Gears of War 4 was by no means a bad game. It was a strong debut by The Coalition, the company set up by Microsoft to carry the Gears of War torch once Epic Games handed it off.
It was a high octane blockbuster action game that was enjoyable to play in both its campaign and multiplayer modes. With a focus on the son of Gears of War hero Marcus Fenix, the fourth game in the series pushed the timeline forward a few decades while focusing on its familial ties. A fun and meaty campaign and expansive multiplayer modes, Gears of War 4 was a good time. It was also incredibly safe.
The Coalition did a good job in faithfully nailing the look and feel of the Gears of War universe – but I’m not sure they did enough to deliver anything new or interesting. It really was just more Gears, and while that’s not necessarily a complaint, it ultimately felt like the work of a studio finding its feet.
Gears 5, which drops the “of War” bit from the name, is a more confident turn from the developer. The Coalition proved that with Gears of War 4 that they could make a Gears game, but with this latest instalment, it feels that they want to prove that they’re capable of doing more. While Gears 5 doesn’t really stray too far from what makes Gears of War so much fun, it does just enough to make it feel fresh and exciting again, and no longer like a relic from the last generation.
The campaign picks up not very long after the events of the last game – and there’s a handy recap before you’re thrust into your first Act. The pair of Fenixes, Del and Outsider Kait are no longer COG outcasts; they’re donning their chunky armour, on a mission from series stalwart Baird. The crusty veteran has sent the elite group of soldiers off to reinstate the satellites for the Hammer of Dawn, the Gears’ most powerful, too-destructive weapon. It’s the impetus behind the entire game, really as without the Hammer of Dawn, the Coalition of Ordered Governments have no hope against the increasing Swarm threat. While the first act has you playing as JD or Del, that changes. This isn’t JD or the Fenix clan’s story. Marcus is still there, of course, in his role as a grizzled elder, but this isn’t about him or his son. This time it’s all about Kait, and she’s the focus of the remaining acts.
In this sequel, when we first meet Kait – whose mother was entwined and fused with the Swarm – she’s aloof, not having slept in days and still wrapped in grief over her mother’s fate. While Gears 5 is ostensibly about the Gears getting the Hammer of Dawn back online, the story is mostly about Kait’s relationships: with her mother, with Del – who becomes her best friend, and most importantly, with her past. Gears 5 has all the things you’d expect from a Gears game: vreems, bloody gibs, the most satisfying headshot sound in all of gaming, lots of waist-high cover, great big boss fights, jingoism and bluster – but it also has things you don’t generally expect like tenderness, character development, introspection and a social awareness that holds a mirror to our own society.
While the focus is on Kait, the real star of Gears 5 is Jack, the literal Jack-of-all-trades robot who makes perhaps the biggest change to the established formula. An upgradeable service bot, Jack adds a bit of freshness to the action. I’m loathed to use the term RPG-lite, because you don’t really earn experience points to level up his abilities. Instead, you find and install mods, which you can upgrade with components scattered throughout the game. You’re able to equip one assault and one support mod at a time, giving Jack abilities that genuinely change the flow of combat. He starts off with a simple Flash ability that temporarily stuns enemies who’re hiding behind cover, allowing you to plant lead in their heads (again, with that awfully satisfying “splatch!”), and a Pulse ability that scans the area for enemies, showing their positions as outlines on the screen.
He’s easy to command too, with a simple button press activating his support functions, and a combination press kicking off his assault ability. It’s a clever, intuitive blend of UI and utility. Most interesting is that he’ll be the third player in a co-op game. He can fly all over the battlefield, cloaking himself (and later, the Gears), zapping enemies and boosting players with stims, making him a great support tool and even fun for those who might not traditionally enjoy action games like Gears. Players can also re-spec Jack at will, so they don’t need to feel like they’re stuck with their choices. By completing secondary missions you can even find stronger abilities you can’t otherwise upgrade to, and they’re absolutely worth getting.
Yes, Gears now has side quests because it’s no longer purely a linear action experience. In the game’s second and third acts, you’re given two large, yet constrained open worlds to explore. While this approach makes a welcome and fundamental change to how Gears plays out, I’m not completely convinced it’s been executed well. In the first of those, you’re piloting your Skiff – a wind-powered, small land boat – across a frozen Tundra, making your way to objectives where things play out in more traditional Gears fashion. Find an area, clear out the bad guys, grab the McGuffin, and head on to the next objective. On each map, there are a couple of extraneous waypoints to discover, but there’s no real sense of freedom or discovery. The side missions themselves are a little humdrum, effectively fetch-quests that have you collecting a thing, pressing a button or turning a knob after clearing out a bowl of enemies. The second open world is a crimson-red desert, and I think that by design they’re both largely terrains you’d expect to be barren.
Inexplicably, despite the second co-op player having a mounted turret, there are no encounters in the open world. While the open-world traversal is meant to be a bit of downtime between all the firefights, it feels strangely dead, punctuated – thankfully – with chatter between Kait and Del, and later, other Gears who joint your party (one of them I must add, brilliantly voiced by iZombie’s Rahul Kohli, who puts in an impressive performance as an utter knob).
The easiest comparison here, is to Metro Exodus’ open hub worlds, but those are at least peppered with encounters and things to discover that make exploration feel rewarding, instead of just a way to pad out the experience. It feels almost rushed, added as a way to extend the experience and give it a modern veneer. Still, it’s something I’m glad has been included for the way it breaks up the pace, and allows Kate’s relationship with Del especially to shine.
Of course, Gears of War is as known for its extensive suite of multiplayer modes and options as it is for its single-player and co-op campaigns, and Gears 5 doesn’t disappoint. Ok, that’s not entirely true. There is one incredibly disappointing thing, and that’s that despite the recent launch of a pair of Azure datacentres in South Africa, they’re still not used for games, which means that Gears 5 doesn’t take advantage of them. It means that we still use European servers, and are stuck with a 150-200ms latency. That sort of latency removes the sting from our Gnashers, forcing local players to have to do multiple calculations in our heads and aim ahead of opponents.
That aside, there’s an awful lot to Gears 5’s multiplayer. Of course, all of the modes you know and love return, so you can play King of the Hill, Escalation, Execution, Guardian and Arms Race (which is essentially Gun game). While I’ll always have a soft-spot for Execution, the de facto mode that made the first Gears game my multiplayer game of choice for years, I have to admit I’ve enjoyed the faster pace of Arcade, the new multiplayer mode. It’s faster and more accessible, borrowing heavily from Hero shooters. Characters all have their own passive and active abilities and loadouts, giving each of them a specific role. Getting kills and assists in the mode earns skulls, which can be used to buy bigger and more effective weapons. Death loses you whatever weapons you’ve accrued, but you get to keep your remaining skulls and plug them into your next purchase. It’s far more accessible than Gears’ traditional multiplayer modes, so it should be a great starting point for new blood.
The biggest other change comes to Gears 5’s Horde mode. While Gears of War 2 popularised the mode that balanced base building and defence with the relentless onslaught of bigger and stronger enemies, each sequel has iterated on the formula in interesting ways. Horde in Gears 5 has probably had the biggest overhaul, once again borrowing from Hero shooters. Once again, each character has an understandable role. Kait, for example, can temporarily go invisible, turning her into an infiltrator and scout. Marcus Fenix, meanwhile, becomes an instant headshot machine, a perk which nearby teammates can also benefit from. Using these roles becomes key to outlasting the Swarm, but it’s not the only change to Horde. At points on each map, there are structures called “Taps” that if acquired and maintained, provide buffs and resources. Getting them requires that players engage more aggressively with enemies, branching out from their base structures instead of holing up in one location. There’s in-game progression, where currency earned buys perks, but also a nice out-of-game progression using upgradeable skill cards that grant battlefield perks. Mercifully, this is all earned in-game, with no paid loot boxes in sight. Players can buy cosmetic items and XP boosts, but they don’t really aide them in the game’s core multiplayer modes. The changes to Horde mode, and the Hero abilities in Arcade, are meaningful additions that should hopefully give players a reason to stick with Gears as they adapt their playstyles and learn their roles. I can see Horde becoming my new addiction for a good while.
It’s worth noting that Gears 5 runs like a dream. I’ve primarily played on PC (like most Microsoft games, it has cross-play and cross save), where it has options to cap maximum and minimum frame rates, but The Coalition has made a concerted effort to keep the game running along at a smooth 60fps on all systems. While it still has weird character pop-in that’s almost as much a hallmark of Gears as its waist-high cover, tweaks to the engine have resulted in the best-looking Gears game yet. Right from the beginning, when the Gears rappel from a helicopter into a tropical basin in Azura, it’s a beautiful game to behold.
Gears 5 is good stuff from The Coalition, but I’d like them to break out of the established Gears of War mould just a little more.
Last Updated: September 4, 2019