XBox exclusives have come and gone, but really the big two are their first-person vehicle for players to shoot things up as a sci-fi soldier and their third-person vehicle for players to shoot things up as a sci-fi soldier. Halo already has its entry with a 5 after it, and so it must have been time for Gears of War to catch up – and duly here's Gears 5, which has dropped the "of War" part, since I guess it's apparent at this point from all the previous, you know, warring, that we are unlikely to assume that's short for Gears of Floral Arrangement.
Actually the sixth game in the venerable waist-high-wall-hugging simulator, Gears 5 gets us back to the new (well, new-ish) set of characters and circumstances established by Gears of War 4. Marcus Fenix and his surviving comrades are now all grumpy old veterans, there's a new generation of heroes, and they have to deal with a threat that it turns out Marcus and friends didn't entirely polish off properly the first time. It's all very new-Star Wars-y, except there are a lot more f-bombs, and the Lancer's chainsaw bayonet is still a much messier option than a lightsaber for chopping bits off people.
The campaign kicks off with players (up to three even, with couch co-op still a thing here – hurray!) assuming control of Marcus's son JD from Gears of War 4, but soon shifts focus after a bit of a time jump to his squad member Kait. Here, the story becomes one of her delving into her past to explore her family's mysterious connection with series' monsters the Locust (now reborn as the Swarm), which was hinted at at the end of the previous game (if you missed Gears of War 4, don't worry – a handy "previously on" video at the outset fills you in). Kait and Gears friend Del go a bit AWOL from COG to dig up what they can about Kait's weird connection to the Swarm, leading them to the various battles in the wrecked grandeur of Sera's military, scientific and urban environments we've come to expect from the series.
There's a couple of twists this time around, though. Kait and Del (and later the larger squad) are accompanied by Jack, an upgraded version of the series' prior robot helper who is not only essential for hacking computers and can revive downed Gears, but also gains access to an increasing range of abilities as the campaign continues. These include things like stunning enemies, providing you a few seconds of cloaking or extra armour, or even hijacking an enemy unit to turn him to your side. Each ability has four upgrades that can be unlocked by spending parts you find hidden around the maps, so there's a bit of light RPG skill-tree decision making to be made here, too.
Jack's abilities are enough to add a bit of tactical variety to the standard Gears arenas. You can use the cloak to take out as many enemies as you can by stealth before the firefight inevitably kicks off in earnest, turn a Drone hunkered down in the middle of his fellows devastatingly against them, or plonk on a frontal shield to advance Rambo-style (may as well go ahead and do the yell in your lounge while you do, too). It's a nice change-up that adds a bit more to the gameplay mix (once you start habitually remembering that Jack is actually there) than the usual smattering of new weapons would. That said the new Cryo Cannon here, which allows you to freeze the Swarm solid, is a fun time, and the upgraded Lancer model's underslung micro-rocket launcher is almost enough to consider abandoning the chainsaw bayonet (but only almost. Never leave me, chainsaw bayonet).
The other major change-up is Gears dipping its toes into the open-world territory for the first time. Kait and Del's investigation kicks off at an Outsider village up in the mountains but soon leads to a snowy valley where the distances are too great to travel on foot. Fortunately, they've secured a sort of snowboard/dogsled/paraglider hybrid ("the skiff") to get them around, and as Kait, you're in charge of sail-sledding around to discover and investigate scattered locations on the map – yes, there's a map – in the order you see fit. In the game's third act the skiff comes in handy again in the striking blood-red sands of a desert environment. Locations become divvied up into primary and secondary missions, with the latter generally offering supercharged Jack abilities as a reward, and primary ones advancing the main story further.
Look, it's a change, and a change is sometimes as good as a holiday. Scaling the real estate up makes the Gears world feel more substantial and more of a fleshed-out environment than it has done before in a series generally full of bombed-out buildings and evil labs. Hoofing along and pulling off a big jump in the skiff is kind of fun, and there's one particularly memorable section in the desert where you drive the skiff through a "wind shard" storm, as lightning strikes the sand all around you and throws up melted sand which instantly hardens into trees of black glass. The environments are beautiful to look at (part of top-notch presentation all round), and neat little details like the trails the Gears leave in the snow and sand are all there.
But … does Gears really need to be open-world? Not on this evidence. It may seem churlish to criticise the one big change for a series that's often been criticised as "more of the same". But it's not that the intent isn't welcomed, but more that the execution is a bit halfway-house. There's no vehicular combat, and no random encounters out in the world. Essentially each primary or secondary mission location is another tightly-scripted Gears level or battle arena, but now you have to spend time manually driving uneventfully between them. There just aren't that many secondary missions – to the extent that it's almost unthinkable that anyone would choose to skip them – so what you have is more or less a typical Gears campaign that lets you choose what order you want to play some of the levels in. You can skiff over to interesting-looking non-mission derelicts or wrecks and hop out for a poke-around if you like, but this is for collectable-hunters only – you'll never be surprised by a cool enemy encounter or hidden bunker. If I was ultra-cynical, I might think it was simply a way to pad out the campaign's running time, which clocks in at about 12-13 hours. Hopefully though, it's the start of building to something along these lines with a bit more meat on its bones in Gears 6.
And there has to be a Gears 6 because the campaign ends on a sort of abrupt non-conclusion that had me wondering if I had accidentally Pressed X to Skip Rest of Game. It's probably the most "stay tuned, kids!" ending I've seen since Halo 2, and comes just after a player narrative choice that, when you make it, seems all set to inform the story in the last act of the game – instead what seems like it should be the final act never happens, and I guess it will be informing the story in the next game instead.
It's a shame, because there's some improved character work in the writing throughout, and strong voice acting, with the little interactions between characters as they wander around the world probably some of the best work the series has done in the narrative department. The overall story delves into shifting allegiances in all their forms – between governments, between friends, and even within Kait's own head. The game lives in grey areas – COG is more or less the saviour of humanity, but the game is not afraid to point out that it's pretty fascist, and has been up to some major dodginess in its desperation. Marcus, off to the sideline now, sums it all up by managing to walk the line as simultaneously its biggest hero and largest critic (and is somehow still a sergeant with all the military authority of a field marshall). And all the intrigue also manages to more or less work without jettisoning the series' overall lunkhead-bro vibe – it's just that here the lunkheads feel like people, with personalities. But those people will have to wait to get some closure. Ah well, at least while we countdown to Gears 6, there's multiplayer.
Fortunately, here Gears maintains its status as just about the only third-person shooter with multiplayer worth a damn. Horde mode, putting you and four friends/internet randos up against 50 waves of enemies, is naturally back, and still best in class. New are pooled resources, used for both building defences and personal upgrades, more in-depth class and character divisions including unique "super" abilities based on individual characters (Marcus's "living legend" power makes every shot he lands count as a headshot for a few seconds, for example) and the ability to play as Jack, who is nearly a pure healer/support option. A good Jack player zips cloaked around the map buffing and reviving allies, fixing barricades, and buying you precious seconds with a stun of the drone about to stomp you, and is key to success.
The new multiplayer mode in Gears 5 is Escape. In this players take the role of a specialist team of Gears whose rather dangerous job is to get themselves stuffed into a gross Swarm pod and taken to the heart of a Swarm lair, cut out of the pod, set off a chemical weapon that will wipe the lair out and then escape themselves before the spreading gas catches up with them. Their insertion method makes for minimum initial resources, so as a team (of up to three) you're forced to improvise with what weapons and ammo you can scramble from defeated enemies and occasional supply rooms as you fight your way out of the lair. Each different selectable character (including, with pre-order DLC, two Spartans from Halo: Reach and bizarrely, Sarah Connor from the upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate, which I can only assume resulted from Paramount driving a dump truck full of money up Microsoft's driveway) also has a different special ability to call on after a long recharge. It's a less time-intensive option than Horde, and offers a different sort of challenge, with sparse resources and a focus on always being on the move. There's a regular rotation of featured maps, and player-created maps are also catered for, so it will be interesting to see if it draws some attention from Horde and Versus – at the moment, maps feel all a bit samey, and can be full of sharp difficulty spikes.
Versus shakes things up a little bit rather than making any dramatic departures or trying any radical experiments, but hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. My go-to here so far has been Arcade, where different characters have set passive abilities. Skill card upgrades and individual character advancements that litter the multiplayer everywhere else (as seems to be standard these days) don't apply here, and instead, there's a Counter Strike-style chance to purchase guns at the start of each round, based on how well you've been doing previously. If it's not your jam though, there's a whole suite of the classic modes available, with the obviously returning classic five-on-five deathmatch joined by a cluster of familiar modes like Escalation, King of the Hill, Dodgeball and more. And of course, there are all those targets to tick off, characters to level up, abilities to unlock, and more designed to keep you revving up that chainsaw.
Gears 5 is, overall, a slick package. If you were a bit let down by the sort of ho-hum Gears of War 4, the good news here is that things have been stepped up in most departments, and new ideas are in evidence in a series that has felt a bit on autopilot. A promising story with some enjoyable writing is let down a bit by its abrupt ending, and its gesture towards open-world gaming is welcome but doesn't quite go far enough. Nevertheless, you'll still power through some excellent Gears firefights in some spectacular environments, and there's a typically strong multiplayer offering to keep you interested at the end. Grab some friends and get to chainsawing the Swarm, and each other*.
*Gameplanet does not endorse chainsawing your friends...
+ Jack’s combat abilities freshen basic gameplay up.
+ Open world elements a welcome attempt to do something different, expand the Gears universe.
+ Series’ strengths - Horde mode, basic combat, weapon variety, presentation – all still rock solid.
- Open world is for sure nice to have, but not very in-depth, meaning it feels a little like padding .
- New Escape multiplayer mode not quite hitting its stride yet.