Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Platform: Xbox One, Windows 10 (reviewed), Windows 7
Release Date: Sept. 10, 2019
ESRB Rating: M for Mature
Links: Steam | Amazon | Microsoft Store
Last month, my feature-length Gears 5 preview hinged on the game's sales proposition: that Microsoft has positioned this shooter sequel to be immune to a standard game-review treatment. It's a living service. It's a four-in-one entertainment package. It's a no-brainer add-on for the Xbox faithful.
Those statements are true enough if you already pay for Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass service, which currently costs $10/mo on Xbox consoles, $5/mo on Windows 10, or $15/mo combined. Thanks to a bullish promotional campaign, you can test the subscription service for less. Gears 5 lands this week as arguably XGP's first perfect storm of polish, breadth, and newness, so it's no surprise to see the game and the service holding hands, petting each other in public, and whispering into each other's phones at night: "No, you hang up."
That's the good news. If you're already enjoying an XGP subscription (and some people got a super-cheap path to this), Gears 5 has at least one great reason for pretty much any gaming fan to dive in. Or if you want to buy into XGP for two months, then Gears 5 is a perfectly fine $20 (or less) Trojan horse to get the service onto your PC or console.
The bad news, then, is that Gears 5 as a standalone game resembles the comfort-food proposition that has become standard on video subscription services. The polish is immense. The feature depth is ridiculous, as if Microsoft dumped a full season of a star-studded TV series in order to bewilder fans with a binge. But where some game series fill their sequels with a cool mix of boundary-pushing risks and familiar delights, Gears 5 sees fit to cover an all-too-familiar core with a bunch of tinsel and accoutrements. I have enjoyed Gears 5. But everything that makes it a clever XGP add-on seems to simultaneously make it a shoulder-shrug in the "is this worth $60-and-up?" department.
Gears 5 breaks down into a few discrete modes: a plot-driven campaign, which can be played alone or with two friends; an online-versus arena, which includes a hearty variety of newbie-friendly and "hardcore" variants; the "Horde" mode of old, in which friends group up to battle wave after wave of AI monsters; and a new "Escape" mode, which simplifies the Horde PvE formula for better and for worse.
I'll start with the campaign, which I previously described as a breath of fresh Gears of War air when Microsoft served it to the press in a preview platter. Like other Gears games, you run around as a soldier, viewed in a third-person perspective, while blasting monsters with military-grade guns and explosives. Ducking-and-covering is still a core Gears tenet, and this means you're constantly bouncing between spots of chest-high debris (which your character conveniently auto-sticks to) while flanking enemies from opposite angles (and making sure they don't do the same to you).
I've been dreaming of a huge disruption to this formula for years. I still feel strongly that the series would be a blast if it kept all the weapons and controls the same, then added a room-warping grappling hook in order to speed up movement and add more vertical intensity. We didn't get something that intense in Gears 5, but the Skiff is a decent consolation prize.
Though some of the campaign content I encountered was straight-line fare, much of it required boarding and riding the Skiff, a wind-driven ski-boat, across a giant, open world. I saw two open-world zones during my preview time, in the frozen wilds of Act II and the burnt-sand expanses of Act III. My first impression of this change to the Gears formula was admittedly ho-hum.
When my characters first boarded the Skiff, the game served a brief tutorial, then showed me two possible destinations in the distance. One was clearly marked on my map as a campaign mission, and the other wasn't. I could ride around on open, vast plains, then dock freely and hop off to run and shoot, but there wasn't any payoff to being on foot anywhere besides the clear landmarks. So I rode to both, and each served a standard-issue Gears combat arena. Are they just padding out the time spent between missions with this open-world traversal thing?
In the course of riding the Skiff and exploring a mix of primary and optional missions, however, something clicked. For one, the Skiff is a blast to whip around on. I love the wind-swept quality of the game's particle effects and the gentle drifting of its archaic body while speeding across the game's open plains. Also, the amount of time riding on that pleasant Skiff between objectives fits neatly into the accordion-squeeze pause of combat that co-op players might seek.
Perhaps more important is how the game's combat arenas don't have to be as logically chained together as in previous, straight-line entries. After so many Gears games, shooting through an endless city with a half-dozen conveniently placed battlegrounds can feel ridiculous and inorganic. But what if players can ride on a Skiff a great distance and encounter a mix of massive towers, tucked away plane wreckage, and underground dives into the plot's seediest elements? We do still see a few traditional, longer missions, but there's something about hopping off the Skiff (which is required for most combat encounters), squeezing through a narrow passageway, and having new tension come from a combat arena looking nothing like earlier games—the kind that either winds around in a circle back to your Skiff, or leads to a crazy dead-end that then auto-warps you back to your bulky windcraft.
Great peaks, but a rough climb to the summit
I quote this massive block of text because it's all still true. While some of the between-Skiff missions are formulaic, there's just enough surprising design stuff going on to make me wonder what direction the next Gears 5 mission is going to take. And the variety of enemy types—from the familiar Locust to the newer Swarm to a refined take on the last game's boring robo-soldier baddies—fits neatly into a new emphasis on larger, more spread-out battle arenas.
A new co-op partner option (a droid named Jack) is an absolute game-changer for anyone who wants to enjoy Gears 5 with a friend (either online or split-screen) who is "bad" at shooting games. Jack is a magical, floating, often-invisible orb, and its impact on combat is less about firepower and more about tactical awareness.
Jack's default state is invisible, so when you stand still or float in any direction, it will remain unseen. Jack only has one standard-fire attack: a wimpy laser with a tiny striking radius. You have to be dangerously close to enemies to hit them, and you can hold down the fire button to turn that hit (which lights the foe up and makes it visible to your allies) into a stun (which shocks the enemy into freezing still for about one second). Doing the latter, however, leaves Jack visible and thus makes it more susceptible to taking fire from enemies.
Jack users can zip around a battlefield to pick up items, pick up stun foes, and offer generally useful feedback to squadmates. No aiming is required, and Jack's mostly invincible movement is quite intuitive. Forget the Super Mario Galaxy gimmick where a second player can aim a Wii-mote and point at shiny stars. This is a new level of newbie-friendly action access.
But Gears 5 isn't a marvelously orchestrated procession of battles. This became abundantly clear when I finally played the opening chapter, which The Coalition hid from the press during August's preview event. Honestly, I can see why. This chapter is a total snoozer in terms of combat, plot, and stakes. Players are dropped into a standard-issue military mission to recover lost technology. They must follow the happy-go-lucky version of Gears 4's main character, JD Fenix, who follows orders and reeks of Generic Tinder Guy in terms of his vacant personality. (Lemme guess: he loves hiking and Quentin Tarantino films, too.)
As each straight-line mission leads players into a familiar slate of rush-ahead, no-flanking battles, we are fed a groaner of an obvious twist: Del argues with a new squadmate (Fahz) about senseless murder of civilians during an event that happened in the distant past, which the newbie defends in nearly comic-villain fashion. The topic keeps coming up for no organic reason. Eventually, we learn that JD authorized this civilian slaughter, a fact that Fahz drops into casual conversation as an utter non-sequitur to invent some sort of plot tension. The two-hour mission's only real purpose, it seems, is to slow the game down enough that we stare at a magnificent, pastoral military town before it's irrevocably changed by monsters.
Which is a shame, because the second and third chapters are so much more graceful about making us care about the characters between the combat (not to mention spicing up the game's aesthetic and geometry via new ice and sand worlds). Chapter 2 begins abruptly and drops another Gears 4 character, Kait, as its lead, yet the chapter hits the ground running in terms of setting up her own dramatic tension and difficult choices. Why The Coalition didn't open the game with this mission—which itself takes an hour to get us to the satisfying Skiff portions—is beyond me. (This chapter, by the way, fast forwards the timeline enough to reveal a newly grizzled and distant JD, a move that neatly fits into the Kait-centric plot.)
But the opening chapter isn't just a momentum killer; it's also a been-there-crouched-behind-that reminder that Gears 5's best bits are subtle. You have to march through nearly three hours of series clichés to get to the elegantly updated stuff, and I don't blame anybody bored by Gears to sit this out as a result.
Thankfully, the spread of primary and optional missions from Chapter Two onward are solid. Meanwhile, the final, fourth chapter recalls some of Gears 2's most epic fights in a fresh way—mostly thanks to a massive, spiraling chain of battle arenas and some epic bosses. These more than make up for the linearity of the chapter (not to mention the bait-and-switch on plot resolution in an emotional-but-unsatisfying ending).
Versus modes: Arcade, and the other stuff
The retail package's best example of "subtle changes, obvious impact" comes from "Arcade" mode, a new spin on Gears' classic online-multiplayer combat. No, Gears 5 didn't jump onto the battle royale fray or any other gimmick. Every one of the game's versus-arena modes still revolves around five-on-five team combat, either with objectives, control zones, or limited pools of lives. They're all time-tested ways to goad people into flanking around each other and unloading tons of ammo.
But Arcade wins out by emphasizing under-the-hood math tweaks. Movement speed is slightly faster. Damage amounts are wholly remixed. And shotguns are no longer the instant-kill stunners that dominate the game's other "hardcore" multiplayer modes. In action, the result is that your longer-ranged assault rifles can truly wipe out an opponent, especially if your squad keeps tabs on approaching foes and picks them off for not advancing carefully. (And boosted movement speed makes rotating and flanking all the more doable.)
So far, Gears 5's rotation of multiplayer arenas delivers on Arcade Mode's potential. A new emphasis on vertically raised geometry matters in a series like Gears, where players can't freely hop or climb. In action, this means that many Gears 5 arenas' running paths are faster in one direction (where you can instantly drop down and madly dash) than the other (where you might have to stop-and-hop to return, or you might have to run to an alternate lane altogether).
Want to advance on your foes and surprise them with close-quarters butt-kicking? Or rush a position where an explosive weapon will spawn? That's going to take coordination and flanking to cover your squad's hottest dog, lest they get ripped up by longer-ranged assault rifle shots in an open alleyway.
As far as the rest of the multiplayer package, it's all perfectly fine stuff… that we've seen in so many Gears games before. A new "Escalation" mode funnels plenty of ideas into an eSports-minded package, but it's laboriously slow to play in practice. Every round requires waiting for teams to vote on placing items and weapons on a map, but I still can't get my head around any tactical payoff for these pauses. The rest is all subtly tweaked stuff from Gears 4, which was fine enough in its straightforward online-versus modes. Mostly same weapons, identical emphasis on shotgun-rushing combat. I'm glad Arcade is in the mix, but the rest might be a yawn for anybody whose favorite Gears friends already own the last game.