I still haven’t played every game in the Gears franchise. I completed the third one at launch—not that I remember much of it—and finally checked out the fourth a few months back. But going into Gears 5, I was expecting the same strand of fun, meathead chainsaw splatterfest the series has become known for.
In contrast to the previous game, this sequel shifts away from the relationship between series protagonist Marcus Fenix and his son James, with the focus of Gears 5 instead being on Kait and her connection with the antagonistic Locust Horde. And while the campaign still feels like a cover-based shooter from the 2000s, there are enough new additions and tweaks to the formula that it may just be the most interesting Gears to date.
If you’re going into Gears 5 still wanting to blow up hundreds of meaty creatures, the good news is that part of the recipe remains unchanged. It doesn’t need to. Sure, the cover controls may feel a bit dated—this has barely been altered ever since the first game—but it’s never felt awkward enough to warrant a major revamp. It works and it lets you destroy anything that moves in a fleshy mess. The unfortunate side of this is the return of the android enemies from Gears 4, an aspect many players hated. It isn’t any better here either, maybe the lack of blood and guts makes killing these machines unsatisfying, or perhaps it’s because this isn’t Binary Domain. Either way, these sequences are fewer and far between than the previous instalment, but just as boring.
From the cold winter tundra to the red-hot desert storms, Gears 5 takes you across a variety of different locations throughout its 10-hour campaign. The Coalition has outdone itself regarding the level design, as these areas are bigger. They feel like realistic spaces where people have lived, eaten and slept in. There’s a great sense of scale; the structures are monolithic and huge, while beautiful landscapes make up the rural settings. Even in the underground facilities, I kept stopping to look around and process how gorgeous everything looks.
It always bothered me how Marcus’ homestead in Gears 4 looked like he arranged the furniture for a firefight. Many shooters have this problem of positioning crates, boxes and tables as if their only use is for cover in a shootout. But here, that works more subtly. It blends in with the level, where using it comes instinctively rather than as an obvious prompt. It feels like each room has a purpose other than to be used for combat. In terms of both aesthetics and practicality, this is the best-looking Gears game to date.
But besides the traditional linear stages that Gears is known for, open-world sections also appear at the midway point of the campaign. These have you travelling across huge stretches of land between objectives, using a wind-powered vehicle called the Skiff. It marks a major departure for the series that this direct, corridor-based shooter is now embracing open approaches to level design—similar to what Metro Exodus did earlier this year—but with a lot of side-tracking and very few interesting things to see, these chapters serve nothing more than to pad out the middle of the game, severely ruining the pacing. Notably, the Skiff outstays its welcome long before you finish using it.
The title isn’t the only thing shortened in Gears 5. Co-operative teams now only consist of three human players to ensure huge levels didn’t have to be designed for four people to move around and find cover in. Two control humans, often Kait and Del, but the third player controls Jack, a hovering robotic companion with a variety of different tools to use in combat or with puzzles. His arsenal includes shock mines, flash grenades and an electronic zapper, but he can also aide in making your team invisible or giving you a health buff for a short amount of time. Playing as this character puts a new spin on the typical Gears style of play. Instead of popping out of cover to shoot at enemies, you’re now providing support by using your abilities or scavenging ammo to bring to your teammates. Not only is Jack one of this game’s best characters, but he is also an excellent twist on the co-op dynamic.
Despite being a series trademark, I’ve hardly touched the versus multiplayer and horde bonus modes so far because of how engaged I was with the campaign. I enjoyed Gears of War 4 enough to finish the story, but it still felt like a leftover from the previous generation. Instead, Gears 5 is a true current-gen successor for the franchise, and where Microsoft legends such as Halo and Fable have dissipated, this series feels stronger than ever. It’s one of the best Xbox exclusives in a very long time.
Tested on PC
Also available on Xbox One
Developer The Coalition
Publisher Xbox Game Studios