GEARS 5 – REVIEW: Pushing The Genre Forward

Disclaimer: Due to the widespread server issues which affected the Xbox One and Gears 5 communities over the weekend, this review will focus on the game’s Campaign mode. This review will be SPOILER FREE.

The next chapter in Microsoft’s thirteen year odyssey launched on September 6th as the Gears 5 Ultimate Edition finally appeared on store shelves and in the digital marketplace. Gears of War debuted in 2006 on the Xbox 360 and has maintained a worldwide following ever since. Gamers have been captivated by the series’ masterful use of third person mechanics and by Gears’ infinitely playable multiplayer experience. From the very beginning, developers at Epic Games and then at the Coalition set and reset the standard for cover-based warfare. The first Gears of War in particular was the recipient of over 30 Game of the Year Awards and even replaced Halo 2 as Xbox Live’s most played title in 2006. Halo 2 had held that spot for two years.

Despite Gears’ incredible commercial and critical success, earning over one billion dollars in revenue as of 2014, the franchise was not without its missteps. Gears of War: Judgment (2013) saw a considerable drop in sales. Then the 2016 entry Gears of War 4 was praised by critics but received generally mixed reactions from its fan base. The plot was stagnant. Gears of War 4 was forced to spend much of its time world building after a lengthy time skip following Gears of War 3 and it left other areas of the narrative somewhat hollow. Small changes and additions to the iconic gameplay weren’t enough to satiate the audience as the core of the Coalition’s third person features had gone unchanged. To its credit, Gears of War inspired a sea of imitators in its thirteen year lifespan. Unfortunately that translated to a market over-saturated with “more of the same” cover-based shooting. To succeed in 2019, Gears needed to evolve.

Fearless.

Gears 5 is now the pinnacle of third person combat. At every level the series has matured. Just as the first Gears of War inspired a change in the landscape of cover-based gameplay, Gears 5 has set a new precedent in what the genre can achieve today. The new direction taken by the series is evident from the very moment Gears 5 is lifted from its shelf. When the series started in 2006 only two female voice actors were credited among the cast. Since then Gears of War has earned a somewhat misdirected reputation as the cliched “masculine” video game franchise, where every set piece is destroyed in an explosion big enough to make Michael Bay blush. That’s always been a misconception. Gears of War isn’t “masculine.” Gears is fearless. Kait Diaz, the latest series cover star and its first female lead, is the face of the next brave path being forged by Gears 5.

Kait is counted among the series’ most developed character roster to date. Alongside series favorites like Marcus Fenix and newer additions like JD Fenix and Del Walker, Kait is given evident and individualized motivations and layered relationships with those around her. Even the most subtle of emotional bonds, such as the connection shared by the war-hardened Marcus Fenix and Kait herself, are deftly made apparent. Minor expressions and single lines of dialogue shared by observing characters help to build natural and organic ties among the cast. Fear, hope, loss and victory are all tangible pieces of the Gears 5 environment. With inspired performances by Laura Bailey, Liam McIntyre, Eugene Byrd, John DiMaggio and the rest of the main Gears ensemble, this is the realest group of heroes yet. The introduction of dialogue performance capture and the continued masterclass rendering on part of the Coalition make the Gears 5 Delta Squad as memorable as the originals were in 2006.

The Greatest of Gears.

Of course, the characters are not alone in this growth. From the moment Gears 5 opens and begins to share the psychological journey of Kait Diaz, the serious themes of grief and identity only vaguely present in Gears of War 4 are pulled to the front of the narrative. There’s a deeper and more consistent tone this time around. Moments of comedic relief never divert the plot from its deeply thematic trajectory. The scope of these broad storytelling endeavors are mirrored by the humbling design of Gears’ massive setting and by the newfound range of color showcased in each location. The distinct contrast present in the journey of Kait Diaz is given life as she travels through the bleak whites of a snow-covered covered range and atop the red sands of a scorching desert. Gears 5 breaks away entirely from the predictable mold of its past installments and introduces a newfound variety to each facet of its gameplay. There is no “more of the same.” There’s only the greatest elements of Gears past and the promising possibility of its future.

Returning features have all been refined and elevated. The gruesome Gears melee system is no longer a weird amalgamation of three buttons. Instead the experience has been streamlined. Press B for a quick strike. Hold B for an execution. Press B elsewhere to break a lock or cut through a chain. The cover system has been updated to include a much-needed counter to stop enemies attempting to vault into your position. Small changes like the introduction of enemy health bars and more responsive weapon crosshairs also help to make each large scale battle feel manageable. The environmental wind flares introduced in Gears of War 4, which rage through a point of battle and change the trajectory of certain projectiles, return and add a sense of urgency whenever they’re implemented.

Wage War Your Way.

Atop this foundation of recognized and esteemed gameplay mechanics, Gears 5 introduces a few other sizable alterations which lend themselves to both the presentation and the pacing of the game. The heart of Gears 5 becomes traversable in its central acts. The traditional one-after-another mission structure is set aside in favor of an open world hub-style exploration system akin to 2018’s God of War. These environments are huge but never overwhelming. The next primary mission, collectible, secret weapon or side quest is never spaced so far away that journeying across the snow and sand feels like a chore. Instead these beautiful tours are used to supplement the characters with new and insightful lines of dialogue, all of which advance either the story or the relationships therein. There are a few jarring transitions to endure as characters load in and out of this hub world but they’re never so distracting that they subtract from the quality of the game.

Joining the cast on their grand adventure is the AI called JACK, a drone-like companion who can be upgraded as you explore the open world and gather materials for new battle mechanics. It’s thanks to JACK that each encounter in the Gears 5 campaign begins to feel unique. The pattern of “enter area, defend area, move forward” is abandoned. Instead, depending on how players invest in JACK’s RPG-lite skill trees, there’s an ever-growing list of approaches at the start of every battle. JACK can instill the party with a temporary shield which heals and nullifies damage, allowing for the quick ambush of priority targets. JACK can also turn the party invisible, adding a degree of stealth mechanics as players are allowed to choose between assassinating unaware enemies or moving to more favorable starting positions. There are several interactable pieces of the environment that JACK must contact in order to progress the story and at times they are difficult to find but ultimately the addition of the AI companion grants a much needed sense of player choice when it comes to general combat. Gears 5 finally lets the player wage war however they like.

New Graphical Titan.

Gears of War has never played better. Gears has never looked better either. The Xbox One and Xbox One X both adequately capture the scenic beauty of each monumental set piece as cities and caverns are brought to life and then inevitably dragged to cinematic ruin. It’s inspiring to watch. This is the best-looking game on the Xbox One. The One X in particular pursues and maintains a native 4K resolution with a consistent 60 frames per second. The characters have received a tremendous visual overhaul as polygon counts have been increased and skin has been reworked to better facilitate subsurface scattering. Coupled with the aforementioned performance capture, Gears 5 towers as the new graphical titan on the Xbox One. There were minor interface bugs in the upgrade menus when certain icons would fail to load, but those omissible complaints will certainly be patched out in the near future.

Excellence without Exclusion.

Gears 5 represents a change in the medium. Together Microsoft and the Coalition push the genre forward yet again with a prioritization on storytelling, pacing, and tightened gameplay mechanics. Representation and accessibility are at the forefront of the series now. Gears 5 places Kait Diaz on center stage, works to build a broad and diverse world, and puts forth the greatest effort to date when it comes to playability. Not only are gamers prompted right away to configure the optional Adaptive Controller but Gears 5 has also been recognized for perfectly accommodating the deaf and hard of hearing. This title proves that a AAA game is capable of excellence without exclusion. Moving forward Gears 5 will be remembered as the definitive Xbox One experience. If there was ever any reason to dive headfirst into the current gaming generation, this is it.

Gears 5 Campaign Score: 5/5

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