This article contains very mild spoilers for Gear of War 4. Read at your own peril.
I reviewed The Coalition’s Gears of War 4 two years ago and my feeling towards it were decidedly mixed. It walked, talked, roadie ran and chainsaw bayonetted like a Gears game, but it felt like more of a nervous shuffle sideways for the series than a bold step forward. A new trilogy was supposed to be an opportunity to push the series and explore different narrative territory, but instead Gears 4 appeared to cling selfishly to its past like Rose to that door in The Titanic.
But rereading my review I noted several potential rays of sunshine that might manage to shine through the grey, and after getting my hands dirty with Gears 5’s campaign over the past few days, I can safely say that it has confidently stepped up in almost every aspect.
While Gears 4 introduced new characters, I can’t say I was particularly compelled by any of them. This is in direct contrast to Gears 5, which right from the outset manages to instil the main trio of Kait, Del and JD with some real human quality. Gone are the slightly brash children from the start of the journey, being replaced by soldiers who are becoming weary as the struggle against the Swarm grinds on. Whether it’s Kait grappling with the her mysterious connection to the Locust as revealed in the finale of Gears 4, or JD struggling with the weight of command and the penalties of his actions under pressure, each chapter of the new campaign brings a sense of humanity to the characters. Heroes of the original trilogy Marcus Fenix and Damon Baird (who are starting to look mighty grizzled) also play important supporting roles, but they don’t overplay those roles in a way that overshadows the new heroes. Gears 5 features some extremely strong writing that manages to shrug off the ‘maximum machismo at any cost’ sort of approach to character definition. There is of course still some of that bravado getting around, but it’s tempered by a stronger focus on the personal struggles of the individuals and their relationships towards one another.
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The Gears 4 finale was by far the most promising part of the new story, with Kait’s lineage and connection to the Locust being called into question with one innocuous looking fairly heirloom right at the end. Gears 5 doubles down on this, giving us definitive answers and connecting past and present in satisfying ways. Anyone who has followed the series will likely have guessed at a few of the connections but it’s nice to have it all laid out in the open. Among other things it goes a long way to making the Swarm seem a lot more interesting, and not merely reskinned Locusts (despite that being literally what they are). Furthermore, the Swarms nefarious interaction with DeeBees (still a terrible name) also elevates the killer robots to more interesting territory, something that was heavily hinted in Gears 5 and comes to fruition here.
If Gears 4’s narrative was like a child nervously setting up a game of teeball for the next striker, Gears 5’s is like replacing the ball with a grenade and using a sledgehammer for a bat to hit it out of the park. Better pacing, deeper and more interesting characters and a whole lot more confidence and intrigue in the writing really up the ante, providing one of the most cohesive Gears stories the series has seen. I’m yet to see the finale, but if the first three quarters of the campaign are anything to go by, this one isn’t going quietly into that good night.
Cool Boarders 2 is that you?
Once I’ve bested the campaigned and braved the online multiplayer I’ll give a full review with my final score, but if you’re a lapsed Gears fan then I can say that this is maybe the title to drag you back in.