'Gears 5' Review: A Bloody, Beautiful Return to Form, and Then Some
The continuation of the violent action-horror series is a mechanical refinement of what's come before, with a compelling yet confusing narrative perspective.
Popping out of waist-high cover to shoot snarling beasts in the face has never felt so good, or so natural. Gears 5, which despite the omission of “of War” in the title, is not just a continuation of the Gears of War series but a glorious return to its monster horror form. Family melodrama set against some thrilling action-horror set-pieces makes Gears 5 the best the series has been since the glory days of Gears of War 2, with sharper controls to boot.
Note: Only the core gameplay mechanics and the single-layer campaign were played for this review. Multiplayer features were not tested, but we’ll cover those in a separate article soon
The meat of Gears 5, out on Xbox One on September 10 (Xbox Game Pass subscribers can start playing September 6) is in its unforgettable control scheme. The Coalition, which has developed the series since original studio Epic Games left after the 2013 spin-off Gears of War: Judgement, have finally mastered how a Gears of War game is meant to play.
You take cover and dodge around convenient spots, pop out and aim for some of that rat-a-tat-tat, and repeat. It’s a five-second cycle repeated over and over, but it’s a fun five seconds that never gets repetitive. For series veterans, Gears 5 plays like riding a bloodied, guts-soaked bicycle.
That’s how the first Gears of War played in 2006, and again in 2008, in 2011, and in 2016 when The Coalition took over with Gears of War 4. But there’s both a finesse and a weighty oomph to Gears 5’s core mechanics that’s been absent in the series for 11 years. 2008’s Gears of War 2 has long been the series’ apex, with its “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the mechanics that also saw Epic add tricked out rims. (“Tricked out rims” being the introduction of helpful and very on-brand “meat shields.”)
Gears 5 does much of the same as it takes into account the series’ long evolution. It is most especially an evolution of Gears of War 4, with Gears 5 being a more thorough cook of all the ingredients added in Gears of War 4 with more time in the oven. Popping out of cover to grab and stab enemies, or running over cover to dropkick them, is just more fun than in Gears of War 4, and easier to pull off too.
In exchange for ease of action, I’ve found it more difficult to pull off the series’ signature active reloads. Since the original Gears of War, reloading has been its own mini-game — a sliding needle with a diminishing white space — where players get damage bonus to firepower if they time reloads correctly.
Maybe I’m just not the young man I used to be, but gosh I used to pull off active reloads in my sleep. Now, my timing is horrendously, hilariously off, and more than once I’ve had to endure death because I missed a reload at a critical juncture. Not that this is a bad thing; the unscripted tension of having to nail a clutch reload to gain additional damage to take down the tank with a rocket launcher is what keeps Gears of War novel and fun even after hours. Whether it’s The Coalition that made active reloads more difficult, or I’m just a grizzled old fart like Marcus Fenix, it’s a mechanic that’s evolved from a powerful buff into a high-risk, high-reward element to those cyclical five seconds.
In a game like Gears 5, it’s safe to assume the story is non-essential. It’s not. The story of Kait Diaz (Laura Bailey) is an excellent one, but Gears 5 really did itself no favors in how its narrative unfolds.
As a direct continuation of Gears of War 4 and that game’s not-so-surprising (but no less impactful) ending, Gears 5 is at its core the story of Kait, a hardened Outsider (think of the Wildlings in Game of Thrones but with huge ass rifles) whose family heritage is more dangerous than she even knows. So it’s a strange calculation the single-player campaign still puts gamers in the shoes of JD, the son of original protagonist Marcus Fenix and the series’ new “White Guy Hero” when the true star is actually Kait. Multiplayer gives you the option to play as other characters, including robot assistant Dave, but that the main avatar is JD and not Kait is a wild creative decision.
The game does itself no favors with its impenetrable network television-style recap; A “Last Time On…” prologue is what welcomes players, yet there’s no actual introduction to the who, what, why of the world and these (very likable!) characters. Gears 5 opens like it’s the mid-season premiere of a show on The CW, and you might find yourself needing to Wikipedia the plot of Gears of War 4 just for context. But vets who are familiar with words like “COG” and “grub” and “Sera” will have no problem with the breakneck speed they’re thrown into battle.
Like a Clive Barker script got picked up by Michael Bay, Gears of War has never been scary, because it’s tough to be scared when you’re a shredded soldier carrying a hundred pounds of firepower. But Gears 5 delivers an eerie atmosphere that’s been missing since the very first game. Dark, creepy hallways with glowing eyes that look back, from which shrieking screams emanate, is the type of terror that awaits players. You’re never frozen with fear like in most other horror games because the size of your armaments is too hard to ignore. But when you’ve failed to reload and the monsters are closing in, you find yourself with a different kind of fear. The fun kind.
Gears 5 is available on September 10 on Xbox One.