Doing It All in Gears 5
When thinking about how to begin this review, my thoughts kept drifting back to the now infamous Mad World trailer for Gears of War. The first haunting line: “All around me are familiar faces”. Our first look at Marcus Fenix. 13 years later, those familiar faces are still around, but far from worn out. Gears 5 has the same beating heart, but breathes new life into the franchise with smart changes and additions. It’s an absolute landslide of content.
As a flagship title for the Good Ship Spencer (Microsoft), Gears 5 needs to do everything in its power to be a giant hit. In a post Game Pass world, that means being way more accessible than its predecessors. Think about it: huge Gears fans, people who would never have considered Gears 5, and even those in the “I’ll wait for a price drop” camp can wake up on September 10th and download the whole thing for no additional charge. Without $60 on the table, those folks aren’t going to be nearly as sticky. They don’t need to be when there are hundreds of other games they can download as soon as something rubs them wrong.
The Coalition really pulled out the stops to keep that from happening. Boot Camp is a tutorial external to the campaign that onboards newbies in a safe way, while the campaign has an extremely thoughtful and helpful ‘Previously on Gears’ segment. For most players it’s been a few years, so remembering what the heck JD, Marcus, and Kait were up to last time was immensely valuable. If you’re completely new to the franchise, there’s even a video that sums up the whole dang thing. I’d recommend it just to see how far Unreal Engine has come since 2006 – can you believe people used to lose their minds over how real the original Gears of War looked?!
The next paragraph discusses the Gears 5 story. Don’t worry, it’s really general and doesn’t spoil anything that’s not been in a trailer. But Gears of War 4? It’ll spoil the heck out of that.
So, Gears 5. After the events of Gears of War 4, Kait Diaz is a changed woman. After killing her mother Reyna to sever her connection to the Swarm’s Hive, she was changed. She grew up. But as we meet her in Act 1, she’s haunted by the past, and plagued by disturbing visions. Her friends are concerned, but while Del is outwardly worried, JD projects the confidence of his father. Their mission: color outside the lines of the reformed COG (Coalition of Organized Governments), and get the Hammer of Dawn back online.
It’s a thrill ride, taking cues from the biggest Hollywood movies and oftentimes blowing everything up just for kicks. The writing fits right into that mold, and even though I often knew exactly what a character was going to say, I still found myself chuckling and getting invested in all the right places. The story covers a great variety of traditional video game locations like frozen wastelands and vast deserts, but does with a huge scoop of flair. Style meter? Firmly pinned at maximum, straining to break the dial.
Environments all look great, with moody lighting and plenty of visual tricks that made my jaw drop. One that stood out for me was returning to my skiff after a mission, and realizing that the tracks in the sand I’d made on the way in were still there. Yeah, right, you’re saying, but seriously: I tested that theory out by taking some extremely bizarre routes. Coalition boss Rod Fergusson really summed up the look of the game well: the goal isn’t realism. The real goal is believability, and Gears 5 pulls that off really, really well. Cutscenes are gorgeous, and even if the content is chock full of action movie tropes, the fidelity of what you’re looking at makes it easy to get invested.
Unfortunately, I found my immersion broken in a half dozen or so places. Mission progression bugs cropped up a handful of times where tasks wouldn’t complete properly, though a single checkpoint restart generally cleared them up. Typically something like that wouldn’t bother me, but when the rest of the experience is so silky smooth, it felt like throwing open a window shade and being blinded by the sun, when you were expecting a beautiful sunrise. Similarly, there are a few spots where there’s a harsh cut between scenes, often when jumping down a ledge or ducking under an obstacle. Again, not a huge deal, but something that felt out of place.
A Whole New (Scale Of) World
I imagine part of that is that the scale of the world in Gears 5 is orders of magnitude bigger than ever before. Larger areas are traversed using the Skiff – which is fun to drive – but more often than not I felt like large swathes of space didn’t have much going on. There are definitely points of interest to head toward and it all looks fantastic, but don’t expect an incredible density of things to do.
In some ways, it’s like last year’s God of War (Art Director Aryan Hanbeck actually brought it up as an influence in an interview). Hub areas have side missions and nooks and crannies, but the game doesn’t always funnel you towards them or make them noticeable. What’s done really well is the character chatter surrounding side areas. It feels more organic and important when Del asks if we’re REALLY going to ignore that crashed ship AGAIN. So, if you treat side areas like snacks between meals, you’ll be pretty happy with what there is to do.
Structurally, missions mostly follow the tried and true Gears of War recipe. Slow, creepy strolls through breathtaking areas, followed by frenzied, hectic, and reflex heavy shooting sections. One of my biggest questions diving into the Gears 5 campaign was how encounter design would be handled. My biggest beef in the past was that you could see the fields of chest-high walls miles away. That’s still the case here. If you want to, or just really like the shooting mechanics, you can bunker down behind cover and pick enemies in just about all situations.
That structure has never been my cup of tea, but the addition of Jack (a bot) to the battlefield makes approaches vastly more varied. Using Jack’s powers (he’s also an option in co-op and multiplayer), you can stealth behind the snipers and stab them in the back, or drop a shock trap and stun the Swarm, or stim up and charge straight forward with your Boomshot.
I found myself falling into old habits often. Stopping. Popping. Reloading. Don’t do that. Use Jack’s powers, and use them often. Experiment with the options, and you’ll have a much better time with encounters in Gears 5.
Less successful is the addition of player initiated combat. Instead of having all of Sera aware of your presence all the time, you can occasionally sneak up on your enemies. I really like the idea in principle, but in practice ambushes aren’t terribly effective. Sure, you can cloak and dagger your way around the periphery of the map, but things go loud eventually. It’s more fun with a couple buddies, but I was hoping for a more robust feature implementation when it was first revealed.
As one of the pioneers of campaign co-op, Gears 5 obviously has that. And it’s the best way to experience the campaign. Squad AI is decent enough to take cover and revive you when you do something stupid, but the tougher difficulties make them a definite liability. If you want to flank and ambush the Swarm most effectively, co-op is the way to go.
Mode Fest 2019
Of course, the campaign is only one of the pillars holding up Gears 5. Multiplayer, polarizing as it may be, has never had a bigger voice than it does here. Versus mode adds an arcade mode, Horde modes twists the formula, while the all-new Escape mode joins the fray. Joining all that together is the new, Battle Pass esque Tour of Duty.
Resetting every three months, Tour of Duty offers a global progression system with a series of challenges to complete and rise through the ranks. Unlocks include multiplayer skins, medals, and other various things like skill cards. Maps and Escape hives are mercifully free to avoid splitting the player base, and loot crates are nowhere in sight. Interestingly, to preserve the sanctity of your money and unlocks, there’s no way to buy your way through the tree, and no way to unlock the paid content through playing. To me, the system seems fair.
To me, Arcade Mode is the best addition to the Gears stable of modes. Fans of traditional Gear multiplayer? They’ll probably hate it. Instead of becoming a shotgun fest, Arcade Mode forces players to pick from a stable of characters, each of whom has an unlock tree. Doing well gets you skulls, which you use to buy new weapons. Die and, well, your enemies have your gun. Insert John McClane meme here. It’s fun to jump into for a few rounds, and is easier to get the hang of than the traditional versus experience.
Horde is back as well, and it’s still it’s old addictive self. I don’t want this review to be War and Peace, so if you’re a Horde fan you should definitely check out my article on it. Think a few hours of Horde is too much? That’s what Escape is for. It feels a lot like Horde does, but the constant pressure on your backside makes it more frantic. Less predictable. More… dangerous. Hives are asymmetrical and sometimes confusing, and you’ll often be pushing forward without the resources to do so safely. It’s tense and as hell, and that’s an intoxicating (pun intended) thing.
Not enough? There’s a map editor too. Cripes, this game has a buttload of content.
On the whole, Gears 5 is one of the most content-packed titles around. If you’re somebody, you’re probably going to find something up your alley here. Revolutionary? No. The structure is very familiar, and there are bugs here and there, but this is an ambitious package that’s polished in almost every way. No matter what your experience level is with these familiar faces, Gears 5 is the most accessible title in the line, and is ultimately successful in trying to be something for everyone.
**Xbox One code provided by the publisher**
- Gorgeous visuals
- Smart gameplay changes
- A boatload of modes
- Gigantic scale
- A few progression bugs
- More of the same core gameplay