Gears 5 takes steps forward for the franchise, providing the bombastic, bloody violence of the series with both a greater scope and intimate story.
Gears of War was the perfect example of Xbox’s dominance of the previous console generation. Big, gruesome and brutal, the original trilogy was a landmark for the Xbox 360 through its exciting shooter mechanics and grim setting. Although Gears of War 4 provided a solid continuation of the franchise in the new world, Gears 5 looks to take the series forward.
The most obvious change in Gears 5 is that there is a shift in perspective. Rather than the Fenix family that has dominated the games thus far, barring side games like Gears of War: Judgment, Kait now takes over as the primary focus. Her own lineage is in question, as she embarks on a journey to find out her past - and discover some other secret truths along the way.
Given how entrenched the Fenix name is in Gears of War - both in terms of its playable characters and the lore of the series overall - it’s an interesting move to depart from the ever-gruff family. This change of protagonist isn’t just for show, though, as The Coalition has taken Gear 5 into new territory alongside this new pair of playable hands.
In many ways, Gears 5 feels like The Coalition honing in on what drives the series from a thematic perspective. Gears of War has always been a surprisingly personal, character-driven story filled with family drama, which could come as a surprise given that a lot of its gameplay revolves around muscular man-tanks taking chainsaws to horrible monsters. Nonetheless, there’s an intimacy to its drama.
Gears 5 explores this idea further, by not only having its plot center on personal history and struggle but also by taking a greater aim at the individual through its gameplay. Although there are moments of cluttered, large-scale warfare, there’s also sparse landscapes to explore within the campaign as Kait goes off to find much-needed answers about her own past that could have huge implications for the wider story.
This is a pretty bold move, particularly given how memorable the more rigid formula of Gears of War is as a whole, but it works incredibly well in Gears 5. The personal story can be given the outright focus that it deserves, rather than being a side-plot to the more pressing immediate matters of being eaten by (and subsequently cutting a pathway out of) giant worms.
This means that Gears 5 has more flexibility, and in turn becomes undoubtedly the most expansive game that Gears of War has seen so far. This is also seen in terms of gameplay, with the introduction of wide, expansive areas to explore in open world sections. This might be concerning for those who prefer the pure corridor-to-arena setup that typifies the series, but rather than dropping this altogether this traditional combat is still there, but with the variety that comes with being able to have a bit more space.
It’s most similar in structure to 2018’s God of War, in terms of allowing the player the chance to have a bit more ownership over their actions and decisions of where to go and what to do. It doesn’t work quite as well as that incredible PS4 exclusive, in part due to the fact that the character interactions are less compelling than those between Kratos and Atreus, yet it does a lot to help with the world-building and general atmosphere, and its environments are often gorgeous and varied.
Another example of change is the introduction of an RPG-lite upgrade system for robot buddy Jack, improving the droid’s abilities to act as a support throughout the game. Jack is integral in places in the campaign, but offers plenty of extras by way of stunning enemies, grabbing supplies, and providing armor buffs and temporary stealth support. Playable in both co-op and in Horde, Jack’s a clever extra piece of the wider Gears 5 puzzle to make it into something more substantial than the last game.
More than just new bells and whistles, Gears 5 also pulls from aspects that have been forgotten from previous games. The Gears series has long promised to return to those overtones of horror that appeared in the first game, but this potential has never truly been reached. In Gears 5, though, it truly shines, with tension to be found in exploring decrepit corridors, following the claustrophobic hallways of long-forgotten secret facilities with enemies ready to pounce. It’s still not entirely scary – it’s hard to introduce real scares when your character is a hulking killing machine with a penchant for sassy comebacks – but nonetheless the overall tone is great in these sections, helped by some grotesque enemies.
That’s not to say that Gears 5 ignores the gameplay that made the franchise so successful. Within its core combat, Gears 5 is still a joy, with that glorious mixture of excessive violence and the tactical element of knowing where to move to capitalise on enemy locations. The game’s shootouts are still a thrill, full of blood, fire and vicious melee attacks.
The best way to describe the combat of Gears 5 is with its physicality. Gears 5 feels heavy and real in combat, as the player dives into firefights, thumps into walls, and goes hand-to-claw with a variety of beasties. Whereas some games provide players with the form and skill of an ice skater, skittering around the battlefield with grace, Gears 5 leaves a larger indent and is all the better for it.
The game’s enemies can be fierce combatants, too. Gears 5 isn’t a cakewalk at times, even if it’s not the most taxing game players will still need to keep on their toes. As such, it’s important to use additional aides - like the benefit of the helpful Jack - to get the upper hand, while environmental hazards can make for great fun.
This is exemplified by Gears 5’s bosses and sub-bosses. Gears 5 has some interesting boss battles, although there’s still the ever-so-helpful glowing body parts to fire at to do the most damage. Nonetheless, the occasional one-hit KO at the expense of the player will stop them from becoming too complacent in a world wracked by war.
That said, Gears 5 isn’t perfect, and the game is yet to fully address those few bugbears that have plagued the series for some time. The biggest example of this is just how restrictive movement in Gears feels when at speed, making tactical retreats annoying to pull off. Overall, though, it’s still extremely satisfying combat.
What makes this all the more engaging is that Gears 5 delivers when it comes to its plot. Story-wise Gears 5 re-treads old ground occasionally, with the odd classic location and grizzled characters returning. The game is far from a rehash or a cash-in, however, due to the way in which it portrays these nostalgic elements. There’s a decay to Gears 5, a corruption and insecurity that shines well as it explores the role of the COG as a powerful (and dangerous) entity in comparison to the freedom of those who live outside of the system.
It’s in these moments that Gears 5 shines, as it uses its character relationships to ask questions about the price of COG’s power. It’s nothing truly spectacular - and there’s again an over-reliance on the coincidence of how important people of a particular lineage happen to be - but it’s mighty compelling while it lasts.
As the dust settles and the gibs fly, Gears 5 leaves an imposing impression. This is a hugely successful game, helping to move Gears of War forward with some strong and sensible additions to the relatively conservative Gears of War 4. It’s not a complete overhaul of the series, but it’s a refreshing take on the Gears formula and one that fans of the series will truly enjoy.
Gears 5 releases September 10 for PC and Xbox One, and September 6 for Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers. Screen Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purposes of this review.