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Gears 5

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: The Coalition
Release Date: Sept. 10, 2019


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Xbox One Review - 'Gears 5'

by Adam Pavlacka on Oct. 7, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Gears 5 is the next installment in the action series that revolutionized third-person shooters. Kait Diaz, who had previously fought alongside JD and Del in Gears 4, is the protagonist in Gears 5.

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Gears 5 launched to consumers about a month ago. We ran an initial campaign review but held off on scoring so we could give the multiplayer a look with full server populations and real-world conditions.

Your experience with the multiplayer components in Gears 5 is going to depend on the type of gameplay that you prefer. Co-op is available in the campaign (along with an achievement for playing as Jack), but that isn't too much different than playing solo. The meat of the co-op experience can be found in both Escape and Horde.

Escape and Horde are both PvE modes, with an emphasis on teamwork. Escape is three players, while Horde is five; both become much harder than normal if you try to play with less than a full team. Horde attempts to keep things balanced by replacing missing team members with AI soldiers, but the AI fighters are merely a band-aid. A team of four can carry the game with a single AI member, but once you get multiple AI teammates, it's only a matter of time before you hit a wall against the oncoming waves of enemies. In Escape, the game doesn't even bother with AI allies.

This is an important element because both Escape and Horde have multiple difficulty levels, with greater rewards being locked behind the higher difficulties. Unless you're playing with a pre-made group, though, expect to see plenty of team drops when you hit the first challenge. In Horde mode, this can end up with you playing solo alongside four AI soldiers, and in Escape, it can just mean you playing solo. New teammates aren't matched mid-game, so there is additional incentive for players to quit once the first one bails. When you have a solid team together, both modes shine.

Escape didn't excite me that much when it was first announced at E3 2019, but having spent time playing it post-launch, I get the appeal. It is essentially a time trial, with you and your team fighting your way out of a hive. You have poison gas behind you, enemies in front of you, and an extremely limited amount of ammo to start. Oh, and the first time you play a map, you also have no idea where you are going, so there's the exploration element to contend with.

All of that wraps up into a nifty package that puts just enough pressure on the team without being overly annoying. You're forced to work together and smartly manage your ammo. If one player hogs all the weapons, the team is going to have a tough time of it. The same is true of player ultimates. If you're just spamming and not using them judiciously, it's not going to be of much help.

At the beginner level, Escape is just an exercise in running through the map. You probably won't have to worry about fellow players dropping out here, as the challenge level is low. The downside is that the rewards are pretty basic. You're not going to pull any elite cards for your character while playing beginner, so there is a natural push to play on the harder difficultly settings.

The same set of constraints applies to Horde mode. Horde is best played with a team of five human players, though you can squeak by with three well-versed human players and two AI members if all of the human players are on voice comms and you play as a team. In other words, it's not something to try with a pickup game. This is because coordination, which is important in Escape, is the backbone of Horde. Yes, you can run around shooting stuff randomly on the easiest level, but if you want to survive to the final round with any sort of challenge, you need to work as a team. That includes building defenses, which is something that I didn't really see happen while playing pickup games.

When you kill enemies in Horde, a type of currency drops that can be used to upgrade your character (more health, faster movement, etc.) or craft defenses. Defenses won't stop the oncoming hordes of enemies, but they will slow them down. This is crucial in the later levels, as it makes it much easier to manage the flow of baddies when you can funnel them in one direction. If you're playing with friends, there is a motivation to do what's best for the team. But if you're playing with randoms, expect selfish concerns to take over, as everyone ignores the defenses and just improves their own characters. It's possible to win this way, but it does change the dynamic of play.

Another element that changes the dynamic is character progression. Most of what you do in Escape and Horde is specific to the game session, but the experience you gain and the random cards you collect at the end improve the specific character that you played during the session. On the surface, this sounds like an interesting idea, as it rewards you with items that follow on with your chosen play style, but there are still a few rough edges.

Because the character abilities complement each other, neither Escape nor Horde allow for duplicate selections. Unfortunately, the matchmaking doesn't seem to check this beforehand, and it is possible to get matched into a group where two players have chosen the same character. If one doesn't swap out, the game will do it automatically. Worse yet, if someone in the group changes to the character you have already chosen, the game may automatically force you into a different selection. In the early game, this might not be a big deal, but once you've chosen (and leveled up) a main, getting forced to play a low-level character without perks isn't as appealing.

Why not just run with the low-level character on a high difficulty session to quickly earn cards? If you haven't hit the level necessary to unlock a card, getting it as a reward does you no good. On the plus side, once you have unlocked a card, you can upgrade it by collecting more of the same or paying for an upgrade via scrap, the in-game currency. This removes some of the random elements involved when upgrading a character.

Speaking of characters, the one underrated character out of them all is Jack. Yes, the support robot. You can't play Jack in traditional versus mode, but you can play Jack in co-op campaign and Horde. Jack is a support character, which is very different from traditional Gears play, but it works extremely well.

Jack is both a move toward accessibility (you don't need to be an expert shot to use him, so he's a solid choice for new players) and high-level play. The latter becomes very noticeable as Horde progresses, since Jack's core abilities are quick movement and healing. Jack also avoids the focus of enemy fire due to his natural cloak. You fall out of cloak when interacting, but it does allow for a lot of hit-and-run maneuvering. This is important when reviving downed comrades but also when attacking.

Yep, Jack can attack, though his primary assault is more of an assist. The stun zapper causes damage, but its main purpose is to hold an enemy so your teammates can take them down. It doesn't work for boss-level characters, but it's quite effective for most everyone else. Jack's ultimate allows you to mind control a single enemy for a limited amount of time. Choose one in the middle of a group, and you can shoot your attackers in the back before they know what hit them. Jack's accelerated movement speed also means he's a great choice for recon. If your team is hunkered down, have Jack run out, tag the enemy, and then beeline to safety.

Jumping into a game and shooting things as one of the "regular" characters is still a lot of fun, but playing as Jack is oddly appealing. I wasn't sure what to think of him at first, but he's quickly grown on me, and if I get the chance to play as Jack in Horde mode, I'll take it. It doesn't hurt that the game takes account of everything you do, so even though Jack isn't likely to be the biggest damage dealer in a given round, it's still more than possible to earn MVP while playing as Jack.

Versus mode in the final game feels very similar to what was available in the multiplayer test, albeit with a few more maps and modes.

The biggest choice you need to make when kicking off a Versus match is quickplay or ranked. Ranked is split between the five specific modes (Escalation, Execution, Guardian, King of the Hill, and Team Deathmatch), while quickplay offers up Arcade, Classic, and vs AI modes. For ranked, you need to play qualifying matches before getting into the meat of the competition; with the others, play is more casual, so you can jump right in. Arcade is a rolling set of matches, which makes it perfect for getting in a quick round when needed. It also has a very quick matching time.

The vs AI mode is worth calling out, as it allows you to practice your teamwork against a set of AI players at four different levels of difficulty. It's not going to wholly replicate the feeling of going up against a set of human opponents, but when it comes to practicing, it provides a benchmark to measure against. You don't have to worry about getting matched with a team that is above or below your skill level.

No matter what mode you play, Gears 5 does a great job of making the combat feel quick and responsive. There were moments of lag across my play sessions, but they were isolated incidents rather than a consistent experience. I did notice a handful of PC players in matches (I played on an Xbox One X and an Xbox One S), but that was only because of the computer icon on the player screen. If not for that, I wouldn't have known.

Outside of automatic matchmaking, Gears 5 also includes a custom game option that allows you to join or host a game via a traditional lobby browser. Both online (Xbox Live) and local (LAN) modes are supported here. Highlighting a game in the browser offers up details on the specific map and mode, as well as which customizations are enabled.

Surprisingly, the performance across both the Xbox One S and Xbox One X was relatively consistent. Yes, the game runs at a lower resolution (1080p) on the Xbox One S, but you don't really notice it during multiplayer, given that both consoles maintain 60 fps. It's actually something of a technical marvel on the Xbox One S, as with most games, there is a noticeable difference in visual quality when comparing the two systems. You can tell the difference in screenshots, but in the middle of a match, both systems are equally capable.

Audio is another area where Gears 5 stands out, making full use of a surround sound system. If you have a full 7.1 setup at home, you'll appreciate how Gears 5 uses positional audio cues to help you locate enemies in the environment. Yes, headphones do the job, but it's not quite the same as having the sound fill your room while playing.

A minor nit that's still worth calling out is the unintuitive UI that Gears 5 uses for player character customization. This section is accessed separately from the multiplayer modes, and that feels unintuitive. On the one hand, I can understand the development decision to have a place for players to tweak their character builds before jumping in to play, but at the same time, it feels odd to not have this be part of the multiplayer flow when selecting Escape or Horde. It's just not a good user experience.

As a multiplayer experience, Gears 5 offers up a wide variety of options, and something is sure to please almost every type of player. There are some rough edges, especially with the way character upgrades are handled, but the core gameplay is solid and satisfying. Combined with the campaign, Microsoft and the Coalition have given players an amazing value, especially if you are getting the title via Game Pass. It may not be perfect, but it'll provide hours of fun, and that's what matters.

Score: 8.5/10

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