GEARS 5 REVIEW
A new voice amidst time-honoured mechanics.
A combat droid called Jack and some pithy one liners. For all the spectacle, all the bluster, all the carefully orchestrated standoffs with stratospherically proportioned enemies, those are the scant bits of Gears 5 that stick around in the memory when the dust settles. It’s a funny kind of game. It sweeps you up in the moment, but the enjoyment it delivers is always surface level.
Traditionally it’s been a series in which you were never totally sure if you were laughing along with the characters and dialogue, or just plain laughing at them. Marcus Fenix, protagonist in the original trilogy, wore an unironic soul patch and shoulder pads more spacious than most London flats. The man carried a chainsaw bayonet into battle. And yet neither he nor his fellow cast members broke character and acknowledged the essential absurdity of the Gears universe over many hours of hyper-macho world-saving.
There was an embryonic sense of self-awareness in Gears 4, but the tone’s notably different here. Protagonist Kait—although the term’s loose, since you can also choose to play as Del, JD, or Jack in campaign mode—and those around her seem more willing to point out the ridiculous this time.
Don’t get me wrong, this is still very much a game in which people say things like “The truth is, you two are more similar than either of you wants to admit” in cutscenes and “Nice of you to stop by!” when you arrive at an already blazing firefight. It’s broad writing to underpin broad action. But there’s a levity, a cocked eyebrow at the more preposterous elements, which wasn’t there before.
It’s even capable of fleeting moments of sensitivity and political complexity in between tearing into alien flesh from behind waist-high walls. What’s the COG’s purpose at this advanced stage in the Gears timeline? Are they justified in steamrolling smaller societies that grew out of the ruins in the name of keeping humanity safe? And what kind of toll does it take on a soldier, risking one’s life every day for an increasingly murky cause? This isn’t to say Gears has suddenly become a great literary work, but it has made a partially successful effort to strike a more sophisticated tone this time.
None of that would count for much if the fundamentals of its tried-and-tested cover shooting formula weren’t so enjoyable, six games on. Across its generous swathe of Campaign, Versus, Escape and Horde modes, it’s still deeply gratifying to let the aforementioned chainsaw bayonet loose on a gibbering Juvie or outmanoeuvre a throng of Swarm and rip into their turned backs with a car-sized Mulcher. The Metal Slug-style active reload, which gives your weapon a boost when you time your reload perfectly, still excites on a primal level, adding an extra wrinkle and a chance to feel adept where most games are happy to have you sit passively and do the reloading for you. Familiar, yes, but fun.
What stops the fatigue from setting in is, as ever, Gears’ knack for throwing you into Hollywood set-pieces with just the right regularity. It knows when to let you you bask in the perfectly teed-up moment where you only need squeeze the trigger to save the day in a confetti cloud of bombast. And the answer, obviously, is: often.
Within a couple of hours you’re flung like an action movie A-lister from underground missile silo on a tropical island to a ruined hotel displaying some of the old world’s splendour, and most memorably, not to mention fittingly, a theatre stage. All the world’s a stage when you’re playing Gears, after all. Across its four-act structure it throws truly commendable variation at you.
Gears 5 is categorically the most colourful and visually satisfying in the series to date.
Thanks to that constant flitting between locations, tones, and level design approaches, Gears 5 is categorically the most colourful and visually satisfying in the series to date. That first game in 2006 was browner than a copy of Quake dropped onto a waterlogged rugby pitch, but there’s no such punishing palette here. Icy landscapes and atmospherically lit chunks of urban sprawl break up the rubble like never before. The fidelity’s not quite up there with 2019’s most advanced PC games, but it runs smoothly at 60 fps in 4K with a 2080 TI, and can be scaled down and tweaked to an appropriately granular level.
As for what’s changed in that winning mechanical formula, it’s all manifested in Jack. A surprisingly endearing support droid, he’s there to revive downed party members, flashbang enemies, collect ammo from far-off spots, buff your armour and ping enemies. He’s like a flying Crysis nanosuit, acting as everyone’s shared special ability dispenser in campaign co-op.
This being 2019, there are upgrade trees lurking in Gears 5’s menus too. Again these pertain to Jack, offering the chance to increase his effectiveness at any of the above by spending upgrade points dotted through levels. By choosing to invest heavily in just one or two abilities you can tilt the nature of combat in different directions, favouring stealthy flash-and-headshot combat loops for example. Or you can build them all evenly and prove nominative determinism right by making Jack a veritable robot of all trades.
Outside campaign modes there are more upgrade trees, and boost cards, and—oh God—unlockable cosmetic blood sprays to reward longform dedication. Inevitably the wave-based Horde offers the time sink-iest proposition of the suite, its maps mechanically immaculate if not tremendously exciting. Escape takes that dynamic on the road, timing you—goading you—on sci-fi dungeon runs with limited resources. Verus sees a shakeup around weapon acquisition which now guides you along temporary mid-round upgrade paths rather than rushing towards the best weapon on the map, but otherwise offers a familiar hit of cathartic PvP.
While the minutiae of shooting Swarm from behind convenient concrete emplacements isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind after six games, the variety of Gears 5’s environments and set-pieces certainly alleviates overfamiliarity. In the campaign especially, it has a real knack for mixing things up at the right moment. While the first act follows a more traditional level design blueprint featuring winding pathways through large but linear environments, from act two the space opens out and you’re given a little freedom to roam. It’s not an open-world game by any stretch, it’s just that the icy tundras and rolling deserts don’t funnel you into predetermined routes like the shelled out streets do in the opening couple of hours.
The meaning of that extra space and freedom manifests in optional side quests dotted around the map, and although the incentive is always primarily upgrade hunting rather than narrative satisfaction, it’s intrinsically enjoyable enough to take on these (inevitably) combat based extracurriculars for their own terms.
All of which makes for the most sophisticated and involving Gears game yet. And yet it still somehow feels lacking in substance, as though once you put down the controller there’s very little about it that left an imprint. It’s the kind of game that occupies you in the moment, but never pops into your head when people start talking about the best games of the year. Or, indeed, at all after you hit ‘Quit Game’.
That boils down to two distinct facets of Gears 5: one, that the writing might offer more subtlety and humour than before, but still feels cliched next to its contemporaries (Control’s writing and atmosphere feel as though they come from a different decade to this game’s). And two: although there are new elements to the Gears formula, they’re not new to the player. We’ve been scrutinising upgrade trees and firing off specials for aeons now. It’s enough to reinvigorate a long-running series, but not enough to capture the imagination.
Which means Gears 5 is what Gears has always been: deeply capable, eminently enjoyable and occasionally spectacular. The big difference this time around is that you know you’re laughing along with the script, not at it.
A polished and surprisingly varied campaign married to stalwart PvE and PvP modes which gently refine the classic Gears experience.
By Phil Iwaniuk