The Gears of War series is a veteran among game franchises; now coming close to 13 years within the industry since the first Gears of War launched in 2006. But like battle-hardened Marcus Fenix, the protagonist from the first trilogy, Gears 5 continues to deliver more than the guts and glory that the series is famed for.
Gears of War 4 ended with the surprising revelation that Kait Diaz, a COG soldier that is part of the new three-person crew fighting against the new Swarm threat, is genetically linked to the Locusts. The story of Gears 5 follows up on that conclusion with Kait now experiencing nightmares and visions of the Swarm. Unable to cope with them any longer, she heeds the advice of Marcus Fenix and journeys to a secret research facility to find answers.
The story was not one of Gears of War 4’s strong points when it released back in 2016, so it was reassuring to see that Gears 5 have a marked improvement in that department. Gears 5’s plot puts much emphasis on the journey of Kait, voiced by the ever-reliable Laura Bailey, and her emotional trauma she faces in the period as she learns about her cursed heritage.
For the most part, it works well to provide a tense and gripping narrative to follow along, though admittedly the final third of the story does seem inexplicably rushed and ends rather abruptly, instead it teases a resolution that will come to the inevitable sequel, Gears 6. That is not to say that Gears 5 is a short game, in fact, it has one of the more substantial campaign lengths not just for the Gears series, but for story campaigns in general, it requires about 11 to 12 hours to finish. To leave the story hanging only to reserve it for the sequel leaves a little bit of a sour note in an otherwise excellent campaign. It just makes waiting for the next game that much harder.
Of course, the story isn’t all just serious in tone. There’s plenty of banter thrown around by Gears 5’s supporting cast, not least by Delmont Walker (played by American actor Eugene Byrd) who is a frequent partner throughout Kait’s journey and provides a nice counterbalance to the grimness of the world with his quips. Amidst the multitude of COG soldiers fighting on the battlegrounds, you’ll also see past Gears character making small appearances that veteran Gears of War players will be delighted with.
I mentioned briefly that the campaign is longer than usual, and that is because developer The Coalition opted for it to be more open. Instead of the linear structure of the previous games where you’ll move from point to point to advance the story, you are placed in an open area for you to explore, with secondary objectives that you have the option of tackling. At the heart of this new sandbox, is the new “vehicle” that you commandeer called a Skiff which you use to travel around to the various objectives.
I have some mixed feelings about the decision to go with the sandbox structure. Though it is refreshing to be able to have a new big environment to explore after slaughtering Swarm monsters in claustrophobic corridors, there really isn’t any to see. Save for unique structures that are integrated with the objectives, the world is mostly empty and void of anything to look.
Instead, it seems like the open-world serves more as an excuse for the characters to talk to one another while you travel from location to location. While great for fleshing out the characters and their motivations, it’s not something that it benefits the game’s pacing, especially in such a gameplay-focused series like Gears of War.
Speaking about the secondary objectives, they provide useful upgrades to your robot companion Jack but are relatively generic. You’ll receive some minor backstory about the area, clear out a group of enemies, and then maybe search an item to complete the mission. There’s little that differentiates each secondary mission from each other if any.
At the very least, the gunplay remains as one of its top aspects. Firing down upon a group of Juvies scampering their way towards you or chainsawing a Drone in half is still satisfying to do, with the game providing its fair share of weapons for you to dish out the punishment. You’ll be given plenty of opportunities to try out these weapons especially in the later stages of the game where hordes of enemies try to corner you. Though not a gun, I want to give a special mention to the Breaker Mace weapon which allows you to pummel enemies out of existence.
With the number of enemies that the game throws at you, sometimes guns aren’t enough. That’s why you also have your robot assistant Jack to help even the odds. Jack has various capabilities which help on the battlefield, such as Pulse which highlights enemies, and it can also can deploy a Shock Trap which stuns enemies in place.
You can upgrade these abilities with components found throughout the world while the aforementioned optional missions add stronger upgrades. If you are in need of a specific ability’s upgrade but already spent your upgrade points, the game handily allows you respec your upgrade points to use. A player can also control Jack if you’ve decided to play the game with a friend.
Speaking of playing with a friend, Gears 5 is made to be played with co-op. It’s unfortunate, but the A.I partner is lacking when playing solo. While it is competent enough to help you hunt down a few enemies and keep out of sight during stealth sections, they do little when you need support. Too many times I’ve had to restart a battle because the A.I is too slow at reviving me, and is too preoccupied in shooting an enemy instead. Sometimes, they would even ignore and walk past me when I’m nearby! For enjoyment’s sake, try to find someone to play with you.
There is a point to be made that the gameplay itself hasn’t changed much from previous iterations. Hell, even the Swarm themselves deviate little from the last Locust threat both in appearance and tactics. But the gunplay is strong enough to satisfy the disappointment of a lack of evolution for the series.
Besides the story campaign, Versus mode (which is essentially Deathmatch) and the popular Horde mode return for multiplayer. Like with past games, both modes maintain the phrenetic gameplay, with opposing teams attempting to outgun each other and survive wave after wave of enemy assault respectively.
New features within Versus is Arcade mode, which attempts to make multiplayer action more accessible to players. It seems to emulate hero-shooters, with each character having their unique loadout and weapon upgrade paths. By killing enemies, you earn Skulls which act as a currency to buy more powerful weapons. You keep Skulls even after death, meaning you can choose to save them up for a particular weapon. The mode helps you make you invested in the character you’ve chosen, with the unique weapon pathing making the character specific to your tastes.
A new mode for multiplayer is also introduced for multiplayer called Escape. Escape presents a situation where you and two other people detonate a gas bomb in a Swarm hive and must battle your way towards the evacuation point to escape the looming toxic gas coming your way. This provides a different kind of pressure compared to Horde mode where instead surviving over an area, you have an additional time limit you need to worry about. Escape is also flexible enough to tweak the difficulty with different modifiers should the challenge be too great for you for the first few attempts.
Fans of the Gears of War series should be highly optimistic with the future of the franchise, especially after how Gears 5 has expertly handled the story, non-resolution ending notwithstanding, and paved the way for the sequel.
Despite the hollowness of the world, the game maintains the excellent gameplay from its predecessors in the campaign, with you savouring the sound of every popped head of Swarm enemies. This consistency is also seen with its multiplayer modes, with the addition of Arcade and Escape adding a new dimension to the gameplay, giving you more than a few excuses to play Gears 5 a little longer.
Visuals courtesy of Microsoft.