The promotional material for Gears of War 2 was what convinced me to pick up an Xbox 360 way back in 2007. The cover shooting and the action set-pieces of the series looked phenomenal, and at that stage I didn’t have a decent enough PC to play these types of games. That game was everything I wanted and, until Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, I hadn’t experienced a Gears game as good – that is until Gears 5.
Dropping the “of War” part of the franchise name, Gears 5 is obviously supposed to be a fresh start for the series, while still acknowledging the past games and building on the story started in Gears of War 4. This is the strongest story since the original trilogy, taking the not so interesting Swarm and making them something more compelling. The Swarm are still not as interesting as the Locust were when they were first introduced, but they are far better utilised in this game than they were in Gears of War 4.
The story starts you off as part of JD’s squad, consisting of Del, Kait and Marcus Fenix. While JD is still trying to live up to his father and mother’s reputations, he’s not the annoying kid he was in the last game. I found myself at least empathizing with his situation and his constant need to prove himself. The opening mission sets this scene well when JD makes a decision that, while ultimately successful, could’ve been a complete disaster.
This first act is everything you expect of a Gears game, a focused corridor cover-shooter, which requires you roadie run from cover to cover, flanking and taking out waves of enemies. The one improvement to the Gears formula is that the enemies no longer spawn out of nowhere, instead they populate the world going about their own business and you are the intruder, interrupting them. The second chapter of the first act takes place in COG Settlement 2, and again is just what you expect – a wonderful depiction of urban warfare, forcing you down various streets and into buildings as you rush towards the inevitable explosive set-piece finale. Some may feel that the first act is an overlong prologue, but for me this was a comfort blanket, setting the scene for the rest of the game and reminding me just what I love about a Gears game when all the elements click.
Those first two hours will get you back in the groove of running, slamming into cover, shooting, and perfecting your active-reloads. It advances the story while still providing a tough and rewarding tutorial. And boy is Gears 5 tough. Even on Intermediate (normal) difficulty, you will die a few times or at least get knocked down and hope like heck that the AI can get to you fast enough to revive you. I haven’t tried higher difficulties but expect the challenge to increase exponentially, providing incentive to replay the game for more gamer cred. I wouldn’t be surprised if a New Game+ like mode is added eventually.
The game changes pace, and structure, ever so slightly from the second act onwwards; this is when you’ll first experience the semi open-world element.
The game changes pace, and structure, ever so slightly from the second act onwards; this is when you’ll first experience the semi open-world element. In this act, you take control of the true protagonist, Kait, as she and Del set out on a quest to unravel a mystery that was revealed at the end of Gears of War 4. You’ll traverse a largish map on the skiff – inspired by real world land-based wind sailing rigs – seeking out the next location that will lead you closer to the truth. This map is dotted with a few points of interest, indicated by yellow flags, typically pointing to side quests. These are wholly optional, but if you want to unlock JACK’s ultimate upgrades, you’ll need to complete these for the hidden components. The structure for these missions is simple: find the spot, investigate it, and then survive a wave of enemies capped off by a boss. It’s basically one wave of Horde mode in the campaign. The missions are fun but, ultimately, add nothing to the story, nor any new and interesting mechanics to the game. In a bid to get this review done on time, I started skipping them as they’re mechanically repetitive.
Despite these diversions, the open world feels empty and devoid of any life. I am certainly not advocating a Ubisoft style open-world stuffed to the gills with map icons and meaningless filler content, but some random encounters or pockets of life, whether animal or Swarm wandering around, would’ve been nice. As it stands, these areas feel as lifeless as the worlds of Mass Effect: Andromeda, an aspect many, myself included, criticised that game for. While the solitude can be a nice break from usual string of frantic battles, the time spent travelling between these quests is too long, leading to a feeling of boredom, instead of quiet contemplation between explosive set-pieces; a bit more life to this world is required. The additional side quests probably add a few more hours to the game, stretching an already lengthy campaign to between 15 and 20 hours – depending on how many of these you do, and how many times you’re gibbed and sent back to a checkpoint.
As it stands, these areas feel as lifeless as the worlds of Mass Effect: Andromeda
Mechanically, Gears 5 is every bit as good a shooter as any of the prior games. The formula was mastered way back in the mid-2000s and doesn’t need much tweaking. What tweaks exist are a few new weapons and an upgraded JACK. JACK is your semi-autonomous COG drone that can be upgraded – by means of a simple skill tree – to provide various support and offensive assists on the battlefield. I found his most useful ability to be “Flash”, which acts as a stun grenade and pops enemies out of cover – very handy against difficult enemies like The Warden. In the quieter moments, JACK is used to solve some simple environmental puzzles, such as locked doors that bar your progress. All in all, JACK is a fun addition to the game who really comes into his own in multiplayer matches. Curiously, while Kait commands JACK in the campaign, the story implies he (she/it?) seems to be Del’s companion, rather than Kait or JD’s, both of whom distrust all AI due to the events of Gears of War 4.
Mechanically, Gears 5 is every bit as good a shooter as any of the prior games. The formula was mastered way back in the mid-2000s and doesn’t need much tweaking.
As with any Gears game, multiplayer is where you get to spend your time creating a reputation as an @$$kicker. I am happy to report that multiplayer is as much fun as it has ever been, with Horde still being my favourite mode. The frantic panic that sets in as you desperately set up your defences and scrounge for ammo, as the timer ticks down for the next wave that you know is going to be a worse than the last, is still invigorating. And listening to your friends, if you team up with friends, frantically yell out for revival as you try to hold off the horde is frenetic action at its finest.
However, if you’d prefer to experience the story with your friends, rather than just face off against hordes of enemies, you can play either online or, better yet, locally with up to two friends. That’s right, Gears 5 offers old-school gamers the choice of 3-way split-screen couch co-op; a mode that has even been ported to the PC version! The last time I played local multiplayer on PC was Mortal Kombat 2… I think. It’s an amazing achievement and one helluva selling point for fans of couch co-op but prefer PC gaming.
Unfortunately, all has not been smooth since Gears 5 for Ultimate Edition owners and Xbox Game Pass subscribers – multiplayer has experienced a host of server issues since the game went live. Sadly, Friday night saw Andrew and I face thirty minutes of failure to launch a game before we could start and, about forty-five minutes into a Horde match, and on Wave 17 of 50, we all got kicked. The developers have been frantically deploying fixes, but the issues seem to have multiplied with reports of irritating, but manageable bugs appearing in the campaign mode: such as no tracking of collectibles, to a checkpointing bug, and crashes to the OS. Andrew had his game enter a checkpoint loop that crashed to desktop and, when he rebooted, was taken back to a much earlier checkpoint with about fifteen minutes of progress lost. I experienced none of these issues on Xbox One X or PC, but I completed seventy five percent of the game in the review period before the servers were flooded.
Gears 5 offers old-school gamers the choice of 3-way split-screen couch co-op; a mode that has even been ported to the PC version!
As a Play Anywhere title, I was lucky enough to test the game on both an Xbox One X and a high-end PC. For me, the PC version is the version to play. You have far more control in the PC version from the graphical option allowing me to set minimum and maximum frame rates to allowing me to adjust FoV and other graphical settings. On my desktop, running an I7-5960, 16GB of RAM and a GTX1080, I was able to max out all settings and did not experience anything less than 60FPS consistently. On Andrew’s entry-level gaming notebook, he was able to achieve a smooth 30FPS at 1080p with an i5-8300H, 8GB of RAM, and a GTX1050, equivalent to, if not better than, the base Xbox One experience. The console version has almost zero options for you to tinker with and the game is set to target 4K/60FPS, which it dynamically adjusts to ensure smooth performance. Sadly, the game doesn’t allow you to set you desired level of fidelity, targeting either framerate or graphics (such as 4k/30 vs. 1080/60). I, for one, prefer 60FPS over 4K and would love the option on console to prioritise framerate above all else.
Despite those limitations, Gears 5 is gorgeous, whether played on PC, Xbox One X, or the base Xbox One. The detail in the environments is stunning, with textures looking as real as is possible. The lighting effects, coupled with excellent HDR implementation, make the graphics “pop” more than I thought possible; who needs real-time ray-tracing when Unreal Engine 4 can produce these results? On the Xbox One X and PC, I experienced no tearing, texture streaming, or noticeable drops in the framerate as I did with Control the week before. The game shows off exactly how powerful the Xbox One X is, and this bodes well is the power of the upcoming “Scarlett” is an even bigger step up. That said, if you play split-screen co-op, the the game will cap the framerate to 30FPS to ensure as a smooth an experience as possible.
Gears 5 is The Coalition’s coming-out party, showing the world that the Gears IP is in good hands, and that the future for fans of the series is bright. The game is a graphical powerhouse, and the mechanics are as tight and focused as any Gears before it. The rush of chainsawing an enemy in half, and the fear when a club-wielding Warden arrives on the battlefield, is like no other game. With Play Anywhere allowing for a seamless transition between console and PC as the cherry on the top, Gears 5 is a must have for any Xbox owner, and a no-brainer for Xbox Game Pass subscribers. If you are neither of those, you can now pick up the game on Steam as MS has now decided to be as platform agnostic as possible.
Gears 5 is a stunning entry in the series that proves the Gears franchise still has fantastic tricks up its sleeve.