After acquiring the Gears of War IP from Epic Games at the turn of this console generation, Microsoft groomed new studio, The Coalition to continue the series for the current-gen Xbox One, and somehow find a way to bypass the rather definitively concluded narrative from 2011’s Gears of War 3. The result of this initiative led to a good, but rather unremarkable follow-up in 2016’s Gears of War 4, which established a new enemy for the planet, Sera and its human population via the Swarm, a revived, mutated new successor to the Locust Horde that was seemingly defeated for good at the end of Gears of War 3. This was a fair enough effort to give the Gears of War series a new lease on life for the current console generation (while also returning it to PC, thanks to Microsoft’s Play Anywhere initiative), but it seemed clear that The Coalition was afraid to rock the boat with Gears of War 4, which mostly kept pace with Epic Games’ prior four Xbox 360 entries in the franchise, but nonetheless failed to stand apart from them.
Finally though, The Coalition is starting to want to step a little further outside of their comfort zone. Gears 5 represents a more distinct shift for the Gears of War formula that fans have come to love since the series’ debut in 2006, sporting a slick rebrand that shortens the franchise’s title, while presenting a slightly more open-ended campaign that provides more exploration and freedom of choice in how one accomplishes objectives and explores environments. This results in an especially tightly-executed and exciting new story campaign, albeit with the storytelling structure somewhat altered, to accommodate the more open-ended campaign design. This is of course on top of a return for the Gears series’ much-beloved online multiplayer and co-op survival modes too, complete with their own new additions and tweaks, which allow Gears 5 to further refine an already enjoyable multiplayer foundation with even more options and rewards.
And yet, despite the fact that Gears 5 is a gem, being an easy contender for the best game in the series to date, its gameplay modifications and upgrades still aren’t quite enough to entice people who aren’t already Gears fans. This is symptomatic of a larger problem that Microsoft has frequently struggled with throughout this entire console generation, namely first-party Xbox One and Windows 10 games that mostly fail to stand out from the competition to a serious degree, and simply double down on the audience that Microsoft’s flagship video game franchises already have, rather than finding good reasons to draw in new fans. That said, you can’t argue with the fact that Xbox Game Pass members can play Gears 5 for free on their platform of choice (or both platforms, if they happen to have Xbox Game Pass Ultimate!), and those curious about the series should absolutely give Gears 5 a try that way, especially since it’s ultimately a more interesting and better fleshed-out game than Gears of War 4 was. That’s not even considering people who already love the Gears series as well, who are bound to adore Gears 5, as what’s still ultimately the series’ best offering to date in many respects.
Gears 5 may still be holding back with truly changing up the way this series’ usual gameplay is approached, but there’s no arguing that the series’ reputation for being a technical powerhouse holds very much true in Gears 5. The bulk of the game’s ambitions seems to be thrown behind its visuals in fact, which are often nothing short of stunning! This is especially true if you’re playing on PC, where Gears 5’s ridiculously extensive and customizable selection of visual and performance options is nothing short of staggering, to the point of its highest settings being pretty much impossible to crank up to on even very high-end computers! This appears to be a deliberate future-proofing strategy, since Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox console is on the way next year, along with fresh PC hardware to keep leading the charge on evolving conventional gaming hardware. Thus, while it’s unlikely that just about any PC gamer will be able to maximize every one of Gears 5’s settings at once, even on super-powered rigs, it’s nice to see that the game is thinking ahead, considering that we’re on the cusp of a new console generation.
That being said, Gears 5 remains a visual powerhouse even on a base Xbox One or Xbox One S console, which presents incredible new detail to character models, environments, gunplay, and especially lighting and shading. These lower-end Xbox One consoles present a rock-solid 30fps performance clip in the campaign, but go up to a full 60fps clip in the multiplayer, along with packing a sharp 1080p resolution across all modes, creating a visual experience that runs perfectly and looks great, even if you’re still rocking a launch model Xbox One or Xbox One S. Since there’s dynamic resolution however, as is usual for many Gears games, the pixel count will vary during certain scenes on any Xbox One console, though the game always looks fantastic, with only some minor and occasional framerate judders between scene transitions being noticeable as visual blemishes. Yet despite this, Gears 5 clearly prioritizes performance over graphical detail, especially in the multiplayer. Even on lower-end Xbox One consoles, the game virtually never struggles to maintain 30fps during campaign gameplay, and 60fps during multiplayer gameplay.
It is nonetheless clear however that for those preferring to play on console, Gears 5 is best enjoyed on an Xbox One X, where its technical achievements are really allowed to flex their muscle. Xbox One X owners can enjoy extra slick 60fps gameplay throughout the campaign most notably, not just the multiplayer, and can also play in native 4K resolution, with Gears 5 seemingly coming astonishingly close to simultaneously juggling native 4K resolution and 60fps performance on Microsoft’s high-end Xbox console, a technical standard that’s usually thought to be beyond even the super-powerful Xbox One X’s capabilities! There are some caveats to this though, specifically the same dynamic resolution that sometimes decreases pixel count whenever the performance threatens to dip below the universal 60fps standard on Xbox One X. Not only that, but if you happen to be playing the campaign in split-screen, the game’s framerate will be reduced to 30fps, even on an Xbox One X. Overall though, Gears 5 pushes the existing Xbox One hardware potential as far as it could possibly go, standing alongside last year’s Forza Horizon 4 as arguably the best showcase of the Xbox One X’s incredible rendering and processing power at this point!
And yet even with all that impressive console power under the hood, Gears 5’s PC version appears to dwarf even the Xbox One X build of the game! As I mentioned, Gears 5 presents a wonderfully customizable PC port, one finally available on Steam from launch as well, which can seemingly accommodate any halfway-decent gaming PC, even budget gaming PC’s, with a fantastic built-in benchmarking tool that will always present useful and ideal settings, regardless of what kind of rig you’re using. Gears 5’s system requirements do demand at least a bit of noticeable hardware power to run the game on the recommended settings, but there’s a surprising amount of flexibility behind the minimum settings, so as long as your processor and video card were made within the past five years, you should be okay to at least hit the minimum settings mark.
If you can push Gears 5’s PC settings on a higher-end rig though, you’ll be presented with a ton of video options, presenting all manner of new environmental details, lighting flourishes and character modeling that you just can’t get on console, even on an Xbox One X. It also goes without saying that the PC version of Gears 5 can easily maintain 60fps performance on even mid-range gaming PC’s as well, with higher-end gaming PC’s also being able to push the performance to a pretty easy 60fps combo with a dynamic native 4K resolution. The PC version of Gears 5 even offers the ability to uncap the framerate and push it even further to as high as 120fps, though pushing the resolution past its native 4K threshold on PC, even if it’s theoretically possible, seems to tank the performance completely, even on the current highest end of graphics cards. This all amounts to a PC build for Gears 5 that pretty heftily leaves the game’s Xbox One builds in the dust, though like I said, this is no doubt a future-proofing tactic, which will help Gears 5 avoid looking immediately dated after Microsoft’s upcoming next-gen Xbox console releases next year, and once again moves the technical goal posts for their first-party Xbox games. That said however, you can’t go wrong either way here, since Gears 5 easily stands as one of the most visually impressive games of 2019, on Microsoft’s platforms and otherwise!
There isn’t much to say about Gears 5’s music suite, which largely favours ambiance over distracting orchestral compositions. Those heroic-sounding compositions do kick up at various points in the game, especially during firefights, but much of Gears 5 is intentionally thick on silent atmosphere, allowing the player to take in the gorgeously detailed environments without distraction. This is also before considering that a huge chunk of the game’s audio suite also yet again consists of high-powered weaponry, bullet sprays, explosions, destruction and exceptionally squeamish gore. Like any Gears game worth its salt, Gears 5 brings its firefights and environmental hazards to stunning life as well, presenting impeccably detailed destruction and mayhem that will always keep players firmly invested in the action, while also complementing the slower scenes of the campaign via more well-pronounced environmental effects that keep the tension high.
Gears 5’s voice acting is also another high point of the audio, with the newer voice actors settling more into their characters this time, and series veterans like John DiMaggio and Fred Tatasciore being great as ever while playing their legacy Gears characters. Laura Bailey delivers an especially impressive turn as Kait Diaz here to boot, now exceptionally rising to the demands of a lead character role, as increased emphasis is placed on Kait and her apparent Locust-connected origins in Gears 5. All of the voice actors bring enough emotion to help distract from some of the undercooked writing in the campaign, but they’re often at their most entertaining in the multiplayer suite, where there’s no over-arching story to do justice to, and the characters can be the macho soldiers and snarling monsters that their archetypes so naturally lend themselves to anyway. Gears 5 may try its best to pack in more narrative weight, but it’s still apparent that these games are mainly enjoyed for their destruction, not their storytelling, and that’s naturally reflected in an audio job that’s usually at its best when you’re shooting up Swarm, or online opponents.
Gears 5 makes a commendable effort to finally start nudging the series’ campaign design away from its corridor-based comfort zone. As much as the online multiplayer suite is positively full to burst with new content and unlockable rewards, it’s the campaign that’s definitely going to turn the most heads in Gears 5, now that it’s dared to overhaul the structure and style of progression. The fact that the co-op has been bumped back to three players, with one player taking control of robot sidekick, Jack while the others command Kait and another COG character, is one of the handful of more distinct campaign innovations in Gears 5, namely the fact that Jack can now actively participate in combat and provide support in firefights, rather than simply appearing to open barred doors for the player every so often, like he did in prior Gears games.
As much as the Jack player will probably be the one that drew the metaphorical short straw during campaign co-op sessions, there is nonetheless a pretty interesting, nicely straightforward upgrade system for Jack in Gears 5, which also blends nicely with the drive to hunt collectibles for something more than achievements. Throughout the course of the campaign, players can find ‘components’ that can be used to provide enhancements for Jack’s support functions, which are either doled out to him at various points during the story, or secured by accomplishing certain side missions. These can include allowing Jack to render players invisible for longer periods of time, allowing Jack to revive downed characters, or allowing Jack to target one or multiple enemies with lightning bursts, among other functions. It’s not anything that will seriously turn the tide of battle, but it’s an appreciated effort to do more than the same old firefights throughout Gears 5, with Jack often serving as a useful ace-in-the-hole sometimes, even if the players controlling actual COG soldiers will be the ones that remain mostly saddled with actually accomplishing things.
Those accomplishments once again come via a lot of cover-based third-person shooter gameplay, as players once again take on the Swarm, the (somewhat) new enemies that have now started to ravage Sera in earnest. A subtle difference to the progression in Gears 5 however is that its middle two acts unfold across a wide, open-ended map, wherein players use a skiff to move between a variety of key locations, taking on enemies in said locations, almost like the kind of mini-dungeons that are layered throughout The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example. It’s a neat idea, and gives players a bit more agency regarding how they can proceed through the game’s campaign, in turn granting them the option to take on side missions that offer additional resources, upgrades for Jack, and other benefits, if they’re accomplished successfully.
As much as the more open-ended design of Gears 5’s second and third act is a refreshing change of pace though (Act I and Act IV remain fairly linear in progression, outside of optional areas that usually contain components for Jack and collectibles), the idea isn’t pushed far enough to reach its full potential. There are no enemies around when you’re on the skiff, for example, so skiff trips always involve just moving across an empty, disappointingly lifeless world, with all of the danger contained to its optional and mandatory combat areas. Likewise, there aren’t enough varied or interesting environmental hazards to motivate players to keep their eyes open during skiff travel, with all of the interest generated from these sequences being contained to character banter and story exposition. This is before considering that going back to linear gameplay in the final act also feels like a strange choice, leaving this otherwise inspired open-world hook to remain feeling disappointingly half-baked, as if it’s merely testing the waters for greater implementation in a future Gears game, rather than fully realizing its potential in this one.
Still, there’s no arguing with the tight, action-packed gunfights that define the Gears franchise, which remain incredibly fun and satisfying in Gears 5, assuming you’ve already developed a taste for this kind of combat. The campaign’s dedicated combat set pieces are plentiful, unpredictable and full of danger however, with some even incorporating an extensive new emphasis on different elevation levels, environmental traps, and other dangers that nicely mix up the same old ritual of ducking behind a chest-high wall, and popping out to pick off targets. There’s even some pretty intense boss encounters in Gears 5’s campaign as well, though these would be more fun if the A.I. of your COG allies wasn’t measured somewhere between a pile of rocks and an inebriated moose. The bosses in particular are clearly designed to be battled alongside other players, where their lengthy health bars and liberal insta-kill attacks are very dependent on intelligent human players that actively have your back. The campaign A.I. however has somehow gotten worse than it already was in Gears of War 4, which is very frustrating, since your allies will often fail to contribute in firefights, and will frequently refuse to directly aid you, even when you try to direct their fire and tactics. This is especially infuriating if you’re forced to play solo, or are stuck with unhelpful online players, and are trying to take on a higher difficulty setting, where your A.I.-controlled allies in particular are about as useful as a snowsuit at the beach.
Fortunately, Gears 5’s campaign is nonetheless one of the series’ best, even if it’s still a bit dependent on you bringing your friends, and already being a big Gears fan, to get the most out of it. You can probably run through the campaign in about 12-15 hours, depending on your skill level, difficulty setting and how diligent you are with finding collectibles and doing side missions, but as usual for more recent Gears games, it’s no doubt the extensive online multiplayer suite that will probably keep you coming back to Gears 5 the most. While the bulk of tweaks and series innovations in Gears 5 are within the campaign, there are a couple of big tweaks to Gears 5’s multiplayer that make it feel especially fun and satisfying as well, including a welcome new loadout system that fortunately helps to eliminate most online players’ aggressive over-dependence on Gnasher shotguns during prior Gears games.
Many of the recognizable multiplayer modes that the Gears series offers are presented and accounted for in Gears 5’s multiplayer suite, including good old Team Deathmatch, the co-op/survival-focused Horde Mode, and playlists containing various social and competitive game modes. There’s also an all-new major co-op multiplayer mode presented in Gears 5 called ‘Escape’, wherein teams of three players charge through a speedrun-style Swarm hive, taking out enemies in their way within a certain time limit, and trying to quickly coordinate so they can reach an extraction helicopter at the end of a miniature maze. It’s a really cool idea that combines classic Gears gameplay with something resembling an arcade beat ’em up, though its execution feels a little underwhelming at times. Escape is a mode that can be fun with friends, but it’s definitely less fun than Horde, especially since it involves repeating the same tired gameplay when you lose. This leaves Escape as an interesting distraction with plenty of potential to be expanded upon, but in its current form, it’s a merely decent multiplayer mode that doesn’t fully compare to the returning highlights.
Those returning highlights are more accessible and enjoyable than ever for both new and old players however, with Gears 5 aiming to lower the barrier of entry to its online multiplayer suite with its new Arcade Mode design, while still respecting the intense multiplayer gameplay that veteran Gears players have come to expect. Arcade Mode allows you to utilize some character-specific abilities and loadouts to give you some innate customization in multiplayer, to start, even if this is offset by players having to unlock certain characters and their abilities by accomplishing various tasks across the game’s separate online modes. Gears 5 is positively packed with rewards that keep players motivated and striving for new unlockables throughout their online multiplayer career as well, even after they re-up and reset their rank so they can do it all again!
There is however another caveat to this otherwise great unlockable system, and it’s unfortunately symptomatic of yet another problem that Microsoft has often struggled with throughout this console generation; Putting in an artificial grind that’s frustratingly complemented by a microtransaction-driven economy in a first-party Xbox title, where said economy especially doesn’t belong. Granted, Gears 5 mercifully removes the loot box-style perks system that Gears of War 4’s multiplayer previously sported, but there are still cosmetic microtransactions in Gears 5, wherein players can spend real-world money to acquire ‘Iron’, Gears 5’s premium currency, which can then be spent on new character skins, gun decals, blood sprays and the like. There is a separate system that grants you supply drops whenever you merely spend time playing Gears 5’s multiplayer modes, which have their own currency called ‘Scrap’, something that can also be spent on unlockable cosmetics that are offered in your supply drops, but the cosmetics locked behind Iron can only be purchased with Iron, and not earned in-game otherwise, which, needless to say, is pretty annoying.
You can earn Iron very slowly in-game, but the grind behind earning Iron without spending real-world money is predictably absurd. This is at its worst with some of the new additions made in the Battle Pass-esque Tour of Duty system (which thankfully doesn’t cost any money to enjoy in this case, unlike many other online shooter suites), which has offered rotating new multiplayer rewards for Gears 5 since the game launched. The fact that Tour of Duty doesn’t carry an extra monetary charge is good, but several of its high-profile additional character skins, like General RAAM, or even an ordinary DeeBee robot, demand an absurd amount of time to unlock without spending real-world money on Iron to bypass the grind (sometimes demanding a ballpark estimate of ten hours of grinding, each, at worst!), and often involve forcing yourself to play in multiplayer modes that you dislike. This is at its most tacky with some of the Terminator: Dark Fate tie-in DLC as well, half of which is exclusively locked behind a paywall (Sarah Connor and T-800 skins are thankfully an exception to this, if you pre-ordered Gears 5, or played it within the first week of its release via Xbox Game Pass, otherwise, they’re also behind a paywall), essentially trying to coerce players into paying real money to become a commercial for a completely unrelated movie release. Obviously, that’s not a great look for Gears 5.
To be blunt, the microtransactions and character unlockables in Gears 5 can be a needlessly convoluted, grind-filled mess at worst, but, on the bright side, it is at least fairly easy to avoid this seedy Iron economy and mess of unlockable demands, if you’re not concerned with collecting characters, or massively fixating on your multiplayer avatar’s appearance. If you just want to play the usual Versus or Horde sessions online, you can do this without ever being pressured to spend real money, nor being crippled in battle because you tried to avoid spending real money. I must also emphasize again that the multiplayer gameplay in Gears 5 really is great too, providing a surprisingly great balance between rewarding skilled play, but not slanting gameplay heavily in favour of veteran players over beginners. Escape may have some room to grow as a concept, but Versus and Horde especially remain an action-packed delight for online shooter fans, as does the usual thrill of bringing your friends along to play the especially refined and expansive story campaign that Gears 5 offers.
Gears 5’s storyline is a little more ambitious in scope than the rather straightforward plot of Gears of War 4 before it, even if it’s still not really pushing the envelope in terms of depth or drama. Gears 5 begins a short while after the events of Gears of War 4, with the Swarm now having revealed themselves, and mobilizing to attack various settlements around Sera. Now that this new enemy is known to the COG as well, they decide that their best chance to defeat the Swarm is restoring the Hammer of Dawn satellite weapons, so they can strike the Swarm hives from a safe distance, something that’s easier said than done, since the Hammer of Dawn network has not been operational for many years. This naturally leads Delta Squad on a quest to various locations around Sera, with Kait in particular getting an opportunity to discover the horrible truth behind her heritage, which in turn leads into a shocking exploration behind what the Swarm are after, and where they came from in relation to the Locust.
There are definitely some strong, emotionally-charged moments in Gears 5’s campaign, but even if its plot is ultimately an improvement over the very boilerplate storyline of Gears of War 4, this latest sequel still doesn’t elevate the series’ usual standard of good, but not great storytelling. Much of the game’s campaign storytelling is still divided into mere snarky banter and set piece-hopping, with some better cutscenes at least successfully injecting a bit more horror and drama into the story at points, even if most of the other cutscenes attempt this with mixed success. Again, the real star of Gears 5 is the action, much more than the storytelling, particularly when the game’s campaign concludes on a very sharp, frustrating cliffhanger, demanding that players just keep waiting for the inevitable Gears 6 in order to hopefully get any real resolution to anything that’s happened over the past two games’ storylines. Gears 5’s story may be good enough to get by, but don’t expect it to distract much from a game that’s still primarily about blowing the heads off of ugly aliens or trash-talking online opponents, more than anything else.
For people who already love Gears, it really doesn’t get better than Gears 5, especially for PC players, who will get to enjoy a truly stellar PC port here! This is a feature-packed, well-produced and highly engrossing game that will effortlessly captivate the established Gears faithful, and the fact that you can play it for free on Xbox One or the Windows 10 Store, if you happen to be subscribed to their respective versions of Xbox Game Pass, is even better! To that end, curious, uninitiated newcomers with Xbox Game Pass memberships also don’t lose anything by giving Gears 5 a try, even though the entire Gears series is also available to play for free on Xbox Game Pass, at least in the case of Xbox One, so you could also just as easily start with one of the older games, if you’re concerned about keeping up with the story. Even then though, Gears 5’s more open-ended level design in its campaign, along with its huge suite of multiplayer challenges and rewards, clearly places it above its predecessors from a gameplay standpoint, taking the existing Gears franchise formula, and refining it with new layers of scope and engagement.
But therein also lies the biggest flaw in what’s otherwise a very good game; Gears 5 still isn’t evolving its gameplay enough to feel truly fresh. Despite the flirting with open-world game design throughout a good chunk of its campaign, this latest sequel still ultimately ends up feeling like the same old Gears experience, with a bit of a mix-up in play progression here and there. Again, if you’re already a Gears fan, then that’s great, and you’re bound to love Gears 5, and hail it as the series’ best entry yet. If you’ve already tried and failed to get into Gears however, then Gears 5 still won’t change your mind. Even with more room than ever to explore and customize your play experience in this latest sequel, the minute-to-minute gameplay is still founded on the exact same cover shooting mechanics and lumbering, deliberate play control that the series has always had in place since its Xbox 360 origins from 2006, with few, if any foundational shifts.
Gears 5 is a step in the right direction when it comes to better mixing up the Gears formula, but as fun as this sequel is, it’s still ultimately more of the same, with another fresh coat of paint on it. Fans will definitely love this game anyway, but with a next-gen Xbox now on the horizon, perhaps The Coalition should dig a little deeper when it comes time for Gears 6, since several of Gears 5’s inspired new ideas present a good foundation, yet are begging to be better expanded upon in future. That said, it’s great to see that gunning down grubs remains as sadistically enjoyable as it ever was, for people who have always loved to do it.
This review is based on the Xbox One and PC versions of, “Gears 5”, both of which were provided by publisher, Xbox Game Studios
- Beautiful graphics and outstanding performance, especially on PC
- More open-ended campaign maps help to mix up the single-player gameplay
- Feature-packed, better-balanced online multiplayer suite
- Skiff travel is too uninteresting
- Unreasonable grind/paywalls behind some of the multiplayer unlockables
- Campaign A.I. is somehow dumber than ever