The Gears of War franchise and I go back a long way. I was there on Emergence Day in 2006 and with the release of the sequel in 2008, I became engrossed in the community resulting in life-long friendships and unforgettable experiences. With Gears of War 4 being the first title from The Coalition after Microsoft’s purchase of the IP, you could tell they played it a little safe. It was an excellent game in its own right, but it certainly didn’t evolve many aspects of the previous titles. With the new found dedication to gaming from Microsoft, the rebranding of Xbox Game Studios, and Gears being one of Xbox’s pillar franchises, there were a lot of eyes on Gears 5. So does it live up to the lofty expectations? The answer is a resounding…yes. And then some.
There’s a lot to cover here given the total package that Gears 5 offers, but let’s begin with the campaign. After the cliffhanger ending of Gears of War 4, Kait takes the lead here and blossoms into a competent and engaging protagonist. For those who had doubts that the next generation of COG could endear themselves to fans the way the originals did, they made tremendous strides in Gears 5. Taking the role of Kait feels perfectly natural and she fills the lead role well, with meaningful dialog and emotion demonstrated through her troubled lineage. Another highlight for me is Del, who takes on a larger role in the story and grows into a character I came to truly appreciate. Of course, the old gang is still present and memorable, with Marcus acting as a father-figure for Kait which is frankly a brilliant way to satiate the fanbase’s love for Marcus while still pushing the narrative forward. The relationships built within this game are tremendous, and will make long-time Gears fans smile, laugh, and even cry which honestly, is a hallmark of the franchise and a torch that Gears 5 faithfully carries forward. And again, the story ends with a scene that makes me seethe with anticipation for Gears 6 already.
Gears 5 also pays homage to the series in ways I truly enjoyed. The Coalition obviously listened to fan feedback as there are many references to the history of the Locust War, more horror-esque moments, and even fan favorite enemies to battle like Sirens and a Berserker. Additionally, many of the collectibles harken back to prior titles or contain easter eggs that will make veterans smile.
What’s most interesting however is how The Coalition expanded the traditional Gears formula in Gears 5. Some semi-open world elements are introduced which serve a few purposes. Not only do they give the player more freedom, and thus access to the world and lore, but they also provide time to develop relationships between the characters; both of which I found to be excellent compliments to the traditional formula. Your new companion Jack has an upgradeable skill tree and becomes a priceless accomplice in combat as well as a fun tag along for the group. These new wrinkles have added variety without detracting from the overall Gears experience. There’s a very fine balance between keeping a game’s core mechanics intact and adding enough change to keep it fresh. And I feel The Coalition walked it near flawlessly.
While the campaign and story are critical, beloved aspects of Gears games, the co-op and competitive multiplayer modes are just as important. When Gears of War 2 introduced Horde in 2008, it re-defined what a co-op shooter could offer and for years to come, titles across the industry began offering co-op survival modes which were affectionately referred to as “their Horde mode”. Of course, Horde returns in Gears 5 and further expands upon the methodology introduced in Gears of War 4. Fans should love what they find here and with the addition of Jack as a playable support character, it’s even more accessible. New to Gears 5 are unique ultimate abilities for each character and each can also upgrade their perks using “power” that is now given to all players regardless of who picks it up. And of course, there are new key enemies including the returning Berserker and the Warden; the frightening new enemy in Gears 5 who is one of my new favorites.
The new game mode addition is Escape which was highlighted extensively throughout E3. Escape is a 3 player co-op mode which forces players to escape a hive as fast as possible while fighting Swarm along the way. It fills a niche between multiplayer and horde as it’s a faster-paced, more aggressive play style than Horde but remains PVE. I enjoy it and what’s particularly exciting is that new hives will be shared by The Coalition on a weekly basis and can even be built by the playerbase using an integrated map builder. Player built hives can then be shared worldwide and played using a lobby browser. This gives the mode substantial replay value while allowing the community to be involved, similar to Forge in Halo (though less fully featured). And like Horde, the options are extensive with several difficulty levels and characters that have unique abilities and customization capabilities.
Onto my personal bread and butter; competitive multiplayer. Gears has always been a very unique competitive title with a long learning curve and high skill gap. This naturally means it’s less popular among the casual crowd but for those that love Gears, nothing can replicate it. Seemingly a common theme across all modes, The Coalition has taken what players love about Gears multiplayer and fine-tuned it to be the most balanced and smoothest experience yet. Gun balance feels solid and gnasher play is as fast and visceral as ever. And yes, the headshot pop is still the most satisfying of any game on the market. New to Gears 5 is an Arcade mode aimed towards new players and the aforementioned casual players. While far removed from classic, single life modes Gears die-hards grew up with, the core gameplay is intact. And with players being able to purchase weapons with their points earned through eliminations (which you earn by simply doing damage to an enemy), it allows players to experiment with Gears’ varied weaponry and thus learn the nuances far faster. It’s definitely an enjoyable mode and great for just having a quick game or two.
Further highlighting all of the co-op and multiplayer modes is shared profile progression across all modes, and the fact that The Coalition will support the game for a very long time to come yet with free content that includes maps, characters, modes, and more. And while you can purchase customization options with real money should you choose, there will be a substantial amount of items you can earn in the game for free. Given what you already receive in the full package at launch, it’s a tremendous value. Personally, I feel the total package proposition is overlooked far too often in game reviews. I believe it’s an important piece of the discussion and in that vein, what Gears 5 offers out of the gate is astonishing.
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the technical achievements of Gears 5. The artistic direction is not only the best we’ve seen in a Gears title, but up there with the best in the industry and is presented through an absolutely staggeringly beautiful game. From the environments, to the landscapes, to the character models and facial animations, they all stand tall with the best we’ve seen to date. Add to that the fact that every mode runs at a dynamic 4K in full 60 frames a second (on the Xbox One X) and Gears 5 is an achievement The Coalition should be applauded for. Too many times to count, I felt as though I was frozen in place while simply staring at the screen in awe.
Gears 5 had a lot to live up to. It was expected to be a traditional Gears game for hardcore fans while simultaneously pushing the series forward. It was expected to be the fall showcase for the Xbox One and representative of the quality we can expect from future big budget, Xbox Game Studios titles. No matter the time or money spent on a game’s development, those are not easy tasks for any studio. And yet, The Coalition managed to pull it off somehow. I’m very grateful they did as Gears is one of my all-time favorite franchises and being selfish, my own expectations for the game were sky high. Not only does Gears 5 meet those expectations, it gibs them into tens of chunky bits. Gears 5 is quite simply, sensational.
Final Verdict: 9
Fun Factor: 9
Technical Prowess: 10
Time Investment: 20 to ~ hours
Stay tuned for our Gears 5 review discussion on Bitcast 73!
While not a core part of my review, it’s worth noting that the game’s official “ultimate edition” launch was marred by technical issues. Campaign progress became a chore as checkpoint data was often lost and collectible/achievement progress is still not resolved as of this publishing. Meanwhile, matchmaking for the co-op and multiplayer modes was often failing or disconnecting even after entering a match. For such an important title, it was very surprising to see these types of issues. To their credit, The Coalition communicated regularly and made updates quickly, but some issues still persist even now (post the standard game’s launch).