The Gears of War saga has always been a mixture of intense combat, serious war story, ridiculous over-the-top scenes, and comedy in a world gone mad. The levity is still there in the latest game from The Coalition, but it also has a more serious tone that goes with the devastation of the world of Sera, a beautiful home for humanity which at this point feels like it has been wrecked more times than Godzilla has destroyed Tokyo.
Yet here we are again, with humanity as the underdogs as the resurgent Swarm comes back to try to finish everyone off. And to this backdrop, the storytellers now add the specter of a more personal loss.
Gears 5 (or Gears of War 5) picks up where Gears of War 4 left off. Epic Games’ Gears of War trilogy began in 2006, and it wrapped up in 2011, with the one-off Gears of War: Judgment debuting in 2013. Microsoft acquired the rights to Gears of War in 2014 and set up The Coalition studio in Vancouver to build the games. In 2016, Gears of War 4 debuted as a reboot of the series, taking place 25 years after the events of the first trilogy.
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That reboot was both a success and a failure in my eyes. It had gut-wrenching, over-the-top violence and a serious story involving Kait and her mother, Reyna. But it also fell short in some ways, testing credulity with the giant mechs that dominated much of the ending. It had some goofy parts where it felt like you were fighting kaiju, or giant Japanese monsters, and that kind of messes up the human story.
Rod Fergusson, the studio head at The Coalition, told me that in an interview that the team considered moving Gears 5 to a new planet, but that would have severed the ties to the past and its characters that have become part of the Gears culture to fans. But since we have seen so many of these before, the team tried to make the game both approachable for new fans (particularly those playing with an Xbox Game Pass subscription) and more mature to the fans who grew up with the series and are now older and ready for stronger narratives. (The game debuts on Xbox One and Windows on September 6 for Ultimate Edition owners and September 10 for standard edition).
[This review has some minor story spoilers, but we’ve avoided the big ones. –Ed.]
What you’ll like
A story of sacrifice
The combat in Gears 5’s campaign is unmerciful in that you can’t save everybody. You are almost always on the defensive, and you often feel like you are losing. In the single-player campaign, you have to make tough choices that show that the Gears soldiers have to be prepared for the ultimate sacrifice. It is a reminder that the Gears saga has an enormous range.
At some point, one of the veteran characters is insulting you by calling you a child. And at another point, you’re mourning the death of a lost friend. These are tough moments because the cast of characters has survived some very tough times, and they’re a close-knit group. When you rip a character out of that group, it leaves deep wounds.
Good characters, well-acted
This story shifts from Gears 4’s father-son relationship of Marcus Fenix and his son, JD, to the mother-daughter relationship of Kait Diaz (Laura Bailey) and her mother, Reyna, who was kidnapped by the Swarm. Kait killed her in a mercy-killing at the end of Gears of War 4. This shift from JD to Kait brings to the fore a familiar character from the last game whose duality — owing to her mysterious heritage — becomes the center of the story.
JD is still part of the squad, but he is cast as the mistrustful teammate, as he asks companion Del Walker (Eugene Byrd) to keep an eye on Kait in case her loyalty to the COG and the humans is somehow subverted by her mysterious background.
Aside from Kait, you spend most of the time in the game in the presence of Del, a sidekick COG soldier who is a science wizard as well as a pillar of support for Kait as she goes through her ordeals with her “headaches.”
Del is far more understanding of Kait’s inner struggle than JD. Marcus Fenix (John DiMaggio) returns as a crusty old veteran who is still dedicated to the fight to stamp out the Swarm. And Baird returns as a tinkerer who delivers the very useful flying robot, Jack, who has a little bit of personality and adds some humor.
These characters have worked together before, and so when Baird doesn’t trust JD, you know part of the reason. It is like a familiar family of people who band together to save the world.
A meaty campaign
Gears of War 4 single-player campaign was short at about nine hours. But this one took me about 16 hours to finish, though I would note that I spent an hour on each of the tough boss battles, trying over and over again to beat them (on the intermediate level). When I finished the story, I was only 68% done with the overall content. So I have the option of going back and finding more collectibles, which deliver some of the backstory for the game.
New gameplay options
Gears 5 comes with new gameplay options thanks to new characters and weapons. Jack, the robot support drone, gives you abilities like hijacking enemies and temporarily turning them against each other. Jack can also turn you into an invisible stealth operator for a short time, or zap some hiding enemies so they are vulnerable to headshots from afar.
In the middle of the game, you can pick up an ice gun that freezes your opponents as they charge at you. It has a short range and you run the risk of being overtaken, but it is quite satisfying to freeze powerful enemies and then shatter them with a small blow.
You can also shoot out the ice under the feet of the Scions, the heavy tank bosses that carry a heavy weapon and are often shielded from attack by flying drones. All of these are examples of a game that plays very different from past Gears games.
I played the game on the Windows PC (a hefty Origin PC gaming laptop), and it tapped real-time ray tracing to produce better shadows and lighting. I noticed how good some of these graphics looked whenever I saw water on the floor of a building, the light coming through the windows in a level full of red sand, and the see-through ice in the frozen levels.
Traveling on a skiff
The skiff is a sail-driven sled that you can take across the frozen ice or sandy desert. It gives you a sense of speed and freedom that you don’t normally enjoy in a Gears game. You sail on the ice and make your way across different open-world areas of the map. You can choose to go to any number of locations that you discover, unlocking by accident. The story stays cohesive as you navigate through these icy or sandy parts of the world, and you have to deal with severe storms that can disable your skiff. This adds to the novelty of Gears 5.
Boss fights that require your wits
The fight with the boss that we’ll call “the blind one” will remind players of past games where you had to stay quiet, move around, and try to outwit the beast. I spent about an hour battling this boss, slowly figuring out a kind of choreography to stay out of its way, replenish my ammo, grab new weapons, and spray it with the frosty freeze guns. Those freeze guns only temporarily disabled the beast, but it gave me enough time to circle around behind it and then shoot it in its weak spot.
Strong co-op play with Horde 3.0
In the co-op mode, you have to survive against ever-mounting waves of assaults from the Swarm, which really earns its name. The Coalition mixed it up with new ultimate powers such as Kait’s ability to go invisible with a stealth mode.
There’s also a new mode dubbed “Escape” where you team up with two other co-op players and try to escape from the pods of the Swarm. You start with nothing, pick up some weapons, steal weapons from those you attack, and then escape to a waiting helicopter. It’s a pretty tense mode where you have to rely upon others to ensure your survival.
In past Gears multiplayer, players often just ran around with the powerful shotguns, blasting rivals at close range without mercy. But Fergusson said that the team created maps, features such as stealth, and countermeasures such as the freeze gun to stop the shotgun frenzy. That helps restore variety and fun to multiplayer, and makes the battlefield survivable for those who aren’t as adept with a single powerful weapon. You can even play as Jack, the mechanical drone that serves as a support character on the battlefield.
Boot camp makes combat more approachable
The boot camp replaces the tutorial. Normally, the tutorial happens in the beginning of the story, but it slows down the narrative. So now you can spend more time in the boot camp, which is a training center where you can master things like vaulting over walls, hiding behind cover, and using all of your weapons in a firefight. Before you go online to play, it’s a good idea to master boot camp.
What you won’t like
Some very difficult battles
Normally, this would be in the “like” column. But in a couple of the boss fights and even some of the battles with the waves of enemies, the odds of survival are not good. In fact, in some of the battles, they assume you lost and a cinematic takes over to bring some godsend like the Hammer of Dawn. As always, I’m never fully equipped when I go into these battles. But I suppose this is not really something to complain about in a bad-ass video game.
Ridiculously big underground beasts
I like using big guns to fight big battles with big monsters. That’s the Gears saga. But some of these beasts are so big that it must mean that Sera itself is hollow in the middle. Instead of lava, there must be this vast open space for these giant creatures to grow up and then burst through the surface to destroy human settlements. If this were Pacific Rim, this story might be slightly more believable, as the creatures are coming from another dimension. But in Gears, they’re sleeping under our feet. That part of the fiction feels like a children’s story.
An elaborate quest to reconstruct a rocket
Every now and then, the Gears storytellers stretch credulity. We are led to believe that a decades-old rocket facility, overrun in combat and covered with sand, is in good enough shape for our heroes to reconstruct the different pieces of a rocket. On top of that, we have to do this piece by piece. The combat that takes us through this part of the game lasts a long time, all so we can complete a kind of massive Lego construction kit. The whole rocket construction task is a bit implausible, and it feels like an excuse for more combat. I suppose the good side of this is that those who love massive machines will enjoy this part of the game.
An ending that isn’t an ending
There’s an obvious ending that would pit Kait against her enemy in this game. But apparently that battle is going to be reserved for Gears 6. So instead, we get a kind of substitute battle, or a boss fight that falls short of that ultimate boss fight. The failure to confront the ultimate enemy and instead fight some kind of kaiju is forgivable if we’re thinking this is the second title in a new trilogy, but it still feels a bit like an unfinished story.
My game stalled early on when I approached a door that only Jack could open. No indicator appeared at the vent where Jack could enter and open the door. I had to reboot the game and replay the scene. The indicator finally appeared and I got Jack to open the door. There’s also a bug in the final scene where one of the soldiers floats in the sky, rather on the ground. Hopefully these problems will get patched before the masses play the game.
The Coalition’s Fergusson is right about one thing. Gears 5 is one of the best entries in the Gears saga. It is gratifying to see the developer get the balance right. It had to satisfy fans who wanted more of the same, give something new to keep them from getting bored, and expand the appeal and approachability of the game to attract new fans. That’s a hard balancing act, and many other developers often get this wrong.
I had the most fun in the most difficult part of the game, when I fought the blind beast. When I finally won that fight, I felt like I had been through an ordeal and I had solved a particularly difficult puzzle. As you can see, there are many more things to like about the game than to dislike. Perhaps best of all, Gears 5 delivers a sense that you’re losing a big war at the same time it delivers the blow of a personal loss. And it generates a resolve to hit back. And it’s nice to see a team of video game developers, forged in Epic’s days of conceiving silly and gruesome chainsaw bayonets, grow up with its audience and provide them with a good story.
Gears 5 has a lot to offer, with multiplayer, co-op modes, and a single-player campaign with wide range of emotions, from humor and laughter to despair and tragedy. It leaves the fans with a bit of a cliffhanger ending, but that just means that fans will want Gears 6 to come soon.
Gears 5’s Ultimate Edition debuts September 6 on PC and Xbox One, with the standard edition launching September 10. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a digital copy on PC/Xbox One for the purposes of this review.