The following article contains spoilers for Gears 5. Read on at your peril!
While I now consider myself a fan of the Gears of War franchise, I only began playing the games this past year. Since January I have been playing through the series in their order of release, catching up with all the chainsaw-ing enemies in twain and exploring the cost of war that other fans have been enamoured with since 2006. I’ve only played the campaigns and the competitive multiplayer doesn’t interest me in the slightest, but I’ve grown into a passionate fan of the series – charting my enjoyment in my ‘First Time Playing’ series – and it was a joy to finally catch up with all the other fans and play Gears 5 upon its release this past September. Even with the disappointment I felt in Judgement and the slight lacklustre feel Gears of War 4 imbued upon me, I was excited to play the latest instalment, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would ultimately enjoy it. You see, Gears 5 is now my favourite of the series and here’s why.
The game begins with a brief but welcome return to the paradisiacal location of Azura, previously seen as the climatic battleground in Gears of War 3, and I feel this highlights the mission statement of Gears 5. Yeah, the game’s going to return to familiar locations, link back to the earlier games and in many ways feel like a Gears game of old, at least more so than Gears 4. But that’s not all it’s going to do. It won’t simply rely on mere nostalgia but rather Gears 5 will reintroduce elements and aspects of those games and twist them. Change them. Change how you look at them and how you play them, and offer a truly evolved and modern version of Gears of War. It’s a game that takes pleasure in feeling simultaneously familiar and different. It still offers the great missions, story, characters and weighty brutal testosterone-injected gameplay you expect from the series, but it changes just enough that it feels like a totally fresh experience.
The first act of the game soon switches location from Azura to the more standard Gears setting of a COG settlement under attack by the Swarm. That’s really the best way to describe Act 1, “standard Gears”. That’s not a complaint though. In fact, I love the first act and it nails the formula of the series much more than any section of Gears 4. It’s the game’s way of slowly introducing the player into what the game is doing differently. It gives you what you know and then slowly adds new elements, whether they be new mechanics, enemy types or abilities. It’s a surprisingly long section of the game and features some great set pieces, my favourite being fighting on stage in a theatre putting on a production of ‘Embry’, which is Sera’s version of Hamilton. What’s best is that, while Kait is the playable character for most of the game, you play as JD Fenix during this section and that’s the perfect way of lulling the player into a false sense of security that this game will be just like the last, until it pulls the rug out from under you at the end of the act. We get huge character reveals and choices, leading to some catastrophic consequences (the key to good drama) and the formula set down in these opening hours is quickly evaporated.
One of the biggest and most welcome new gameplay mechanics is the addition of a new-and-improved version of the JACK robot. Whereas in the original trilogy and Judgement, JACK was a flying friend who did nothing but very occasionally de-cloak and unlock a door for you, the new JACK is much more integral to gameplay. Personality-wise he’s more interesting, taking on the role of a R2-D2 or BB-8 type companion, and he has a variety of abilities that can be performed at the player’s beck and call. Usually robotic companions (which all of these types of games seem to have) are profoundly useless but JACK’s abilities are very useful and drastically change how I play. I can hang back in cover and have JACK flash or freeze the enemies to make them easier to pick off, or I can charge forwards using a stealth cloak or shield to block incoming fire. What’s better is that these abilities are easily upgraded by finding ‘components’ strewn across Sera, which became quite the obsession. Although, some abilities are given to JACK when it would be much better to have them on your character. I greatly missed the torch (flashlight) that was attached to the weapons from Gears 4. JACK is the only light source now and too often I’d be left in a pitch-black corner with the damn robot nowhere to be seen or pointing in the completely wrong direction.
Gears 5 has a great variety of enemy types that keeps the combat from becoming stale, unlike some of the franchise’s previous entries. There’s always a good mix of Swarm, Locust Scions and the more special enemy types, some of which are brand new. The large melee enemies known as ‘Wardens’ can be particularly tough, as can the ‘Stumps’. The best though is by far the ‘Flocks’, which are a flying swarm of hundreds of leeches that can attack you as one or splinter off to attack one-by-one, and your best hope to survive is to unload on them until the Flock gets visibly smaller and smaller and no leeches remain. These leeches can also attach themselves to the COG robotic forces and force them to change their allegiance, turning friend into foe. This idea was very briefly set up in Gears 4 when a Pouncer fired some spikes that managed to hack into a DeeBee and I thought it was terrible. But, with the switch to leeches and the ultimate execution of these villainous robots, I think it works very well in Gears 5. The DeeBees can either just attack you normally or, in a much more interesting and creepy horror game route, power down causing you have to be stealthy in order to take them out (or avoid them) without them sensing you and awakening.
Whereas Gears 4 stuck with the Fenix family and had Marcus’s son JD be the playable character, Gears 5 rightfully selects Kait as the protagonist and she probably has the most engaging and personal story of any of the playable characters in the series. She’s plagued by headaches and dark visions (one of which makes up the brilliant opening credits which reminded me of the opening of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) as some unknown dark destiny beckons her. She has a wonderful arc as she journeys to find her place not only between the COG and the Outsiders, but also between the humans and the Locust. Del rarely leaves her side in the game, and his role as the loyal sidekick and confidant improves him greatly from the nothing character he was in Gears 4. He builds a strong relationship with Kait, and therefore the player, as well as a comically too-close relationship with JACK the droid. And cutting the characters in Act 2 to only Kait and Del is a fantastic decision and the relationship that builds between the two of them there is wonderful.
JD goes from the protagonist of the previous game to, well, being a character that I often forgot existed in this game. I like that focus is placed elsewhere but he probably should have been in the game more, particularly considering his arc. I appreciate his struggle and turn away from Kait and Del, and what we learn about his past which seems to be a conscious effort to make him more than just the stalwart (and boring) character he was in Gears 4. He’s revealed to have killed civilians to maintain the peace and at the end of Act 1 accidently causes the deaths of many fellow COG soldiers. This sets him on a dark path, but one he comes back from, if not in a slightly too quick and ill-defined way. The arrogant COG soldier Fahz accompanies him on this journey, being the Del to JD’s Kait, and he’s often a welcome presence on missions. Although he does fit a little bit too snugly in the generic character mould of the asshole who’s okay once you get to know him, and he’s maybe a little bit too much of an asshole at the start and too okay by the end.
And then we get to the old timers: Marcus, Baird and Cole. It’s clear the developers still don’t know what to do with Cole. He’s simply the exact same as he was in the old games, just shooting and shouting, which is often fun but I’m disappointed that he hasn’t had the same level of character development as his former squad mates. Baird on the other hand is the opposite. He’s had a really nice evolution from the joker he was in the original games to the steadfast moral voice in your ear, offering technical support and acting as a general objective-giver overlord, he is in Gears 5. And Marcus is Marcus. Enjoyably gruff as ever, he’s held back so not to overshadow the new characters and let them breathe but he’s in the game enough for it not to be disappointing.
Act 2 of Gears 5 might just be the best act out of any game in the series. From this point on you play as Kait who’s searching for answers about her past and the origins of the Locust in a frozen wasteland filled with surprises. It’s here that for the first time ever the series becomes open world and offers huge explorable environments. While the main missions are still fairly linear, you can choose which objective to complete first and exploration is rewarded with missable side missions, locations, upgrades and collectables. I love an open world but I also often enjoy linear games and sometimes the mix just doesn’t work for me. For example, I’ve very glad to hear that The Last of Us Part 2 will not be open world. Bringing in such seemingly antithetical gameplay changes like this to Gears of War is dangerous and it’s possible that they’ll take away what makes the games great and what the fans enjoy. But this alteration to a more open world is very much an addition rather than a replacement or a subtraction. Despite the massive changes it brings, the game always feels like Gears and is a welcome evolution of the series.
At first the location is simply a walled settlement, quirkily erected within the skeleton of the giant Riftworm you have to slay in Gears of War 2. I love that the game gives you the time and freedom just to walk around the Outsider encampment and explore, listening in to conversations and picking up collectables to get all the juicy pieces of lore, just like you can in Baird’s lab in Act 1. But soon the walls come crashing down and you have an entire valley to peruse with a unique vehicle at your disposal. It’s a bizarre-looking skiff with a large sail, and I love it. It feels so great to drive and incredibly smooth. It’s very different from the bulky, almost-immovable weighty feel of the characters. I was sad at the thought of having to leave it behind and continue the rest of the game on foot but happily you somehow hook it on to a helicopter and fly it to the desert, allowing you to use it in Act 3 too!
The ginormous rampaging storms known as ‘Windflares’ were one of Gears of War 4’s most notable features and they make a welcome return in Gears 5, now with geological differences. In Act 2, they rain huge shards of ice down on you and your enemies, as well as cause boulders to roll towards you (Indiana Jones-style) from the unseen snow-stormed distance. The game uses the environments well in combat situations too. For example, you can shoot the ice atop frozen lakes to make enemies fall through and drown, which is a very fun way to take out those large, dangerous, bullet-sponge elite enemies quickly and easily. Windflares are similar in Act 3 but instead of ice, lightning strikes hit the dunes of sand around you creating beautiful but dangerous fulgurites. The storms look phenomenal and really make me wish I had an Xbox One X. They look good on my standard One but being used to playing on a PS4 Pro, I really wanted to witness everything in 4K HDR.
Within the frozen wilderness you come across the New Hope facility in a sequence that reprises the nostalgia of visiting the location in Gears of War 2 while also making complete story sense. It soon leads to a new facility however which, in an amazingly atmospheric sequence, gives the franchise something it sorely needs: answers. The origins of the Locust forces and the human queen that led them has never been coherently explained, until now. Queen Myrrah was a girl born with an immunity to Imulsion sickness and decelerated aging, and the Locust were created by Dr Niles Samson using Myrrah’s stem cells, while keeping her imprisoned, explaining the control she has over them. I’ve been confused about the story behind the queen since her introduction in Gears 2 and these answers are just what I wanted from this game, and not disappointing at all. Yeah, I still question how the Locust could have built the huge intricate cavern we see them inhabit in the earlier games in such short a time, but that’s my only slight issue with the answers we receive. And it’s not as if the game takes time out of its character-based narrative to answer lingering questions, in fact this is the perfect place for them. The answers are key to Kait’s struggle as it’s revealed that her mother Reyna was Myrrah’s daughter and that Kait is therefore the next in line for the throne.
Despite my love for the game, a weird structural thing that I don’t like is that the drama surrounding Kait ends halfway through. That’s the most interesting narrative thread but it gets wrapped up surprisingly early at the end of Act 2 when she gets her answers (apart from one reveal in Act 4) and chooses her place. The rest of the game, particularly Act 3, has a more standard and less character-motivated plot, although the writers do manage to make it a lot more interesting than it could have been. Act 3 tasks Delta Squad to launch some Hammer of Dawn satellites, a task that could be repetitive with the previous games, but relying on the same plot point here isn’t quite the crutch it first seems. It’s a storyline thematically resonant with what this new trilogy has been all about so far: heritage and children committing or rebelling against the sins of their fathers (or mothers). In order to save Sera once again, will this new generation commit the same sins and use the Hammer of Dawn to kill innocents and destroy their own land (which happens in a shocking moment in Act 1) in the hope of taking out the Swarm first?
Act 3 continues the open world non-linear style introduced in the previous act but just swaps the snow for sand. And blood-red sand at that. It’s an incredible environment in terms of its size, visuals and what it offers for the series. It’s our first glimpse of Vasgar, a territory previously controlled by the UIR, and it has a very different feel to the rest of the Gears universe. If the COG is the equivalent of the USA then the UIR is very much inspired by the Soviet Union. The environment is stained with death, both from the Pendulum Wars, the Locust War and now the Swarm War and the blood-red sand is a striking way to literally show this. The area has a dark beauty and is totally unique in this long-running game series, but maybe not in sci-fi in general. I swear Vasgar is inspired by Crait from The Last Jedi, but instead of the white salt over red soil there’s red sand over black rock, which is unearthed in the wake of the skiff much like the Ski Speeders unearth the soil in the movie.
So, the third act charts the long process of finding, assembling and firing a rocket packed with Hammer of Dawn satellites into orbit, while encountering heavy resistance along the way, but for such a long section of the game, I was never bored. I wasn’t at any part of the campaign. I’m a fan of the series but at least once in all the previous games they’d be a section that goes on just a bit too long or an encounter that feels too familiar. But that’s not the case here. It’s a pretty perfectly paced game, and while I’m all for more content I think it was the right decision for the game to have four acts instead of the usual five. Although, I did take breaks from playing Gears 5 for the Modern Warfare beta, whereas I played the other games exclusively. And, okay, maybe I did get a little bit bored of the same drawn-out animation for opening doors. But that’s it!
While I absolutely love the second act of the game and wouldn’t change a thing, it was nice to explore Vasgar in Act 3 with the full 4-person squad of Kait, Del, JD and Fahz; especially so because of how much of Gears of War 4 was spent with a 3-person squad. It really does make a different adding that one extra character, but my favourite character of that section isn’t even part of the crew. Paduk returns to the series in a big way, and while Judgement introduced the character, Gears 5 takes him to the next level. The ex-UIR (and ex-COG) soldier’s past is revealed, albeit with his own brand of obfuscation, and makes for an interesting backstory to the location the rocket is kept, as well as fill us in on his journey between Gears 3 and the present. He reminds me of Garak from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine quite a bit, which is quite the complement, and I hope we see more of him in the franchise going forward.
But then we get to the game’s final act and it’s by far the weakest. Don’t get me wrong, I still like it but it’s a return to the more standard, linear Gears formula, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s just too short and abrupt. Although having said that, it’s nowhere near as abrupt as the ending of Gears 4 so they’re defiantly learning; I’m sure the ending of Gears 6 will be great. The Swarm are finally unleashed with their full might and devastate the city of Ephyra as the COG try to hold them off with the newly-launched Hammer of Dawn. It’s a continuous set piece of destruction which looks cool but there’s little emotional impact. Maybe if we’d been able to explore the city before it began to collapse, I’d care more. As it stands, the game ends with a cool vehicle section that’s ultimately quite pointless because – as I found out when replaying – you can just stand in the back of the truck not firing and you’ll survive, and then a climatic final boss fight with the Kraken. The fight is fine, just shooting the tendril-like tongues that dart out of its mouth before a rail gun shoots it in the face and JACK sacrifices itself to target the Hammer of Dawn onto the Kraken’s location.
But in the middle of the game’s final act, positioned rather awkwardly, is something else brand new to the series, but I’m not sure works very well. In a shocking scene, Reyna – the new Queen of the Swarm – emerges from the ground, holds both Del and JD at arm’s/tentacle’s length and has you (as Kait) choose who you want to live. I chose to save Del, both because that was the character I was more attached to (which I think was the game’s intention) and because I just think it would be more dramatic if JD died. And die he does, resulting in a slightly different final section of the game depending who you save and a big question mark about how Gears 6 will ultimately deal with this. But sticking with this game, I don’t think I like this. The death comes out of nowhere and feels like it was included for nothing but shock value. And does either Del’s death or JD’s death feel earned? I would say not. JD was seemingly suddenly redeemed at the end of the game when that shouldn’t be the case and his death just highlights this, and Del’s death doesn’t serve his story or anyone else’s, unless maybe Kait if she needs another reason to be angry at the Swarm. Neither death, and I’ve witnessed both deaths and their aftermaths, sit right with me and it’s very oddly placed. Straight afterwards we get Cole almost dying and JACK’s sacrifice, both of which are executed in a more impactful way and so undercut the drama of the Del/JD death. And Queen Reyna? Is she alive somehow or is it just her body being used somehow, just with tentacles now?
The game ends with a nice little bow to Kait’s arc, as the dust and copious amounts of viscera settle, the men of Delta Squad huddle together to mourn their losses and Marcus waves Kait over to join them, an indication that she has been fully accepted into the group. Kait joins her new family as she vows to kill the remnants of her old one, returning us to the trilogy’s main theme with a surprisingly strong emotional punch. And then the credits roll and I’m struck by a sad realisation. Like all the rest of the series’ fans, I have to wait three or four years for the next game. I’ve blasted through all 6 games in the series in 2019, starting the next game not long after finishing the previous, but I can no longer do that anymore. I’m all caught up. But what a way to conclude my Gears binge. Gears 5 is by far my favourite of the series. It’s certainly not perfect and has its flaws but overall, it’s an experience I loved. It has the best story, character beats, themes, is a joy to play and evolves the franchise in a way that keeps the beloved roots of the series intact but advances it into brand new territory. And now it’s time to do something I haven’t done with any Gears games as of yet: replay it.
What are your thoughts on Gears 5? Am I completely crazy for it to be my favourite of the series? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.