In preparation for writing the review of Gears 5, I re-read my review of Gears of War 4 and I was a bit taken aback when I realized that literally, 90% of my comments could be applied to the new release. From its pacing to its combat, from its incredibly detailed environments to its evolving family drama, Gears 5 is another blockbuster, triple-A popcorn shooter, and although it does a few new things to scramble the eggs, there’s also something just a bit troubling about the series lack of progress. Yes, Gears 5’s campaign is bigger and more ambitious, but it also seems unwilling to be anything but another iteration — albeit well-made — on the formula.
Gears as a franchise has always appealed to both the single player in search of a thrilling solo or co-op campaign and the fan who loves competitive multiplayer shooters, but in the recent few releases, the games have spent considerable effort on the characters and story. For the installment number five, the ensemble of Kait, Del, JD, Marcus and Jinn continue to be enmeshed in a dramatic web of emotional and psychological relationships and conflicts that defy easy answers and both the writing and performances are excellent. Gears 5 introduces a few new themes that — no spoilers here — resonate with some troubling chapters in the history of war. There are plenty of amusing asides and lots of entertaining banter that continues to slyly mock both its own and other games bro-y characters. There’s a also a bit of dramatic water-treading, too, especially during the more free-form areas where there’s not much of significance to talk about.
After a prologue that both catches new players up and sets in motion a significant story beat, and a lengthy and very linear first act set in a sprawling COG settlement, the game relocates to a desolate, icy northern region and flirts for the first time with open world design. Starting in a highly atmospheric fishing village — which I was certain would be some sort of hub area (sadly, it wasn’t) — Del and Kait (whose story Gears has largely become in this installment) explore a huge but largely empty environment. Unlike true open world games filled with quest-givers and stuff to do and find, Gears 5 ‘s “open world” areas are geographically immense but lonely, with a relatively small number of optional missions and a series of main story objectives. Gliding around on the sled/parasail Skiff is an exhilarating way to get from point A to B, but the stops in-between aren’t all that interesting. Ditto chapter 3, which moves the act to a third, desert-themed biome. Completing all the optional quests adds a few hours of play to the campaign, yields a crate-load of upgrade materials and relic weapons and enriches but most of the side missions still follow the explore/battle template of the main story beats. I kept waiting to meet some quirky characters or complete an objective that didn’t just involve killing Swarm. Although players can engage in a bit of stealth and initiate combat, the end result is still a skirmish.
While the semi-open world areas of Gears 5 give the players a break from the nonstop action of the linear, tightly scripted opening act, the time spent exploring the empty and lifeless environments also play havoc with the game’s pacing, which now consists of long stretches of nothing followed by protracted firefights. While Gears has always been at the top of the cover shooter heap thanks to its varied weapon design and challenging, tense enemy encounters, I felt again — as I did with Gears 4 — that many of the fights just go on too long and follow a predictable pattern that rarely varies from waves of weaker to stronger Swarm. Sure, it’s great training for the survival-focused multiplayer modes, but too often the battles are more challenges to patience and endurance than skill or creative use of weapons and multiple attempts at the higher difficulties become tedious. All that said, Gears 5 features a lot of cool toys to play with and a great cast of familiar and novel enemies, including the new and truly terrifying flying flocks of leeches.
Gears 5 also introduces a few lite RPG elements to its gameplay, primarily as upgrades and powers for Jack, your trusty and highly useful robot companion. Returning after a brief hiatus, Jack is a competent AI buddy and using his abilities skillfully is a lot of creative fun. Generally, the game’s AI NPCs do a pretty good job of straddling the line between being incompetent cannon fodder and being so good at their jobs that your presence is inconsequential. Generally, but not always: my playthrough included an amusing loop where Del was caught in the crossfires of a laser turret while trying to resurrect Jack. I would heal Del and instead of waiting for clear opening to resurrect Jack, he would just wade into the turret fire and die. Over and over.
As a game at the end of a powerful console generation, Gears 5 packs a staggering amount of detail and visual polish into every inch of the screen, and it really demonstrates what a team of talented artists can accomplish. I spent many moments combing through the first act’s theatre set, reading the pitch-perfect notes on the actor callboard and various posters and documents related to the upcoming production of a COG-flavored Hamilton clone. Almost off of Gears’ minutiae is simply non-interactive set dressing but reflects an attention to the world that few developers (have the budget to) reach.
For many players, Gears 5’ campaign will be beside the point, and the developer The Coalition has brought back the wave-based Horde mode — changed-up by the addition of a number of new abilities pulled from the campaign (or maybe the other way around) — as well as a suite of multiplayer competitive modes, like Capture the Flag, Team Deathmatch and a more casual Arcade mode. The new addition is Escape, which is a cooperative squad-based mode where three players are tasked with escaping a Locust hive and it’s a standout part of the package. There is an introductory training mode called Boot Camp which is entirely superfluous for any Gears veteran. Given their seemingly required inclusion in shooters and action games, it’s surprising and a little refreshing that Gears 5 doesn’t include a battle royale variant.
By most metrics — polish, graphics, writing, acting and engaging game play mechanics — Gears 5 is an impressive product for both solo players and competitive or cooperative shooter fans. But moving forward, the series desperately needs to venture into new ways of telling its stories and pacing its encounters. The tentative toe-dip into open world design is a great start, but not enough. Gears 5’s campaign is robust and almost always fun and its focus on the female protagonist Kait is a welcome tonal and dramatic shift, though it doesn’t much impact the gameplay. I’m always ready to dive into a new Gears game but I’m hoping next time, The Coalition will take some bold chances, make some tough choices and steer the series in a really new direction.