Gears 5 Review: Another Victory for the COG

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.


The Campaign

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.


Versus

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).