Gears of War 5 is another entry in the long-running cover shooter franchise, Gears of War. Often regarded as one of the best Microsoft exclusive game series, Gears of War is well-known for its brutal violence, addictive multiplayer, and fun game modes. Gears of War 5 changes things up a bit by adding some new gameplay mechanics and introducing another new game mode. The mixture of sci-fi and military storytelling has worked well for the franchise in the past, but does it still work after five iterations? Microsoft is seemingly putting a lot of faith in Gears of War 5, placing it as the poster-child for the Xbox Game Pass service coming into the holiday season of 2019. Let’s find out if killing monsters with chainsaws is still just as fun as it was over ten years ago.
The Monster Inside
Gears of War 5 picks up very shortly after the events of Gears of War 4, complete with a “last time on Gears” video to bring you back up to speed. Following soldiers JD, Del, and Kait, the group continue to repel an army of humanoid monsters from destroying their planet. Fan-favorite Gears of War characters like Marcus, Cole, and Baird offer a helping hand as well, continuing their mission to curb-stomp every monster they see. In a lot of ways, Gears of War 5 is bigger and better than Gears of War 4, with a larger emphasis on visual spectacle and more complex gameplay mechanics. However, the story still remains a mixture of sci-fi and surprising emotion, balancing out the more ridiculous aspects of the experience.
Throughout Gears of War 5‘s lengthy campaign, you’ll visit a slew of colorful locations rich with lore and story to discover. In addition to the hectic gunfights you’ll often encounter, there’s a surprising amount of downtime where characters simply explore the environment. There’s a lot of narrative content, which is a significant step up from the lackluster plot of Gears of War 4. Although the dialogue leaves a bit to be desired, I was impressed with the nuance of the plot and its ability to add new information into the existing Gears of War universe. While the story lacks overall closure, I was still very satisfied with the game’s focus on character development and its ability to deliver meaningful scenes.
Taking on the Swarm
Like previous Gears of War titles, the gameplay in Gears 5 is mostly third-person shooting action with an emphasis on explosions and blood. I like to consider Gears of War the equivalent of Xbox’s big summer blockbuster; it’s silly, explosive, and has plenty of impressive set-piece moments. In campaign mode, you’ll make your way through four acts, each one cut up into various chapters. The story takes you to a number of exciting environments with an exceptional level of color and style, asking you to paint the levels red. You’ll do so with a slew of weapons, ranging from the classic chainsaw-equipped Lancer assault rifle to the some incredibly overpowered heavy weaponry. The campaign can be experienced either solo or cooperatively (via both local and online play), with up to three players in a session.
Gears of War 5 throws a few curveballs into the gameplay, namely the inclusion of active abilities and semi-open world gameplay. If you’re worried that Gears 5 is going to stray too far into new territory, you can rest easy knowing the majority of the experience feels like the classic Gears you know and love. Partway through the campaign, the map expands into a semi-open world, allowing you to investigate locations and pick up side missions. The exploration mechanics, combined with the inclusion of active character abilities, makes Gears of War 5 stand out from the pack. Active abilities are also present in other competitive and cooperative modes like Escape and Horde, where specific characters have “ultimate abilities” to unleash during combat.
The New Element
The new ideas presented in Gears of War 5‘s campaign work to varying degrees, and the changes don’t make a huge impact on the overall game. Some chapters take place on decently sized maps, complete with a neat vehicle to traverse the environment. Side missions on the map are denoted with a “?” symbol, and usually entail fighting some foes and grabbing a collectible as a reward. I was exceptionally impressed with the quality of these side missions, as well as the narrative content within. The rewards could’ve been better, but I always felt like my time spent off the beaten path was well worth it.
In addition to collectibles, side missions often reward you with components. Components can also be found in the environment, usually found tucked away in some dark corner or behind a particularly tough enemy. These small pieces of tech can be used to upgrade Jack, your robot buddy. Jack starts out with a few useful abilities, such as scanning the level for enemies. Jack can also attack enemies with his taser, providing some helpful backup when need be.
Components also allow you to level up Jack’s passive abilities, granting him more health and damage. They can also be used to unlock and upgrade new active abilities. Although I thought it was a bit silly at first, Jack eventually becomes an essential tool for surviving tough encounters. This will be a relief to any player who is “stuck” playing as Jack, as three-player co-op will see one member of your party playing as the chittering robot.
Gears of War 5 would feel awfully empty without a slew of additional modes, so it’s a good thing that the campaign mode is only one of the options. Competitive multiplayer makes its return, complete with weekly challenges and cosmetic progression in the form of a “My Tour” tab. Players can take to the online battlefields in a variety of deathmatch and objective modes, playing on some exceptionally cool and well-designed maps.
I found myself impressed by Gears of War 5’s competitive multiplayer, despite some launch window networking woes. At launch, some of the requirements for the “My Tour” are pretty ridiculous, obviously encouraging players to spend real money for boosts. This is a problem I can see persisting in the Gears of War 5 online economy moving forward, unless the intense online scrutiny forces the developer to reconsider and restructure.
These launch window issues, while major and appropriately upsetting, will mostly affect the hardcore of Gears fanbase. For the casual player, Gears of War 5 delivers plenty of intense online action. Players can match up in a number of game modes, playing in both casual and ranked playlists. Most of the classic Gears of War game modes are here, including Escalation, Guardian, and of course, Team Deathmatch. Some of the weapon balancing is lopsided, continuing the Gears of War tradition of having the overpowered Gnasher shotgun rule most online battlefields. Thankfully, the unique mixture of cover-based shooting and bloody close-quarters combat remains satisfying for hours upon end.
Run for Your Life
Gears of War 5 introduces a brand new game mode in the form of Escape, a three-player cooperative experience. The concept is simple; you’ve planted a bomb in an enemy hive, and now you have to escape before the toxic gas fills the entire level. You start out with just a pistol, and must scavenge weapons and ammo from fallen enemies. Levels are maze-like, punctuated by rooms filled with tough enemies and intimidating bosses. The path to your escape point is not clear at first, so you’ll need to explore a bit, revealing the mini-map as you progress. With the gas at your heels and ammo usually scarce, Escape presents a thrilling and unique experience.
Each week, new hives are added to the game, each one different from the last. One Escape map saw my team dashing through a frozen facility, dodging snipers and tons of quick-moving “juvies”. Another was a more straightforward journey punctuated with boss fights and checkpoints.
Players can also create and share their own Escape map using the handy map editor, which is easy-to-use but limited as well. You create the map layout by arranging various room tiles, setting up enemy spawns, weapon supplies, and more. Once you’ve finished the map yourself, you can add a catchy name, give a description, and share it online for other players to play. Ultimately, the map editor falls a bit short, but is still a fun addition that will keep the mode alive for longer.
The Horde Returns
Horde mode has always been a favorite among the die-hard Gears of War fans, and Gears of War 5 makes some significant changes to it. The concept and execution is still the same; you and up to four other friends must hold out against 50 waves of enemies, each wave more challenging than the last. As you defeat enemies, you’ll earn credits that can be used towards reinforcements, as well as ammo and weapons. Every 5 waves you’ll face off against a boss wave, struggling to take down some of the most powerful enemies amid a swarm of additional infantry units. There’s a great variety in enemy type, and the difficulty can be fine-tuned to your liking.
The biggest changes to Horde mode come with the inclusion of character-specific abilities, weapons, and bonuses. Unlike previous Gears of War games, the character you choose to play as in both Horde and Escape mode have a decent impact on your playstyle. For example, only certain characters can build barricades, while others cannot construct reinforcements at all. Each character has four perks that can be upgraded during Horde, which bolster your attack power, health, and ammo. I especially enjoyed the “ultimate abilities”, which run on a cool-down system. Marcus can grant himself and allies auto-aim, while Kait can become invisible and slip past enemies unnoticed.
The inclusion of character-specific upgrades and abilities might be off-putting at first, but with time these mechanics reveal new strategies and combat opportunities. The entire system feels akin to “hero shooters” like Overwatch, adding the strategic element of having a good team composition. That said, you don’t have to invest too much thought into these systems on lower difficulties, as I was able to clear all 50 waves of Horde on “beginner” difficulty with only a few deaths. This endurance test took around 3 hours of gameplay for me to complete, but was achievable right from the start with low-level characters. This is made easier by the inclusion of AI bots, which fill out your team if you choose to participate in a private match instead of matchmaking with other players. This way, you’ll be able to have the firepower to survive later waves, even when you’re playing with a smaller group.
The Bottom Line on Gears of War 5
Gears of War 5 makes some much needed improvements to the formula, and fixes a lot of the issues that were in Gears of War 4. There are still problems, but these issues are mostly outweighed by the quality and quantity of the gameplay included. The campaign mode is satisfying, with a solid narrative and entertaining set-piece moments. Competitive multiplayer remains exciting and addictive, with a smattering of new and classic modes. Escape mode provides a refreshing take on the chaotic run ‘n gun gameplay of Gears, while Horde mode highlights the bigger changes to overall mechanics.
There’s a lot of content to enjoy in Gears of War 5, regardless of if you prefer solo, competitive, or cooperative play. As with most modern big-budget releases, the most obnoxious issues come in the form of unfair progression requirements for cosmetics, as well as early networking issues. However, Gears of War 5 provides a level of gruesome and gory fun that calls back to the heyday of the Xbox 360, when chainsaw-bayonets were the latest rage. It’s better than Gears of War 4 and it will keep you playing for countless hours. It might not be the best Gears of War title, but it rivals the original trilogy on Xbox 360, and is an excellent addition to the exclusive library on Xbox One and PC.