Gears 5 Review
Carmines were born for this
It took a few years into the Xbox One life cycle until we saw the return of Gears of War, the popular and Microsoft-exclusive action franchise. Gears of War 4 wanted to bring the series into a new era, with new lore, new enemies, and new heroes. But the long break since Gears of War 3 didn't seem to change things as much as some expected. Despite new names and faces, it was still the familiar Gears. The new heroes didn't really take reigns, the new enemies were extremely similar, and the gameplay held largely steady. Gears 5 may have dropped a part of its franchise name, but it too is a familiar experience that's beginning to grow long in the tooth.
Gears 5 picks up the story soon after the end of Gears of War 4, when Kait Diaz discovered that her mother (and grandmother) had some direct ties to the Locust, and the current threat from the Swarm. At the start of the game, you still follow JD Fenix, who leads his team on an expedition to an abandoned COG facility where an unused Hammer of Dawn satellite awaits. The team decides to launch it, so that this super-weapon can help them against overwhelming odds. It's not long before an opportunity presents itself to use this super-weapon to save some civilians – but things go wrong, and it ends in tragedy instead. JD blames himself, and becomes colder to the others; this causes Kait to leave and pursue her origins, trying to understand her bloodline.
Players assume control of Kait for most of the game, as she visits a few different parts of the Sera world. At one point early on, she is grabbed by a Snatcher and realizes that her mother is still somehow alive and integrated into the Swarm. Kait also begins to have brief visions. However, this narrative thread becomes secondary to the campaign's main focus of fighting the Swarm and continuing to launch more Hammer of Dawn satellites. She is often accompanied by other members of the COG, and has Del and the bot Jack with her at all times.
The Gears 5 narrative is initially intriguing, and has a greater potential than the previous title, however the premise is largely squandered. The twists about Kait's origins and bloodline are straightforward and easy to predict, and her visions go nowhere. The political and personal drama of using more Hammer of Dawn satellites works its way through the clichés. The group's relationships remain a strong point, but it's telling that even after all these years, the "new kids" of JD, Del, and Kait are still not handed the keys to the franchise, with Marcus Fenix, Damon Baird, and even Cole quarterbacking the main action to save humanity. And finally, like Gears of War 4, this entry ends on a cliffhanger – but a much bigger one, leaving a big plot point annoyingly unresolved. Perhaps that's just the curse of being the middle chapter.
If there's one thing you can rely on when a franchise is over 5 entries deep, it's the gameplay mechanics. And Gears 5 plays exactly like you expect, with the largely unchanged cover-based shooting, classic weapons like Lancer, Boltok Pistol, Hammerburst, Overkill Shotgun, and so on. The shooting remains satisfying and punchy, with enemies exploding into squishy bits, and players are still encouraged to use the Active Reload and Roadie Run. A few new weapons include situational types such as a Cryo Cannon that freezes foes, Claw LMG with its very big magazine, and the Breaker Mace melee club.
The enemies are very familiar as well. The Swarm returns largely unchanged with soldiers, snipers, and Juvies from the previous game. A couple of new elite versions of regular foes appear, but they simply have large pools of health and carry heavy weapons. One new foe is the Swarm Flock, but it's a straightforward hoard of leeches that flies around as a blob for you to shoot at. Even the DeeBee's, those COG robots that you fought in the last game, find a new excuse to be hostile.
While the action remains very familiar, Gears 5 does try to introduce some breadth and variety to its formula. One impacting change that adds a new dynamic to campaign firefights is the bot named Jack. While he's always been involved with the Delta squad, and you'll still occasionally give him orders to activate a door or flip a switch, here he becomes a dynamic part of the team and gives you special abilities to use. There are three assault and four support abilities with a recharge delay, and you can equip one of each at a time. With Assault, Kait needs to target something and press Y, which lets you blind an enemy, put down an electric trap, or even have Jack control the foe temporarily. With Support abilities, you simply press Y when needed (without targeting), and these include a scan of the area, a ballistic shield, a stealth cloak, and stim pack that boosts armor. Throughout the game, you'll find Components scattered about, which are used to upgrade these abilities and expand their effectiveness. This new customizable roster of moves helps Jack feel like a good supporting team member, and expands the versatility of traditional Gears combat.
You get the typical action set-pieces, a couple of boss fights, and pods/book shelves that can used to create new cover; but the campaign also tries to introduce a few new elements. During the levels that take place within a snow-covered mountain region, players will often cross bodies of water with breakable ice. Shooting it out from under foes will cause them to fall through, but the same can happen to you. You also enter a lot of locations undetected, and can choose to run around behind enemies and eliminate a few of them with stealthy takedowns. The abovementioned temporary Cloak ability can be used for this, or just try to keep an eye on enemy patrols. It's a very barebones implementation of stealth, but it helps diversify the gameplay just a little bit more.
Perhaps the biggest change – at least in literal size – is the scope of the levels. While most of the game is the typical linear shooter that Gears fans know, two chapters offer a small open-world environment, a first for the series. During these sections, Kait and her team can freely move around the area and visit mission locations in any order. The team also uses this opportunity to have casual conversations.
But just as with stealth and the other new gameplay mechanics, these open-world sections are implemented at their most basic level. It may remind players of another Microsoft exclusive, ReCore, but at least that game had something to do in the desert. The Gears 5 hub worlds take a couple of minutes to cross, and they offer vast, empty valleys with nothing to do and no enemies to fight; you simply travel from mission to mission, which themselves take place in carefully carved out and isolated areas.
The only locations of interest are marked with flags and scattered predictably on the edges of the map. You can head straight for the main target, or visit a few optional missions. These optional missions don't really offer anything new – just more typical Gears action within confined levels. Their benefits include a few rare upgrades for Jack that are otherwise unattainable, and more lore and character interactions. But for the most part, these missions help pad the game's brief run time. Having found more than half of collectibles and completed all optional missions in the two hub worlds, the game clocks in at under 9 hours, but it felt even shorter than that thanks to a lot of travel time, where nothing happens, to optional missions that don't add much to the main story.
Despite being an exclusive title of a major franchise, Gears 5 has a surprising amount of rough spots. For one, the AI is shockingly dim-witted. Enemies will often stand around in the open, rarely change cover positions, and get very confused when you flank them. Many have a basic job of just charging the players for melee attacks, but they manage to get stuck all the time. Friendly AI serves its function to deal a little damage and revive you as needed, but they also have a tendency to get stuck, requiring checkpoint restarts. There are plenty of physics glitches with loose debris, and on the opposite side of the scale, occasions when items hang in the air. At one point, the left/right contextual choice in the campaign did not show up, resulting in a confusing moment of the character just standing in place. There was also an occasion where the framerate slowed to a crawl during a cutscene. And sometimes textures and objects were slow to load when first entering a new area.
Traversing across the empty tundra is probably much more entertaining if you bring along real friends, and Gears 5 continues to focus heavily on its multiplayer options. The entire campaign can be played with a friend, but now a third player can also join and take control of Jack. Controlling the bot certainly brings a new aspect to the game, as you'll need to perform the door opening, zapping of enemies, and deploying the special abilities. The Jack player has full control, so those playing as Kait and Del must communicate as to what special abilities they want deployed. With cross-play, Gears 5 can be enjoyed seamlessly with friends on Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs alike.
Cooperative Horde Mode also returns, letting players face off against 50 waves of enemies as they build defenses and try to outlast the foes. Just like Gears of War 4, you choose where to deploy the Fabricator, from which you can craft various items and defenses using Power. The difficulty is customizable, and players are scored on their performance. One notable change is a new source of Power called Taps that occasionally appear across the map, prompting players to capture and protect them for a resource boost.
In Gears 5 Horde, playing as your chosen class-based character is still the case, but now each hero has their own experience bar, a special ultimate ability, and Skill cards. The cards can be further leveled up, and new ones unlocked as you play with each of the characters. Choosing the right team composition and deploying the ultimates when needed can make the difference in higher difficulties, as is bringing higher level heroes and better cards. Further, you can also play as Jack here, giving you a unique perspective on the match. During the game, players who cannot build fortifications can spend Power on perks that last for the rest of the match. With so many unlocks now distributed to each character, fans of Horde mode definitely have plenty to grind towards.
New to Gears 5 is another cooperative mode called Escape. Like Horde, this replay-focused mode lets you choose from one of three characters in different classes, each with their own special ability that recharges overtime; Lahni unleashes the Electroblade melee weapon, Mac has the deployable barrier shield, and Keegan can provide resupply. The developers plan to add more characters in the future, with new classes and abilities. The setup is that you're willingly captured by a Snatcher and taken into a Hive. When the round starts, the 3-person team releases a deadly gas that begins to expand and push you towards the exit. Through many hallways and walkways, the team must fight through the industrial interior, across multiple checkpoint safe zones where you have a few moments to breathe.
While there are four Escape maps at launch, the real content is planned to be generated by the community thanks to an Editor that comes with the mode. The easy-to-use interface lets you create your own Escape maps from a top-down perspective and using a variety of pre-made level pieces. You can then define plenty of variables such as enemy and weapon spawns, gas expansion speed, and so on. The maps are limited in size via a meter that grows with each block you place; you can still make long Escapes however by breaking the experience up into Chapters, via the abovementioned checkpoints. You have to beat the map before publishing it though, to ensure validity.
Players are graded based on their completion time, and there are also varying adjustable difficulty settings. Each of the three characters earns experience separately and has their own skill cards, like in Horde. Escape definitely gives fans a new way to experience Gears cooperative gameplay without sinking over 90 minutes like you would with Horde, as Escape maps can be as short as under 15 minutes, or long at over 30 minutes.
Last but not least, the competitive multiplayer returns with all the usual hallmarks. In 5v5 matches across typical modes you compete to level up your profile. Thankfully, all characters remain on equal footing. The 7 launch maps are shared with the Horde mode, which isn't a ton, but there are also 4 more maps from the last game that are only available for unranked, private lobbies. The maps feature the typical Gears layout with plenty of tight corridors and more open spaces, as well as dynamic elements like a deadly train that occasionally passes through, or puddles of icy water that might freeze you to death if you stand in them. Modes like team deathmatch, arms race, guardian, warzone, and so on remain familiar, while minor balancing changes are made to Escalation. One new mode is Arcade Deathmatch, where two teams go head to head and the different characters have passive perks. As you get more eliminations, you can spawn new weapons for yourself as none appear on the map. It seems decently designed, but feels gimicky for traditional multiplayer. If you haven't got a squad yet, all of the modes nicely support custom lobbies and AI bots.
All of the multiplayer modes are tied together to your profile, which is where you earn experience, complete challenges, and unlock plenty of visual customizations for your heroes, weapons, and so on. You can also buy more customization in the game store using currency earned, or purchased with real money. At launch there don't appear to be any lootboxes, just direct earning/purchasing of skins.
Gears 5 looks sharp on the Xbox One X at 1080p. The textures and visual effects offer a good amount of detail, and the framerate holds steady across all solo and multiplayer modes. Levels have a nice variety to their color palettes and lots of minute touches to bring life and authenticity to the world. The music is also fitting, with its signature Gears style and familiar sound effects that fans will recognize. Voice acting and dialogue are about on par with the previous games and what you'd expect from a modern blockbuster title.
Gears 5 is a lateral move for the franchise. It tries to bring some new elements to the campaign, such as playable Jack and open-world hubs, but the result is rather trivial and feels bolted-on. The action remains solid as ever, but that may not be enough for all fans. Multiplayer still has a very strong focus, and the addition of the Escape mode helps expand co-operative options for those who don't have an hour+ to sink into a Horde session. If you're a fan of this series, Gears 5 will undoubtedly satisfy as it's more of the familiar same, but those with a passing interest in the genre will wish that the franchise took bigger risks, or at least went further with the mechanics it did introduce.