Though Gears of War 4 wasn’t without issues – as I noted in my review – it was an extremely satisfying game with a story that finally hit the right tone and shook off the Michael Bay-isms that had plagued the series from the beginning. Though the story felt like it ended abruptly, the final scene was a masterclass in tension and tragedy, beautifully staged and acted, with a wonderfully poignant soundtrack. It set series newcomer Kait Diaz up perfectly to be the next game’s protagonist, a move which seemed to be cemented by all of the pre-release marketing and the cover art for Gears 5 (with the ‘of War’ now dropped, it seems).
Which makes it all the more disappointing that, when the game starts, you’re once more in charge of boring, bland JD, son of original series lead character Marcus Fenix. Though this sequence goes on a lot longer than I would have liked – particularly as it hews, as Gears of War 4 did, far too close to the standard Gears gameplay formula – once you’re in control of Kait and her story comes to the forefront, things liven up considerably. In a series first, there are large, open-world sections traversed by a vehicle that’s a joy to control – it’s the most radical departure from being shuffled from one linear shooting gallery to the next in the entire series (though the horde mode style stages in Gears of War 4 added a bit more to proceedings, it still felt like the Gears of old for the most part).
Not only are these enormous sections – dotted with settlements to find and even optional side quests to complete – a refreshing new addition, even many of the more traditional areas feel so much bigger and more open in scope and size. Aside from a few very big examples, little has changed in terms of the enemies you face, but after the additions made in the fourth game – that really expanded the menagerie of creatures and mechanical enemies you fight against – it’s arguable that this is an area that didn’t need to be shaken up too much in any case. A great addition to your squad is an ever-present, upgradeable drone – JACK – who has plenty of customisation options to assist in combat and other situations.
The story is hands down the best in the series. There are some astonishing revelations and the emotional beats truly hit hard in the way they’re intended, without the ludonarrative dissonance that was so present in the original trilogy. There’s a truly creepy section set in a lab that is genuinely scary; it’s clear at times that other games in the series have attempted to hit this level of dread and fear, but this is the first time it’s truly been successful in my opinion. Though there are a few truly unlikeable characters – including a bit of a heel turn from a familar face – in teaming up with them as events escalate, they do redeem themselves somewhat (I’m still not a fan of obnoxious, English-accented bro Fahz Chutani though).
There’s an absolutely devastating climax – which, without spoiling it, can play out differently depending on a very specific choice that must be made in the final act – and Gears 6 is set up very well indeed in the final scene.
The Gears of War series has always been a technical showcase for Xbox platforms and Gears 5 is no exception. The bar is truly raised here, however, with astonishingly smooth and detailed visuals that run in 4K with HDR at 60fps on Xbox One X,, with some very well realised environments such as snow and sand that react very realistically to being walked or driven through. It’s one of those games that will likely still impress when the next generation arrives – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it still holds its own against Series X titles for a few years to come, in much the same way that Gears of War 3 still looks impressive visually even now, despite originating on the Xbox 360. It really is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve ever played.
For once – and perhaps because it’s still hugely active – I’ve even dived into the multiplayer suite of modes. There’s an awful lot here, with team vs, free for alls, Horde and Escape modes and more. Despite barely touching these modes, if at all, in previous Gears games, I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun with the multiplayer modes in Gears 5. It seems to be constantly evolving too, with the American Football-inspired Gridiron modes and more being added recently – with content dropping on a regular basis.
One complaint I do have about the multiplayer modes is the overpriced extra content. Mostly cosmetics, admittedly, there’s an awful lot of great stuff trapped behind a confusing economy at ridiculous real world prices. Much of it can be earned, but the grind is obscene and clearly stretched out so much to encourage paying as a shortcut. In such a big budget, high profile, full price release, it still makes me uncomfortable that items such as extra character skins can cost £10 or thereabouts, with minor, temporary XP boosts included to ‘sweeten’ the rather extortionate deal. None of it is necessary, of course – and there’s plenty of characters and weapon skins available without paying – but it just doesn’t sit right with me that it’s offered in such a way that’s blatantly designed to tempt players into paying more money.
That niggle about the multiplayer aside, Gears 5 is a triumph even if – as I’ve done with the other Gears games – you only look at it from a single player, campaign mode point of view. The storytelling that finally found some solidly satisfying ground in Gears of War 4 is built upon brilliantly here – and it’s a thrilling, emotional rollercoaster of a campaign that really nails the right tone and leaves you very hungry for more. For me, this has been one of the highlights of the current generation – something I never thought I’d be saying about a Gears of War game.
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