It’s Hammer time.
Gears of War has been an incredibly beloved Microsoft franchise since its debut some 13 years ago. While the series is now developed by The Coalition, under the leadership of Ron Ferguson, a man who has been with the franchise since its conception, the series continues to remain popular and relevant due to what I feel is its greatest strength; its heart. Gears 5, dropping the “of War’ from its title is as action-packed as it is an emotional ride that shocks and surprises, and offers up my favorite campaign narrative of the franchise.
To discuss what I love so much about this latest entry in the Gears franchise, I’ll have to dance around why I feel so emotionally affected by its roughly 10-hour campaign. The word “emotional” tends to lend itself off as meaning “something sad” and yes, Gears 5 has a few moments where I was shocked to my core, and even one moment where my eyes filled with tears; however, it’s probably not for what you’d think. The Gears franchise has dealt with loss many times over the course of the series, some more so than others, but the new tech given to Gears 5 allows the characters to really sell their emotions in a way that they just couldn’t before. Gears 5 doesn’t pull any punches and offers a truly engaging narrative that features a wealth of powerful and gripping moments.
Taking place shortly after the events of Gears 4, we follow Kait Diaz, Del Walker, and JD Fenix, alongside the original series protagonist, Marcus Fenix, as they look to secure the Hammer of Dawn in an effort to turn the tide of war. With the original HOD satellites being out of commission and lost throughout the years, getting the Hammer of Dawn functional is a large component to the story, weaving in and around the fact that Kait has mysterious connections to the locust, as was hinted at during the last few moments of the previous title. These two stories intersect fairly well with Kait experiencing strong headaches and visions that push her to the point of exhaustion, unable to sleep due to the waking nightmares. Gears 5’s central story is how Kait chooses to deal with the revelations surrounding that very mystery and how it will tie into the future of the series. An interesting note about Kait’s story is that much of it is only told from her perspective, so playing alongside a friend in co-op as another character will lack much of what is going on with Kait for that player.
Gears 5 also took on the criticisms that the series was largely known for being brown and gray, being very drab and drip-fed with color throughout the franchise. While there are a few locations that still honor that look and feel of the series, we do get two massive new locations that are loaded with strong uses of color, especially during act three. In fact, every single location throughout the campaign is bursting with color pretty much everywhere, and usually in bright outdoor locations. That said, there are still dark and moody interiors for you to traverse alongside the light offered by your robotic companion, Jack, but Gears 5 is a very bright and open game like nothing the series has seen before.
The team at The Coalition is to be commended on creating a breathtakingly gorgeous game as Gears 5 is simply stunning in every sense of the word. Running in 4k at 60fps on an Xbox One X, Gears has never looked better. Characters still maintain an overall style as opposed to being photo-realistic, and frankly, this is one of the best looking games I’ve ever seen, not to mention a first-party title that runs in actual 4k, and not checkerboard rendering. The sheer detail to character’s skin is amazing and enemies are packed with equally impressive details as well, especially the Wardens, who are masterfully designed. This is a team that has perfected the Unreal 4 Engine to produce wondrous effects and beautiful lighting that really makes each and every scene pop. Whether it’s making trails in the bright red sand on Vasgar, or the freezing cold vista’s in view as you cruise around on the mobile scif, I was, and still am, impressed by what this team has been able to do on a technical level. Should Gears 5 get a next-gen Xbox patch to update its visuals for the upcoming new console, then we are all in for a very delicious treat next year.
Throughout its entire campaign, Gears 5 kept me on my toes with intense moment after moment. A short few hours into the campaign, there is a scene where JD makes a huge call, one that triggers one of the most engaging cutscenes I’ve seen in the series. It’s powerful, intense, and despite its outcome, wildly satisfying. It stuck with me for some time until another such moment happened, and then another. Gears 5 is about those moments, and while several of them are story-based and fit within the confines of a few cutscenes, there are those that resonate just as profoundly during gameplay as well. When you approach a gathering of Swarm during Act 2, they are patrolling on the surface of a frozen bed of water. Del mentions to Kait that there might be something to this, and yes, there is. You can shoot out the ice below their feet, and while that may seem like it cuts you off from traversing further, it’s not long before the water freezes back up again. From this point forward, I couldn’t help but lure as many enemies as I could onto the ice and during a huge battle later on, I had a hard time completing it due to the fact I kept laughing my ass off as I dunked Swarm after Swarm into the chilling depths below. This then prepped me for a boss encounter later on, repeating the same tactic as we fought for our lives.
During Act 2 and 3, you are gifted a mobile sled called a Scif, which is outfitted with a sail that catches the nearby wind and you’ll use this to traverse large open world locations. Now, before you start thinking that Gears has gone open world, these open environments are just large locations with a few points of interest scattered about but still connect to linear locations on the map. It’s here in these other locations where you’ll track down upgrades for Jack, which I’ll dive into shortly, as well as outfitting yourself with more ammo and weapons. These locations also serve as set pieces to take on the swarm, stealth killing your way through large groups, or using the wealth of new weapons to mow down wave after wave.
Contributing to the game’s many “moments” are through the use of special abilities that are bestowed upon you by Jack. By upgrading him with components, as well as upgrades you’ll discover throughout the story, you can have Jack cloak you with invisibility, grant you an impenetrable shield, pulse nearby enemy locations, and a few other upgrades that really change up how you play. Each upgrade is given to you around the time it becomes relevant to the story, like gaining the ability to cloak when you need to sneak past mounted guns, or the shield when you need to traverse over a patch of fire. What’s interesting as well is that you can respec Jack at any time, allowing you to put points into something fully to try it out and then change your mind and figure out another way to play. One ability that comes later on in the game is one that allows Jack to take control over enemies and have them fight for you. This becomes almost essential when the enemies start to increase in numbers and you need a bit of breathing room. I did find that I forgot about Jack sometimes as previous Gears never had this type of system before, so it’s something to really get used to and convert into muscle memory.
Alongside the new abilities are new weapons that join the ranks of the tried and true Lancer, or the close-range blast of a Gnasher shotgun. Warden’s carry the Breaker Mace which is a devastating melee weapon, one with two attacks that can smash almost anything into gory bits. The Claw, which is a horde created light machine gun, offers up a wild spread in its first few shots before becoming very precise the more you hold down the trigger. The Cryo cannon is a heavy weapon that is the cold-based version of the scorcher, allowing you to freeze enemies solid when given the chance. The Lancer sees another gun join its ranks with the Lancer GL, a grenade launcher version that swaps out the chainsaw with the ability to laser-target an area for explosive mortar results. It only holds 3 explosive shots at a time and ammo is fairly scarce, but it really delivers when you need it to. The Talon Pistol is another new entry that is fairly enjoyable to fire with its fast output and is used to great effect during some very enjoyable scenes. Lastly, is the flash-bang grenades which are pretty self-explanatory and when used against you, can be quite devastating.
Gears of War has always delivered solid multiplayer experiences, and Gears 5 is no exception. I will stress that my experience with Gears online is somewhat minimal as much of my desire for the game is based around its campaign instead. That said, hosting the now standard versus modes and horde, The Coalition has added a new mode called Escape where three players will attempt to escape from a toxic gas while mowing down all the Swarm that is in their way with very limiting ammo given to them. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and go into detail about what is offered here and how it stacks up.
Versus comes offered with both Quickplay and Ranked options with the former featuring Arcade, Classic, and Co-op vs AI. Classic is a collection of returning modes like Arms Race, Dodgeball, and Team Deathmatch whereas Ranked modes include King of the Hill, Guardian, Team Deathmatch, Escalation, and Execution. Through Arcade Quickplay is Arcade mode which allows you to select from characters that come loaded with unique weapon loadouts and special passive and ultimate abilities. This unique trait system works its way into Horde mode as well, giving depth to how you go about using the cast available to you. While it is interesting to have each character come loaded with their own set of weapons and perks, the character’s themselves do get lost behind those differences rather than who they are as characters.
For those that tired of being demolished with quick rolls with the Gnasher in previous online entries, the weapon is restricted only to Marcus in Arcade mode. This is through the ability to buy additional weapons via skulls that are earned in a match by downing and killing enemies, or simply by dieing a lot, allowing those will less skill to feel like they have somewhat of a chance. This upgrade tier grants different weapons to each character, adding further depth to your favorites and those who you choose to battle with. Thankfully, you can swap out to another character during a match if you feel you’re at a disadvantage and want to shake things up.
Horde returns mostly unchanged from its Gears 4 iteration where you’ll rely on the fabricator to place down defenses to aid and assist in keeping your location clear of the Swarm. The fabricator is also used to purchase ammunition and weapons when you have earned enough currency from defeating the enemies contained in each wave. Horde mode still runs the gauntlet of 50 waves to complete, and this can make for some incredibly long sessions that still don’t have the ability to pause or where you can stop for a quick break to hit up the bathroom or grab a quick drink. Regardless, Horde is still wildly fun with friends who communicate and work together to fill certain roles within the group and work as a team. And to compliment that, you can even choose to play as Jack, the robotic companion that comes with various skills and repair systems to assist in a pinch. In my experience with randoms, Horde still works and is enjoyable, but did feel very disconnected and lonely as no one was communicating or looking to work together. The seven available maps make for some interesting choices to defend with several options to funnel in Swarm or take the high ground.
The newest mode to join the stable of Gears online is Escape. Here, you’ll work alongside 2 other players as you push through maze-like environments once you’ve unleashed a gas at the start of the round. This toxic gas will bleed through the location behind you pushing you forward as you attempt to reach the end. You are often without ammo due to how limited it is, and often have to charge and melee your opponents to earn enough ammo to take out the more larger threats. This is especially useful when a Warden, who is pictured below, shows up as they cannot be melee’d at all, and this was an issue when we escaped the blast doors with no ammo and a Warden showed up sneaking through impeding our progress to the point where we had to back out of the match, despite being right there at the end. Regardless, Escape can be fun with friends, as is the case with Horde, but lacks the legs to really stay relevant and fresh.
With characters being a single focus through Horde and Escape, you’ll want to find one that suits you best and stick with them as experience earned is based on that character alone, meaning if you swap from Kait to Del, you’ll be starting from scratch. As you level up and unlock more of that character’s bonuses, you’ll also earn more skill cards to add to buff your hero. These return from Gears 4 and there are tons of cards to attach and add to your loadout. It’s a fun system that allows you to customize them to suit your needs and playstyle.
While I never did experience many of the reported issues regarding its online matches with bouts of lag or experience failing to add up, I did have several issues through the campaign of objectives not loading and forcing me to reboot the game and reconnect. Had these been isolated to just a few times I probably would have glossed over it, but this happened nearly a dozen times and became very frustrating when it would happen and have to replay large chunks of the chapter. While this has seemed to be solved through an update, at least for myself, it really hurt the experience I had with the game and one I had to mention.
Gears 5 is a game that feels largely more polished than ever before despite no big risks being taken here in both its campaign and multiplayer. That said, the campaign is very impressive with some of the strongest storytelling the series has seen so far and multiplayer is still an incredibly fun experience with friends. Gears 5 does a great job at combining characters both old and new, and while the ending may not satisfy those looking for a self-contained story, the whole of the narrative is a gripping emotional ride that nails what it needed to do. Gears 5 is a much needed first-party win for Microsoft and considering it’s available via Gamepass in all its glory, makes it nearly impossible to not experience and enjoy everything it has to offer.
Gears 5 was downloaded via Game Pass by the reviewer and played on an Xbox One X.
All Screenshots were taken on an Xbox One X.