Gears 5 Review: Testosterone Not Included
When I, and probably everyone else, think of Gears of War, the first thing that comes to mind is just how badass Marcus Fenix is. The dude was a wrecking ball throughout the original trilogy. Even though another man bearing the Fenix name is the main protagonist in Gears of War 4, Marcus still finds a way to steal the show. Now, with Gears 4 under their belt, developer The Coalition was ready to mix things up a bit with Gears 5.
The shortened name is just the beginning of the change. We start out playing as JD Fenix but not long after the start of the game the lead role moves over to Kait Diaz. Her unique lineage comes with a lot of questions, and for the first time we find out that it doesn't take 20 inch biceps and a testosterone fueled rage to get the answers we need to save humanity from the Swarm. What else has changed, and what's stayed the same? You're about to find out in our review of Gears 5.
I have a confession to make. I suck at the cover combat in the Gears of War franchise. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy leaping from one piece of cover to another and the option to blindly spray a clip of bullets at your enemies without ever poking your head up is a nice touch. And who doesn't get a rush from grabbing an enemy that wanders too close and pulling them over the top of whatever you are crouched behind so you can use a chainsaw to allow their insides to meet the outside world? I just don’t do it well. I am always finding myself sliding up to the wrong wall or jumping out of cover when I am trying to dive from one vantage point to another.
For anyone who has played a Gears of War game, there isn’t a whole lot about combat that is new from a mechanics standpoint. You are still a lumbering slab of muscle and armor running from wall to wall, occasionally popping up to spray some hot lead into the face of your enemy. You anxiously wait to hear that satisfying pop as you get the kill shot before dropping back down to reload. I often find myself scanning the battlefield for any downed foes waiting to be revived so I can recklessly run to them and get the execution with a chainsaw to their midsection.
That is pretty much how combat goes throughout both the campaign and multiplayer portions of Gears 5. It has worked well for the third person cover shooter for well over a decade now, and it seems that The Coalition is willing to stick with the tried and true when it comes to the core gameplay. There are a few tweaks here and there (we'll get to those a little bit later) but, for now, let's focus on where the biggest changes lie in Gears 5.
In previous Gears of War games, the campaign always felt like an afterthought, almost as if it only existed so the single-player checkbox could be marked off on the back of the box. As I was playing through Act 1, I had that same feeling again. I don’t like to include spoilers when discussing a game’s story, but I have to say this one thing: If I ever play another game where a transport helicopter is shot down and you must fight your way through wave after wave of bad guys to make it out alive, I may have to give up on the whole shooter genre once and for all. Gears 5 doesn’t use this trope just once either. While playing as JD in Act 1 you will have to endure this multiple times.
Fortunately, once you hit Act 2, you leave behind the tried and true story of the Gears franchise and take control of Kait Diaz as she works to uncover the link between the Locust and her family. I can’t say the story is unpredictable, but there is enough going on to keep you interested enough to see it to the end. In Act 2, it’s just you as Kait, Del, and Jack (your little robot friend) as you set out to find a secret base in the hopes of finding a few answers. With your loyalty in question there are a few moments where things get a little heated outside of combat.
Along with the budding story, Act 2 also introduces a more open world map to explore. While a nice addition to the usual linear environments we are accustomed to, there still isn’t much to the snowy world you find yourself in. There are a few side missions along with a couple of other hidden secrets, but most of the open space is just a place to cruise around on a wind powered dog sled. You come out the other side of Act 2 with almost as many questions as you do answers. The group is back together in Act 3 and the open world is there again, this time a Mars-like desert wasteland. This map has a couple of plot driven elements, but again is mostly just an open area with pockets containing side quests and combat.
Gears 5 gameplay and the lack of character progression just don’t lend themselves to exploration, which is all the open maps have to offer. They could have been used to allow you to take over as one of the other characters in your group as they fulfill some personal mission or agenda, but that didn’t happen. The open world maps don’t hurt the game, but they could have added more than they did. As it stands, they could have been replaced with a top down map and, unfortunately, a helicopter transport cutscene.
Act 4, the final act, gets us back to the Gears of War recipe of linear maps and lots of baddies to shoot and chainsaw in two. You do have a choice to make (it was an easy one for me) that leads to multiple endings, extending the campaign mode well beyond the time spent in prior games. This was, for me, a more compelling story than we’ve had in the past. As Kait’s struggle with her heritage and the strain it puts on her relationship with the rest of the crew takes her to a dark place, you become invested in getting her out the other side unscathed. The emotional journey you experience goes far beyond anything the standard ‘COG is bad, don’t give in to the COG’ story has ever offered. And let’s not forget the split ending will allow The Coalition to take the series in a number of directions in future games. I just hope they build upon what they have started here instead of taking a step back towards the franchise’s roots.
As I hinted at before, many people couldn’t care less about the campaign mode and will dive right into the multiplayer magic that the Gears of War franchise is renowned for. Gears 5 gives the Player vs. player (PVP) fanatic everything they liked about previous iterations and this time around even throws in a few more things for those of us who like to take things a little more casual. When it comes to Versus Mode, you can once again choose between Ranked or Quickplay. Quickplay serves as a training ground to learn the maps and try out different weapons. When you feel you're ready to be judged, you can move into Ranked where the badass show off their stuff. Take the time to earn your stripes in quickplay before heading into Ranked mode where others have already hit level 100+. All of your favorite map types are there whether you keep the training wheels on in quickmode or put on your big boy pants in ranked: deathmatch, king of the hill, dodgeball and others will cycle through as you go from match to match.
If you are looking to give a helping hand to your fellow humans and aren’t ready to stop when the campaign ends then co-op mode is the place for you. This time around you have the familiar horde mode as well as a new option, Escape. Even if you don’t particularly like co-op and you have a couple of hours to kill (literally), then make sure to give Horde mode a go. It’s 50 rounds of five player action against an ever growing enemy force. The first few waves may be simple, but about half way through you’ll be wondering why you subjected yourself to the torturous grind. There are just thirty seconds between waves, and you have to use that time to scrounge up ammo and build up fortifications. If the first time through doesn’t seem hard enough, be sure to add in up to seven modifiers to make the task even harder.
After running through all the familiar modes, I finally gave the three player Escape mode a try. As the name suggests, you are dropped into a Swarm hive and have to escape the area. Did I mention that you planted a toxic bomb and have to navigate the hive, engaging or evading foes as you struggle to stay ahead of the expanding death cloud? I have to admit that when I first saw the footage of Escape all the way back at E3 I wasn’t impressed. It seemed as though all they did was take a typical mission and put it into hurry up mode, and I wasn’t far off on my assessment. Each player is given a special ability to aid their escape and there are safe rooms where players can regroup and gather supplies before heading back out, but Escape is ultimately just a race through a maze. After playing through a few runs I still don’t think it’s the strongest option available but it is a decent time as long as everyone involved has the same fight versus flight instincts. In the overall scheme of multiplayer modes, it fills that gap between the rapid fire rounds of Versus and the time consuming long haul of Horde mode.
You don’t know Jack
When it comes to combat in Gears 5 I need all the help I can get and Jack, my friendly flying robot sidekick, is always there to lend a hand. Although it isn't much, his skill tree is the only progression element Gears 5 has to offer. All of Jack's skills have upgrades that require the collecting of components as you navigate through the maps. These are mostly laying around in side rooms, but there are a few side quests in acts 2 and 3 that must be completed to fully upgrade a couple of his abilities. Although I often forget that Jack is there when the fighting gets intense, he is really pretty useful. I am always running low on ammo and using Jack to fetch a new gun or extra rounds is a big help in getting me back into the action.
Jack also makes an appearance in Horde mode. Along with using his shock ability you are able to heal allies and repair structures. As long as he isn’t attacking, Jack is cloaked, giving you plenty of freedom to scoot around the area. This is a great way to get to those hard to reach snipers or gather up unused weapons to deconstruct for more power. These are all a good use of your time when playing as Jack, but the most fun is when you possess an enemy and go on a rampage without fear of death.
On the tech side of things, Gears 5 is a wonder to behold. The franchise has always done a good job of holding its own in the graphics and audio department, but this time around it’s even better. Visually speaking, Gears 5 is amazing. The character models are better than ever and the environments you are running through are jam packed with detail. Although almost every locale has been ravaged by war, each area comes with a unique personality, regardless of whether you are going building to building in a large city or rescuing an engineer in an abandoned pumping station. Even more impressive is its ability to render all this goodness at a decent frame rate. I was able to maintain 60+ frames per second with all the settings on ultra, quite the feat for an older video card (AMD Vega 64) set at 3440x1440. To achieve that frame rate in most newer titles I have to drop the quality down a notch or two, especially with as much going on as there is in a Gears firefight.
Another big bonus was the cross-save and cross-play features. Although I played primarily on PC, I did crank up my Xbox One, begrudgingly grab a controller, and see just how Gears 5 played on console.Being able to swap between the two platforms and pick up right where I left off was nice, but having the same gaming experience across multiple devices is key to making cross-save a useful tool. Besides my inability to effectively use a controller to hit the broad side of a barn, my time on the Xbox One was similar to my PC experience. My poor little Xbox One (non-X version) can’t keep up with the load times or frame rates of my gaming PC, but the combat was still smooth and void of stuttering. I have never been as sensitive to the reduced frame rates as some people and, as a casual PVP player, the larger screen and comfort of lounging on my couch more than compensate for any benefit the extra horsepower my PC would provide.
Wrapping It Up
Frankly, Gears of War 4 was underwhelming. After taking over the reigns from the original trilogy's creator, Epic Games, The Coalition did little to advance the series with their first try. With Gears 5, they have started to hit their stride. The open world maps, even though they aren’t groundbreaking, show us they are willing to change up the recipe. The improved story is definitely another step in the right direction and the restraint they've shown by not messing with the combat means they know to leave what works alone. Gears 5 is even able to make a casual cupcake like myself enjoy multiplayer PVP. The Coalition has recaptured my attention. Now they need to blow my mind with Gears 6.
- Improved story makes Campaign mode worth playing
- Kait Diaz takes over as the series new badass
- Environments are visually stunning
- Excellent cover based combat
- Multiplayer suited for both casual and hardcore players
- Lackluster open world maps
- No character progression
- Too many helicopter crashes