when you hit them, helping you to further keep track of your accuracy. Sadly, this seems to have just as much hit or miss as ever. I routinely found that my shots were hitting their mark, obvious and loud thanks to the new hit registering design, and I would not only be killed by that opponent anyway — it wouldn’t register my hit in-game. I’d see my shot hit, but the game would ignore it when it came down to damage points. My best guess is that trading is a bit screwy, and the game doesn’t know what to do when both you and your opponent fire at the same time.
There are other tweaks here and there. The Gnasher no longer gets a damage boost upon a perfect active reload, as now you only get three rounds upon reloading instead of filling your magazine, and achieving a perfect active reload will load you up completely. Some of the active reload windows appear to have been adjusted slightly, as I noticed some of my Longshot muscle memory was faulty as well. The classic “Crismon omen” that signifies health has been slightly modified in order to communicate which direction incoming fire is coming from and there’s now a kill cam. The kill cam is a good idea, although as Gears tends to come down to one-on-one close-quarters fights, the footage often has this “I know, I was there” feel to it that can come off as funny on occasion (especially chainsaw deaths).
While Gears 5 has most of the VS. modes from previous games (farewell, Warzone — you were nobody’s favorite), the real highlight is Arcade. In this mode, the rules of combat receive a massive overhaul that strips out the slower pace of a traditional Gears match and instead creates a frantic and fun jump in and out experience. Every weapon can score a headshot in this mode (I love that POP), and getting kills earns you points that you can spend on character-specific weapons. It’s a great way to get in some Gears action without the commitment of other modes. The other major addition is Escape mode, which serves as sort of a reverse horde mode. Taking on the role of one of three COG soldiers, you’re tasked with infiltrating, destroying, and then escaping a Swarm nest. It’s a lot of fun, and I hope we get more maps and characters in the future.
Just like Gears 3 and 4, there’s also a robust selection of customization options as well, although admittedly, some of them are frankly bizarre. From a massive selection of blood splatter decals (they’re barely visible under the bodies/gibs, and there’s no time to stop and appreciate them either), to an equally large set of spot-markers (the icons that appear above an enemy’s head when you “spot” them for your teammates), I can’t help but wonder why this much effort was put in. That said, a great call was the inclusion of player flags, which take the place of Gears 4′s player banners. These will show up behind you if you earn the MVP spot at the end of a match and it’s pretty awesome. From some great Gears artwork to a series of covers and logos from other Microsoft properties, you have your pick of some great looks. Even cooler, a massive selection of LGBT+ flags are available, which is frankly amazing given that multiplayer games on Gears’ scale really haven’t ever done something like that. Kill with pride, friends!
All of these positives, however, can’t keep a few nagging problems from standing out, frustratingly. To begin with, the content is simply laughable. Between a tiny selection of maps and the smallest character roster since Gears 1, I’m shocked by how little there is to the competitive offerings of Gears 5. Between the eight VS. maps (as opposed to Gears 4‘s 10) and only 8 characters apiece for COG and Swarm (as opposed to Gears 3‘s 15 COG and 16 Locust) I’m a damn sight more disappointed than I was expecting to be here. Obviously more content will be added further down the road (and there’s a handful of limited-time launch event characters you can get, like Sarah Conner and Kat) — but that opens up another can of worms. While maps will more than likely be added for free, VS. characters seem to be part of a rather insidious DLC scheme.
Just made available in the “store” page of Gears 5, a selection of four new characters — COG soldier, COG DeeBee unit, General Raam (the lead villain from the first game), and a Warden — can be purchased for $4.99 (by purchasing $4.99’s worth of the ‘Iron’ in-game currency), or “earned” through normal play. That “earned” comes with a giant asterisk, however; unlike previous Gears games where you could simply unlock them by leveling up or earning enough of the free in-game currency, there is now a list of tasks required for earning a new hero or villain. Keep in mind that, aside from General Raam, none of these characters are all that remarkable — the number of hoops you have to jump through to get even one of them is ridiculous. Let’s take just the COG soldier for example. To unlock this hero without spending any money at all requires this laundry list of checkboxes:
Now if that doesn’t seem all that hard (although it’s worth remembering how time-consuming a lot of this is and that you don’t have a choice as to whether you’re COG or Locust in VS.), I should add that you can only do one at a time. You cannot try to go for both the COG soldier and General Raam at the same time (most of their requirements are identical, like “earn 60,000 xp”), and must start over from scratch with each character. After the Battlefront 2 controversy two years ago, I’m amazed that this same “grind ’till you cave in” tactic is still being used. No, it probably won’t take you 40 hours to earn the COG soldier, but it will take you at least 10 for the most boring character possible. You might ask, why even bother if it’s such a boring character? Well, see, that’s the thing, I can’t help but picture a more sought-after hero, like Baird, Cole, or any of the Carmines, having much higher requirements whenever they’re eventually brought to the game. It’s something to keep an eye on, and it’s especially frustrating after multiplayer design director Ryan Cleven’s comments on how Gears 5 is a “very player-centric, [and] player-friendly” when it came to monetization.
While I have no doubts that you will have fun and really enjoy yourself with Gears 5‘s multiplayer, as a long-time fan of the series this draught of content at launch and the “it’s only five bucks” vibe to earning the DLC characters in-game is teeth grinding.
Overall, between both campaign and multiplayer, Gears 5 is incredibly high quality and it would be dishonest to claim that it wasn’t a great game at its core — but there’s a lot of frustrating problems that completely undermined the experience for me. I would argue that it might be in your best interest to hold off on picking it up until it adds more content and potentially backtracks on some of its monetization schemings. The campaign’s storytelling problems come down to personal taste, and I’m sure many will appreciate its attempt at being the Empire Strikes Back middle-child of this new trilogy — I just wish the storytellers had pushed it farther.