I’ve been invested with the Gears franchise for a good long time now, buying the books, the graphic novels, and even the keyrings. I’ve finished all the games in the series multiple times, spent more time than I care to think about in the Horde mode, and generally loved every minute. Now The Coalition have launched the latest in the series with Gears 5 picking up from where Gears of War 4 left off and running with the narrative ball. Have they made a decent fist of it this time, or fumbled it? I picked up my Lancer and set off to find out.
Now, a lot of the narrative will come as a major shock to anyone who hasn’t played, so I’ll do my best to make this a spoiler free review.
The story opens hot on the heels of that of Gears 4, with Kait, J.D. et al burying Kait’s mother and flying back to New Ephyra in order to report to Jinn, the first minister. Kait, Marcus, Del and J.D. have all been enlisted as Gears, and in a nice nod to the past, they are referred to as Delta Squad. Their first mission is sent from Baird, where they have to try and find an old Hammer of Dawn satellite and get it into orbit, in order to bring the Hammer back online. The Hammer is made operational, but the first time it is fired, it is at a terrible cost. I can’t say any more, but this fractures Delta, and the rest of the game is spent trying to pick the pieces up, discovering bits about Kait’s past in the process. She is troubled by nightmares about the Swarm, and she seems to have a connection to them. Could her grandmother’s medallion, an old Locust symbol, be a clue to where she came from?
Without going into detail, I have to say that the story here is absolutely superb, well written, thoughtfully produced and amazingly well acted. There are parts that are a throwback to earlier games – like a visit to New Hope from the first game – and not since Dom shot his wife in Gears of War 2, and died in the third, have I been so emotionally invested in a Gears story. With a cast of returning characters, like Cole and Clayton Carmine, alongside new people such as Carmine’s niece Lizzie, the story rattles along at a fantastic pace, never seeming to draw breath. This is despite the fact that for the first time, there is an open world element to Gears, as in the second and third acts you are given really quite large expanses to explore on the new mode of transportation – a sail driven skiff.
Looking around, finding likely looking places (marked by large yellow flags just in case you miss them) and exploring these areas give you upgrades for Jack, the returning robot from earlier in the series. In fact, all Gears 5 needed was Marcus to say “Jack, rip that door” to make my trip down memory lane complete, but he listens to Kait and Del instead and comes in very handy, especially when it comes to unlocking doors. Of course, he needs to be protected while he does this, leading to some stunning set pieces as you hold off the Swarm long enough to achieve your goal.
As I’m sure everyone is aware, the story mode is only one side of the Gears coin, with the flipside being that of a variety of multiplayer modes, be it PvP or PvE. These modes are all present and correct, and the best news is that there is a new option – Escape. This is a three player PvE activity, and starts with the characters being deliberately captured by a Snatcher, taken to the Hive and podded up. Once here, they have to break out, set a Venom bomb, and then fight their way out. Sounds easy, right? Well, the kicker is that each character can only bring a side arm with them, and if they want better weapons, they either have to find them in supply caches or peel them from the Swarm’s cold, dead hands. The same goes for ammo; it’s not unusual to have three weapons, but only two bullets, and this ensures that your best friend is a clean pair of heels and the new melee mechanic, where everyone has a knife. Taking on a Warden with a knife is a bit exciting.
Luckily, everyone has a new super ability, either in Escape mode or Horde, which after a bit of time charging up can easily turn the tide in your favour. The three new Hivebusters, as Scorpio squad are known, are Keegan, whose ability allows hims and any allies to generate ammo, Mac, who comes with a shield that can deflect incoming bullets, and Lahni with the special ability being that of an electric knife which is capable of devastating piles of enemies.
Escape is – quite frankly – a brilliant addition to Gears 5, with the maps being real mazes that need to be learned inside out in order for you to stand a chance. With the threat of the Venom toxin always nipping at your heels, sitting still and fighting is not an option, but one super cool feature of Escape is the ability to design your own maps, publishing them and challenging the rest of the world to take on your creation. There’s no greater feeling than seeing your friends fail to beat your challenge!
Horde mode returns again, with a fist full of new maps and characters, including Fahz, a thoroughly unpleasant chap who has a striking British accent! This is explained as him being from Vasgar, but it’s a proper cockney accent all the way through, and the smell of jellied eels comes through strong and clear. Horde is as good as it ever was, and remains my personal favourite PvE mode – 5 players, 50 waves: it’s a big ask. Luckily as people drop out, they are replaced by AI bots that do a reasonable job of being good squad members. Unfortunately they aren’t the sharpest tools in the box, often getting themselves downed in a mad rush to pick someone up, and it’s then that a calamitous domino effect can occur, leading to a restart of a level, or if you choose higher difficulties, a restart of the whole run.
The PvP modes are back though, this time across both Ranked and Arcade flavours. Arcade features a co-op mode, versus AI bots, and is a great place to get used to the way the multiplayer runs. With advanced or higher AI, it’s honestly tricky to tell the difference between them and human players; getting your ass handed to you by a team of bots is always embarrassing. The way the bots play now, the little jinks the AI put in to throw your aim off, they all point to a real shake up of the way things play, and they shouldn’t ever be thought of as cannon fodder any more. The higher levels of Horde, after level 40, really require you play as a team, with the enemy having their accuracy, health, and damage dealt increased by 250%; they can really ruin your entire day if you aren’t careful.
PvP modes are the usual mixture of Warzone, Team Deathmatch, Guardian and King of the Hill, with Dodgeball and Annex thrown into the mix. There is also an Arms Race mode, where you have to earn kills with specific weapons to get the next, ending with everyone running around with Breaker Maces, trying to get the last few kills. This mode is also a lot of fun, and forces you out of your comfort zone to use weapons you may not rate, like the new Talon auto pistol. I hate this gun with a passion as the recoil is so extreme that the only way to get a kill is to aim at an enemies feet and keep your fingers crossed! Still, the new Lancer GL, with built-in grenade launcher, makes up for it, but this leads to the one problem that I have with Gears 5.
The Coalition, in their infinite wisdom, have moved the chainsaw button from B, where it has been since the original Gears of War, to the same button as the active reload, RB. So, half the time when I’ve wanted to chainsaw someone, my character would start to reload, an action that can’t be cancelled, or wanting to reload from half a magazine, will see a grenade being shot at nothing. As with anything in life, you learn to adjust, but I still find it annoying. I’m also not a fan of the active reload cooldown period that has been brought in but those two oddities really are pretty much the sum of any complaints about Gears 5. The rest of it is flawless.
Graphically things are utterly beautiful, with snowy mountains giving way to burning deserts in the campaign, and the enemies coming across as being a well designed bunch. The returning Sires are still dreadful to behold, while the new Cryo Cannons wielded by Scions are a pain to combat – but great fun when you get your hands on one. The audio and music are both just as good as the visuals with voice acting that is right up there with the very best you are ever likely to hear; Marcus’s trademark growl, and the exuberance of the Cole Train are music to my ears. The controls are crisp and precise (except the reload issue), and once past the early access period the servers have worked brilliantly.
I have no hesitation in naming Gears 5 on Xbox One as a triumph. The story is amazing, the multiplayer works perfectly, and Horde and Escape are the cherries on the cake. If I was being picky, the story ends a bit too abruptly, but the setup for Gears 6 (or hopefully some story content down the line) is perfect. Apart from minor control issues, Gears 5 does everything right, and I have no hesitation in recommending that you go out and get it.