Gears of War first hit the scene 13 years ago on the Xbox 360, where it introduced some of the most exciting third-person shooter gameplay the console had seen, and where it remains one of the most exemplary titles of the genre, even now. We’ve seen three additional core sequels since (including a side story in the form of 2013’s Gears of War: Judgment), and while it’s been over a decade since we first met Delta Squad and the colorful personalities they associated with, the titles have only aged like fine wine.
After several games’ worth of thrilling shootouts, explosive reveals and heartbreak, nixing the “of War” from the title for Gears 5 seemed to herald a change in direction for a series that didn’t rightly need it. Pleasingly, save for a few tweaks here and there, that’s far from the case.
Developer The Coalition has assembled a “greatest hits” of Gears mechanics that sync up rather harmoniously together, save for a few sour notes along here and there. In many cases, this is the best Gears has ever looked or felt, and it spells out a fantastic future for the series.
For those who completed Gears of War 4, Gears 5 is a continuation of the story established in that chapter. A newly comprised Delta Squad consisting of JD Fenix (original protagonist Marcus Fenix’s son), Del Walker and Kait Diaz is still working to stave off the Swarm, the original Locust Horde’s successor and the evolution of the Locust themselves. As expected, the war isn’t going very well.
As the conflict rages on, Kait Diaz still finds herself shackled to the mysteries of her past, finding it difficult to come to terms with the surprise reveal of her heritage (not to spoil anything, but she’s a lot closer to the enemy than you may have guessed). In a bid to inch closer to the truth about her family ties, she and parts of Delta Squad splinter off in search for the answers she’s seeking, as well as a way to potentially thwart the Swarm threat.
For veteran Gears fans, there are plenty of throwbacks and reveals that those who have paid attention to the lore will appreciate. For others, it may feel less like a self-contained serial than a continuation with missing pieces, so for that reason it’s recommended that you play through the other games before hitting this one up to get the full effect, lest you jump in and feel totally lost on who Marcus Fenix is or who the Locust are in the first place, since the game only gives you a cursory overview of the “story so far.”
Once you’re beyond the first few expository scenes, you’ll find that the game is the Gears you know and love. You move forward a bit, you stop to completely annihilate some of the Swarm, such as the gross-looking Juvies and the imposing Wardens. At your disposal are a wide variety of weapons capable of making satisfying blood splatters all over the grubs’ hideouts, from classics like the Dropshot to the new Lancer GL Assault Rifle, which forgoes a chainsaw bayonet for a mortar that can fire laser-guided micro-grenades that rain down on your enemies like hot, screaming fire.
This time around, everything feels tighter, mechanically. The Roadie Run is still a thing, oddly, and switching weapons can be fiddly as ever, but it’s quintessentially Gears in all the important ways. It’s comforting to know that things still feel so familiar (even better, now) after all these years.
But there are some changes to take note of, too. Four games into the Gears series doesn’t seem like the best time to introduce an open world-like hub area, but that’s what The Coalition has done. Gears of War’s charm could always be found nestled within its unwillingness to stray from its stop-and-pop shooter pedigree, serving massive explosions and spectacle as you move from point A to point B along a predetermined path. It’s interesting that the game opens things up a bit, but Gears 5 is at its best when it’s steeped in series tradition. Blowing through each thrilling gunfight is what makes it such an exciting experience, and much of that is lost when wandering through a frozen landscape completing side quests (a first for the series).
In lieu of navigating a series of linear missions designed to funnel you from one area to the next, you’re given a paraglider-like “skiff,” essentially a snowmobile with a sail. You can set off to explore large expanses of gorgeous, yet mostly empty, expanses of snow-covered terrain or you can simply head to your next mission. These areas only serve to drive home the fact that Gears 5 is at its best when it doesn’t stray from the savory mechanics that made it such a delight to play in the first place. They’re built well enough and are aesthetically pleasing, but they just aren’t as exciting as when the story continues to roll along on its own.
You’ll be navigating this open world as Kait Diaz, unfortunately one of the least interesting characters out of the entire group despite her face being front and center on the game’s marketing. From first being introduced in Gears 4 as the stereotypical gritty female soldier with a chip on her shoulder who doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone to emerging as the “chosen one” with secrets, Kait’s somehow gotten even more obnoxious.
Understandably, Kait isn’t pleased with the Coalition of Ordered Governments or her place in the world, but her constant sardonic quips do grate on the nerves, as does her usual insistence that the obviously problematic headaches she keeps having are “no big deal” when they clearly are. So many issues could potentially have been mitigated if she had just spoken up and told her friends that yes, she was struggling. Gears’ Anya Stroud would have made a much more intriguing frontwoman, but it unfortunately wasn’t to be.
Multiplayer is something of a familiar affair when it comes to Arcade, Horde and Versus modes, all par for the course. Horde has been beefed up considerably from its appearance in Gears 4, which sought to introduce an intriguing progression system that had been curiously absent from the games in the past. You’re encouraged to choose your favorite character (with their own unique ability and all) and grow with them over time, much like you would with your main in Overwatch or another similar hero shooter. Versus is still a raucous 5v5 competitive mode with plenty of different modes to tackle, ensuring you and the squad have plenty to do long after you’ve tackled the campaign.
What’s really interesting is the new time-attack PvE mode Escape. It borrows some elements from Horde mode, though instead of staving off progressively more powerful enemies, you’re tasked with helping your squad of three bust out of an enemy stronghold. On your tail is the Venom, a creeping poison that’ll kill you if you’re exposed to it long enough.
In this, Escape borrows aspects of battle royale greats, like the storm of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. What could have been one of the weakest points of multiplayer turns out to be one of the game’s most exciting, especially given the shorter, volatile nature of each match. It’s a pleasant addition to an already-excellent campaign that you’ll no doubt return to time and time again with your own squad.
Gears 5 is an interesting amalgam of forward-thinking ideas that don’t always work out, comfortable convention and some truly tasty shootouts. It’s rife with some of the most exciting gunplay the series has seen thus far and despite opting to spotlight a hero who isn’t all that interesting or personable, it manages to come out as a markedly improved, polished take on the classic Gears formula. If there’s a Gears 6 on the way (and it certainly seems as though one is in the oven), we should be looking forward to an iteration even closer to perfection by then, provided we get more time to spend with the characters that made the series great in the first place.