Platform: XBOX One
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: XBOX Game Studios
Disclaimer: in this review, I only cover my thoughts on the campaign, so if you’re looking for impressions on the multiplayer, this sadly isn’t the place to be. If not, I hope you enjoy reading!
Gears of War (or Gears, since the marketing team decided that was a more sellable name) has always been a widely beloved franchise, but these past couple entries have not been so kind. The series’s 7th-gen swansong, Gears of War: Judgement, was met with fairly lukewarm reception among fans, criticised for its short length, strange control changes and a general dumbing down what made Gears special as a series. Flash-forward three years and Gears of War 4 marks the debut of the franchise on the XBOX One under the developer’s new name The Coalition. With new central protagonists and a ‘___ years later’ set-up for the story, this fourth edition was designed to be a soft reboot of sorts, acting as a continuation of the story, while also marking an evolution of the Gears formula. The game was met with generally positive reviews among journalists and fans alike, but there was still this overriding sense that the glory days of Gears were long since gone. Gears of War 4 simply felt derivative, taking what people liked from the original trilogy, while doing very little to expand upon those mechanics. This wasn’t helped by a story that, while not necessarily lacking in depth compared to the originals, didn’t connect with gamers in any meaningful way. Nobody really talks about Gears 4 anymore, and there’s a reason for that. It’s just unmemorable. However, that was then and now is now, and now we have a brand new Gears game, simply titled Gears 5, promising the return of beloved characters, new and old. This time, the focus appears to be on Kait, a new character in the series who originally only served to be an AI companion to JD Fenix, the playable character in Gears 4. The Gears franchise has never been one to focus much on the complexities of its story, but with a seemingly new focus on a character separated from Marcus Fenix almost entirely, I was hoping for something exciting and fresh to stem from this. While I could never call Gears 5‘s story or accuse The Coalition of being bad at telling it, that is certainly not where the game’s strengths lie.
The story does take a while to get going though. The first thing you might notice as the campaign begins is the noticeable lack of Kait. She’s there, but has remained a sideline act to the playable protagonist, who is still JD from the previous game. That’s somewhat strange given the massive marketing push, plastering Kait’s big, angry-looking expression all over every box for every copy of the game. Worry not, however, because she does become playable later, and having the player control JD early on is presumably a way of easing fans of the previous games into this change. I say that because this opening, which is about three hours, is all the kind of linear action set-pieces Gears is known for. This seems obvious, but if you haven’t played the game and plan to, it’s worth knowing that, once you take control of Kait later on, Gears 5 becomes quite a different game. It turns into a semi-open world adventure game. If you’re wondering what that means and you’ve played games like Metro Exodus or the most recent God of War, it’s essentially that. Missions, connected not by one event leading to the next like in the previous Gears games, but rather across a vast open area, allowing the player to experience the story at their own pace. You have the choice to play every main missions one after another without stopping if you wish, and the game doesn’t hinder you for doing that. However, if you wish, you can explore a bit and perform some of the side missions on offer, which normally grants rewards in the form of upgrade materials or just more ammo or different guns to try out at your leisure.
One thing I actually really appreciate is how the game doesn’t simply tell you where everything is. You have a marker directing you to the main mission, but if you wanna go searching for some side content between these big story moments, you can do so if you’re willing to put the effort into finding them. It’s a much more engaging experience than a Ubisoft game, for example, where everything is marked on the map and there’s never the feeling of discovering anything on your own, which is the one thing open world games uniquely benefit from, in my opinion. Breath of the Wild wouldn’t have been the critical darling that it was if you were told where to go. That’s a game all about being on an adventure and discovering weird and wonderful things, and that wouldn’t be as effective if everything was on the map. Speaking of maps, Gears 5 has one, and it’s pretty good. It’s incredibly bare-bones, simply showing the terrain, but it does this clever thing of casting the areas you haven’t been to yet in shadow, which makes backtracking in the search for optional areas much easier. It’s a very simple addition, but one that’s appreciated. The side missions themselves aren’t massively exciting, unfortunately. None of them ever change up the gameplay outside of simple shooting galleries with varying enemy types, but when the shooting is this fun, you can’t really complain.
However, I do wish Gears 5 had innovated on this gameplay style, rather than just doing what’s worked in other popular games. One thing the side ops could have benefitted from is more of a focus on little side stories to expand on the universe a bit more. The world of Gears is a genuinely interesting one, but it can often be restricted to just the main characters and how important they are. You must save the world, but is this a world even worth saving. Gears 5 does occasionally motion in the right direction in this case. In one instance, you’re following the trail of a group of people who left a nearby village. As you gather different diary entires from them, it seems they’re being slowly picked off one by one by the Swarm, the game’s main antagonists. I won’t spoil how that particular story ends because the way it develops is genuinely emotionally affecting. I will say that it does a great job recontextualising the Swarm in a way that made playing the rest of the game a slightly different experience, all with very few words. It’s this quiet little moment among many loud ones that makes the world feel more alive, and it’s given an added kick when you realise that, had you not actively sought it out yourself, you never would have learned about it. I just wish there was more moments like this to discover. There’s plenty of great visual storytelling in the main missions, such as the soldiers frozen in time in Act II or the remains of a doomed rebellion in Act III, and that’s all completely worth commending, but none of those moments hit as hard as the one you uncover on your own. Metro Exodus is a game that does this very well, and future Gears 6 could benefit from developing on this aspect of its storytelling further.
Since we’re on the topic of story, let’s return to the introductory period and how almost unbearable it often was. That reaction might come as a shock since I’ve been very nice to Gears 5 so far, but it’s the truth. The opening to this game is absolutely infected with sarcasm and it’s pretty tough to sit through. Every single tiny event in the game is always accompanied by a painfully unfunny quip, since apparently we’re living in a nightmare realm where taking anything remotely seriously isn’t what the cool kids who play this game like. This is especially jarring in a series like Gears of War, which was formerly all about the tragic sacrifices often accompanying conflict. I mean, you can call that unnecessarily self-serious, but the whole ‘war is hell’ angle is usually made more bearable with the levity that comes from the absurdly entertaining blood and gore. People make fun of the OG trilogy, but Gears 5 takes too many steps in the other direction early on, while still maintaining that war is a terrible atrocity of man, and the whole thing becomes a tonal catastrophe. But hey, we wouldn’t want to bore The Youth™️ with all that pesky moral ambiguity.
However, the game gets a lot better at managing its tone as it goes on. I do think the open areas add to this, as the stretches between missions allow the player to sit back and quietly contemplate what’s happened. The quips are dialed right back, only appearing at appropriate times. The jokes occasionally miss the mark, but it comes off less like the game desperately wants you to like it and more so an endearing aspect of the character. Overall, the writing is pretty good from Act II onwards. There was a moment near the end of Act III where one character, who was previously annoying and unlikeable, was put in a perilous situation, and I found myself genuinely worried that they’d die. As the game progressed and these people were put through many dangerous situations, I found myslef becoming more and more invested in keeping them safe. This all culminates in one scene which, without spoilers, genuinely kind of hurt in a way I wasn’t expecting from Gears 5, of all games. There’s gotta be something there, right?
Unfortunately though, I cannot share the same praises to the story encompassing all of this. It’s okay. It’s a perfectly fine tale, but I can’t help but feel it’s tragically undercooked. Gears 5 has the tough job of being the middle segment. It can’t really have a beginning or an end in the traditional sense, since its job is to tie those two things together, but it still has to be compelling enough to justify its own existence. Sadly, I can’t say it ever truly does. The game introduces some cool ideas, like Kait’s connection to the Swarm or JD’s [spoiler redacted] in the first act, but it never really builds on them in any particularly meaningful way. Plot threads often end before they’ve ever really begun to take form, and some potentially cool moments are lost to the wind. It all feels rushed and underdeveloped, leaving me not massively excited for the finale to this new trilogy. The game also fails to captivate on a thematic level, which might sound like me searching for things to criticise, but The Coalition come so close to truly saying something that it hurts. The plot thread running through the entire game is that the COG, this military organisation the characters work for, is hiding something terrible and can’t be trusted. This is a potentially interesting idea. In war, what should take precedence: loyalty or honesty? Should you serve someone if they’re motives are corrupted? The subject of how far loyalty should go is pretty well-worn territory in science fiction, but it’s still interesting and Gears 5 could have reaped some cool character moments out of it.
One instance which was quite compelling was the aforementioned conflict between the COG and the rebels in Act III. In some areas, you can pick up collectibles which sometimes contain a little extra information to expand on the lore of the world. In this case, you can learn about two different sides to the conflict. One side, the rebels, fight, and inevitably die, in the name of honour and justice, while the COG soldiers die under the impression that they’re fighting for peace. Ultimately, both sides suffer huge casualities, seemingly for nothing. Loyalty is noble and all, but where did it leave these guys? Blindly following orders seemed to only lead them to early graves. Hundreds of soldiers, lost to the sands of time. It’s a sobering moment, but it never really relates to the arcs of the characters because all the good guys are suspicious of COG from the start. The game literally opens with the main cast undergoing a secret mission against the wishes of COG. Nobody in the game really undergoes any massive changes or learns any valuable life lessons because they were right all along. Nobody is challenged, and that makes for a more forgettable story. It sucks because had the game simply started the characters off at a different point in their relationship with COG, this could have all been made much more interesting. It’s doubly unfortunate because due to the good character writing, there’s definitely enought talent to make it happen.
I suppose that’s my one major issue with Gears 5: it adamantly refuses to try anything new. I understand that it’s one of XBOX’s big popular franchises (and considering this, it’s a lot better than it had to be) but it didn’t have to stick with tried-and-true formulas quite so rigidly. That being said, it’s still a joy to play. The gunplay is as good as its ever been, emphasising movement and quick thinking in a way that’s a huge amount of fun to blast through. The sound design and visuals, especially the lighting, are absolutely top-notch, and the game paces itself beautifully both in its individual levels and as a whole, to make for an experience that never once becomes boring. The Coalition seem to be incredible at spectacle and while the final boss was a little disappointing, it was still a lot of fun on the way there. I’d seriously recommend giving this a go just to experience how it feels to play because it is a dream. There’s an attention to detail here that cannot be credited enough… I just wish that care had been put into the story a little bit more.