Gears 5 is here and it shows a big step forward for Xbox Game Studios. The last few years of Xbox exclusives have been hit and miss, culminating in the forgettable Crackdown 3. With Gears 5 showing us what can be achieved by Xbox, we’re hopeful that more titles will follow its footsteps. The focus on pleasing the existing fanbase whilst expanding what Gears can offer has provided a nice balance to the fifth entry. However, Gears 5 shows why the franchise and indeed Xbox Game Studios are still a step behind critical acclaim.
Whilst average review scores don’t tell the full story, they give us a good idea of overall critical reception. No Xbox exclusive this generation has consistently hit 90+ scores aside from the Forza games. This is a testament to how good Forza is, but also to how the rest of the portfolio stacks up. Gears 5 is a good game, a great game, but it has one or two flaws that I believe are holding it back.
After playing through the campaign this week, I can safely say that complacency is not the reason. Where Gears of War 4 felt safe and honestly, a little stale, Gears 5 makes some big changes. Open world segments, real character development and light RPG mechanics let Gears 5 breathe. The series has always been known for big bombastic action but without the story to back it up, the last entry fell flat. Thankfully Gears 5 steers the ship back on course. The characters may not have reached the heights of the old Delta Squad, but the journey they go on comes really close. There’s a lovely mix of story, action and traversal which is only matched by Gears 2’s brilliant single player campaign.
Having said that, here’s where we run into some issues. At times, Gears 5’s campaign lacked a little polish. Aside from the checkpoint bug which is a known server issue, I ran into a few other niggly problems. At times, computer controlled A.I would get stuck on objects or simply not react in combat encounters. At other times, I’d see a teammate was way behind before prompting a door press, only to see him magically appear next to me to help out. These aren’t game-breaking issues but they do affect your immersion into the world of Gears 5. For a game to hit critical acclaim it needs to have that extra layer of polish to the point where everything feels thought out. These issues alongside a lack of things to do in the open segments make Gears 5’s campaign fall a little short next to its contemporary rivals.
There’s a wealth of other options at your disposal, though. Versus has had a pretty big shakeup with the introduction of Arcade mode. This part of multiplayer forgoes the shotgun-meta of Gears gone by for a more ability-driven approach. Escape mode flips horde on its head whilst taking cues from Valve’s Left 4 Dead. There’s also a robust map builder for this mode which will eventually expand to Horde and Versus too. Gears 5 isn’t light on options and the sheer amount of content on offer is staggering. This is a Gears for all tastes and the options outside of Campaign will give the game real legs.
However, we’re starting to see some major community issues with multiplayer progression. Gears of War 4’s loot box mechanics were controversial and have been removed for 5, replaced with the common battle pass system. Alongside this, direct purchases are available so the randomized mechanics have been eliminated. The problem is that the battle pass progression contains a severe lack of desirable rewards. Also, it takes too long to earn things at the current rate. The whole system is dubbed the “Tour of Duty” and alongside these issues, it’s quite confusing to navigate. There isn’t anything pay-to-win here, but the entire progression system feels like it needs more work.
So, that’s the theme here. Gears 5 is a brilliant game and a testament to what Xbox Game Studios can create. The Xbox One platform would have definitely benefited from something like it earlier. Perhaps the call to play it safe with the fourth entry was the wrong one? Who knows. However, it feels like the game could have done with a little longer in the oven to make it a true masterpiece. An early September launch will be good for player numbers, but The Coalition has had a huge amount of work to do in a little over 2.5 years and in some areas, it shows. Xbox should take all the time needed to create fully polished, big-budget games in future.
Perhaps this is a good sign for Halo: Infinite? That game will have had roughly five years of development time since Halo 5. This is a significant amount, and with the right direction could be a real launch point for next-gen on Xbox. Will it be enough to gain critical acclaim? Only time will tell, but for now Gears 5 will tie us over well until late 2020.