Shaun Munro reviews Gears 5…
The importance of the Gears of War franchise in shaping the modern third-person shooter cannot be overstated, but it’s also fair to say that the series has been wanting for a truly great entry in many a year, between the competent yet uninspired spin-off Judgment and the workmanlike, underwhelming Gears of War 4.
And in many ways it’s a pleasure to report that Gears 5 is a return to the bold, visceral gunplay that made the series such an innovation – and a commercial juggernaut – in the first place. Yet even with a number of welcome additions, this is largely the same Gears you know and quite probably love – both for better and for worse.
Picking up shortly after the end of the previous game, JD Fenix, Kait Diaz, and Del Walker find themselves once again battling the Swarm, while Kait is forced to confront the truths of her troubled past. For many, Gears 5‘s plot will simply be a functional means to an end, however, travelling in one ear and out the other as it has in pretty much every prior game in the series.
And for most fans that will be fine; Gears has always been a huge-budget popcorn flick of a video game franchise, and in the case of this most recent one, it at least has the good sense to take itself slightly less seriously than some prior entries. Between a healthy dose of gallows humour and some WWE-worthy one-liners spouted by your muscle-bound comrades, there are frequent laughs to be had.
Characterisation is, like the story, generally a secondary concern, and during the early portion where players control the previous game’s dullard protagonist JD, you’ll most likely be itching for the game to switch over to the decidedly more appealing Kait.
While she’s arguably the most sympathetic and likeable character in the entire Gears series to date, even she gets a fairly hollow shrift at best here, though a remarkable vocal performance from Laura Bailey really tries to make the best of it. John DiMaggio is also terrifically gruff in his curtailed role as franchise legend Marcus Fenix, while incidental characters rattle off the breezy banter with a laid-back persuasiveness.
Gameplay-wise, Gears 5 largely delivers the bluntly effective cover shooter fare fans will expect, while occasionally dipping its toes into something vaguely more ambitious. The overwhelming majority of the game sees players throwing switches and collecting trinkets in-between shootouts, which are typically connected by relatively linear corridors.
Between this and the fairly underwhelming array of enemies – especially the devastatingly tedious robots, returning from the previous game – it’d be easy for ennui to set in across Gears 5‘s 10-12 hour campaign, yet thanks to a well-placed smattering of cutscenes and other story-based downtime, the formula never quite becomes transparent enough to feel like a chore.
The scant new features certainly help fend off stagnation, especially the addition of Jack, a robot companion who not only helps your team traverse some of the game’s trickier environments, but also boasts a relatively comprehensive upgrade tree, with abilities allowing him to lock enemies in stun traps, heal your squad, grant temporary invisibility and so on. Creative players will make inspired, tactical use of these abilities, such as using the heal command to draw fire your way during a challenging engagement.
Jack makes the player feel immensely capable, perhaps too capable at Intermediate difficulty in fact, as there are precious few scenarios where you won’t feel incredibly prepared, especially as you’re able to swap between abilities at the mere press of a button.
Elsewhere, Gears 5 also offers up two open-world-like hub areas – one a chilly tundra, the other a blood-red dessert that wouldn’t look amiss in Mad Max: Fury Road – which present optional objectives and mild exploration while the player rides around them on a skiff. The hubs’ beauty can’t really be argued against, though they’re ultimately relatively shallow as AAA open-world elements go, and this deep into a franchise hardly noted for its ambition, you’d be forgiven for hoping this aspect was a little more fleshed-out.
Nevertheless, despite an abrupt ending, the campaign should satisfy those who found Gears 4‘s overly brief and dull as dishwater, even if this hardly feels as envelope-pushing as a Gears game flirting with an open world probably should. But even when the formula is at its most apparent, the cover-based gunplay remains crucially tight and addictive.
Gears 5 also offers the now-expected co-op play, limited to just three players this time, with both local and online options. Playing with pals is naturally recommended, especially as matchmaking with randoms is awkwardly hidden in a “custom” menu (in case, like me, you were stuck trying to find it).
More to the point, co-op with unknowns often proves more challenging than going it alone, if only because relying on another human to make efficient use of Jack is a total crapshoot. And in the event that you need to boot a non-compliant player from your server, good luck figuring out how to do that.
Speaking generally, many of the series’ usual issues are still painfully present; checkpointing is inconsistent to the point of frustration, with long battles often following one another without a ping in-between, and I encountered a bizarre glitch where objectives wouldn’t trigger unless I paused and un-paused the game. Also, the series’ characteristically bulky characters have a tendency to block doorways and basically just get in Kait’s way, which can be mildly annoying.
In addition to the campaign, there are numerous added value multiplayer modes. Competitive 5v5 play is as slick as it’s ever been, with enough modes to keep fans engaged for the long haul, while new addition Escape offers up a neat PvE experience, as players fend off the Swarm with limited resources while also avoiding contact with noxious gas. And of course, there’s the bread and butter of Gears’ multiplayer experience, the much-loved Horde mode, which has been given something of a hero shooter makeover, incentivising players to pick a character and stick with them.
This all adds up to quite the value-filled package for franchise junkies, while those playing on Xbox Game Pass would probably be daft not to at least give the peripheral content a try. But the single aspect of the game that impresses more than anything is unquestionably its presentation; played in 4K HDR, Gears 5 makes a strong argument for being one of the best-looking games ever made, with its greater geographical diversity compared to its predecessors aiding immensely.
There are still lots of greys, yes, but there’s generally also a greater spectrum of colour, along with fantastic use of ambient lighting to sell the mood. Better still, it’s incredibly well optimised for PC, meaning you need not break the bank to be able to run it smoothly at a high resolution. Crunchy sound effects and the aforementioned solid voice acting also make this a game best enjoyed with a killer set of headphones.
Through and through, Gears 5 doesn’t reinvent the wheel of this formula-keen franchise, but nevertheless makes baby steps towards something a little more adventurous. It’ll please the hardcore lot, even while those who’ve never quite fallen in love with the series – this critic included – may feel it’s still a few leaps away from being a AAA must-have.
+ A solid improvement over Gears 4.
+ Best-in-class gunplay.
+ Hub worlds add a neat (if limited) new wrinkle.
+ Incredible graphics and sound.
+ Tons of multiplayer added value.
– Story once again feels like an afterthought.
– Gameplay loop is overly repetitive at times.
– A (mostly) standard fare entry for the series.
Reviewed on PC (also available on Xbox One).
A retail copy was played for review.
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more video game rambling.