When the credits rolled on Gears of War 4, one thing was clear: The Coalition hadn’t done enough to shake up a formula that had remained largely the same since its inception in 2006. Despite the introduction of stellar new characters and a tantalising narrative, it remained firmly rooted in the past – so much so that it became a detriment. Its linear focus hurt its world, which was clearly trying to grow beyond its own constraints.
It was a perfectly solid third-person shooter, but not the one Microsoft needed to bring this franchise into the next generation. I’m delighted to say that, after years of waiting, Gears 5 is that game. It’s an experience that evolves the series in some colossal ways, warping its world and mechanics so much that it can never look back. Taking obvious cues from the likes of Uncharted and God of War, this is arguably the series’ best outing to date.
It’s a marvellous swansong for Xbox One, delivering a great exclusive in a year completely bereft of them. An emotional campaign and creative multiplayer come together to form a mature expansion of a series once drenched in hyper-masculine conventions. Now, it’s something more.
Related: Best Xbox One games
The relationship between Kait and Del in Gears 5 is a narrative highpoint, and it’s clear they’ve been through a lot together
Gears 5 begins directly after the events of its predecessor. After discovering the fate of her mother, Kait is desperate to uncover the truth behind her family, and how exactly it might connect to The Swarm threat encroaching upon humanity’s safety. However, you don’t step into her shoes just yet. The first act belongs to JD Fenix – the young, overly confident son of a military hero.
Throughout these opening stages, it’s Gears-by-the-numbers with a sense of clear deliberacy. Levels are relatively tight, awash with chest-high walls ideal for taking cover behind, while locusts swarm toward you in scarily co-ordinated hordes. This is the shooter we’ve known for decades, and it’s still incredibly fun both alone and with a friend. But, it isn’t what Gears 5 is all about.
The opening act concludes with some major plot revelations that I won’t spoil here, but result in the role of protagonist switching to Kait as we embark on a globe-trotting journey to unearth her heritage. When the hero switches over, so does the ambition at the core of Gears 5. As the second chapter begins, you’re given a vehicle, an objective and there’s a sprawling open-world before you to explore.
It’s both liberating and intimidating, a genuine fish-out-of-water moment that feels alien to this franchise. Where is the cover? Why aren’t I shooting at anything? Why are characters taking the time to converse and divulge in micro-stories that I legitimately care about? These are all polarising questions that came to rest when I took my first steps into this new vision for Gears of War. One that I desperately hope the series continues to hone with future entries.
Related: Upcoming Xbox One games
Having caused devastation in past entries, the Hammer of Dawn makes an explosive return in Gears 5
The Skiff, your trusty mode of transportation, can be used to soar across massive landscapes filled with hidden collectibles and optional side missions. You’ll see two locales throughout Gears 5: an ice-covered lake amidst towering mountains and a blood-red dessert awash with black shards that react to lightning, forming grimly beautiful sculptures in the earth. The latter was once an ocean, but environmental decay alongside decades of war have twisted it into something far more sinister.
Optional quests throughout these areas are pedestrian in design, but wonderfully novel in the context of Gears 5. They take you away from firefights to pick apart nuggets of lore and obtain vital new upgrades for Jack – a robotic companion who is yet another transformative element for the franchise. Previously nothing more than a fancy lock-picker, he’s now a vital component of Kait’s growing arsenal. He’s also unusually adorable, with the gang often poking fun at his high-pitched bleeps and bloops.
Jack is a force to be reckoned with, passively zapping baddies as you dish out a selection of distinct skills and abilities. My personal favourites include a possession ability that allows Kait to turn foes against one another, cracking a bad egg in-between a horde of evil drones. It’s super-satisfying, a feeling that’s matched by much of Jack’s repertoire. They’re all upgradable with components, one of main collectible trinkets found throughout Gears 5.
Outside of Jack and the open-world implementation, gunplay in Gears 5 remains largely unchanged. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; The Coalition’s mechanical capabilities help this remain one of the most satisfying third-person shooters out there. Each weapon feels amazing, and most players will quickly gravitate towards a few favourites they’re constantly swapping through in their inventory.
Related: Monster Hunter – Iceborne
Open-world segments are legitimately breathtaking, filled with quests and collectibles to find
The open-world sections of Gears 5 are riveting in their unexpected presence, yet ultimately fall short when compared to the juggernauts that inspired them. It doesn’t have the witty charm of Uncharted or the emotional poignance of Kratos and his son in God of War. It’s far from a lazy imitator, but very clear this is The Coalition’s first rodeo. All that being said, I still adored them; they proved a welcome break from the linear acts surrounding them.
Hours spent roaming deserts and arctic wastelands provide characters with much-needed room to grow, reflecting on personal issues and the consequences of actions they’ve yet to perform. The Hammer of Dawn, an iconic weapon in the series’ lore, sits at the centre of many arguments. They need it to defeat The Swarm, but a tiny mistake could wipe entire cities off the map. Ethical quandaries such as this are often brought up, but sadly aren’t capitalised upon in the campaign’s final act.
The stage is set for an epic conclusion in Gears 6, with major decisions made by the player altering battlegrounds in ways I genuinely wasn’t expecting, both in terms of narrative and gameplay. The Coalition wants you to be part of this story, lost in its world and invested in its characters. It does a stellar job of it, even if some of the scriptwriting leaves something to be desired. When all is said and done, this is a definite high-point for the trilogy thus far.
Putting the solo campaign aside, Gears 5 is packed with multiplayer offerings, featuring a bunch of returning favourites and a new mode in the form of Escape. It features you and a group of other players fighting your way out of a sprawling facility packed with randomly generated enemies. Ammo is limited, foes are plentiful, and a poisonous gas is slowly taking over the entire area. So, you must work quickly to reach decontamination rooms spread evenly across the map. Eventually, you’ll hit an extraction point.
Related: Everything we know about PS5
Horde is back and better than ever thanks to Gears 5’s focus on class-esque skills and abilities
This mode is solid, and the focus seems to be on reaching the objective in the shortest time possible. Given its procedural nature and the addition of more maps to come, I can see it being a series mainstay going forward. You’ve also got Horde, which is bigger and better than ever thanks to a newfound focus on skills and abilities that provide each player with a distinct role throughout endless waves of locust, robots and other horrendous nasties. I managed to reach Wave 41 during the review period, and will be diving back in to best that upon release.
Other multiplayer modes are expectedly vanilla, but provide a robust path of progression that will undoubtedly keep players invested for months to come. There’s weapon skins, custom banners and daily rewards to keep you coming back for more, too. Micro-transactions are present, and it’s unclear how they’ll be used. Here’s hoping they place a distinct focus on cosmetics instead of having major gameplay altering effects. Oh, and I have to give special praise to the obscene number of Pride flags available in multiplayer. Marcus Fenix is all about trans rights.
Gears 5 is the series’ most ambitious entry to date, bringing with it an endless wave of revolutionary ideas that the franchise has been in desperate need of for years. The Coalition’s mark has finally been made, and it’s one that focuses on narrative importance alongside bright, energetic mechanics that show Gears of War can happily stand alongside this generation’s other blockbusters without fear.
While some sections still feel overly linear and the set-pieces prove underwhelming, Kait Diaz’s journey is one I’m well and truly invested in and can’t wait to see continue.
Read more: trustedreviews.com