|System: Xbox One, PC|
|Dev: The Coalition|
|Pub: Xbox Game Studios|
|Release: September 10, 2019|
|Players: 1-10 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Intense Violence|
by Lucas White
Gears is in a weird spot. Like other big Microsoft IPs, this series is no longer made by its original developer, although there is some crossover with the actual humans involved. The Coalition had to “prove itself,” despite having input from original staff members, with Gears of War 4, a game which landed with minimal impact due to how safe it was. Things are different this time. Gears 5, which has conspicuously dropped two-thirds of its franchise branding, is The Coalition officially taking over. There is a lot happening here that will strike Gears fans as quite different, and while not all of that works, the core game is also more polished than it has ever been.
Gears of War 4 really wasn’t great. It was fine, but it wasn’t what everyone’s second-favorite Microsoft “shooty-bang” series usually was. The new protagonist, J.D. Fenix, was a plank of wood with giant muscles, the plot mostly revolved around the old characters helping the new ones in bad situations, and the famous Gears lore mostly just nodded to supplemental materials and shrugged at making any of it matter in the moment. However, while the cliffhanger ending was so weak a lot of players didn’t even realize what happened until they looked it up, Gears 5 takes that cliffhanger and does a lot more with it than I expected.
After a sort of bait and switch in the first act, which knowingly nudges you in the arm with how lame it is, the actual Gears 5 kicks into high gear starting with the second act. This time, the story focuses on Kait, who gets to spend a lot of game time solving the mystery of her backstory. It goes about where you’d expect it to, but because Gears 5 is happy to take its time, Kait’s personality and presence as a character really get to grow. Gears is often generously credited with having storytelling chops (though this writer feels differently), but this time around there’s a lot more to chew on. More importantly, there is a lot more connective tissue between plot beats. It turns out that the small moments matter.
Playing through the Gears 5 campaign exposes the game’s biggest weaknesses and strengths quickly enough that you’ll know if you’re in or not just as swiftly. Gears 5, which I played on a Xbox One X connected to a 1080p TV, is one of the best-looking shooters I’ve played on a console. The world is big, bright, and shockingly colorful for a Gears game, and if you’re playing by yourself it runs smooth as silk. The clean frame rate only enhances the visual fidelity, so while you won’t be blown away by Gears’ art direction any more or less than usual, this is the most polished version of it in a drastic sense. However, playing by yourself isn’t ideal.
Gears 5 really wants you to play with other people. In fact, the campaign can be run co-op with three people, with the third player controlling the newly-upgraded Jack robot. In co-op, the frame rate drops down to the neighborhood of 30 and the division of screen real estate gets weird. But hey, it’s split-screen co-op in 2019 and it involves more than just two players. Now, when I say “really wants you to play with other people,” what I mean is the campaign often puts you in situations that are way better with backup. I often caught the friendly AI just standing around and staring while I was busy being murdered. There were times when an enemy was being fed a shield by a drone, and my partner would just stand there and fire at the shielded enemy until I used the new targeting system to call out the drone.
While most of the campaign is manageable on the default difficulty, there are sections (particularly the usual wave survival setpieces) during which being flanked means getting insta-gibbed thanks to your useless AI buddy. However, playing with another human makes those moments much more exciting and fun to play, presumably as that is how they were designed to be enjoyed. Co-op does cool things, like separate the players, and it’s cool to see those paths split and intersect. Unfortunately, my next big gripe comes with co-op and makes getting through it smoothly a pain.
When playing alone, Gears 5’s UI is totally fine and reasonable. The text is nice and big, and you can generally tell what you’re supposed to do. In co-op, the text and UI elements are all just smooshed down to fit your portion of the screen, making everything incredibly hard to read even on a large TV. So don’t expect to actually read any of the collectibles you pick up while you’re with a friend. Also, things like action markers directing you to do things such as slipping through a small space are small, blue icons, some of which can be extremely hard to see. There were times when the obvious solution wasn’t obvious to me or my co-op partner, because despite being in the right spot, the action marker was practically impossible to see.
That said, if you’re not trying to get the 100% full experience in co-op, Gears 5 is absolutely a blast to play in multiplayer. That extends to the full multiplayer suite outside of the campaign, which has been greatly expanded and even has a whole new mode. The famous and popular Horde mode now has a new buddy, Escape, which is another cooperative fight for survival, but one that facilitates shorter rounds. Modes like Horde have separate character customization options, with things like skill cards you can unlock as you play and earn experience and rewards. All of this stuff is designed to make you keep playing and mostly amount to trinkets, but the UI is nice and digestible, the menus and options are easy to understand, and the actual skins and stuff you can get are neat. As far as shooters with last-gen DNA go, Gears 5 has everything you’d want and then some.
Speaking of everything and then some, Gears 5 introduces some open world elements to the series for the first time. In two specific parts of the game, you end up in miniature, open spaces in which you dash around on a fancy Gears Skiff finding main story and sub quest waypoints. Doing sub quests usually leads to parts for Jack, which in turn feed into skill trees that grant a few extra combat tools at your disposal. These open spaces are a bit too open however, as you sort of just sail/drive through empty (but pretty) spaces and occasionally veer off path if you find something to do. Considering how long-winded Gears stories can be, I appreciate the attempt at something new, but that something new being “slightly attractive but vapid miniature open world” isn’t actually something new and just slows Gears 5’s pace down to a crawl.
At its core, Gears 5 is still the same old series you might be used to, but it’s the most polished version of itself. Getting to cover is snappier than ever, the gunplay is gratifyingly responsive, and the new weapons and tricks you can use all add more depth and nuance to the usual cover shooter loop. Other than some awkwardness in story-oriented locations that sometimes lock your character into an excruciatingly slow walk, Gears 5 feels faster in general than its predecessors. I can’t speak to performance on a standard Xbox One, but I imagine Gears 5 is a great argument in favor of the Xbox One X.
Gears 5 is a sequel that delivers on everything I was hoping Gears of War 4 would be. It’s the same tried and true gameplay loop, but with more console power juicing it up and a few new gadgets, weapons and tools to play around with. The open world stuff is sort of boring, but it’s at least nice to look at, and the co-op experience being so well integrated makes up for it (minus the dreadful, illegible UI). There’s much more ambition and creativity in its storytelling and more competent writing from a mechanical standpoint. Combined with a clean, user-friendly multiplayer suite that even finds time to add brand new ways to play, Gears 5 is a standout even among its own series. It’s rough around the edges, but in a good way.
Writing Team Lead