The release of the original Gears of War was a watershed moment for console gaming. Its sheer technical brilliance and unrivalled third-person shooter mechanics made it a game for the ages, and from its foundation sprung a hallowed Microsoft franchise that’s almost justified the purchase of an Xbox all on its lonesome for the thirteen long years since its inception. But after playing through Gears of War 4 two years ago I felt like the series may have been getting a little long in the tooth. Touted as a bold beginning of a brand new trilogy, it leaned heavily on the Gears of yore, quite literally reskinning the Locust I thought I killed long ago and introducing some fresh angsty faces I didn’t much care for. In my rather tepid review of Gears 4 I did note that several aspects of the narrative had some potential if they were capitalised on and given some room to breathe. Fortunately, much like the chrysalised Locust at the core of the new trilogy, the newest numbered entry sees the Gears narrative emerge from its fleshy cocoon and once again show its formidable teeth. The solid campaign is further buoyed by a varied and deep multiplayer offering, making Gears 5 a storming success on all fronts.
World on fire
Gears 5 takes place soon after the conclusion of the previous game, with humanity continuing to struggle ardently against the Swarm, a metamorphosed incarnation of the Locust. The story predominantly focuses on Kait, whose rebirth as a COG soldier after years as an Outsider is all but complete. While the overarching story could be described as a lengthy journey to get the Hammer of Dawn back up and running so the COG can hit the Swarm where it lives, there’s a solid vein of individual character development which gives it a much deeper flavour. Mysteries regarding Kait’s intimate connection to the Locust and the origin of the troublesome subterranean hominids are laid bare, and JD struggles with the weight of command and the consequences of the decisions he has been forced to make made under pressure. This is all against the backdrop of a society that is holding on for grim death in the face of the Swarm onslaught, eking out an existence in a world that becomes more hostile with each passing day.
The Warden meets a Longshot
The ways in which the narrative manages to touch on both past and present struggles and give the characters a depth and humanity is refreshing. The focus is primarily on the new trio of Kait, JD Fenix, and Del, but the old warhorse Marcus Fenix and technical wizard Baird also have important supporting roles. Both seem content to take a backseat to the new main trio’s exploits, and it goes a long way to framing this new threat as their struggle – a fight they were born into and one they intend to finish. Narrative tidbits give the Swarm a bit more personality too, meaning they feel less like Locust corpses being paraded around like Weekend at Bernie’s (and the lesser known Weekend at Bernie’s 2), and more like their own entity. Their interaction with the DeeBess also elevates the status of the killer robots and plays into their clever new redesign.
In essence you’ve got stronger, more mature characters fighting more interesting enemies in a vast world given life. The pacing is also electric, and apart from a third act which lulls a bit and squanders some tension from the preceding act, it’s a story that grabs you in its sweaty embrace and doesn’t let you go until the credits roll. The final act in particular is possibly one of the most amazing crescendos to a game I have experienced in recent times, and symbolises the work of a talented team who are confident in their direction and story they want to tell.
Gameplay-wise, it’s Gears as you’ve known it for over a decade, but with some welcome twists to the formula. Like adding a few kicks to the Nutbush, the changes aren’t so radical as to upset the weaponised apple cart, but thoughtful enough that they add a welcome dimension. Principle among these is a hefty upgrade to your robotic pal Jack. Jack 2.0 is now not only a glorified door opener and switch puller (although he still excels at these tasks), he is now equipped with offensive and defensive abilities. He can zap and stun enemies, cloak you for a stealthy takedown or quick getaway, or even take control of an enemy and make them fight for you. Abilities are gradually unlocked and upgraded by finding materials and components throughout the world, and all of them are useful in their own ways. You can’t simply spam his abilities as they are on fairly lengthy timers, but in heavier firefights they will be the difference between life and death, and you’ll be glad he’s there.
Bucking the more linear style of its predecessors, there are semi open-world sections navigable by your skiff (a strange but effective snowboard/paraglider hybrid), with handfuls of optional objectives scattered throughout involving brief but tough fights. These more often than not net you new abilities for Jack or components to upgrade those abilities. It’s a refreshing change for the series, and the tangible benefits of completing the secondary objectives legitimise their existence, not to mention they’re all fun to complete in their own right.
Fast and the Furious Tokyo Skiff
Starset are fondly remembered
In essence you’ve got stronger, more mature characters fighting more interesting enemies in a vast world given life. The pacing is also electric, and apart from a third act which lulls a bit and squanders some tension from the preceding act, it’s a story that grabs you in its sweaty embrace and doesn’t let you go until the credits roll
Playing on Xbox One X, Gears 5 is a game of staggering beauty. An extremely strong art direction is bolstered by some of the most impressive graphic fidelity to exist on a console to date. Environments have amazing amounts of detail packed in them, featuring rich textures, God-tier lighting effects and a vibrant colour palette that make them pop. Enemy and character models are flawless, and the guns have a meaty chunkiness to them that is quintessential Gears. Amazingly, the whole shebang runs in native 4K at 60 frames per second (although the human eye can’t really see above 24 frames per second as I’m told), and doesn’t skip a beat the whole time. Sound design is also universally excellent, and aside from the brilliant score, Gears 5 sees the return of possibly the squelchiest headshots in the business. Seriously, it’s like the sound of a watermelon being destroyed in a hydraulic press, and it is glorious.
While the 12-hour campaign is more than worth the price of admission, Gears multiplayer returns in various levels of accessibility that will give the title some serious longevity. This time around it is a three-pronged attack, with the popular Versus and Horde joined by the new Escape mode. While I could have done without some of the more aggressive microtransaction practices, each of these modes is well considered and feature worthwhile progression systems that’ll keep you on the hook, even if the cosmetic upgrade system isn’t quite as well conceived.
Still got it
For the competitive folk amongst us, Versus is the place to be. There are both casual and ranked matches to be played across the tried-and-true Gears modes such as King of the Hill, Guardian and TDM, but I found the arcade TDM mode to be by far the most fun addition. In this casual mode (as casual as competitive evisceration can be I suppose), each playable character has a unique set of starting weapons, and by killing opponents you gain feats which will allow you to purchase better weapons (also specific to each character). The entirety of the impressive Gears arsenal can feature throughout these matches, making it chaotic, gruesome fun. The stakes are also fairly low, as in this mode it is simply the team that gets a total of 50 kills that wins, rather than a having a finite amount of respawns for the team as in classic Gears TDM. The ranked matches tend to be a little more predictable in terms of arsenal, with the majority of players leaning on the Lancer/Gnasher combo. The Gears competitive scene is fairly small compared to other multiplayer shooters, so finding matches in specific modes can be difficult, but you can also browse custom games or create your own, and there are often quite of few of these to choose from across the different modes.
If co-op is more your style, then between the four-player Horde and Escape modes you are spoiled for choice. Horde mode is much as you remember it, but now each playable character has a passive ability which makes them useful in certain roles, as well as an ultimate ability on a cooldown. One of my favourites was Marcus Fenix’s Living Legend perk, which when activated guarantees auto-aimed headshots against any enemies in your line of sight. In the latter enemy waves where the battlefield is plump with Swarm beasties, unloading a clip of the Swarm heavy machine gun called the Claw is a guaranteed way of creating a symphony of watermelons exploding suddenly and painfully in a hydraulic press.
Escape involves infiltrating a Swarm hive by deliberately getting swallowed by a Snatcher. You then plant a Venom bomb to poison the hive from the inside, and then have to make a bee line to the extraction point before it kills you too. Each week sees a different Hive layout to tackle, and each run features remixed enemies to keep it fresh. Ammo is also quite scarce, meaning you’ll have to share resources with your teammates if you wish to survive.
Both Horde and Escape feature a card system whereby character-specific perks may be unlocked and equipped to give you a much needed edge. Things like increasing damage output, survivability and the effectiveness of ultimate abilities become essential when tackling higher difficulties, so if you’re looking to survive 50 waves of Horde or post the fastest completion time in Escape, these cards will be your best friends. Each one may also be upgraded if you have duplicate cards, or by using a currency called Scrap. Scrap isn’t the best conceived currency, and is haphazardly obtained by getting duplicate cosmetic items in Supply Drops (who doesn’t love surprise mechanics), which are obtained at a fairly decent clip as you play. Cards are shared between Horde and Escape which is cool, and all cosmetic items are shared between all three multiplayer modes, giving them a sense of connectedness and legitimising your time spent in each.
Arcade TDM is the preferred mode of this filthy casual
No death below the knees
While the 12-hour campaign is more than worth the price of admission, Gears multiplayer returns in various levels of accessibility that will give the title some serious longevity
It bears mentioning that crossplay with PC players is enabled, and from my peasant-tier Xbox One X I had a blast smashing through the Escape mode with Jordan Garcia on his liquid nitrogen-cooled PC running dual GTX Titan Z’s in SLI (I don’t think he got the memo about the human eye not being able to see above 24 frames per second).
If there is one blemish on the multiplayer experience it is the game’s premium currency, called Iron. Iron can be used to purchase cosmetic items like outfits and emotes (which is fine I suppose), but some of these are not unlockable via Supply drops, being exclusively tied to the premium currency. The amount of Iron that can be earned through normal play is an utter pittance, meaning you’ll be plundering the depths of your wallet if you really want that dab emote (I’m not sure if that even exists, but if it doesn’t it’s only a matter of time before it does). While these won’t confer any gameplay advantages (although a dab can be fairly intimidating to a weak-willed adversary), the fact that exclusive content is hidden behind a paywall is not a great way to treat your players. The whole currency system in general is poorly explained, confusing and not well implemented.
Gears 5’s campaign is an absolute showstopper, featuring some of the best writing and action to have ever graced the series. It gives us a reason to care about the world and its characters, and serves as a very strong basis to conclude the main story arc in the next numbered entry. Despite some shady multi-currency shenanigans in the cosmetic department, Gears 5’s multiplayer gives an already strong package even more mileage and bang for your buck. Both sides of the game are an absolute technical marvel in terms of how impressively they run at 4K/60 fps despite what must be a heavy computing load, and serve as the current gold standard of what is possible on console architecture.
Reviewed on Xbox One X | Review code supplied by publisher