NOTE: This is our complete review of Gears 5. It collates our thoughts on both the campaign and multiplayer sides of the game. If you want to read our in-depth review of the campaign, you can check it out here. If you want to read our in-depth review of the multiplayer suite for the game, you can check it out here.
There’s no denying that Xbox needs a win right now. In terms of exclusives, things have not really gone that well this generation. I would go as far as stating that the only truly great AAA exclusives this generation have been in the Forza franchise. Gears of War 4 was good, but it was not great. My issue with that entry was that it didn’t really do anything to push the franchise along. Yes, it gave us new characters mixed in with older ones. Unfortunately, though, it just felt like an old game with a new coat of paint. So, how does Gears 5 stack up?
Well, I have to say that Gears 5 is an absolute triumph. Let’s start with the game’s campaign. The narrative focus has shifted from JD to Kait. This not only allows for a deep dive into her heritage and history, but it also gives us a far more interesting protagonist. JD Fenix was a likeable enough character. However, Kait is more of a tortured soul. She is committed to the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) but also understands and is sympathetic to the Outsiders. Her father was a high-ranking Gear while her grandmother was Queen of the Locust Horde. This duality provides her with a depth that JD never had. It also gives us some history for her to discover and a good excuse for a cracking yarn.
Story and gameplay
And what a yarn it is. There are moments of grief. We experience moments of tension, relief, and even a few rare occurrences of joy. I don’t want to go into too many details as I don’t want to colour it for anyone else. What I would say is there were a couple of moments that really shook me but for different reasons. One of these occurs in the last Act and left me genuinely gob-smacked and shocked for some time after it happened. The other happens early on in Act II and just handles a character poorly. It doesn’t really respect the fans’ love for this character and felt glossed over when it probably should have been given a little more time. I soon forgot about this moment, though, and the rest of the story is handled with real aplomb.
My biggest complaint of Gears of War 4 was the way that it was just so constrictive in its locations. It was one shooter corridor, followed by a small arena, and then back to more corridors. Gears 5 changes things up by offering something of an open-world during Acts II and III. These areas also offer up some optional side-missions. The way that the developers have added these elements while keeping them quintessentially Gears is a testament to their skill and knowledge of the franchise. It is during these sections that you use the skiff, and it is an absolute joy to use. It’s incredibly simple to control but gives you a sense of freedom you’ll never have encountered in the Gears universe before.
It’s better to play together
Gears 5 multiplayer is a substantial enough package that it could have been sold as its own game. There is enough content here to keep you entertained for months and even years to come. Alongside the regular Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Guardian, and the other usual modes, Horde is back, and we have a new experience called Escape. There really is more content on offer here than some titles that are fully-fledged multiplayer-only games.
Let’s take a look at Escape mode first. This is a 3-player, co-operative mode. After choosing one of the three Hivebuster characters (or one of the bonus characters), you’ll watch them be swallowed by a Snatcher. Then, once the game has loaded, you’ll burst your way out of the sack you’ve been dumped in. You find yourself in a hive. This basically looks like any sort of industrial underground complex. Your character plants a venom bomb, and off you go. The bomb you have planted goes off after a matter of seconds, and you need to stay ahead of the poison. This forces you to keep pushing forward with barely a chance to catch your breath.
Here comes the Horde
Horde mode is back and better than ever. The first thing you will notice is that if you are unable to get a full team of 5 players, AI bots will fill the free spaces. These AI characters are not a patch on real players, but they do give you much more of a chance if you can’t find a full team, or if players leave midway through a match. You will also notice that character classes are back and more important than ever. It might be great being an engineer who can build fortifications. However, if your entire team are engineers, you’ll be missing out on the firepower that you will need to get to the higher levels. Alternatively, if everyone is an offensive player or tank, you won’t have access to the fortifications you will need.
One interesting thing across both Escape and Horde mode is the way that you can improve your characters. As you keep using a character, they will level up. This allows you to equip perks for that character. These can be things like more health, the ability to carry more ammo, a higher team score, and many others. All of this progress is limited to each specific character. This does allow you to specialise your performance, but it can be a little sad when you don’t get to be your preferred character. You do get a chance in the lobby of each match to switch characters. However, if two players both choose the same character, one player will be automatically switched once the match actually starts.
Things get competitive
Of course, there is also a wealth of content available in the Versus multiplayer mode. Arcade mode makes a welcome return and is a great dropping-in point for all gamers. Whether you are a grizzled Gears veteran or a newbie to the franchise, there’s something for you here. Where you keep respawning (and near your team, so no spawn camping here), new players will find a place to be able to improve. More skilled players will enjoy the ability to rack up lots of kills in a shorter period. Another option for new players, or people fancying something a little more laid back, is the co-op vs. AI mode. This does what it says on the tin. It can be incredibly easy on ‘Beginner’ difficulty but ramps up quickly if you choose harder difficulties.
If you’re a more competitive player, then there’s still lots for you here. Ranked versus will provide you with the challenge you desire. While it will take a week or two to get everyone to the level they deserve, there is still a decent balance right now. There’s also the usual array of different game types for you to play. You can play, Arcade deathmatch, Arms race, Dodgeball, Escalation, Execution, Guardian, King of the Hill, Team deathmatch, or Warzone. These all play just as you would expect and offer enough variation to the carnage to keep players engaged.
The sights and sounds of Sera
The team at The Coalition haven’t just done a great job with the story. Not only is this the best-looking game in the Gears franchise. I would argue that it’s the best-looking Xbox One exclusive. The developers may have had one eye on Xbox One X when they were making Gears of War 4. For Gears 5, though, it has always been in their mind, and it shows. For the first time, we get a campaign displayed in 4K at 60 frames per second. It is a sight to behold. And they have not compromised other on-screen effects to be able to hit this target. There are still plenty of lighting and particle effects happening. We also get numerous enemies appearing together and still the frame-rate is rock solid.
Special mention also has to be given to the sound in this game. The Gears franchise has always had great sound effects with great sound for both gunshots and bullet hits. Gears 5 continues with this by maintaining the classic sounds but never making them feel old. The surround mix is superb with such brilliant placement allowing players to know where they’re being shot from or where enemies are. The music is also a cut above the standard blockbuster fare. Game of Thrones, Iron Man, and Pacific Rim composer Ramin Djawadi does a superb job of translating emotions into music. His themes add tension, horror, and pathos in a way that should not be underestimated.
If Gears of War 4 were a Star Wars movie, it would be The Force Awakens. It took a well-loved franchise and just redid some of its greatest hits with some new characters thrown into the mix. If Gears 5 were a Star Wars movie, I would argue that it is The Empire Strikes Back. It respects what has gone on before and expands upon it. It deepens the lore of the franchise. There are moments of joy and of despair. The story doesn’t wrap up neatly and leaves some enticing strands to be resolved by later entries in the franchise. I also believe it to be the best Gears of War game, ever.
What The Coalition has done is shake things up just enough without changing the whole recipe. This is clearly still a Gears of War game but does enough to push the franchise forward. The open-world areas fit in brilliantly. JACK (your floating droid) is utilised as a much more essential element of your squad. The way you can upgrade him may hint towards RPG elements but, again, it fits in the world perfectly. The new multiplayer additions fit in really well and Escape mode is an absolute delight. It may not change things as much as Horde mode did when it was released, but it adds a new, fun way to experience Gears. My only gripe would be that the multiplayer loading times can be really substantial. Best of all, though, the shooting, story, sound, and visuals have all received improvements that make them leaders in their class. These changes and improvements have given the franchise the shot in the arm it needed to keep it an essential part of the Xbox brand. I can’t wait to see where they take it next.