Though it’s only been three years, it feels like a lifetime since we last explored with JD, Marcus, Kait and Del. Gears of War 4 had a lot on its shoulders: it had to simultaneously maintain the Gears lineage, whilst setting up for a whole new generation of stars at its centre. In the years since, there’s been a bit of a lineup change: JD Fenix now finds himself in a supporting role behind our leading lady, Kait, and her exciting extended family. More fundamentally however, the release landscape has changed. In 2016, Gears of War 4 went straight to the store shelves, whilst Gears 5 is launching simultaneously into Xbox Game Pass. The bargaining question has changed; no longer is it “is this game worth my $80?”, instead it has become “Is this game worth $8?”
(Yes, it is).
The Gears 5 campaign represents perhaps the biggest fundamental change. Co-op campaign returns, but it has been fleshed out to allow for three characters this time: the two leads, and Jack, your friendly helpful invisible Deus Ex Machina the Gears series has always had tucked up their sleeves. In Co-op, Jack is a fully autonomous character, zapping enemies and helping the COG’s. In single player, he acts as a sort of magic companion, packed with special powers and a mighty wallop. As you progress through the campaign, you unlock new abilities to use with Jack that cover a wide gamut. Electric traps, healing shields and invisibility are early unlocks that will get a lot of use over the campaign, and can be improved on the fly. In addition to all the hidden COG gears and collectibles strewn throughout the varied environs are upgrade chips, used to power up Jack beyond his base.
Tying a gameplay relevant mechanic to exploration is doubly useful. In addition to upgrading your personal killer robot, it allows you to take in the staggering level of beauty in the giant environments you find yourself in. At two key moments in the story, Kait and Del are set upon a straight up Ocarina of Time style open world: a veritable Hyrule field of sand and sleet. For a series that practically invented the modern corridor shooter, the freedom is astounding. Exploring the nooks and crannies of the world unveils powerful upgrade abilities, cool custom fight scenarios and optional boss fights. You take on side quests in a Gears game! That will take some time to get used to.
You’ll have plenty of time to deal with it as well, as the Gears 5 is not a short experience. Clocking in at around 20hrs, the story of Kait and her relationship with the Swarm is tantalizingly teased out and wonderfully emotionally balanced. Following a failed mission to assist a group of outsiders, Kait is given an unwelcome new power, as her family lineage is laid bare. Kait and Del take off to the frozen north of the planet Sera to learn the truth of her origins, and the origins of the Locust themselves. The ultimate revelations aren’t exactly surprising or particularly exciting, and the ending feels similar to that of Gears of War 4: The final act revelations are what you are interested in seeing more about, moreso than the 15-ish hours leading up to it. It’s still a Gears game, so expect losses and sacrifice, but the new cast and retro-fitted COGs of old are well worthy of attention.
Gears 5 is more a game of the little moments, the smaller conversations between squaddies. They feel more fleshed out and humanistic than they have in prior titles. Following a series of character revelations about a third of the way through, the tenor of the conversations between Del and Kait alter. There’s inquisitiveness, remorse, anger. It feels cogent and emotional at the same time, like a character searching for meaning in seeming betrayal. There’s more than a little of The Last of Us here.
Weirdly enough though, the tonal change that stuck out to me most is how funny the game is. Your gang of soldiers are constantly cracking jokes, telling stories, teasing one another. They feel familial and warm and goofy as a whole in a way most games don’t touch. This is offset by the outright horror you face constantly and the humorous tone considerably dies off by the home stretch, but it’s still laudable. The new characters work well, and Scientist Baird is still an extremely funny visual.
Gameplay-wise, it’s still Gears. This is a game of refinements over wholesale changes. There are two, maybe three new guns, and Jack brings a welcome variety to the combat. This helps offset the significant dearth of ammunition: Developer Sledgehammer Games clearly want you to be changing your weaponry on the fly a lot more than I was used to. One of the more interesting alterations is to the Active Reload system, present since the very first title. In previous titles, pressing the reload button would move a marker across a line. Pressing the reload button again at the indicated point on the line would give you a faster reload, and a more powerful shot. This remains in Gears 5, but now it operates on a cooldown. In a change from previous titles, this can now be performed on a full magazine as well, rather than forcing you to shoot off a couple rounds before you did it like in the older titles.
Gears 5 still plays like a Gears game, and how that sounds to you depends entirely on your own personal tastes. Enemies still soak a lot of bullets before going down, and to my hands there were only four or five guns I truly liked using. Prepare to run and gun, and to use your chainsaw far less than you’d like. There’s also some weird stealth sequences that seem to pay an homage to Gears of War 2 DLC that are uniformly pretty rubbish, and devolve into big shoot-outs before long. After the third or fourth one, I took to just shooting the enemies and starting the firefights early.
Horde Mode has had a pretty decent shake-up since Gears 4. The card system is (thankfully) almost entirely removed, and at the very least is entirely avoidable. Characters in Horde now have an Overwatch-style ultimate that charges as you play and adds an extra tool to your arsenal. For instance, JD has a pretty formidable artillery strike that can take out the teeming swarm with ease. New structures, called Taps, activate as you play. Maintaining control of these gives you additional buffs, like extra damage, and help to fight back against the steadily-improving waves of combatants. The changes are all positive, and the maps seem pretty decent, though admittedly I’m still just hungering for the maps from Gears of War 3 to make their return. The cast and crew for Horde is insane, by the way. Can’t wait to fight alongside two HALO guys, Linda-goddamn-Hamilton and Dave Bautista in my next match.
An entirely new mode added in Gears 5 is Escape, a three-player co-op experience that pits players against community and developer-created kill-floors as they compete for score supremacy. The lead maps cycle in and out, week by week, and there’s community integration so popular designs will float up and be playable. The maps so far haven’t been ideal. You enter a swarm hive, slowly filling with deadly venom and have to make your way out. It’s fine. There’s none of the spectacularity of the campaign, nor the wild spontenaiety of Horde mode. Instead, there’s just a totally fine, totally forgettable run through a standard Gears level. With any hope, and a bit of time, some more unique setpieces will make their way into Escape. As it stands now, however, it’s completely forgettable.
The multiplayer suite remains as impressive as ever, and the new weapons introduced in the campaign feel instantly at home. It’s still Gears multiplayer, so expect to die from one-shot shotguns more often than you can count, but the impressive amounts of customization leads to some zany fun. I’ve never taken the multiplayer too seriously in a Gears title as I’m simply not good enough, but the guns hit so viscerally hard and the kills are so ludicrously violent that it’s hard not to laugh your way through the fun. It’s not going to win anyone over who is averse to prior Gears titles, but if you haven’t played online before, you’d be best to check it out.
If Gears of War 4 was a generational shift, Gears 5 is more of a tune-up. Rather than re-inventing the fight, it makes smart adaptations to make for a more exciting, faster paced experience with a surprising level of heart. The mechanical additions of Jack and the changes to Horde mode are welcome, and the new Escape mode looks like it could be a ton of fun with strong community maps. Most important of all, however, Gears 5 launches on Game Pass the day of worldwide release, so ultimately there’s really no investment needed to play what is a pretty great campaign, and dink around with your friends in some multiplayer for a while. As a standalone game, Gears 5 is well worth the price of admission, but as an addition to the Game Pass line-up, you’d be a fool not to play it.