Review – Gears 5
I love when a new Gears of War comes around as the lead up to each release always brings me back to a time when co-op games were more important. Gears of War has always been the game that has brought me, my brother, and even my cousin (who barely plays games) together. Between playing the campaign co-op and teaming up together to dominate the multiplayer, as well as equally complaining about who was host, Gears always brought us together. As an adult and as the series has grown, I’m so happy to say that the same feeling comes back with every new release. Now my wife and I prepare for new Gears releases and we schedule gaming nights with my brother and friends for Horde and multiplayer. So to sum it up, I’m a huge fan of Gears of War, and Gears 5 still delivers what I love from the series and reaches some new heights, but also stumbles in a couple of areas.
Gears 5 continues pretty much right after the ending of Gears of War 4. At the end of Gears of war 4 we find out that Kait’s grandmother was the Locust Queen from Epic Games Gears of War 1-3. This was a huge cliffhanger that helps set up the intriguing narrative point that fuels most of Gears 5. We now take control of Kait as we explore Sera looking for the answers to her heritage and why she has been getting visions seemingly linked to the Locust. Her journey takes us to new areas and some familiar ones, but everything feels much more fleshed out here. Unlike Gears of War 4 where the character progression and enemies were shrouded in mystery. We finally get some more in depth character progression and additional details on the Locust origins from the New Hope Facility. What really happened with Queen Myrrah and why was a human a leader of the Locust?
The story hits on a lot of interesting things that were only ever really inferred. Gears of War 4 touched on it as well, but Gears 5 gives us much more of a look into how fascist the COG is. This story point is tied closely with more of the character building we get with JD and the new character Fahz. It also goes into the world building as we explore more of the outsider camps. The offer of the COG’s protection from the swarm comes with a price. This leads to being called a fascist pig a few times and even one rude child playing a mean joke. He’s lucky we aren’t playing as Marcus.
Remaining spoiler free, I did enjoy the campaign and Kait’s journey. It offered quite a bit of fun and plenty of character building that we never got in Gears of War 4. There are a few big and memorable moments and set pieces, but not all of them landed all that well. A particular boss fight towards the end of Act 3 should have been intense, but it felt a bit too safe and repetitive.
Another bit of a let down was that Del, whom is your partner through almost the entire game, still doesn’t get the character progression he deserves. Even after Gears of War 4 and 5, I still don’t know anything about this character other than he was with JD and Kait. Marcus of course remains a highlight with his old man wisdom and his “don’t f$%k with me” attitude that we all know and love. We also get some more story on what happened with Anya, which is much appreciated.
All and all, the story in Gears 5 is leaps and bounds over 4 (which admittedly wasn’t a big bar), even if it doesn’t fully nail everything its going for. Some things do fall a bit flat, but overall it’s one of the better directed and told Gears story. Although, not much can match up to Dom and his wife. Another addition that helps flesh out Sera and allows for some character development is the driveable skiff and the wide linear level design. This is quite a change to the always linear ways of past Gears and I think it benefited from it. Only two of the Acts are like this so if you’re worried there is no traditional Gears here, don’t fret.
Once we take control of Kait in Act 2, we are set on a quest to find answers and to also investigate swarm activity and various other missions. Baird is gracious enough to lend us his Frankenstein of a vehicular device, but as weird as it looks, it is fun to drive. Skating around the environments is enjoyable and it gives you opportunities to appreciate the visuals of the game. The areas offer a nice handful of Points of Interest (PoI) to stop and explore. These spots range from additional boss fights that usually offer a relic weapon, Jack upgrade, or a world building collectable. There are also additional spots that won’t come up with a PoI on your map, that you can stop and grab collectables and such from. This encourages exploration and an additional level of world and even character building that we never had the time for due to the funneling between fights.
An example of a collectable I found that I appreciated, was a random one that wasn’t marked on the map. I came across a broken down tank which offered a random assortment of ammo, but there was a fantastic collectable. It was actually a note from Augustus Cole written to his mother. Apparently the tank I found was his during the war, it broke down in the middle of the battle and he was convinced he was going to die. It was an interesting read that helps build a legacy character I already thought I knew, but seeing that emotional side like that was kind of special. Now, not all of them are as important as that one, but its a good example of the reason why you shouldn’t rush through these levels going from A to B.
The addition of the open levels comes with its ups and downs. I do wish there were dynamic fights, enemy vehicles, or even groups patrolling around. In that sense these areas feel a bit empty and half baked. Being The Coalition’s first attempt at large areas in the series, it was well done, but needs to be expanded upon further going forward. It does however give the player some breathing room in between big fights and allows for the characters to provide some exposition.
This also comes with the opportunity for The Coalition to implement Player Initiated Fights which was never an option before. What this means is that during certain times, it is up to the player to instigate the fight instead of the enemies instantly knowing you’re there. This lends well to playing co-op and planning an attack, as well as planning what you want to do with Jack’s abilities. Do you use the stealth upgrades to take out the snipers first? Do you set up a shock trap and deploy a shield and let enemies come to you? It adds an extra level to the gameplay that we haven’t had previously.
Another game changer to the formula is the implementation of Jack into the combat. I mentioned before that you’ll find components for Jack as you explore the game and these components are used to upgrade Jack’s abilities. There are abilities that will unlock through story progression, but the ultimate abilities are only unlocked by doing side missions. The Jack upgrades are one of the main reasons you’ll want to explore everywhere and do all the side missions, besides getting additional story beats from locals. I really love this addition because it offers the player alternative play styles. Activate the cloak so you can stealth kill enemies, or use the over shield to rush in and wreck havoc with your Gnasher. Use him defensively setting up shock traps and flashbangs. As you level up, the abilities unlock additional attributes as well. I really enjoyed this addition, but like the open levels, I really hope the RPG aspects and upgrades are fleshed out more and branches out to the players and the vehicle if there is vehicular combat.
Despite all these additions, the combat still has that classic Gears gameplay that revolutionized third person cover shooting. When you get to the main PoI areas you’ll need to get off the skiff and then you’re thrown into that familiar Gears trot. I’m thankful this is one area they didn’t tweak too much, as it is largely the identity that frames the Gears gameplay. Add to it, don’t completely change it. There are a handful of new weapons that are a bit hit or miss for me, however.
The Cryo Cannon, which would make Mr. Freeze aroused, lands lukewarm here. It’s not useful in harder modes and unless you catch someone off guard in the multiplayer, it’s largely useless. The Claw, no not from Liar Liar, is fantastic. It’s an LMG and has a unique firing style that is powerful and enjoyable to use. It looks like a hot mess, but its a great weapon. Talon is an autopistol which is like having an Enforcer as a sidearm; hard to use, but brutal once you get the hang of it. The Breaker Mace is terrific, but it needs some balancing in the MP modes. The shock wave attack is an instant kill that hits you even ten feet away. Then there is the Lancer GL, which is your trusty Lancer with a slight increase to fire rate, and secondary function. The Coalition was brilliant with how they designed this weapon and I’m thankful it doesn’t have that traditional grenade launcher effect that just plops out a grenade.
The last thing I’ll mention about the campaign is that Jack the robot is now a playable character. The Coalition describes him more as a support character for the people who want to help, but find Gears gameplay curve too difficult. All the powers I mentioned before are available to the player as well. When playing co-op, the second player can choose Jack if they want, but Gears does support 3-player co-op which means one person will be forced as Jack.
Gears of Horde 4.0
Horde has been a staple of the series since Gears of War 2, helping push the series above a lot of other games. The idea of a wave based survival game wasn’t new, but Horde did inspire quite a lot of other AAA devs to add a form of this mode into their games. It took everything amazing about Gears and added even more team work, planning, and hunkering down along with the great gameplay. Horde’s concept has mostly stayed the same, but it has seen its fair share of changes and evolutions in each new game. Some good and some that feel a bit too restrictive. Gears 5‘s Horde is still great, and there are some good additions here, but the changes to characters isn’t the direction I was hoping for.
I’m sure you all know the concept of Horde so I’ll just cut to the chase with what they added and my thoughts on it. Gears 5 is keeping a form of the card system that was introduced in Gears of War 4, but expanding more on it. Each playable Horde character has their own Ability, Passive Ability, Ultimate, Upgrade Cards, starting weapons, and even what defenses they can build from the fabricator. I do like how each character is now spec’d out to more of their personality, but this just feels too restrictive.
The fun of Horde was that everyone participated evenly, and could build and upgrade whatever they wanted if they had the money. This also made it possible to go further in Horde if you didn’t have a full crew, and this is the main crux. If you don’t have a full crew to play with, you won’t be as effective and one of the people will have to be an engineer. Engineers are the only class that starts off with a Repair Tool and has a larger list of defenses. Now, with other classes you can still buy the Repair Tool from the Fabricator, but it costs 10k power and if you die and restart it’s gone.
I do like the idea of the abilities and upgrading cards so you get better as you continue to play. The character Ultimates are fun to use as well. There are also in-game upgrades for each character where you can spend Power on to upgrade Critical Hit Damage, Total Health, Ammo Regen, and more. These upgrades reset between matches, however. I just wish that there was some freedom in what made Horde fun, building defenses. Or at the very least allow us to have custom characters where we play as a general COG soldier, but we can pick our cards, abilities, starting weapons etc. Let the player have some freedom because I guarantee that no one cares about character personality accuracy in the multiplayer modes. Keep that in the campaign.
Other additions they added which changes the flow and some strategies are the Power Taps. These pop up every ten waves and you can capture them. If you keep them from being destroyed, they will provide additional Power each wave. There is also a new Fortification called the Forge where you can deposit weapons into it and receive power. There are also modifiers attached to difficulties that effect the overall session if you’re feeling things are too easy. You can add more enemy health, less ammo for you, execution rules, fortification power increase, and more.
Jack is also playable in Horde and he will be a favorite for dedicated crews. When Jack is being played by a real person he can be extremely effective in that support role. He can also be used to pick up weapons and depositing them into the Forge for additional Power. Last thing I’ll mention is a change that I really like,which is Power that is picked up is evenly distributed among each team member. You can use your power however you see fit, or you can deposit it into the Fabricator for the team to use as a backup bank.
Multiplayer Gib Fest
Gears has a fairly large hardcore dedicated fanbase for its online multiplayer and the rest either love the game or hate it. There is quite a learning curve when it comes to Gears MP and a lot of that has to do with the wall bouncing and Gnasher shotgun. Some people got tired of the Gnasher focused gameplay and mock it for being the only useful gun. Seasoned players know it’s not the only useful weapon, but we instantly know when a player can’t handle the close-quarter-combat shotgun. It’s a skill and understanding that only long time players will understand.
Naturally, this may turn off a lot of new players, and with Gears 5 being on GamePass there will certainly be a lot of new players. Luckily there have been some new game mode additions and some tweaks and buffs to weapons to offer a more rounded experience. The main addition is that of a new mode called Arcade. This mode gets rid of the standard Lancer, Gnasher, Pistol, and Smoke grenade starters and give each character a unique loadout. What is nice here is that no character actually starts out with a Gnasher.
Each character will have different weapons they can purchase, as well as a passive ability. To purchase a power weapon you must use skulls you receive from kills and assists. Only one character is able to purchase a shotgun as well. For example, Fahz can spend his skulls on a Markza and Sniper. This mode will certainly help break up the Gnasher fest a lot of people have issues with, but for me as a long time fan, it is only fun for a short distraction here and there. Luckily, all the main core modes are back that feature normal loadouts and no passive skills.
While the gameplay has mostly stayed the same, there are some visual differences. Mostly noticeable with the shotgun, is a hit indicator. Small white dots will appear on screen when you shoot your shotgun and it will show you which pellets of the shot actually hit your target. There is also a kill-cam now, but with how Gears has never been a 1:1 view of other player’s gameplay, some kills on the cam still look off. If anything, it may confuse players on how that shot killed you when the kill-cam showed it going by and hitting the wall behind you.
Another tweak to the gameplay is how Active Reloads effect your weapon. Before, Active Reloads mostly increased your accuracy and damage a bit. A bonus for your well timed reload. However, in Gears 5 Actives have different effects per weapon. The biggest one was to the Gnasher. Not only did the Gnasher get its total shots decreased, but all the Active does is reload your Gnasher faster. A slower Active reloads three shots, while a perfect Active reloads all six shots. There is not damage or pellet grouping bonus anymore. I assume these changes were made to better balance the effectiveness of all weapons and help reduce the devastation of the Gnasher.
The multiplayer launched with seven all new maps in the normal rotation, but if you do a custom game they feature a handful of remastered levels from Gears of War 4. I don’t know why they don’t just add those levels to the online rotation to help with total variety. Another issue I have with the overall multiplayer suite is the lack of characters and skins at launch. The standard characters from the campaign aren’t even available in the Tour of Duty (more gripes on this later) and you can only unlock a handful of skins for them. We know from Gears of War 4 that the game will eventually feature a metric ton of cosmetic content and characters, but the launch is surprisingly light on this. I can only imagine this was a purposeful exclusion to later add them as Tour of Duty rewards.
So let’s get into the dark stain on this epic package of a game. This is the Tour of Duty and the Micro-transaction Store. I was ecstatic that The Coalition was getting rid of Gears of War 4‘s lootboxes in favor of a more modern progression system and direct purchases of cosmetics. However, it is far from perfect and far from fairly priced. The Tour of Duty is filled with what I call “who gives a crap” cosmetic items like various enemy markers and banners and such. There are only a handful of character skins (ones that were already in the campaign), a couple emotes, and a few weapon skins. The grind to get these items is far too much and features Free-to-Play mechanics like cool downs on daily challenges that can be reset for a fee.
There are a lot of ranks to grind through and as you get into the top ranks you’ll need to unlock even more stars. Stars are awarded from doing daily challenges or earning medals by hitting large milestones within the games various modes. The problem here is that the stars awarded through the daily challenges end up not being enough to rank up in a day. This makes the grind even worse unless you’re willing to spend your Iron on resetting them, and even when you do, you could still have a chance of only getting a one star challenge.
Iron is Gears 5 premium currency and so far it hasn’t been all that fair. Like a mobile game, there are various tiered bundles you can buy of Iron, but the conversion is about $1 for every 100 Iron. That doesn’t seem terrible until there was a Boltok Execution, only available for purchase, on the store for 800 Iron. $8 for an execution animation!? I think not, sir. Even if it was a pretty awesome animation. What is worse is that during your Tour of Duty you can only unlock up to 500 Iron. So grinding through all of those won’t even net you a single premium animation.
The Operations are coming quarterly and with them new characters, new maps, myriads of cosmetics, and your Tour of Duty will reset. Which means if you didn’t get what you wanted from the Tour, you’re shit out of luck. The Coalition and Lead Director Rod Fergusson have been active on Twitter addressing concerns letting people know this is a learning thing for them as well and they will continued work and tweaks on the system. I know this is a service game and they want to keep people on that constant push for unlocks, but there needs to be a better balance for those that may not have the time to grind out the Tour. Other than dropping big money on the things they missed, that is.
While this is a frustrating system, fortunately it is only the cosmetics that are tied up in the mess and the general gameplay is still as wonderful as ever. The maps and modes will be added for free each quarter and that to me is the actual content I care for.
Escape The Other Modes
Are you tired of the same old Horde gameplay loop? Is the multiplayer still the same old Gnasher fest you’re sick of? Is the campaign on Insane whooping your ass a bit too much? Then how about you take a break in an all new PvE mode called Escape. Escape is a 1-3 player mode where you play as a Hive Buster who voluntarily gets captured by a snatcher and is taken down to the Swarm Hive. Once you emerge from your pod, you activate a poison gas that will kill anything left in there, including you.
Escape has you start with one weapon and very little ammo. You’ll need to rely on your teammates, some early stealth, and your Ultimate abilities to arm yourself enough to fight through rooms of enemies to. . . escape. Each Hive is different and there will be new Hives each week to progress through. Some are quick and others will have safe room checkpoints in between chapters. The fight for survival and escape is intense, especially on harder difficulties.
Characters, like Horde, will have their own starting weapon, Abilities, Ultimates, and card boosters. Lahni unleashes an electric blade that does a ton of damage and can cut through groups of enemies or take down one big one. Keegan is more of your support who can throw down an ammo crate that will refill all of your ammo. Mac can deploy a shield in front of himself that other players can benefit from as well. As you level up, you’ll upgrade your cards which will make you more proficient and lethal to tackle harder Hives. Like Horde, as you increase the difficulty, additional modifiers are added as well making things even spicier.
The most exciting part about the Escape mode addition is that it comes with its on-level builder. You’re given the tools to create your very own Escape room for your friends and even to share online. You’ll be able to download other people’s as well, making Escape constantly new thing. What’s even more exciting is that eventually the map builder will be brought to the Multiplayer mode as well. Gears 5 will end up being huge.
My only concern right now is that the variety of room tiles isn’t large, so after playing a good amount of them, it’ll feel too similar. However, the layouts, enemy locations, ammo and weapons will always be different. Fortunately, the room tiles will continue to grow as The Coalition launches more Operations.
Issues and Performance
It would be unfair to not address some of the issues I ran into during the early access and up until now. While most major issues have been fixed, some still linger. During the early access period I ran into a good handful of server issues, even while doing the campaign with local co-op. For some reason, even during campaign they have you run through a server and this was causing an issue. I never had any weird graphical or performance issues, but there were saving issues. We ran into a few autosaving bugs where the game wouldn’t autosave and we would need to reload a chapter. Even a couple times it froze where we couldn’t even reload chapter and had to exit the game completely. Some achievements were also not unlocking as well.
Multiplayer was also running into these issues with games dropping, infinite loading screens, being booted mid match. It definitely ran the gamut of online issues that plague our games on launch day. While most of this has been fixed and stability has greatly improved, I do still have random issues in Ranked games where I’ll get put in an infinite load screen when the match is over. It was frustrating, but unfortunately it’s one of those things you have to deal with when games have massive launches with such online modes. The important thing is that TC is on it and it’s updated frequently. Once they get it 100% stable, hopefully they tackle that Tour of Duty balance.
Performance is spectacular here outside of the server issues. I mostly played on the Xbox One X and it runs buttery smooth. Playing in split-screen co-op drops it to 30fps per person, but there aren’t any significant slow downs or hiccups that we noticed. PC also performed extremely well and it includes one of the best in game benchmarks I have ever seen. With an i7-9700k, 16gb RAM, and RTX 2070 I was able to run highest settings with the extra texture pack download at 1440p well over 60fps at all times. Gears 5 certainly sets a bar for future MS games on how to optimize your game for PC.
Treat for the Eyes and the Ears
Visually, Gears 5 is beautiful. How they were able to increase the visual fidelity over Gears of War 4 as well as keep it 60fps and increase the size and scope of the campaign is beyond me. The character models are very high quality which really helps show just how old Marcus is getting. Landscape details are generally fantastic except for some areas that feature some less than stellar texture work. You won’t really notice these too often unless you really go looking for it.
Visual effects are also quality here with how your footsteps and skiff tracks realistically alter the snow and sand. Even using sub level textures to give the deformed snow and sand depth and life. Revealing the black crystal chunks from sandstorms as you step around or as the skiff pushes the sand is a great affect. During the more intimate moments of the game, the lighting and shadow work are very well done and used smartly with the environments.
One of the most visually appealing effects in the game has to be the ice and the sandstorms. It’s oddly satisfying seeing the ice break from your shots. The way it splinters and breaks while revealing moving water and even creating a small water wake moving from under the ice is great. This of course is used offensively against enemies dropping them into the water for an instant kill. The sandstorms in Act 3 offer an intense effect from the tornadoes to the lightning striking the ground creating large black crystal trees. These trees can be shot down for cover as well.
One part the visuals lack in is some of the smaller details especially with physics. You can tell that some things had to be cut in order to hit the scope, overall visuals, 60fps, and co-op. For instance, plants and branches don’t react to your player and shooting snow on tree branches doesn’t move the snow. However, the ice that has formed on the tree trunks can be shot down realistically. These things aren’t noticeable during gameplay or combat, unless you really stop and focus on them. That being said, you can tell they were limited by hardware and had to make some decisions here.
As far as sound goes, I can’t find a single thing wrong here. The voice acting is phenomenal as you would expect from such talented people as Laura Bailey, John DiMaggio, Fred Tatasciore, and the rest. Even the new characters who aren’t normally voice actors, like Rahul Kohli, did a fantastic job. Laura Bailey especially shines in her lead role as Kait, offering a wide range of acting. During a part in the game when Kait starts getting buried, you can really here Kait struggle and panic and Laura really portrays a sense of dread and claustrophobia. It helps that the script and writing is much better this time around.
Sound effects have also always been top notch in Gears from the heft of the guns, the enemy chatter, explosions, and that sweet and satisfying headshot sound effect. The guns always feel impactful, from the more futuristic laser rifle Embar, to the rough deep clap of the Boltok pistol. The guns have such distinct sound effects that you know instantly what gun is being shot at you or around you.
The soundtrack is also a pleasure. The score from Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Westworld) is brilliant and helps bring a lot of tension and grandeur to Gears 5. From more intimate moments, to the large set pieces, the soundtrack brings as much emotion to the scenes as the voice actors do.
Gears 5 breathes a lot of life into a franchise that desperately needed it. Meaningful changes and additions to the campaign are more than welcome. As much as I love all the new systems, they don’t always feel fully fleshed out, but the direction excites me a lot. The plethora of PvE and PvP modes is mind boggling and there is enough content here to keep you hooked for a very long time. There aren’t many games that offer as much content as Gears 5, and the fact it will continue to grow and evolve leaves me excited for its future. Despite some launch issues, progression balancing problems, and some personal gripes with Horde changes; Gears 5 is a must have and easily worth the full price of admission. Which makes it being on GamePass even crazier of a value.
Gears 5 is gorgeous from its character models, to the dark corridors with light beams flooding in, and its bright open snow and desert areas. PC with the texture install pushes things to the next level, but up close textures can still be lacking in areas.
Gameplay stays as fast and tight like the series is known for. The gameplay pace is a bit slower with the added open level areas due to being able to stop for collectibles and side missions, but the skiff is fun to pilot and gunplay is still fantastic.
The voice acting is top notch, but you expect that from legends like Laura Bailey, John DiMaggio, Fred Tatasciore, and the like. The soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi is fantastic and the overall sound effects are high quality and have impact.
The package value here is mind blowing with a full campaign that reaches some series heights, Horde mode, full suite of multiplayer modes, a brand new Escape mode with a map builder and all of it features split-screen co-op. Unfortunately, changes made to horde characters and the overall multiplayer progression system needs some work.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Gears 5 is available now on Xbox One and PC.
Reviewed on Xbox One X and PC.