Something strange happened while I was playing Gears 5. For the first time in the series’ 13 years, I actually cared about the story.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the Gears universe. The characters all look like walking meat houses, and the entire story is a thinly veiled analogy for how the wars fought over energy resources have created even scarier, more dangerous enemies. Mix in some Giger-level monstrosities, the goopiest of frags, John DiMaggio straining his vocal cords to maximum growl, and just a dash of technofascism, and you’ve got one the smartest, dumbest blockbuster series to ever grace consoles.
But when it came to emotional beats, Gears of War had mostly traded in tired cliches. The most heart the series could muster was the trope of using a dead wife as motivation. Many of the characters in the series have been driven by personal quests of vengeance against the Locust, but instead of digging in and mining that territory, the first five games leaned more into gut-splattering explosions and on-rails action setpieces to tell their tales.
Besides just looking cleaner on a front cover, there’s a good reason why developer The Coalition and publisher Xbox Games Studios removed the “of War” from the title. Gears 5 still contains plenty of war, but it’s more than ever a story about the people who are fighting that war. With Gears 5, The Coalition has transformed the series’ characters from ’roided-out monstrosities into people who keep terrible secrets, make mistakes, and feel guilt, while staying true to the previous games’ cartoonish bravado. Maybe I’m just getting older—hell, I started playing these games before I could legally drink—but so is the series, and it’s finally starting to act like it.
Following the events of the last game, the intrepid trio of scavengers-turned-soldiers that uncovered the source of the Swarm are now fully integrated into the COG’s war machine. JD, Del, and Kait are officially the next Delta Squad, and they’re back to doing what Delta Squad always did best: going against the COG leadership and trying to bring the Hammer of Dawn system back online in a big way. But not everything is so hunky-dory. Ever since she mercy-killed her own mother and found out she has some form of personal connection to the Locust horde, Kait hasn’t been sleeping. She’s having headaches, and she seems distracted. JD, meanwhile, has taken a real shine to his rediscovered leadership role, almost too eager to be the hero in his own action movie. And Del… well, Del is still Del. He’s scientifically curious, devoted to his friends, and a strong moral center for the group as a whole.
When the Swarm attack a COG settlement with unprecedented force near the end of the first act, Delta Squad starts to split at the seams. The Gears have been under extreme stress in the heat of battle before, but it’s never really been a cause of tension within the group. The opening hours of Gears 5 mines the kind of intergroup drama that you’d expect from a squad that’s not only under constant bombardment from snarling beasts with assault rifles but also at personal odds based on their different backgrounds and core belief systems. Miraculously, there’s actual psychology here, as well as significant consequences for the slip-ups that can happen when soldiers are pushed to their breaking points.
The middle of the game takes place partly on a skiff, as Kait and the other Gears traverse expansive, domineeringly abandoned landscapes, and it acts as a spiritual search for a way forward, both for the characters and for the series as a whole. Kait is looking for answers about her connection to the Swarm. Del is trying to reconcile the ugly realities of war with his innate sense of right and wrong. JD is trying to figure out a way to make amends for past mistakes. But the middle of the game, too, is also trying to uncover a new direction for the series. Gears 5 isn’t exactly an open-world game, but it does have open-world elements. This isn’t Far Cry, where you’re constantly bombarded by enemies on your way from point A to point B. Instead, the game gives both the players and characters a lot of space for a breather between each extended shootout. Traveling between missions might seem like an unnecessary gameplay addition to some players who just want to get their proverbial jollies plugging the Swarm full of lead, and it might even smell a little like the kind of trend-chasing that the series has largely avoided (except when it comes to loot boxes), but in other ways, these respites from overwhelming and constant action are exactly what the series has needed for a while. And, on a more surface level, these open-world segments celebrate the series’ visual inventiveness. You’ll still fight in abandoned rocket silos and destroyed cities, but you’ll also fight among giant redwoods in a snowy forest and in desert biomes where the sand is as red as blood. As far as art design goes, Gears 5 is a new high point for the series, finally topping the Mediterranean majesty of Gears of War 3’s Azura.
Piloting a skiff isn’t the only way that The Coalition is shocking the Gears formula back to life, nor is it the most significant. Surprisingly, that honor goes to Jack, the series’ erstwhile robot companion. Previously, Jack was basically a mechanical pet who only contributed to the gameplay in scripted, perfunctory ways. In Gears 5, Jack is that and so much more. This time around, Jack has player-controlled abilities that can significantly turn the tide of a fight. Passive abilities like scanning environments and shielding the Gears can be activated at the press of a button, and they are generally more defensively minded. But his active abilities, which target specific enemies, can save your bacon when the odds are stacked against you. Jack can stun foes with a powerful flash, set electric traps to damage enemies and control choke points, and even hijack an opponent’s mind and briefly get them fighting for you. The abilities have a significant cooldown, so you can’t constantly rely on them, but this forces you to think strategically and make split-second decisions in the heat of battle. The cover-based mechanics that you’d expect are still the main gameplay focus, but toggling Jack’s different abilities while the bullets are flying gives you even more to do while you’re hunkered down behind cover. These changes to Jack might not seem significant on the surface, but longtime players will immediately recognize just how drastically they change the flow of each battle.
When you’re playing solo, Jack’s abilities are completely under your control. He’ll go off on his own and zap enemies with his built-in tasers during a firefight, but he answers the call whenever you need him. However, if you’re playing co-op, one player has the option to actually play as Jack, and that’s where things can get really strategic. Gears 5’s friendly AI isn’t the worst, but it doesn’t seem to have improved all that much since the series debut. Having another player controlling Jack and strategically stun-locking enemies can be a lifesaver. It also gives less experienced players a way to contribute to fights without constantly having to be revived. Plus, being able to hijack Scions or new Leech-controlled DeeBees give players a fresh way to experience Gears’ tried-and-true gameplay.
You can also play as Jack in Horde Mode, which returns to Gears 5 mostly unchanged. Here, Jack is a little stymied by the inherent limitations of the mode, but he’s given a new, even more useful role: keeping everyone alive. Acting as an orbiting medic, Jack can target and heal teammates and zap enemies until they explode. Horde Mode is largely the same as it was in the previous game, but it’s one of the most perfect co-op modes that’s ever existed, so why try to mess with a good thing? Still, there are some welcome changes, like how you earn the energy you need to buy more fortifications and the way that energy taps will pop up around the map in order to give players mini objectives to focus on. The biggest change is that each character has a unique ultimate ability that you can unleash on the Swarm. In theory, these ultimate abilities add to Horde’s strategic elements, and comboing them with different characters’ passive abilities can provide some real opportunities for teamwork if your group is operating as a finely tuned machine. Most players, though, will just pop the abilities when the going gets toughest, and that’s fine, too. At the end of the day, it’s still Horde—not that that’s a bad thing.
The new co-op mode, Escape, is less charming than its predecessor. Taking its cues from Left 4 Dead or, more recently, World War Z, Escape is less complex and less satisfying than both of those games. Essentially, it’s a three-player co-op mode where players have to get from one end of a Swarm holdout to the other while a wave of poison gas slowly fills up each room. These characters, who first debuted in the Gears comics, aren’t nearly as well-developed as Delta Squad, and their ultimate abilities are about what you’d expect. For some reason, you can use them in standard competitive multiplayer, but not in Horde, which seems like a waste. Generally, Escape will be fun for a small group of players who like to jockey for the top of the leaderboards, but most players will go through it once and wonder why they aren’t playing Horde. Escape’s highlight is a cool, if fairly rudimentary, map-building system where players can create their own Swarm hives. In the same way that Super Mario Maker can provide deconstructed insights into what makes a Mario level so special, Escape mode’s map builder can do the same thing for Gears of War. Filling a map with dozens of Juvies and letting players loose with shotguns is one of life’s simple pleasures. And, as with Mario Maker, the success of Escape will entirely depend on how much effort the community puts in.
Gears 5’s other addition is Arcade, a competitive multiplayer mode that takes a few notes from Counter-Strike in how you can purchase new weapons the more kills you get. A more casual mode, the best part about Arcade is how it disrupts the series’ tiresome shotgun meta in normal competitive multiplayer. It’s probably closer in line to how multiplayer was originally conceived for the series, but it will be interesting to see if the playerbase, which has gotten so used to the series’ normal meta, adopts this new mode or rejects it for going against the grain.
If you’re expecting Gears 5 to just be more Gears, well, that’s what it is. But it’s also an evolution of the series, something that I personally didn’t think was possible. It’s not just in the open-world exploration or the reliance on Jack as a robotic ace in the hole, but in the real effort The Coalition put into developing the world and characters. “It’s not the weapons I don’t trust, First Minister,” Marcus Fenix tells Jinn early on in the story. “It’s the people who use them.” And for the first time in the series, I actually care about the people and the guns.
Note: As much as I enjoyed Gears 5, I did experience a technical issue that could be a dealbreaker, depending on how widespread it is. Every time I booted up the game on my standard Xbox One, my console would shut down. After turning it back on, I got a message that said my console didn’t have enough ventilation, even though it felt cool on the outside and the fans were running. No other game had this effect on my Xbox. I tested this multiple times. The game ran perfectly fine on an Xbox One X and Xbox One S. I reached out to our PR contact to see if this was a known issue or if other reviewers had experienced this problem, and they said they would follow-up with The Coalition, but as of laying out this review, I haven’t heard back.
Header image credit: Xbox Games Studios
Gears 5 makes major strides in the series’ approach to storytelling. This is the most heartfelt Delta Squad has ever been, and The Coalition backs up that emotion with genuine improvements to gameplay. While its new co-op mode, Escape, is generally underwhelming, Arcade mixes up the competitive meta enough to keep things interesting. All told, Gears 5 is more Gears, but it’s also a bold statement for why this series is still relevant.
Xbox Games Studios
M - Mature
|Gears 5 is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Xbox Games Studios for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|