The Coalition gives players a wealth of content with another polished and expansive entry in the popular Xbox franchise
The Gears of War franchise has always prided itself on releasing quality games with gorgeous graphics and plenty of content. The Coalition's latest outing, Gears 5, delivers on those series hallmarks in spades.
Gears games have always been amongst the best-looking titles of their respective eras, from the original Gears of War shattering gamer's collective minds of what's possible in a videogame to Gears of War 3's move to much more vibrant and diverse environments.
Gears 5 once again raises the bar, delivering incredible visual detail while maintaining a silky smooth 60 frames per second throughout its various game modes. The campaign in particular stuns with its vibrant colour palette and superb art direction, and in 4K fidelity on the Xbox One X its beautiful vistas and gory kills are brought to life in exquisite detail.
The sound design is likewise top-of-its-class, with Gears' iconic themes remixed and added to to fit different tones throughout the campaign, the unmistakable sound of a Lancer's chainsaw still as crisp and visceral as you remember it, and excellent voice acting gives character to the game's burly protagonists.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is better than ever, with Gears' trademark cover system polished and refined to a tee and its arsenal of weapons as satisfying to use as ever. A variety of additions and changes have been applied, including the ability to pull off a brutal knife takedown after knocking an enemy from cover by mantling over it, improved mantling and cover-to-cover animations that are less likely to be performed by accident, and a modified damage meter.
The change to the iconic crimson omen that appears when taking damage is what series veterans are going to notice first, and I'll admit that it was a bit off-putting at the beginning; rather than the normal skull-filled cog that is displayed in the middle of the screen when you take damage that gets increasingly red, a transparent gear cog is shown with the surrounding area behind it appearing red in the direction that you are receiving damage from. As you become more hurt the red begins to fill the screen around the transparent cog, which remains clear in the middle as well so you can focus your attention on your target(s) as your peripheral vision is restricted. At first I preferred the old damage indicator, but after getting used to it the new aesthetic works just as well and is much better at showing you where you're taking damage from should you not see the shots coming, and does a good job of ramping up the tension when you're badly hurt.
A plethora of new enemies are added to the already extensive roster of Gears baddies, including the Swarm's troublesome leeches, the daunting Swarm flock which is made up of a bunch of flying leeches that attack in droves and overwhelm defenses, poppers (juvenile Swarm drones equipped with grenades that effectively serve as kamikaze fighters), and the intimidating Warden, a hulking Swarm Scion equipped with two devastating maces and tons of armour.
You're given several new weapons to aid you in battle, including a brand-new Lancer variant: the Lancer GL. The GL of course stands for Grenade Launcher, and instead of the trademark chainsaw bayonet, this version of the Lancer comes with an atypical grenade launcher. Rather than simply firing a grenade like a normal launcher attachment, the Lancer GL fires a laser-guided mortar that launches skyward, breaking up into a cluster of micro-grenades that descend toward its laser-guided target. It's particularly effective against enemies in cover and can be devastating in the right hands, though ammo is limited to a maximum of just three rounds.
The new Talon machine-pistol makes for an effective close-range sidearm, the Cryo Cannon heavy weapon freezes enemies caught in its spray and enables easy shatter kills on frozen targets, flashbang grenades stun enemies for a few seconds and can be particularly useful to get out of a tight spot, the Claw is a Swarm AR-type weapon that quickly builds damage as the fire rate increases but soon overheats which causes that firing rate to slow to a crawl, and the new Breaker Mace is a devastating melee weapon capable of turning multiple nearby foes into instant blood fountains at the same time.
Every weapon serves a purpose and is impressively balanced, with power weapon ammo being in short supply and more common guns being more about preference and situational usage than one weapon being better than another. Each has strengths and weaknesses and picking a power weapon up is no guarantee of success. All of the old Gears favourites return as well, from the classic chainsaw-bayonet version of the Lancer to the devastating Boomshot and the fan-favourite Gnasher shotgun.
Everything about Gears 5 exudes confidence and polish, and the gameplay remains incredibly smooth no matter which of the game's various modes you're playing.
There a lot of ways to enjoy Gears, and as such I'll break down each in more detail. The four core modes are of course the Campaign, Versus (player-vs-player multiplayer), Horde mode, and the all-new Escape mode.
Gears 5 picks up where the fourth entry left off (spoiler alert): the discovery that Kait Diaz is somehow related to the Locust through her mother.
Although you'll play as JD Fenix in a few missions, you'll primarily play as Kait throughout the campaign as she looks to uncover the origins of the Locust horde and her own family history. You'll of course be helped along your journey by Del, JD, Jack, and new character Fahz as well as Gears legends Marcus Fenix, Baird, Cole, and more.
The story is a real highlight here and series fans will be thrilled as answers to long-running questions are finally uncovered. The campaign also regularly harkens back to Gears' horror roots, as several missions take place in dark and cramped quarters with a haunting score serving to create a tense and sinister vibe.
As you make your way through dilapidated buildings and abandoned research facilities, Jack's spotlight is often your only source of illumination, beaming intense LED light off of the surroundings and showcasing the stellar lighting and particle effects present in the game.
While many people know Gears as a game featuring a burly squad of wisecracking soldiers, at its heart has always been a mature and dark look at the nature of war and technology, and that really shines throughout the deep 10-15 hour campaign. Some scenes are surprisingly grisly and sinister, bringing back memories of the first two entries in the series.
The graphics in particular deserve another mention as they really are superb throughout the varied locales in the campaign. Impressive architecture combining both futuristic designs and classical form can be seen throughout the city of New Ephyra, rich colour palettes make distinct locations really pop (in particular the red sands and dust-covered ruins of Vasgar and the white and blue look of the snow and ice covered area around Mount Kadar), and the detail on display is truly impressive.
The biggest changes to the traditional Gears level design come in the form of several open areas explorable by the new Skiff vehicle, which is basically a cool looking sled with a massive sail that uses Sera's high winds to let you speed along ice sheets and sand dunes alike. It's surprisingly fun to drive and the large explorable areas used in several spots throughout the campaign are used to great effect in what has traditionally always been a very linear experience.
Unlike many other open or semi-open areas you won't randomly see a pack of roaming Swarm or Locust in the middle of nowhere; instead, locations of interest can be discovered (each has a flag as well to denote that it's an explorable location) and the Skiff can be parked at the entrance while you explore and complete the objectives. For the first time in the series side missions are available, each adding a more localized problem to the journey and giving you rewards for solving them or uncovering their secrets.
Those rewards come in the form of upgrades and abilities for the squad's drone companion Jack.
While it would be odd to have the series staples suddenly employing special abilities like in many other modern titles, having Jack employ different technological feats fits perfectly in cannon and adds plenty to the series combat. Jack's abilities including cloaking you for a short period of time, scanning the area for exact enemy locations via a radar pulse, zapping targeted foes with an electrified blast, giving you a health-boosting stim mid-firefight, and even taking control of hostile automated enemies to have them fight for your side. Each is activated by the push of a button and can be quickly swapped at any time, with one ability applying to you and/or your squad (like cloaking and stim) and another equipped to combat enemies (like the electric blast and a flash that stuns targeted foes).
In a smart new mechanic Jack now offers contextual aid during battle as well - point at a weapon dropped by an enemy in the distance or the shimmer of an ammo crate and you can have Jack fetch the item for you while you remain behind cover. It's a helpful addition that makes Jack feel like part of the squad rather than a sometimes needed plot device.
Components can be collected throughout the game world and are used to upgrade Jack's special abilities as well as passive upgrades that make him more useful in general combat, such as improving his shock weapon and strengthening his armour, while the "ultimate" upgrade for each ability can only be retrieved by completing different side missions. It's a smart and simple upgrade system that adds incentive to players to explore the beautiful locales featured in Gears 5.
Other collectables such as COG tags, propaganda posters, documents, and physical items are all strewn about the game's levels for players to find, but the other new form of collectable is much more interesting: relic weapons.
Relic weapons are powerful variants of the normal guns found in Gears, each sporting different perks and advantages over the vanilla versions. These include a Retro Lancer which fires explosive rounds, a Longshot sniper which gives you an extra round in the chamber when you score an active reload, a Hammerburst which adds another round to its burst each time the trigger is pulled, and a fast-firing Torque Bow which acts more like a traditional crossbow thanks to its non-explosive but still deadly rounds.
You can find 17 relic weapons in total throughout the campaign, and luckily ammo crates resupply their ammunition as well so you can keep them with you for extended periods.
All of the additions and improvements, combined with stellar writing, make Gears 5's campaign arguably the best in the series since the original.
You can play the entire campaign with a buddy, but if you want a third teammate on your journey, they take control of Jack - thanks to the wealth of upgrades and abilities he's a fun character to play as, though it is quite different compared to the traditional Gears characters, so it may not be for everyone.
The one place where the story stumbles is in its final act. As the second entry in a trilogy, one might expect Gears 5 to end on a cliffhanger, but here the story is satisfyingly concluded and its main arc completed, even if the fight isn't entirely finished. So in that sense, Gears 5's conclusion is a resounding success.
Instead, the failing is in a very peculiar design choice.
I won't spoil the details, but essentially in the final act you have to make a decision that greatly effects the story going forward, with two different endings possible. Given that the decision is binary and the endings very different, how The Coalition plans to handle the ramifications from this choice for the sequel is questionable - either one of the two options is going to be considered "cannon" and thus Gears 6 would pick up assuming you made that choice (which defeats the purpose of giving players a choice in the first place), or the campaign is going to have two separate storylines based on the decision players made in Gears 5.
Considering Gears of War has always had a linear story and it suits that kind of storytelling perfectly, it's extremely odd that the developers felt the need to throw in a choice that drastically changes things going forward, especially when there were no other such narrative choices given to players at any point in the series. The most players have ever been tasked with choosing is which path to take in a level or which gun to grab, not anything that affects the entire plot. The choice is at odds with the series as a whole and needlessly complicates things going forward without much benefit for players.
Gears of War has always delivered strong campaigns, but its multiplayer component is what has kept its community thriving over the years.
In many ways, Gears 5 has one of the best multiplayer offerings since the timeless original back in 2006; polished and silky smooth gameplay at a steady 60 frames per second, a slew of maps to play on, a variety of modes catering to both casual players and hardcore gearheads, and dedicated servers to ensure connections are steady and strong throughout its 5-on-5 matches.
For more laid-back gaming sessions, unranked custom matches with your own rules, map rotations, and even weapon layouts can be hosted/joined with an old-fashioned lobby system to narrow things down to the kind of mode and maps you like best, and in a nice touch you still earn experience to level up your profile (though not as much as ranked matches of course).
Arcade mode, which is available in an unranked playlist (complete with standard matchmaking and dedicated servers), offers a unique twist on the traditional team deathmatch game type: each selectable character (for both the COG and Locust teams) has their own loadout with a primary weapon and sidearm, as well as three unlockable weapons that can be "bought" with skulls earned during the match. Skulls of course are earned through eliminating enemy combatants, with one skull being awarded per elimination (rather than purely counting kills, if you put damage into a player that then dies, you earn an elimination whether you finished them off or a teammate did).
The three unlockable weapons or grenades can be purchased with two, four, or six skulls, with more powerful weaponry requiring more skulls. Each character has a unique set of three unlockable weapons (there's also a couple of characters with randomized picks, with how many skulls it costs correlating to how likely you'll receive a more powerful weapon). Spending your skulls wisely is key to success in the fun new mode, which offers something unique and fresh without being too complicated.
In addition to custom games and Arcade mode, there's a Quickplay mode which places you in a persistent lobby against other players; after a game is done, players get to vote on the next map and mode from a selection of three random pairings. When players leave, whether it be during a session or in between games, bots automatically take their place. Bots of course aren't nearly as good as (most) human players, but since they have no input lag or delay, they are still dangerous and do a good job of at least limiting the damage when a team has fewer human players.
There's also a version of Quickplay that locks you in as a COG player with your opponents all being bots of your desired difficulty. It's a smart addition to include for newcomers who'd like to get accustomed to the game before jumping in against more advanced human players, and the bots do a solid job of providing some challenge (especially on harder difficulties) while serving as a slower-paced and easier environment to learn in.
As for the core Gears multiplayer experience, ranked matches offer several different game types each with their own dedicated matchmaking. The matchmaking isn't the fastest compared to the likes of Call of Duty but it works well enough and typically does a solid job of pairing you against similarly skilled opposition.
Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Guardian, Execution, and Gears of War 4's Escalation all return from previous entries and play just as you remember them, with the exception of Escalation, which sports a variety of differences from its last iteration. Escalation's changes include limiting respawns to five over the course of its round-based playtime with a single additional life granted after each round and the ability for one player to place weapons on the map for your team before each round, but overall it's got a bit too much going on and has too many rounds to be as fun as the more traditional modes available.
The biggest issue in all of the modes with respawns is that they take away from Gears' tactical focus and become overly chaotic, losing much of the strategy the series was known for. With most of the maps not being overly large, you'll regularly be flanked during firefights by players you killed just moments ago that happened to have their spawn point swapped to that side of the map, which is annoying to say the least.
Execution therefore is where the game shines, a simple round-based team deathmatch mode present since the very first Gears game that declares the team that eliminates all opposing players the winner of the round. The more traditional, tactical Gears formula holds up perfectly and the maps are all best suited to this style of play rather than the more chaotic modes which require a lot less thought and strategy. If you prefer to jump right into the fray repeatedly however, the other modes may be more your style.
Controlling power weapons and earning a good position in regard to the opposing team is vital to success regardless of which mode you play in, and of course being good with your Gnasher shotgun is mandatory. Just like in previous titles the famous Gnasher will be most player's most used weapon, its powerful blasts taking opponents out quickly in close-quarters in just as satisfying as ever fashion.
A plethora of customization options let you pick different skins for each multiplayer character, which include some really cool crossover picks like Dave Batista as Marcus (his dream role), spartans from Halo: Reach's Noble Team which was an Ultimate Edition bonus, and even a T-1000 and Sarah Connor as a tie in to the latest Terminator movie. Every weapon can also be equipped with a different skin, with different ones unlocking by completing milestones, levelling up, and completing daily objectives which add to your "season" ranking (seasons last for three months each and come with weekly and final rewards).
There's also plenty of different executions available including different ones for each weapon you have equipped, different blood spray patterns from executed enemies, different banners for your in-menu profile, and different callsigns which appear over your head when tagged by an enemy. Thankfully no loot boxes are used this time, and players who want premium skins can purchase specific ones or premium packs from the in-game store.
The problem that plagues all of the PVP modes in Gears 5 is one that has been present in all of the series' titles, but seems particularly bad here - host advantage.
Now that might seem confusing as dedicated servers host the matches, so calling it "host" advantage isn't entirely accurate, but that's what the problem has traditionally been called. Basically, those with lower ping and thus a better connection to the host have a marked advantage over those that are further away and thus have more of a delay or lag in input time.
This of course is impossible to entirely eliminate in multiplayer games without forcing everyone into the same room, but most modern games mitigate that issue to some degree, to the point where it's not really noticeable by the majority of players unless there's a severe connection discrepancy.
In Gears 5, the issue becomes very obvious to any player who plays more than a few matches. On the in-game scoreboard you can check to see your ping (connection time) at any point, and it's refreshed every few seconds. You can also see all of the other players - the dedicated servers do a good job of keeping everyone's ping nice and low, and I very rarely ever saw players with a ping over 100ms in any of my matches.
For most games, a ping under 80-90ms is sufficient and a good connection, and you shouldn't see much issue. In Gears 5 however, a discrepancy of 20-30ms between you and an opponent makes a massive difference, particularly with the Gnasher shotgun given its ability to kill with a single well-placed pull of the trigger. If you're facing a player or team with lower ping, even if it's say around 40ms compared to your 65ms, you will notice a difference in the effectiveness of your weapons, particularly with how accurately your Gnasher shots land compared to when you fired.
Playing with several friends in the same area, it became clear how big a factor ping became - games where we had lower or roughly the same ping as opponents saw our shots register accurately, where games in which our ping was higher, even if not by a lot, regularly came with frustrating deaths where shots we had clearly fired and should have landed according to what we had seen on our screens were not registering at all on the kill-cam.
The easiest way to illustrate this is to enter the Quickplay playlist against bots, who as AI controlled opponents, have no input lag and thus 0 ping. Even if your connection to the host is solid, just a few shots from a Lancer will down you thanks to the lack of input lag for the AI, where other human players take much longer to down you if you're moving at all.
There is no way to make every match taking place over the internet completely fair, as connections vary way too much, but other games mitigate those issues much better and you rarely see the kind of drastic difference even a small advantage in ping makes as you do in Gears 5. It really adds a major annoyance in competitive online play unless you happen to live extremely close to a server centre used by Microsoft and thus regularly have an extremely low ping, where you probably won't notice the massive advantage you have over other players.
Horde mode was made popular by Gears of War 2 back in the day and its premise is extremely simple: you and your squad take on waves of increasingly difficult enemies, trying to survive as long as you can and avoid being overrun. The easy to understand and implement formula became a hit and soon enough a variety of games had their own "horde" modes, with some entire titles focused solely on their own version of the Gears Horde formula.
Over the years, Horde in Gears of War has gotten more and more complicated - elements of tower defense were added as players could build small fences, turrets, and other fortifications with points accrued during play, more powerful weapons could be bought, special abilities for each character were added in, and other additions have turned the simple game type into its own beast.
In Gears 5, every playable COG character has their own weapon loadout and special ability, and can be levelled up by playing with that character. Increasing your character's level unlocks skill cards which can be used to add perks like extra damage for different weapons, health or ammo gifts for executing enemies, and improving the effects of the character's abilities.
Some characters like Del can be used to build defenses such as automated turrets and security fences, while others have potent special abilities like Kait's cloak. Each character has their own uses and finding one that suits your playstyle isn't difficult. Your droid companion from the campaign, Jack, is even a playable character, who plays a largely supportive role by healing and reviving teammates, grabbing weapons for them, stunning enemies, and more.
As has become the standard in recent outings, Horde features 50 waves of enemies, with each wave growing in danger until every 10th wave which is a boss wave and features some of the more difficult enemies in the Gears universe. The following wave goes back to a much smaller attack force but increases enemy damage and health, with each subsequent wave growing in strength up to the next boss wave, where the process repeats.
You'll continue to accrue points to spend on fortifications, improving your character's health and other stats, and basic weapons if you need them, while scavenging the battleground for more powerful weapons and ammo.
The problem with this 50-wave mode is that it's way too damn long. Most of the middle waves feel like tedious filler, and a single match (unless you fail much earlier and give up) will likely take you between two-and-a-half to nearly four hours to complete from start to finish.
When players leave, they're replaced by bots until another joins, but there isn't much incentive for players to join in-progress matches - if you join in later as waves have already progressed, you don't get the benefit of improved stats or other things you could have spent points on either. It would be nice if players who are put into Horde matches after they've started are given a decent amount of currency to spend to help them catch up.
Levelling up your character in Horde is also extremely slow - although there are only 15 levels for each character, they take a long time to rank up, and since only one of each character is permitted in each game, you're not always going to be able to pick your preferred character which makes that grind even more annoying.
The perks you can get for each character can be quite useful especially when playing on harder difficulties which net you more experience to level up your character, but frankly the progression is just way too slow and grinding no matter the difficulty you choose.
Horde mode is still fun to play and if you have a solid chunk of time available in your day, can be well worth playing, especially if you have a few buddies with you. I'm sure many like having the 50-wave version, but there really should be a condensed 10-wave Horde mode available similar to how the mode was built originally - it would remove much of the tedium and allow more people to enjoy it thanks to drastically reducing the massive time investment currently required for each match.
A brand new mode debuting in Gears 5, Escape is a 3-player co-op outing that sees players infiltrate and demolish a Swarm hive.
Using a special rebreather to avoid being knocked unconscious when taken by a Swarm Snatcher, you and your squad are taken behind enemy lines into the heart of the Swarm hive inside pods.
Every match of Escape starts with your chosen character grossly cutting open their pod from the inside and removing their rebreather's tube from their throat before setting a venom bomb in the middle of the hive. This bomb releases slow-releasing toxic gas to destroy the Swarm infestation, with a timer set for 60 seconds. You and your teammates must then run through a maze of tunnels and enemies to get to an extraction point, keeping in front of the encroaching gas and fighting back Swarm defenses in order to escape to the extraction point and avoid being killed by the very gas you unleashed.
Players select their character from a small pool of choices - three brand new characters were created specifically for the mode, including an Irish pistoleer and a man that has an uncanny resemblance to the late MMA and backyard brawling star Kimbo Slice. Additional bonus characters like the Halo spartans and Sarah Conor from the Terminator franchise are also available, but all of the series regular heroes are left out of the new mode.
Everyone starts with only a sidearm (which one depends on your chosen character) and extremely limited ammo - salvaging ammo and weaponry should be your first and foremost objective in order to survive, and it's very scarce in Escape. As you kill enemies and find your way through the hive, Sires will be your biggest annoyance, as if you allow one to latch onto you, they will carry you away from your teammates before eventually killing you if your teammates fail to kill it and free you in time.
If you do get executed or otherwise die, your teammates can respawn you by ripping open a Swarm pod that gets placed in the map shortly after you die and is shown by a marker to your teammates. Of course when you are rescued, you are equipped only with your starting pistol and everything you previously had equipped is lost (although your teammates can pick it up from your corpse and use it so your death wasn't completes useless if you had ammo on you).
If all three of you (or fewer if someone quits or you want to play by yourself, as no bots fill in for teammates in this mode) die, you have to restart from the beginning or from a mid-level safe room should you have progressed that far.
Teamwork is key in surviving and posting a good completion time, as enemies can quickly become overwhelming, especially with ammo so limited. Each character has their own special ability (which is very slow to charge), like Lahni's electricity-infused blade which quickly kills enemies with melee strikes, Keegan's ammo crate which replenishes ammo to all players inside of a small area, and Mac's shield which blocks incoming damage in one direction but still allows him to shoot at enemies. Each is useful in their own way but the amount of time it takes to charge is perplexing - they really should be useable more frequently in order to not feel like an afterthought.
Similar to Horde mode, each character can be levelled up to rank 15, with players earning cards to use to equip perks to their character which improve their abilities, stats, and more. Unfortunately, progression is painfully slow, especially given that many of the perks you get are basically required to have success on the higher difficulties. Those higher difficulties give you more experience so you can progress faster, but unless you have higher level teammates to carry you you're unlikely to survive long on them without having levelled up a fair bit first, forcing you to grind away.
This is made worse by the requirement that only one of each character can be used per game, and with so few options, you're likely going to have your progression spread across two or even three different characters.
A new Escape map is added each week, with past hives playable as well, though all of them are visually very similar and only the specific layouts really change. There have been some occasional additions for the maps that have been added over time like one that forces players onto separate paths, but overall they follow the exact same look and formula.
Hidden rooms are important to discover as they provide weapons and ammo as well as other goodies like COG tags which slow down the spread of the venom and stims which offer increased health until depleted, so exploring a map first to find the best rooms and path before putting in an attempt at a quick run time is essential.
Unfortunately while the mode had some promise and can be fun in spurts, it gets tiresome quite quickly especially with the glacial character progression and the same environment repeated ad nauseum.
There's a map creator for players to create their own Escape maps, but the options available are limited compared to an editor like Doom's Snapmap and thus the creations don't inspire much variation. Players can download other player's maps to host and join games just like you would a Versus custom match, but it doesn't seem to have garnered the kind of massive community investment The Coalition probably hoped for.
Frankly the time they invested in creating the Escape map tools would have been more wisely spent in crafting a multiplayer map creator for the more popular multiplayer component, similar to Halo's Forge tools. As a bonus multiplayer maps are also used for Horde, so they would be playable in both versus matches and in Horde co-op from the same level creator, and would be much smaller in scale than the Escape maps are.
Gears 5 is another excellent entry in Microsoft's first party stable. It offers a ton of content in a polished and beautiful package and is a complete steal if you have Xbox Game Pass (which really, why wouldn't you?).
The campaign is superb and arguably the best in the series since the original, the multiplayer has something for everyone even if a few issues hold it back from perfection, and its extensive co-op offerings provide plenty of extra action even if they do have some flaws and may not reach the heights of their potential.
+Stellar graphics and animations presented in a silky smooth 60 fps across all game modes, with its campaign offering particularly gorgeous with its vibrant colour palette and detailed environments
+Incredible sound design and score backed up by the iconic Gears theme
+Excellent campaign with an engaging story, plenty of variety in settings and gameplay, and a wealth of upgrades and collectables
+Polished and refined gameplay across all of its modes, along with plenty of new weapons, enemies, and customization options
+Solid selection of maps and multiplayer game modes and a ton of co-op content
-Odd player choice in the final act of the campaign
-Latency issues in online multiplayer
-Horde and Escape mode character progression is painfully slow
-No shorter/condensed Horde option
The Final Score: 9 / 10