Gears 5 Brings The Boom - Gears 5 Review
Gears 5 is a stunning example of how a developer can take a long-running franchise that may have been showing signs of losing steam, and revitalized it without veering too far off the beaten path. The Coalition has shown to have shaken off the rust and has finally found its footing in the development of the Gears of War franchise.
Gears 5 pivots from keeping the spotlight on the Fenix family, and begins to explore Kait Diaz, who was previously introduced in Gears of War 4. While Gears 5 continues to feature bombastic blockbuster set pieces, a large amount of the draw in the narrative is the Kait’s journey in discovering her true origins and ties to the Locust. There are moments of personal reflection, heartache, and levity throughout the campaign. It’s during these moments that Gears 5 proves to have evolved from the “bro-shooter” nomenclature. Although Gears 5 is largely focused on Kait, the game opens up with us continuing to follow in the shoes of Gears of War 4’s main protagonist and son of Marcus Fenix, J.D. During the opening act, you find J.D. and Del, his right-hand man, explore an old Azura facility to help reestablish the Hammer of Dawn network. Together, they are joined by a new face to the franchise, Jack. In a first for the series, Jack joins you as a drone able to fetch hard-to-reach weapons, ammo, and collectibles. Jack can open doors, and provide support in a myriad of ways.
The Coalition implements a light skill tree in Jack, where players can collect upgrade components to unlock new offensive and defensive abilities for Jack. As you find new components, you’ll be able to order Jack to heal you, cloak you in invisibility, and zap enemies, stunning them momentarily. At first, the skill tree can seem a bit daunting and finding the components needed could seem like busywork. However, you’ll naturally stumble across many of them (there are over 200), so if you’re only interested in story and gunplay, you won’t have to worry about exploring every nook and cranny.
It’s not before long that the game transitions from J.D.’s perspective to Kait’s. As act 2 approaches, the game sees J.D. make some questionable choices. Picking up months after, with our characters dealing with the aftermath, Kait is now joined by Jack, and Del as she deals with the aftermath and continues down the path of self-exploration. I never truly warmed up to the new cast of characters of Gears of War 4 until now. For a long time, Gears of War had always been Marcus’ adventure (sans Judgment). Gears of War 4 introduced J.D., Kait, and Del, without humanizing them to the level I was hoping. Every moment Marcus wasn’t on screen, I was rushing to the next moment we got Mr. COG himself back into the fold. Here, in Gears 5, I welcomed every new and returning character. While Marcus is relegated to the background for a large amount of the story, John DiMaggio’s voice acting is electrifying and packs a punch when he does appear, once again killing it with his dry humour and gruff. Kait makes up for the lack of Marcus and then some. Leveraging the strong female character was a refreshing new take for an otherwise male-dominant franchise. Kait never tries to be Marcus, nor should she. Kait is her own character, with personal goals and ideology. While Marcus and Dom had an iconic bromance in the original trilogy, a new budding bestie relationship was felt between Kait and Del. Their banter was captivating and as Kait finds herself struggling with her past, Del is always there reaching out. Even the new characters like Fahz end up finding their place in the group. While beloved characters like Baird and Cole make their appearance from time to time, Gears 5 is about the new class.
As much as I love that satisfying sound and visuals that accompany a well placed Swarm headshot, it’s the story beats that kept bringing me back. Kait is a very compelling character. She was not raised and brought up by the arms of the COG army. She resented the military faction for quite some time, and although she is an established part of Delta Squad, there is a level of distrust, as her views are still not 1:1 with the COG’s. This theme is further explored through the turmoil that Kait experiences throughout the game. Haunted by visions of the Swarm, characters like J.D. see her as a liability and often worry if the visions may end up corrupting her. The feeling of being an outsider is strengthened and Kait herself begins to second-guess her ability to remain true to herself. Although backed by Del and Marcus, suspicions and doubt cut deep as Kait begins to question the loyalty of her friends as well.
Gears 5 goes bigger and bolder with semi-open world environments. The game is bookended with smaller, more linear levels, leaving acts 2 and 3 structured across sprawling terrain. The former is set on an icy landscape, while the latter has you making your way across a red desert, scorned by lightning. Much like Metro Exodus, you’ll be able to uncover hidden facilities and take part in optional side-missions. To get your from place to place, you’ll ride the skiff, a new vehicle. Steering may take a bit of getting used to as the sled is powered by the wind, though it is extremely useful and zippy. You’ll also be able to store up to two weapons on the skiff, encouraging you to think two steps ahead about your loadout when exploring a new location. Both of these open-world locations are breathtaking to look at, especially on the Xbox One X. The colours and scope of the maps are a real accomplishment for The Coalition, who have found comfort in designing linear levels until the point. The maps in Gears 5 have a bit of modernity but lack a certain level of depth. While some can argue that the barren landscapes are fitting for the planet of Sera, it would have nice to be sailing from one area to the next and see something. The areas in between points of interest are lifeless. There are no small townships or wildlife. Even a patrolling Swarm army could have broken up the minutes of holding the right trigger, waiting for the next destination to roll from the horizon. Luckily, this is where you’ll gain some additional exposition between characters. The members of Delta Squad fill the silence in a similar way Kratos and Atreus did in God of War.
Gears of War continues to have some of the tightest and most satisfying cover-shooting mechanics around. Gears 5’s gameplay is frenetic in its third-person onslaught of the Swarm. The Coalition may have played it a bit safe in Gears of War 4, by having players roam from one monster closet to the next, in a rather dull “rinse-and-repeat” gameplay loop. Gears 5 on the other hand, feels more varied from a gameplay perspective. Even in the first act, the game doesn’t overfeed you with action. You get just as much story as you do shooting enemies. It also helps that The Coalition has introduced new enemy types to keep the combat exciting. Anytime a Warden, the new Swarm vanguard, rears his ugly mug, you must quickly compose yourself and adjust your tactics. Of course, this is Gears after all and a few heart-racing set pieces are to be expected. Gears 5 masterfully handles each set piece. An early example of this comes when Delta squad makes its way into a rundown stage theatre. As you flip a switch to open the escape doors, broadway music begins blasting through the speakers and you’re left fighting waves of enemies to an almost Hamilton-esque musical number.
While the game is gorgeous and you’ll likely find yourself staring at the scenery in awe, there are a few technical problems. The first is the stats and collectibles being recorded. I had played half of the campaign on Insanity, the most difficult mode, in co-op before turning it down for a smoother experience. However, the stat screen recorded that several early levels were played on Intermediate. This is, of course, nothing game-breaking, but as well polished as the game looks and handles, this inconsistency does need to be addressed. Also—and this one speaks to completionists—is the inconsistency in registering collectibles. There are roughly 400 collectibles, half of which are the aforementioned Jack components littered throughout the levels. If you snag a component and die before a checkpoint, you must pick up the component once again and cross the checkpoint before the game registers you’ve found it. Likewise, with the regular collectibles, which can be anything from a COG tag, to a note, the game will not register until you complete the chapter. In one of the later chapters, you’ll find yourself racing through the COG capital on the back of a vehicle. Playing co-op, my partner did not register to be in the vehicle after a cutscene and was left behind, and was able to run through buildings and ultimately feel through the map.
The Coalition took over the Gears of War franchise in 2014 and began carving their take on the series once helmed by Epic Games. Gears 5 takes the series in a slightly new direction with new gameplay mechanics and a bigger world to explore. The Coalition even asks the player to make a major choice towards the climax, which will have serious repercussions as the series continues to unfold.
Although the campaign packs a wallop and is in the conversation of best Gears of War stories told thus far, Gears 5 features a fleshed-out multiplayer as well. One of the modes is your standard Ranked mode. As is tradition, two teams will pack an assortment of weapons to spray and mow down the enemy team, while bouncing between cover. You’ll also find objective-based PVP modes such as Guardian and Escalation so bring your Gnasher and prepare for a fight. It’s been a while since I’ve found myself invested in competitive Gears. I’ve always had a deep admiration for players that are able to master the mechanics and hold their own in the arena but haven’t had the itch to jump in myself since Gears of War 2. In Gears 5, each level is perfectly balanced for both sides. As with previous iterations, you’ll have to memorize weapon spawns and hotspots to get the jump on enemies. For a more casual experience, Gears 5 offers Arcade mode which lets you focus on landing kills to purchase powerful weapons and build a loadout of your preference. For someone shaking off the rust, I found myself having a real blast in Arcade mode, but the most satisfying victories come from Ranked.
Escape is the new mode to the Gears of War franchise. The PVE mode had its fair share of the limelight during the lead up to Gears 5. Microsoft and The Coalition seemed to have high expectations for Escape and I’m still unsure if their efforts have paid off. Of the three multiplayer modes, Escape is the weakest in my eyes. You and two other players will find themselves in a Swarm hive and must navigate the labyrinth and find the exit as the halls slowly fill with poisonous gas. At the start of the match, you’ll only have a pistol and limited ammo at your disposal. As you continue to bash and shoot your way through rooms full of Swarm and Deebees, you’ll pick up new weapons like the Hammerburst and uncover rooms with ammo to help you out. Escape demands strategy and teamwork. Each playable character has an ability that can benefit the team. The cooldowns of such abilities will urge you to coordinate when and where to use your specials for the most pragmatic results. Depending on the difficulty, matches can usually last five to 15 minutes if you’re playing it safe. The more difficult the match, the more modifiers are in place, making ammo even more scarce and damage all the more deadly.
Unlike any other mode, Escape features maps that are on rotation by The Coalition. The map will periodically change forcing you to relearn the layout and enemy placement. This causes the mode to become a bit stale when you dedicate hours to grinding and running Escape matches. Users can also create their own maps in a fairly in-depth map creator and publish for the community to play through. Escape is best played with people you know or people who are willing to jump on the mic and coordinate. This is especially true when playing on the harder difficulties as you don’t want to consistently have to revive the one player who decides to be the hero or venture off towards another end of the map for loot.
Finally, we have the much-beloved Horde mode. This PVE mode is a staple of Gears and has you facing waves of enemies with boss battles weaved throughout the experience. Capping off at wave 50, you’ll fight wave after wave of Swarm forces and Deebees with various combinations of enemy types. In between waves, you can build defences via the fabricator as well as craft new weapons and upgrade passive abilities like health. Horde is a killer mode that once again urges players to communicate to build a strategy. Due to Horde mode reusing the same maps as Ranked/Arcade, you can use the knowledge of lances and map balance to coordinate player placement to have all your bases covered.
Horde mode is a battle of attrition as start-to-finish matches can last upwards of two hours. That’s a big problem in my eyes. At the end of each wave, you’re forced to look at a scoreboard that shows the last wave’s result of kills and points. This breaks up the momentum of blasting Swarm baddies. For this, it’s become a chore to find a party in matchmaking that’s willing to stick it out to the end. More often than not, I’ve found myself reaching the high 20s before hearing that someone’s got to jet off to work or finish dinner. As players begin to drop, they’re replaced by bots who aren’t much help aside from stealing the enemy’s attention away from you.
Overall, Gears 5 is the tightest, most expansive package out of the series. The game from top to bottom is accessible for new players and has a bit of everything for Gears veterans. With so much attention and dedication delivered to the multiplayer aspects, one could worry that The Coalition left the campaign to suffer. That’s not the case here. Every mode, both online and offline is treated as their own entity. Every mode, especially the campaign begs to be played with friends and will undoubtedly provide satisfying results.
Although the odd technical issue and personal preference on multiplayer components felt like blemishes at the time, upon reflection, these grievances don’t bring down the feeling that The Coalition made an outstanding experience. The Gears of War torch finally feels like it’s been passed and I’m once again excited for the future of the franchise.