Resting just beneath Halo on the list of first party franchises synonymous with Microsoft’s Xbox brand, Gears of War has consistently impressed with each iteration, successfully marrying brutal gore and action with a surprising level of emotional depth. Gears 5 continues exploring the compelling new path started in 2016’s Gears of War 4 while aiming to take the franchise in new, unexplored directions. It doesn’t all come together perfectly due to some technical problems, but when Gears 5 is firing on all cylinders, it’s a damn fine symphony of carnage and heart.
Don’t be fooled by Gears 5’s opening act that places you in the shoes of Gears 4’s protagonist, JD – this is Kait’s story, and once the game sets its tone, you’re quickly thrust into a captivating narrative that follows her attempt to discover the truth behind her uninvited visions. While the game aims to tell a personal story about Kait finding her origins and place in the world, it manages to do so without sacrificing its supporting cast of both old and new characters.
Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call Gears 5 profound, the above-average voice acting and focus on the cast’s interpersonal relationships allows for some deeply affecting moments throughout. Thanks to a new semi-open world design in parts of the campaign, there’s also plenty of room allowed for the game to touch on the history of the world, the wars that have befallen it, and the people who are left to tell the tales.
Speaking of this semi-open world, it’s where you’re likely to spend a significant portion of your game time in Gears 5’s 10-12 hour campaign. While the first and fourth acts bookend the middle two with linear, story-heavy segments, these middle acts house large biomes to traverse with your skiff, a snowmobile-esque transport.
You won’t find a Ubisoft-esque checklist of things to do in these open spaces, but there are a handful of optional objectives and slew of collectibles to uncover if you’re willing to explore. You can, of course, speed through to the primary objectives, but the small stories told and the fun one-off combat encounters in some of the side content can be a fun diversion and generally lead to helpful upgrade components for your new robot companion, Jack.
Alongside shocking enemies during battle, Jack’s many features include such things as flashing enemies with lights to stun them temporarily, giving you invisibility for a short time, and reviving downed teammates. Finding the aforementioned components allow you to upgrade and augment his various helpful abilities using a simple skill tree not unlike ones you’re sure to have seen in countless games before.
While it doesn’t make or break the game to invest in finding these components for Jack, there’s nothing quite like being able to cloak mid-fight, execute a handful of enemies, and then move into a new position – so I never passed up the opportunity to improve my suite of combat options. Even cooler, if you’re playing cooperatively with three people, someone can take the role of Jack and handle the support role manually.
When you’re not exploring in Gears 5’s open segments, you’ll feel right at home with its usual gore and chaos. The shooting feels better than ever with smoother aiming and vastly improved reticules for some guns that help make lining up shots and mowing down hordes of enemies all the more satisfying without sacrificing what makes Gears of War weaponry so unique.
The campaign isn’t stingy with guns either, littering the battlefield with plenty of Boomshots, Dropshots, and other power weapons to keep things interesting. One of the new guns, Claw, is a new Swarm LMG with a massive magazine, and its accuracy improves the longer you fire it. The catch is that it eventually begins to misfire and recoil relentlessly until you stop firing for a moment, but I found its high burst damage nevertheless indispensable when taking on some of the game’s more aggressive enemies that required heavy firepower.
Sadly, much of my experience with Gears 5 came with some ugly technical issues. My progress would regularly be halted by AI that refused to trigger the next event or by checkpoints randomly not saving properly. The third act in particular proved insufferable at times, and when I would crash or the game just decided to freeze my progress, I’d often be set back upwards of 30 minutes.
In one such case, restarting a previous checkpoint glitched in such a way that I retained my recent progress despite the game showing objectives from nearly two hours prior, making it impossible for me to trigger certain side-quests again and resulting in the permanent loss of collectibles and components. This caused the final few hours of the game to become a tedious game of backtracking and restarting that put a real damper on an otherwise riveting, action-packed endgame.
Gears 5’s usual collection of cooperative multiplayer modes are back, with Horde offering traditional wave-based combat for you and a group of friends. I’ve never delved into it much due to the time-consuming nature of its design, but there’s no denying Horde’s allure for those willing to invest in learning the best strategies for tackling its 50 relentless waves.
Meanwhile, a new mode, Escape, sees you group up with two other players as you frantically make your way through a gauntlet of enemies as quickly as possible lest you be consumed by the poisonous gas following you. It’s moderately fun but forgettable, and while I don’t see it becoming iconic like Horde before it, the ability to create and share maps with the community may give it legs for the foreseeable future. Either way, more variety in ways to play cooperatively isn’t a bad thing.
I accept that my general distaste for the gameplay in Gears of War’s competitive multiplayer is partially due to the fact that I don’t have the patience to adapt to it. The focus on jerky wall-bouncing has always felt more like an annoying abuse of the game’s mechanics, and the onslaught of players rushing to one-shot me with a Gnasher grows repetitive and tiresome. That said, there’s slightly more room for some tactical mid-range combat now thanks to the new recoil system applied to the Lancer, making it far more viable than ever before if you’re willing to strategically position yourself for optimal use.
The lack of adaptation puts me at a general disadvantage, but for those seeking more Gears of War, you won’t be disappointed to know that all of your favorite modes and guns make a comeback here in both Quickplay and Ranked playlists. Additionally, a new Arcade mode offers an opportunity for casual players to jump in and experiment thanks to its upgradable loadout system that lets you earn new weapons by getting kills and assists. It’s undeniably satisfying to randomly earn a power weapon that turns the tide of a losing battle, and it’s a great way for newer players to be introduced to Gears of War’s gruesome gameplay and positioning strategies.
Gears 5 offers a heart-racing campaign full of equal parts heart and chaos when it’s not crashing or forcing restarts, and its massive collection of cooperative and competitive modes ensure there’s plenty to keep new and returning players busy. Considering its move to a semi-open world structure, it’s safe to assume the franchise is in the process of a beautiful evolution, and the inevitable sixth instalment is in a great position to continue proving that Gears of War is still the unequivocal king of third-person shooters.
Gears 5 is a beautiful balancing act of new and old, and it manages to offer the franchise’s trademark action and gore while telling a compelling story that sets up the future of the series in a big way.