Published on October 12th, 2019 | by Jamie Davies0
They may have dropped the “Of War,” but Microsoft’s Gears 5 is still a mostly worthy addition to the series. We take a close look.
Firstly, I’d like to offer Gears 5 my sincerest condolences for the loss of its “GOW” acronym. There’s no “Of War” in the franchise’s title anymore, having been claimed by a certain Greek rage machine after his outstanding Nordic reboot last year. Still, Microsoft’s flagship game franchise is taking the loss honourably in what could be the finest entry in the series’ (mostly) prestigious history.
It’s always bugged me that the men in Gears Of War seem to have been cross-bred with wrecking balls, at least judging by their almost freakishly bulky physiques. Surely there comes a point when gaining that amount of muscle hinders combat more than it helps; that’s why it’s a relief to finally play as Kait, a woman who doesn’t seem cursed with the inflatable muscle syndrome that the franchise’s men are all burdened with. The story here revolves around Kait as she deals with her worryingly close ties to the enemy “Swarm”. Our protagonist’s quest takes her and a handful of buddies around the globe to assemble a superweapon amidst an escalating, interspecies conflict that could wipe out the newly established and still fragile civilisation that most of humanity now calls home. Sadly, the story itself is loose; the bulk of the plot feels like it could take place in a single act and feels oddly removed from the larger conflict. Rather than the central plot, you’ll have to rely on the characters and their interactions to keep you invested. Thankfully, Gears 5 finds more success on this front with its main cast and their surprisingly endearing personalities. Not too much personality mind you, but enough to keep you paying attention to the dialogue. Who knew there’d be room for likeability with those monstrous muscles getting in the way?
Many series veterans and fan favourites return: Baird, Cole, Carmine and of course, Marcus. This time round however, it’s hard to ignore how sad the sight of these ageing men continuing to face combat is. They need a break, but as long as there’s something to fight, they’ll be there to fight it. This impression sets up the game’s noticeably cynical outlook on war and the organisations that fund it. This game’s conflict is between the enemy Swarm and your side: the COG, but neither of them are the “good guys” per se. Good guys are found as individuals operating within the larger organisations, but it won’t take long to discover that those organisations themselves are all too capable of unforgivably inhumane actions, there’ll be more than enough proof everywhere you go. In Gears Of War, you aren’t fighting for your government and they sure as hell aren’t fighting for you. You’re fighting for your brothers and sisters on the front lines and at home.
If Gears takes place in a world with almost endless conflict, it at least shows the decency to make that conflict an absolute joy to experience… at least for the player. Most combat encounters are punctuated with quippy shows of exasperation on the part of our leads; years of warfare must have dulled their tired adrenal glands like the blood-stained blades on the end of a Lancer, but for those of us wielding controllers instead of assault rifles, the combat never grows old. Running at a smooth 30/60fps (depending on your flavour of Xbox), the Gears combat has never felt so satisfying and smooth. It feels redundant to go into any great depth when describing the cover shooting mechanics that Gears popularised, there are no great shake-ups here, only refinements, but oh boy is it refined. One of my gripes with the earlier games concerned the slightly excessive amount of fire the regular enemy grunts could take before going down. This has been tweaked for the better, not only seeing the grunts die quicker, but also exploding in an updated shower of 4K gore that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the horsepower of the Xbox One X is being put to excellent use.
All this talk of retreading familiar ground may give you the wrong impression, there are in fact new things to see this time round. Most notably the implementation of some open environments with a handful of optional side missions to play through. This feature has been widely criticised for its shallowness, and rightly so; there’s really not a lot to do in the environments, but there are benefits to it that haven’t seen much acknowledgment. The open worlds aren’t big at all, you’ll be looking at maybe a couple of minutes in between mission locations. These minutes allow for downtime in which dialogue and character moments can take place that once would’ve been relegated to irritating “walk down a corridor holding your earpiece” segments. In that way, breaking up the missions with little road trip interludes helps the pacing; unlike earlier titles in the series, it never feels like you’re being held back like a leashed dog to finish a conversation, there’s now an organic place for dialogue moments within the rhythm of the game.
As mentioned earlier, the core gameplay of Gears, IS Gears. Whichever direction the series takes, it will always be a third-person cover shooter with a distinctively “chunky” movement style. That’s not to say that introducing new gameplay layers would be unwelcome, in fact it only becomes more necessary as the series goes on. For example: In addition to the open world vehicle sections of Gears 5, combat itself is given a bit of spice with the upgradeable combat abilities of robot companion Jack. Shock traps, flash attacks and mind control doodads which you’ll unleash add some appreciated variety to the sometimes formulaic shootouts you’ll be stomping into, and the temporary player buffs make the frantic moments a touch more forgiving for less adept players (like myself).
Gears 5 looks sharp, feels sharper and cobbles together just enough charm to leave you smiling most of the way through. It’s the perfect example of a franchise that would quickly sour the bulk of its audience as an annual release, but given 2-3 years, we’re left eager to jump back into the well-worn boots of a COG soldier. Whether you’re a Gears fanatic with an elaborate shrine to Delta Squad at the end of your bed, or a complete novice who might like to check out that “new thing on game pass”, Gears 5 will be glad to show you a curb stompin’, head shootin’, fist pumpin’ good time.