Never does Gears 5 feel less traditionally Gears-ey than when you’re cavorting down a snowy mountainside on a metal surfboard pulled by an armoured sled, doing powdery powerslides around rocky embankments, pausing to check your map for the way forward, and marking off suspicious dwellings to investigate on your jaunt across a massive open area. You’re half expecting to stop off at sundown and get to work starting a fire.
Act two is when the game goes big, drastically expanding the series’ scope with an environment reportedly 50 times larger than any stage in Gears history. And then there’s another sprawling playing space in the very next act, completely different in tone and topography.
But despite the bracing views across open plains, these hubs are merely means to get from one set of waist-high walls to another. That is, unless you’re particularly invested in hoovering up every last bit of lore hidden away in rotted huts and abandoned camps. Gears 5 isn’t afraid to experiment at times, sure, but gated rooms and granite jaws still reign supreme.
Kait Diaz is your new protagonist, and promisingly, she’s the first time a Gears campaign gives you someone other than a member of the Fenix clan to control (unless you count prequel Gears of War: Judgment). Kait’s on a quest to uncover the truth behind her unusual connection to enemy force The Swarm, one that has her questioning both her identity and her allegiances. That basically means she has a lot of weird visions.
Gears 5 is playable in up to three-person co-op throughout, so you’ve always got companions. The constant chatter keeps the action from feeling overly intense, even when you’re up against numerous teeth-gnashing nasties. And numerous they are. Developer The Coalition has combat down to a science, mixing and matching enemy types, level layouts, and environmental hazards with aplomb. Gears veterans will, for better or worse, recognise all the tricks.
13 years is a long time to be singing the same tune
There’s the bit where the weather goes bad and wants to kill you, which in Gears 5 takes the form of a deadly blizzard that redirects projectiles and drops massive ice shards on your head. There’s the bit where you fend off waves of charging wretches, who swarm in number and demand either close-up shotgun blasts or desperate melee attacks. There’s a writhing cloud of smaller critters that tries to engulf you like piranha. And there is, of course, the bit where you have to dodge-roll out the way of a massive spiky bloke before shooting his exposed back.
The majority of Gears 5 feels like a ‘greatest hits’ of gameplay beats compiled from 2006’s first installment onwards. 13 years is a long time to sing the same tune, and it’s in these moments that Gears 5 feels truly routine. Sure, the series’ now-vast back catalogue of enemy and weapon types does its part to keep the pace snappy, coming at you thick and fast and ensuring you never spend more than a minute without enjoying some new tool that fires buzzsaws or freezing rounds or mini mortars, but it’s also not doing much you haven’t seen before.
There are some exceptions to this rule, but like the open-world environments, the real impact of these new features is limited. Take the return of your floating helper ‘bot, Jack. This time you can outfit him with upgrades enabling you to deploy different tactics on the battlefield. For instance, when foes hunker down behind cover, you can call in a flashbang to stun them long enough for a kill. This gives you options against anyone proving particularly stubborn.
Another useful technique is the stim, whereby Jack emits a blast of armour making you impervious to damage for five seconds. Try using it in audacious blitzes against minibosses you’d ordinarily have no business getting within 25 yards of. If this were a fantasy RPG, Jack is the spellbook from which you’d call forth enchantments. From shock traps that electrify enemies to cloaks that turn you temporarily invisible and assist in bold flanking manoeuvres, Jack adds a small twist to Gears 5’s battle-tested fighting. Small, because Jack’s measures are temporary, and restricted to a cooldown meter that takes a while to refill.
Jack reflects an attempted focus on abilities and teamwork that carries over into Horde mode, in which up to five players try and survive against 50 waves of increasingly difficult enemies. Here, one player now has the option to control Jack as he hovers about boosting teammates’ health and movement speed, frying foes with blasts of electricity, and hoovering up currency for everyone. As the first dedicated support character since the mode’s inception, Jack is an exciting addition. And as its first flying robot, he’s also a tantalising glimpse at what Horde mode could’ve been with fewer boring bipeds. But as with so much of Gears 5, the new Jack feels like a good, fresh idea that hasn’t been given enough space to flourish.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to test out two of Gears 5’s other online modes at the time of review. If you want to know more about new multiplayer mode Escape, in which you and your team has to survive against a battalion of Hive enemies as deadly gas fills the room, click here to read more.
As you’d imagine, this is a more personal journey than the previous games’ world-saving escapades (hence the title’s omission of ‘Of War’), and the stakes do feel somewhat lower as a result, but likeable characters keep you involved. That’s not to say Gears 5 is a laugh-a-minute quote-a-thon. You’ll find it difficult to remember any noteworthy lines or subtle character moments. Rather, this is company you’ll appreciate, slap bang in the middle of the emotional depth scale between Daniel Day-Lewis drama and gun-wielding Easter Island statue. Which is an improvement.
It’s difficult to know where the series goes from here. Flirtations with open-world game design, though at times visually beautiful, don’t change the experience in any meaningful way. And the temporary abilities your AI companion grants you just seem to add to the cacophony. Combat is undoubtedly tight, levels look gorgeous, and scenarios rarely outstay their welcome, but in the end, the three-year wait demanded more. Reliably punchy combat and some well-intentioned new ideas don’t lift Gears 5 from its usual, albeit dependable, routine.