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Words by Thomas Ryan-Smith
Gears 5 has without a doubt the best Gears of War campaign yet. This flawed but enjoyable entry into the franchise takes all the learnings from the previous games, and sprinkles in some much-needed features and light open-world RPG ingredients to deliver something fans of the franchise will truly love.
After an entertaining, but slightly overly-long tutorial showing off the game’s main mechanics, Gears 5 instantly drops you into the action with a blistering set-piece based in a beautifully overgrown abandoned Hammer Of Dawn satellite launch silo, that serves as a substantial improvement over the opening scenes in its predecessor.
Although this sequence is quintessential Gears, it sets into motion the main narrative thread of the game and lays the groundwork for a few of the new features. It’s during this opening sequence that it becomes obvious this installment of the franchise is going to be a little different. There’s a much stronger focus on the characters and their relationships to each other, telling a much more personal story, one that ties intrinsically into the war against the Swarm.
Gears 5 follows on directly from its predecessor, moving the focus away from Marcus Fenix’s generic action hero son, JD, to the entirely more interesting Kait and her journey to discover the truth of her heritage. Kait was a big focus in Gears 4, but here she really gets to shine, bringing in some much-needed emotional weight to situations, and her bond with her fellow soldiers, especially the loyal and kind-hearted Del is core to the story.
As endearing as Kait’s journey throughout Gears 5 is, don’t expect to be surprised by the narrative beats, this is still Gears of War, nuance and subtlety are not this franchise’s strong points.
What truly elevates this title above everything else in the series beforehand are the new RPG-style features, coming in the form of upgrades for your lovable floaty-robo-boy Jack. There’s also the new open-world areas and a couple of legitimate A or B player choice moments – one so narratively huge and gut-punchingly emotional, that whatever you decide will heavily impact your experience in the inevitable Gears 6, and I truly don’t know how The Coalition will tackle this in the development of the sequel.
The real star additions are the two open-world hubs that connect main story tasks. The beautifully realised locations are traversed using the Skiff – the Gears franchises’ answer to Halo’s warthog. These hub areas have several very basic side-quests littered throughout, with the reward being decent weapons, upgrades and components for Jack as well as collectables – all of which add to your campaign completion percentage.
As nice as it is to have these moments of calm traversing across the dazzling landscapes between locations – and to have a place to store some of your beefier guns on the Skiff – there really isn’t much to do in these parts. There are no Swarm soldiers roaming the landscapes to mow down like in Halo’s warthog segments, and what looks like a gunner position on the Skiff is actually just a telescope (which if you’re playing solo you’ll never use).
These segments do add a worthwhile extra layer to Gears 5, allowing time for the protagonists to truly express their feelings and bring you closer to the friendship between Del and Kait, and help make Planet Sera feel like a palpable world adding tangible positions to locations you’ll re-visit from the original trilogy. Unfortunately, at times it’s hard not to see the open-world areas as a wasted opportunity… Although driving off high ridges never stops being entertaining.
Jack on the other hand, along with his new abilities and RPG-style progression, is great. Throughout the story, he obtains several skills from Baird, some of which really change the way you approach a fight. Offering abilities like shielding, cloaking and the skill to turn certain swarm foes against their own. Obviously they all run on a cooldown system and this really forces you as the player think tactically and choose which of Jack’s abilities are most suited to each situation.
Jack can only have two abilities active at any one time, one assault and the other support, but you can switch these up at any point using the left bumper and d-pad. A nice new feature that’s always active allows Jack to pick up weapons and ammo a good distance away and bring them over to you in battle – very handy when you’re pinned down and running low.
It should also be pointed out that at times this game really is stunning. Whether battling through a lush forest, skiffing across the desert, investigating wreckage in the snow or traversing through a rocket manufacturing facility – Gears 5 never fails to be beautiful.
As enjoyable as the campaign is, it still suffers from some of the age-old Gears of War level design cliches. The number of times I found myself being ordered by Marcus to travel to a location and push a button to activate something, only to find out that whatever that button was supposed to do is “jammed”, so I’d have to go and fulfil two more tasks to unjam that something is frustrating. It’s so predictable and archaic that the entire second chapter feels like padding; especially as that section of the game revolves around activating 2 beacons to discover the location of a major plot point.
Gears wouldn’t be Gears without bombastic, ridiculous set-pieces and Gears 5 is no different. It’s just a shame that most big boss battles still come down to “shoot the glowing orange bits until they all pop or until the baddie falls down”. One particular boss – which is pretty much a Berserker with more bells and whistles – is an absolute chore to take down, and felt like such incredibly dull and repetitive game design.
While we’re on the subject of things that didn’t work – the new character Fahz is just plain repulsive. The new British COG, voiced by iZombie’s Rahul Kohli is written to be an antagonist-come-ally and is obviously meant to be hated at first; but with lines like “every herd needs a good culling” when referring to killing peaceful protesters, anything he might do to redeem himself later on is null and void.
Oh, and not to shoehorn this in, but the lancer chainsaw attack has been moved from its iconic B button to right bumper, and that feels ALL KINDS of wrong.
Throughout my time with the game, I encountered three bugs that forced me to reload to the last checkpoint, twice when receiving Jack upgrades from Baird at different points in the story, and another when an enemy leach straight-up disappeared stopping me from killing it and opening up the next area. Hopefully, these issues will be fixed in a day one patch.
Despite these issues, they never detract from the fact that the core Gears gameplay is still as enjoyable as its ever been. The set pieces that move the narrative along may be tedious at times, but actually progressing through and mowing down hordes of Swarm on your way is still an absolute blast.
Gears 5 continues the legacy of co-op campaign, increasing the numbers of players on one screen from two in Gears of War 4 to three – although this is still less than the four seen in Gears 3. The third player will take the role of Jack, which does add an interesting new dynamic when playing with friends.
We finished the main story in just over 9 hours, completing a few side-quests along the way. That may not seem too long, but that was with a campaign completion of only 56.78%, meaning that are many sidequests and collectables still out there to find. Real completionists could be looking at a potential 20-hour campaign – which by modern standards is a rather healthy length.
Of course, Gears has never just been about the campaign. Horde mode makes an obvious and welcome return, as does Versus. A cool new addition is Escape mode, a new narrative multiplayer experience following Team Scorpio, who purposefully get themselves kidnapped to exterminate Swarm Hives.
Unfortunately, these modes weren’t completely active during the review period, with scheduled play time events happening outside of our timezone, so it was impossible to give any true opinions on these aspects of the game.
But what we can say conclusively is that Gears 5 has the best campaign of the series to date. Improving on everything Gears of War 4 did right, learning from the series’ past mistakes and adding a slew of new additions that push the series in ways you’d never expect.
It should be telling that Xbox has decided to drop the “of War” from the series. Whereas the original trilogy truly felt like a group of gruff badass soldiers fighting an unwinnable war… the series has evolved into something more personal, and that feels like the right path to take.
It looks like Gears, it plays like Gears but it elevates the series one step further and we can’t wait to see how they build on this in future entries.
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