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The ‘of War’ bit has been taken out, but don’t expect environments to be devoid of waist-high walls: explosions are still prominent, and weapons remain ludicrous. Although, the series has most certainly grown, from the first instalment, to be more than just gratuitous violence against bipedal maggots. It now has open-world bits; you can upgrade your flying robot friend; and there’s a new online co-op mode where you run away from a gaseous murderer. Gears 5 might as well be called Super Gears of War. Developer The Coalition embraces what’s come before and expands on it: bigger, longer, and Gearsier.
Whether it’s a familiar face, like the hulking Carrier, with its glowing belly, or an unknown entity, like the tornado of Swarm Leeches that’s dubbed The Flock, Gears 5 – like all before it – asks you to dispose of everything that looks a bit nasty in one location before you move onto the next area to do the same. And it continues to work. Gnasher and Overkill shotguns are as hefty as you remember; the weight behind a Boomshot grenade launcher knocks back both you and your target; and ripping a Locust in half with your silly chainsaw gun is weirdly comforting. Over a decade later and Gears is yet to be bettered by another third-person shooter.
Rather than focus on a new crop of enemies or weapons, Gears 5 tinkers with the best parts of its predecessors by, for example, adding a grenade launcher attachment to the Lancer and slapping a bomb on a kamikaze Juvie. Adversarial additions such as the aforementioned Flock provide a nice challenge from the air, whilst the introduction of the gargantuan Wardens will test you on the ground. They. Are. Bastards. Soaking up clips better than a roll of Plenty kitchen roll, once downed, they will leave behind one of the game’s best new weapons: the Breaker Mace. It’s a giant club that obliterates anything in your vicinity, and it’s fucking brilliant. When Gears 5 celebrates the core structure the series is known for, it’s at its best. It does that in Acts 1 and 4; in the middle it does things a bit differently.
Gears has side missions now. Because the rewards are generally worth it, and more shooty bang-banging is welcome, that’s not an issue; the downtime in between is, though. Land sailing across two large, spread out maps – one of which is 50 times bigger than any previous Gears of War level – gives you a chance to appreciate the beauty around you in a moment of calm; there isn’t much else to do, to be fair. Sure, there are collectables to collect, and components to compone, but a lack of random encounters in the point-to-point travel means there’s a distinct emptiness in acts 2 and 3 not found in the more traditional sections. Still, the optional was mandatory in my eyes, because I was eager to engage in conflict and upgrade my little robot friend.
Series mainstay Jack is often a footnote, bless him, but he’s more important than before in Gears 5. The robot assumes the Tails role in co-op, which wonderfully allows those who are apprehensive about fighting in the foreground a chance to get involved; he also aids you in solo play by zapping open doors and safes on your command, as well as providing support in battle via his upgradeable abilities. Through passive and active skills, Jack can do a multitude of things to help in your fight against The Swarm: he can lay down shock traps to tease baddies out from cover; he’s able to make you bulletproof, albeit briefly; and Jack’s power to grant you invisibility for a short time is more than handy. Thanks to collected components, and completed side quests, you can dump points into Jack and make his contribution even more worthwhile. It’s a wonderful, breezy advancement that asks for just the right amount of engagement. I’m too busy staring at the detail in the world, anyway.
Try as I might in this paragraph, I know I’ll find it difficult to express how exceptional Gears 5 looks. It nails grand exteriors and detailed interiors in equal measure.The open spaces mightn’t offer enough things to do, but they do look absolutely marvellous. The crunch of snow under your boot in colder climes, and the trail you leave behind in the blood red sand of the desert, is the cherry on top of sprawling scenic views. The intimate spaces, too, glisten: a ruined hotel kitchen illuminated by a gas fire, theatre signs that cater for the visually impaired with braille, crates of perishables at a settlement. It’s like walking around a movie set where everything has a place, and its place has been thought about ad infinitum. Gears 5 wants you to appreciate these locations rather than interact with them, however, resulting in a slight disconnect. Try as you might, the outcome of shooting at apparently glued-down objects is a red face and a tinge of disappointment. That feeling is ultimately suppressed when you, again, appreciate the game’s detail – finding the weekly rota in one of the hotel’s backrooms proving to be a particular highlight for me. The burly pals’ adventure, sadly, isn’t quite as concerned with the particulars at times.
It’s only right, after a first act where you play as the default-like JD Fenix, that Gears 5 makes Kait the series’ new protagonist. She is way more interesting, after all. Her backstory, revealed in Gears of War 4’s conclusion, was a fascinating twist in the tale, and is the driving force of Gears 5’s first half. But, like a number of the narrative threads from beginning to end, more could have been wrung out of her emotional turmoil and the visions she experiences. It’s frustrating, because great strides are made in terms of character. Relationships evolve over time with some wonderful exchanges between Del and Kait, as well as Marcus and his son, but the bigger picture stuff doesn’t reach its full potential. It’s entertaining throughout, definitely, but also a tad fluffier than it promises at points.
Once you’re through the campaign, there’s reams of multiplayer modes for you to fiddle about in, too, giving you the opportunity to revel in the decimation of random opposition: King of the Hill, Guardian, Team Deathmatch, and more allow you to kill and be killed across a variety of maps. Horde returns to encourage teamwork, as you go through waves of increasingly difficult enemies, all while fortifying your position with barbed-wire fences and turrets. This time around, like popular hero shooters of the day, each character has a unique ability, making your choice of character more meaningful than it has been before. Fahz can see enemies through walls; Kait can turn invisible, temporarily; JD can call in an airstrike, and so on. It’s a delightful oddity to plonk on top of the already well-established Horde.
The new online offering, Escape, is like a reverse Horde in that you’re advancing on the enemies rather than waiting for them to come to you. In a number of winding maps, you and two pals aim to get out of a Swarm hive, as quickly as you can, before a poisonous gas catches up to you. Ammo is scarce, forcing you to be more precise with your aim, and communicative with your squad. Its longevity depends on the Gears community and its desire to create Escape maps via the map builder, so hopefully the skilled take to it.
Gears 5 is the accomplished third-person shooter that wants to show you it can be more. It doesn’t always pan out – the open sections are barren, and intriguing plot points have a tendency to peter out – but those incidental interactions between characters on the battlefield are terrific, as is Jack’s influence on the action. And Christ, the detail in its world. Gears 5 is the ultimate showcase for the series; I’m already looking forward to Super Gears of War 2.
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PC
Release Date: September 10, 2019
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