The common thread that runs through the Xbox’s two biggest exclusive franchises is that they are no longer being made by the developers that created them. The Halo series has been under the stewardship of 343 Industries since Halo 4, and the Gears franchise has been with The Coalition since Epic wrapped on Gears of War 3. This has created a problem for these franchises to solve if they want to continue — each successive title must introduce something new, mechanically or thematicaly, but also can’t deviate from the formula that made them popular.
I sympathise with The Coalition in particular. I’ve wondered before how can they be expected to make their mark on the Gears franchise when a significant part of the job is flawlessly covering a decade old song, written by another developer? It seems they’ve figured it out. In Gears 5, The Coalition have finally found a way to inject the series with new ideas and create a clear, distinctive path for all future Gears titles to tread.
In looking for ways to modernise the Gears experience, The Coalition have looked to open world titles — specifically Horizon: Zero Dawn and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy — but you won’t detect their influence right way.
Indeed, the first act of Gears 5 is resolutely old school — a surprise Locust attack on a populous city. As JD Fenix, Del Walker, Kait Diaz and original Gears of War hero Marcus Fenix battle back the Locust, the situation begins to deteriorate. It’s a lot of what you already know if you’ve played a Gears title before — hoofing it through destroyed buildings and down hallway after hallway, moving from cover to cover to avoid incoming fire. Ever pushing forward. It’s all very 2007.
It’s in Act 2 where things get interesting. The story shifts its focus onto Kait and Del, and for the first time in a Gears title, we are presented with an open world.
Well, sort of. This is where The Lost Legacy‘s influence is most clearly felt — its “open world” by way of a smaller, highly curated biome that will be home for the next five or six hours of gameplay. Kait and Del jump aboard a transport device called a Skiff (which is like a snowmobile combined with a parasail but it also has a wakeboard on the back? And you have to be on the wakeboard to drive it? It’s operation is a complete mystery and has been consuming my every waking thought) and head into Act 2’s icy, frozen wastes.
After this, each successive act is set in a different, self-contained biome. You are free to explore the entirety of each world, stopping to inspect derelict buildings or machinery and clearing them out. While the open world approach itself is a breath of fresh air for the series, it often leads to the same kind of gameplay segments that the Gears series is known for — hallway shootouts, Locust-infested industrial environments and subterranean caverns bursting with slimy, body horror Locust pods. So much of Gears’ core design has always been about slowly advancing down a hallway of one kind or another, and after a while it starts to feel like an “on-rails” experience. Being able to choose which of these optional side missions I took on went a long way to minimising that feeling. It’s a very strong move, and one I’m glad The Coalition was given the room to make.
A big part of the reward for getting into the side missions is tied to Jack, your erstwhile robot companion. In previous games, Jack often went unseen until required to open a locked door. In Gears 5, Jack becomes the third member of your party with a large array of unlockable abilities. Each of his abilities is unlocked by collecting parts that are strewn around each world. There are around 120 parts hidden in each major level, rewarding you for poking into the edges of each level and environment. Previous Gears games have always struggled with collectables, littered documents and dog tags for the finding, but finding them never felt worth the effort.
Jack is worth going out of your way for. Provided you can learn to use him effectively, Jack is Gears 5‘s most devastating new combat add. From a basic flashbang to reviving downed team mates and establishing temporary control over enemy units, a fully upgraded Jack is a force to be reckoned with. He can retrieve distant ammo for you when you’re pinned down and unable to reach it. He can sneak up and jab Locust units with a cattle prod, stunning them long enough for you take their heads off. He’s also controllable in co-operative multiplayer, the perfect support role for your Friend Who Doesn’t Play Video Games But Wants To Hang Out.
The single player campaign boasts one of the strongest plot lines of any Gears outing to date. Gears 5 still wears its love of pulpy, hoo-rah 90’s action cinema on its sleeve, but its also interested in secrets — why we keep them, the choices we make as a result, and the consequences of those choices. This is an extension of the things Gears has always had on its mind — the highly militaristic concept of compartmentalising information and the extent to which trust can be given or expected, albeit on a much more human scale than Gears is perhaps known for.
Beyond the campaign, Gears 5 comes with four other modes, almost all of which are for multiplayer. Escape mode is a three-player PVE mode about planting a bomb inside a Swarm hive and getting out of dodge before it explodes. Versus is where all your favourite PVP modes live, and features a roster of maps old and new. Horde is likely the most well-known multiplayer mode, a Gears stalwart that pits a team of three against wave after wave of incoming enemies, each more difficult than the last. Finally, there is Map Builder which does exactly what it says on the tin — it lets you build maps, in this case maps built specifically for Escape mode, that you can then share with your friends. All of these modes are fine, fun and (provided Gears is your thing) will keep you going long after launch.
There’s no question that Gears 5 is the best of the series. It feels freer than any of its stablemates to experiment, and the changes it makes are both smart and needed. It is, I hope, indicative of what will be the shape of the series moving forward.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Great campaign; Smart design changes that modernise the series in ways that were sorely needed; Jaw-droppingly pretty
Lowlights: AI buddy not always on the ball; Most of the jokes are groaners
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: September 6, 2019 (Ultimate Edition); September 10, 2019 (Standard Edition)
Review conducted on Xbox One X with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.