Gears 5 Review

September 23, 2019
Xbox One
Also on: PC
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The original Gears of War trilogy holds a special place in my heart. I played all but ten minutes in co-op play with one of my best friends. We laughed, we cried and we pushed ourselves through every trial and challenge it could throw at us. It’s one of the few linear games I’ve completed more than once mostly so that we could unlock the achievement on each respective game at its highest difficulty setting. By the end we were a well-oiled machine knowing exactly how a Gears of War game should be played and what we both brought to the party. Then, in 2012 and a few short months after Gears of War 3 was released I moved to Australia and whilst online gaming allows for friends to play over great distances, a nine- to eleven-hour time difference is quite a hindrance.

So when Gears of War 4 rocked up in 2016 I gave it a miss for no other reason than I was missing my wingman. It just didn’t feel right, and whilst it gained generally favourable reviews it’s been sat in my Game Pass list for what feels like forever. If there’s one, biggest piece of praise I could give Gears 5 it’s that, even after not playing a Gears title for seven years, everything was familiar. The third-person perspective, roadie-running between cover and the sheer joy of nailing perfect reloads was all there to greet me as I went through the introductory level used as a way of teaching newcomers and refreshing returning players alike. Even having the ever familiar voice of Baird to take me through it brought back some fond memories.

Time has caught up with Marcus, napping on the job. Tsk, tsk!

If, like me, you skipped or perhaps didn’t complete Gears of War 4 there is a short recap you can watch to fill you in on the major plot points. Not all of it made complete sense straight away but, thanks to some excellent scripted banter between characters, most of this confusion was cleared up as I played. Whilst the first act is solely focussed around J.D., Gears 5 focuses mainly on Kait Diaz. She is an Outsider who, by the end of Gears of War 4, we suspect to be a descendent of the Locust Queen Myrrah inferred by way of an amulet she inherited from her mother. It’s great to see a strong female lead, especially in a franchise which, at times, used to bathe in machismo. Kait doesn’t need to be rescued nor is she someone to trifle with. During the rather short four-act campaign, she learns about her past, her family’s secrets and gains a steely determination to break the cycle of her heritage. 

With the Swarm growing in power and apparently advancing technologically, the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) need to strike back and turn the tide. Like in previous Gears games, the ever-present threat of attack is always there and the Swarm seems to be a far more cunning opponent than the Locust or Lambent ever were. They move and lay down covering fire and, if they’re downed and not finished, they will crawl back to their comrades in the hope that they’re resuscitated. As such you need to keep tabs on all opponents and keep aware of flanking enemies. The main campaign also opens up new places to visit on the planet Sera though some veterans of the series may recognise a few places from the original trilogy.

Skiffing like there’s no tomorrow, it genuinely looks like a lot of fun.

New to the series is some open-world exploring done during the second and third acts. After acquiring a skiff during the second act you are then free to explore the frozen wastes of Sera’s North and later desert like area of Vasgar. There are side missions and downed aircraft that you can loot for weapons, ammunition and upgrade parts. The latter is used to upgrade Jack, your electronic buddy, which introduces some light RPG elements to Gears 5. Jack’s abilities are often situation-specific with new ones generally occurring at points where they are needed but are hot-swappable during missions. You can use him to flash enemies, pick up weapons from a distance or even make yourself invisible amongst others. Some abilities are more useful than others and you’ll likely get a pairing that, barring a few specific scenarios, will be your go to for most of the campaign.

As the main storyline progresses more and more of Kait’s heritage becomes apparent. Most of it is telegraphed from a mile away and as such a few of the twists fall flat. It still manages to pack a punch and if you find some of the collectibles dotted around the open-world areas the history of Sera is fleshed out even more. The ending is quite something and sets up for a sixth game should Gears 5 pull in the numbers. The Coalition has done a great job of carving its own narrative within the lore but some of the links that the team make feel a tad forced, almost as though they’re trying a bit too hard to mesh everything together. It has echoes of the Star Wars prequels and their attempts to explain everything that came before it even if it wasn’t needed or warranted.

Vasgar has seen better days, giving some very Mars-like views

The main campaign isn’t that long, clocking in at around ten hours if you ignore side-missions and collectibles. It’s punchy though and rarely lets up in terms of action so there’s always something to grab your attention. I highly recommend taking your time and explore what little of Sera you’re able to. It’s a great first step for the series into open-world play but it’s very conservative and, along with Jack’s ability tree, feels like tentative first steps into something bigger. However, my run through wasn’t all plain sailing (or skiffing maybe?) as I encountered more than my fair share of crashes and missed checkpoints. I mostly experienced crashes whilst trying to take screenshots after large set pieces or shortly after an automatic save. When this happened I was often dropped back more than a couple checkpoints forcing us to retread ground. It’s not the worst thing in the world but it does sour things a touch if you’ve just passed a tough encounter only to be forced to do it again.

Outside of full crashes I also noticed that achievements wouldn’t pop on chapter completions and that occasionally, collectibles couldn’t be picked up despite my best efforts. These are minor issues but alongside the more annoying crashes they add up to a greater disappointment that they exist on launch on a AAA title such as this. A patch was released shortly after release and whilst it’s reduced the number of crashes I encountered they’ve not been completely eradicated. Once you decide to branch out into multiplayer, two familiar modes are there to greet you in Horde and Versus. In Versus you have the option of Classic Quickplay, Arcade Quickplay and Co-Op vs AI Quickplay. Most will likely flock to Classic Quickplay and its familiar stomping ground of modes such as Team Deathmatch, Arms Race and Dodgeball. Arcade quickplay is something a bit different and sees you locked to a specific loadout depending on which character your choose. 

Lighting and textures in 4K on the Xbox One X are nothing short of stunning at times

Co-Op vs AI is a cooperative-based game mode and is one that feels the most tacked on. It can be fun and is, in a way, a nice way to loosen up before heading in to the more involved game modes. Another mode, and new to the series is Escape where you and two other players must escape a Swarm hive. It’s certainly something different and sees you fighting through waves of enemies as you meander through corridors trying to find your way out. It does require a bit of teamwork and a few of my adventures paired me up with gung-ho teammates but when you get the right makeup it’s a wild ride. Multiplayer really has benefitted from a few tweaks here and there alongside bringing in weapon locking related to class. It won’t necessarily stop characters or certain weapons becoming the meta but it does stop teams and players using one loadout all the time.

Overall Gears 5 takes the series forward whilst staying true to its roots. It doesn’t try to do anything crazy and keeps the fundamentals like its tight and exciting combat the same. At the same time a lack of adventure with its story and some disappointing issues keep it from being truly great. There’s a bit of replayability within the main campaign should you feel drawn to get all the collectibles but multiplayer is where Gears 5 finds its longevity. Returning game modes remain unchanged and as exciting as ever and it’s great to see the series experimenting with things such as Escape even if it can fall flat when paired with the wrong random internet player. It’ll be interesting to see how, exactly, the expected Gears 6 incorporates the events of Gears 5 into its narrative. It’s been a pretty wild ride up to now and I don’t see any sign that that’s about to change.

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Gears 5 takes the series to new heights but it’s weighed down by some annoying bugs and a story that seems to try a touch too hard to tie itself to the original trilogy. Whilst Horde mode is still excellent and the various Versus modes are fun, the new Escape mode is a bit hit and miss.
Pete Taylor

A long time gamer since the days of the mighty ZX Spectrum +2. The bug really bit when I got a Sega Mega Drive 2 and it hasn’t let up since. Huge racing fan but I also enjoy losing myself in a well-told RPG and management sims. It doesn’t have to be good-looking to win my heart, it’s what’s deep down inside that matters.