With every successive game, the Gears Of War series has evolved, adding new mechanics and modes to these third-person sci-fi shooters. But while the same can be said for Gears 5 (Xbox One, PC) as well, the changes are the most fundamental and impactful since the addition of the co-op survival mode “Horde” in Gears Of War 2, and the game is all the better for it.
Like all of the Gears Of War games,
Gears 5 has a multitude of options when it comes to gameplay modes, with each having its own set of diehard fans. So, let’s do the fair thing and start with the first one on the menu, literally: the story-driven campaign, which can be played solo or co-op.
When it opens, it’s not long after the end of Gears Of War 4 — and, more accurately, Jason M. Hough’s novel, Gears Of War: Ascendance — with J.D., Marcus, Kait, and the rest still fighting The Swarm. Though, as is always the case, things go from bad to worse as Kait strives to learn what it means that her maternal grandmother was the Locust queen, and why learning this at the end of Gears Of War 4 is giving her hallucinations and headaches.
In many ways, the campaign in Gears 5 plays just like Gear Of War 4, Gears Of War 3, et al. Driven by an engaging and epic military sci-fic story, you move from frantic gunfight to frantic gunfight in war-torn and destroyed locations, stopping only occasionally to enjoy a big cinematic moment of destruction that rivals the biggest Michael Bay movie. Except that unlike the Halo games, the Call Of Duty games, and others that share this formula, Gears Of War has you and your enemies ducking for cover and familiar with the concept of flanking. More importantly, it ranks among the most evolved of the cover-based shooters, not only giving you the ability to blind fire and easy move from cover to cover, but also to knock enemies back when you vault over cover or stab them when they try to do the same to you.
What’s different about the campaign in Gears 5 is that you can now issue orders to Jack, that floating robot who’s been following you around since the first game. Not only can he fetch weapons, ammo, grenades that are just lying around where any kid might find them, but he can also stun enemies like a flash grenade or highlight enemy locations with a Division 2-esque pulse. These new capabilities can also be enhanced with new functions, though even when you fully upgrade his Zapper, which automatically electrocutes enemies, Jack’s never so powerful that you can just sit back and let him do all the work.
Gears 5 also…
gives you some unique battlefields in which to use Jack’s new equipment. The best of these use verticality and reduced visibility in interesting ways. A fight with snipers in a foggy room with high ceilings is especially clever, as is one on a moving platform that sometimes puts you both high above your attackers.
But the biggest change in Gears 5‘s campaign is that you get to explore two large, open areas. It’s like what they did in Metro Exodus and Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, just with fewer of them and less to do in each space. There’s even some side quests and areas off the beaten path — including abandoned buildings and chopper crash sites — though not enough to turn this into an open world role-playing game like Fallout 4 or Far Cry: New Dawn.
Even getting around the open parts of Gears 5 is fun. Instead of giving you a cobbled together 4X4 or ATV like most shooters, you instead steer a snowboard attached to a sled that’s being pulled by a sail.
As a result of these changes, the campaign in Gears 5 feels both familiar and fresh, while being almost as varied and epic as the one in Gears Of War 2 (which is still the series’ high point as far as the campaigns are concerned).
That said, the campaign in Gears 5 isn’t perfect. Having two explorable areas seems like one too few. There’re also some narrative inconsistencies, though one will undoubtedly be rendered moot by Gears 6. Or G6. Or whatever they shorten the name to.
After the campaign,
he menu for Gear 5 presents the online competitive multiplayer modes, “Versus.” Not surprisingly, these include such old favorites as “Guardian,” “King Of The Hill,” and, of course “Team Deathmatch.” It also, of course, has some rather fun new maps to run around. “Exhibit,” for instance, is set in a rather intricate museum, while the running trains in “Asylum” make it a good place to play the capture point mode “King Of The Hill.”
But Gears 5 also adds “Arcade Deathmatch,” a new variation on “Team Deathmatch” that is supposed to be for people who haven’t played Gears Of War online before or a lot. Not only does it give characters special skills, but you also earn skulls for kills and assists which you can use to buy otherwise unavailable weapons. Hence why Marcus not only slides into cover like a boss, but also earns extra skulls for executing enemies, skulls he can use to buy frag grenades or a Breaker Mace.
It’s a nice idea but, to be honest, it doesn’t seem to be more forgiving or have any aspects that would drive away hardcore online Gears Of War players. Instead, it was just a more elaborate, and thus more interesting version of “Team Deathmatch.”
“Versus” is followed on the Gears 5 menu…
by a new co-op mode called “Escape.” In it, you and two other people have to, well, escape after you plant a chemical weapon in an enemy hive and then have to shoot your way out before the gas, or one of the locals, takes you out. You have a choice of three different characters — six if you get the Ultimate Edition, which adds Sarah Conner from Terminator: Dark Fate as well as Spartans Emile-A239 and Kat-B320 from Halo: Reach — with each having their own rechargeable special ability. Keegan, for his part, can give nearby teammates some extra ammo.
But what really makes “Escape” enticing — and, more importantly, not just a redundant rip-off of Left 4 Dead — is that the hives are nicely varied, both in layout and enemy occupants. Though it also adds challenge by having them kind of look alike, which can result in you getting lost or turned around. “Escape” also has seven modifiers that can not only increase the health of your enemies or up the amount of damage you and your teammates take, but also have heath that regenerates 50% slower or require you to execute downed enemies.
As fun as “Escape” in Gears 5 may be, though, it, like the campaign, is just slightly shy of spot on. But only because you start every game with almost no ammo. This not only doesn’t make sense, strategically or narratively, but it also means you have to go on a stabbing jag at the beginning of every round.
Last on the Gears 5 menu…
(save for a training mode called “Boot Camp,” and a section where they have the credits and two recap videos) is the co-op survival mode “Horde.” As with the returning “Versus” modes, the core mechanics are largely the same as they were before: you and four other people still have to work together to survive waves and waves of incoming and increasingly stronger enemies. But, unlike some survival modes, this one allows you to construct fortifications that can hold off incoming enemies.
As for what’s new about “Horde” in Gears 5, well, like in “Escape,” every playable character now has a rechargeable special ability, called their “Ultimate,” as well as some passive skills. Marcus’ “Ultimate,” for instance, prompts him and anyone nearby to take headshots, while his passive slowly recharges his “Ultimate” whenever he takes damage. Though, sadly, not all of these skills are this helpful. Kait’s active camo may be great for stealth attacks, since it turns her invisible, but it annoyingly shuts down if she pulls the trigger.
While these additions make “Horde” feel different in much the same way “Arcade Deathmatch” feels different from “Team Deathmatch,” it doesn’t add nearly as much as when they added fortifications in Gears Of War 3. As a result, people who love “Horde” in earlier games will like this one just as much, but people who didn’t love it, or who’ve loved it but feel like they’ve played it enough, will not find enough new in this version to change their minds.
Together, all of these additions, changes, and modifications really invigorate Gears 5, a neat trick given that it didn’t really need one after all the new narrative elements in Gears Of War 4 made prompted the good people at The Coalition to come up with a bunch of new weapons, enemies, and other gameplay elements.
In fact, the only real complaint I have about Gears 5 — save for the mode-specific ones I already mentioned — is with how you still have to switch to grenades to toss them like you do in every Gears Of War game save Judgement, which gave you a far more intuitive and helpful “toss grenade” button. But if they weren’t going to make the switch for Gears Of War 4, which followed Judgement, they aren’t going to make it now, and probably never will. Dang it.
In the end,
Gears 5 is yet another great installment in what has always been an impressive and addictive sci-fi shooter series. The changes in the campaign make it feel different and energized, but still Gears Of War-y; the additions to “Horde” have a similar effect; “Versus” is still “Versus,” which means it’s still among the best online shooting you can find; and “Escape” is a fun and thankfully varied addition. Which is why, like every successive game, Gears 5 ranks among the year’s best shooters.