Considering how the Gears of War series is one of Microsoft’s flagship titles, Gears 5 has gone mostly under the radar in the run up to its release. The only song and dance we saw was during E3 where we got a fake out with the Gears Pop game before they assured fans with the announcement and reveal of Gears 5. Microsoft have been fairly quiet since then, so you’d be excused a little scepticism as to why that is. Rest assured, Gears 5 is another solid entry in the series, but it’s also one that will surprise you.
Gears 5 picks up shortly after the events of Gears of War 4, with Kait Diaz on a journey to discover her past having just been handed her grandmother’s necklace bearing a familiar motif. All the surviving gang from Gears 4 are back to help Kait on her journey in a simple but charming story that’s as much about not letting your past define you as it is about throwing Michael Bay-worthy set pieces at you.
Jack, Baird’s trusty hovering robot, also returns from the original trilogy to add a little spice, and it’s here that we get the game’s first surprise. He’s more than just a story element and is actually a gateway to a fully-fledged RPG levelling system, something that has never been seen in a Gears game before. It feels weird at first, but you start to depend on the little fella. To start with Jack just flies around zapping enemies before turning invisible and backing out, but upgrading him with components found in levels enables him to fetch heavy weapons from out of reach platforms, revive downed teammates and more.
Later, you can equip Jack with two additional abilities from a selection of seven. Pulse is the first ability you get, which lets Jack scan the battlefield and mark enemies for you. Other abilities like, Cloak, Stim and Barrier are also available, but Hijack is my favourite by far, which lets you convert an enemy to your side. All these abilities have an ‘Ultimate’ which significantly boosts the power of that ability. Flash, for instance, once upgrade, doesn’t just blind enemies in cover but also freezes them in place, while Pulse can be augmented to boost your damage to pulsed foes. These ultimate upgrades, though, can only be found in completing various side missions, which brings us to the second big difference…
Gears 5 has open maps, exploration and side missions! This will just feel weird for anyone who’s played a Gears game and got used to its wall-to-wall combat scenarios and exploring small spooky corridors. Everything’s kept quite normal in the first act, but opens up as soon as the second hits.
It was a bit jarring at first and I was worried that it would just translate to filler, but I was pleasantly surprised when it took nothing away from the core chapter levels. If you are going from A to B, then the open areas won’t impact you, and exploration, hunting for additional Jack components and side missions all have no bearing on the main campaign, but it’s there for people that want to add a little extra to the experience. They are obviously worth doing to pick up upgrades, and some of the side missions are just as big as main campaign missions. I’m all up for extra content as long as it doesn’t take away from the main campaign which it hasn’t here.
This is almost certainly the biggest Gears campaign yet. The long campaign, side missions and collectibles add up to around ten to twelve hours, and that’s before you dive into the multiplayer side, where there’s also more than enough to get stuck into across versus and co-op.
Competitive multiplayer in Gears has always had a high skill ceiling. It’s what made casual players shy away from the online mode where wall bouncing Gnasher shots would seemingly come out of nowhere like Randy Orton and knock you out of the match. The Coalition have seen this and wanted to inject some fun back for casual players with an arcade mode designed around less competitive play. In Arcade, each character has a unique loadout and upgrades that get better as you play. If you want, you can even play this against AI. For the competitive players out there, Ranked has all the death you need with modes like King of the Hill, Team Deathmatch and Guardian which sees you in intense matches hunting down the enemy leader while protecting your own.
Horde is back once again and has been revamped with heroes and abilities. Where you previously just picked your avatar/role and proceeded to build crazy defences while fending waves on enemies, team composition is now key. Each character has an ultimate which can be activated and used to great effect. Kait, for example, has the Camouflage ability which lets her turn invisible and escape from enemies while Del has a Reinforce ability which lets him summon Deebee Trackers to find enemies and explode.
The card system also returns, letting you buff your characters and adding to the progression as you upgrade the cards when earning multiples. As you level each character up, you can equip more cards making for some seriously strong buffs. Del gets a card called ‘Efficient Fabrication’ that reduces the cost of fortifying by 15%, which is invaluable when building a base.
Unlike Gears 4, not every character has access to the full build suite. Only Engineers can build absolutely everything, while the other classes have smaller selections. As I said, it means team comp is more important than ever with everyone really playing to their role’s strengths. Scouts don’t have access to any fortifications, but can spend energy to upgrade their own skills, increasing health, shotgun power and speed to help when running around the map collecting energy. Expansion is also promoted with Energy Taps appearing every ten waves. These structures can be captured and then used to produce more energy each wave so keeping them safe is key.
Finally, we come to Escape, the brand new mode that sees you and two others kidnapped (of your own volition) and taken deep into a hive so you can destroy it. At the start of the match, you plant a venom bomb and then leg it to safely, killing monsters and keeping each other alive on the way out. It’s a pretty smart game mode and a lot of fun.
There are three characters to choose from – Lahni, Keegan, and Mac – each with their own ultimate ability which charges over time. Like Horde, each character can be leveled up and boost cards applied to make the experience even smoother. It’s the thrill of the chase that got me the most, racing against the creeping venom mist while you are blocked by a wall of Locust. It’s all the sweeter when you escape as the doors close and enemies rush to try and take you out.
And if you get bored of the static Escape maps? Just make your own! Yes, Escape mode has a fully fledged map maker and online level sharing, a bit like Mario Maker but with blood and guts. Each of the multiplayer modes has a lobby search function which is brilliant, making finding games you want to play even easier.
There’s so much to do in Gears 5 and it would seem that The Coalition have even more planned. Each character can be customised with skins, banners and expressions, there’s gun skins and you can change the marks about players’ heads. The Tour of Duty helps unlock all of this, with daily objective and Tour medals to earn stats that rank you up through the Battle Pass-esque Operations. Completing versus, horde or escape games also earns you Supply points that eventually net you a free supply drop. More free stuff!
Of course there are microtransactions present, but there’s no second currency in the game, just Iron, which is used for making custom items. When everything’s cosmetic, it’s not really a deal breaker, and neither are the XP boosters which don’t impact competitive gameplay. Playing with friends has some benefits as you gain Honor XP together the more you play the more XP you earn. The bigger the group of friends, the bigger the bonus.
If there’s one gripe with Gears 5, it’s that while the game looks incredible, with hyper gore and dark moody overtones throughout, the frame rate dips noticeably during the campaign on the base Xbox One – haven’t yet played on One X or PC. Online seems to run at a solid 60fps, which just makes the step down in the campaign more noticeable.