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Gears 5

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


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XOne/PC Campaign Review - 'Gears 5'

by Adam Pavlacka on Sept. 4, 2019 @ 6:01 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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When it comes to the Xbox, Gears of War is almost as iconic as the Halo franchise. While Halo may have established the original Xbox as a serious gaming console, it was the original Gears of War that marked the Xbox 360 as a must-have system. At the time of its release, Gears of War set a new standard for gameplay and visual fidelity. It also propelled Gary Jules' cover of "Mad World" to the number one spot on iTunes thanks to the atmospheric trailer.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying that Gears of War has history. With Gears 5, the Coalition is working to preserve what made fans fall in love with the franchise, while at the same time evolve it into something new. After all, a series that doesn't innovate, stagnates.

The first indication that the Coalition is trying something new with Gears 5 is in the name itself. They've dropped the "of War" from the name and are simply going with Gears as the franchise name. It's a small but symbolic shift that indicates how the team has approached changing things up for the new game.

Perhaps the biggest change is accessibility. Gears of War games always sold well, but with Gears 5 being a headline title for Xbox Game Pass, a lot more players are going to have it on their system on day one. Many of those players are going to be hardcore franchise fans; a good deal of them will be new to the series. Some are even going to be casual players. Impressively, Gears 5 has something to offer everyone, with the inclusion of three-player co-op.

Two of the players are traditional Gears characters. They'll run-and-gun just like you'd expect. The third character is a support character, a robot named Jack. If you're playing solo, Jack is mapped to the standard controller, allowing you to direct him (and his abilities) as needed. If you are a human playing Jack, you have full control of the robot. Jack can't cause the same level of damage as a human character, but he can dole out extremely useful abilities such as shields, shock traps, and temporarily mind-controlling an enemy. In short, Jack's play style is perfect for someone who may not be very good at shooters but still wants to be a member of the team. It's a great way for a non-gaming parent to play side-by-side with their kids. The only downside to Jack is that you can't play him if you're going solo.

Gears 5 is split into four acts, and the first act is really more of an extended prologue that is meant to bridge the end of Gears of War 4 (the events of which are conveniently recapped in a video for those who haven't played it) with the real beginning of Kait's journey. If Gears of War 4 was JD's story, Gears 5 is all about Kait and exploring her family connection to the Locust.

This means the first act is going to feel a lot like traditional Gears gameplay. You'll be fighting your way down corridors, using cover to avoid enemy fire, and killing as many of the Swarm as possible. Yes, you're also going to be fighting the DeeBees again, but this time around they're Swarm-infected beasties. The DeeBees inject an element of stealth into the play, as you have the option to take them out with a sneak attack. Get up behind one, and you can pull its power pack, disabling it without having to fight it.

Both the story and the gameplay open up a bit once Act II kicks in. This is where Kait's story pushes forward. It's also where you first get control of the skiff. Both Act II and Act III are played in an open map. Key missions are identified on the map with icons, but you travel between them (and the side missions) by using the skiff. It's a simple mechanic, but it's as fun as it looks. I had fun just wandering around the map with the skiff, even if a lot of it was relatively empty environment.

Side-missions are generally of two types. You'll either be given an objective with a defined goal or simply face off against an enemy encounter. The former explores the game's lore and can offer up an ultimate upgrade for one of Jack's skills, while the latter can mean a relic weapon. The relic weapons are special, upgraded versions of standard weapons that fire faster and do more damage. Once you have a relic that you like, you'll be a lot less inclined to swap to something new when you run low on ammo. It's a carrot-style approach to getting players to conserve ammo.

Despite the levels being wide-open environments, don't think that Gears 5 is an open-world game. There is still a strong sense of progression between the acts and the core story missions, and there is a certain point in both Act II and Act III where you can't go back to continue exploring. The game will warn you when you're at this point because it is a hard stop. Once you've moved past it, you're cut off from that section of the world, so make sure to collect your collectibles and knock out any side missions that interest you.

Collectibles are here in two forms. The first is the standard Gears collectible, while the second is the component item. Components are used to upgrade Jack's skills, so you'll want to get as many of these as possible. The skills can be upgraded in any order, and you can re-spec at will, so there's no risk in trying out something new, but the total number of components does limit how many upgrades you can have active at once.

The original Gears of War pushed the visual limits of the Xbox 360 hardware, and Gears 5 looks to do the same with the Xbox One X, especially if you have a 4K TV with HDR support. Each of the four acts consists of distinct environments, and each are quite pretty, both in still frames and in motion. It's actually enough to make me disappointed that the game doesn't feature a photo mode. Yeah, I can take standard screenshots, but I found myself wanting to take posed action shots more than once. The Coalition has targeted 60fps on the Xbox One X, and they generally meet that goal with Gears 5, though there were some noticeable dips from time to time. I noticed the drop when a lot of particles are on-screen at once or the lighting drastically changes. With that said, the frame rate drops were occasional, not constant.

Playing at 60fps means the combat feels smooth and responsive, which is key when the mission levels open up. Yes, this is still Gears of War. Yes, cover is still important. But cover is less important when you have Jack powered up. Gears 5 prods you to get out from behind cover and engage more directly to stealthily flank the enemy and push beyond the rote skills that have carried you through the previous games.

When it all works, it's amazing, but just like the frame rate drops, there are a handful of issues that add a few bumps in the road. One of the bigger ones is AI pathing and intelligence. Playing with a squad of humans in co-op is one thing because you can all talk to one another and work together. Gears 5 feels like it was balanced with co-op play in mind because the AI can make some pretty stupid mistakes.

At one point in Act II, you're using Jack to retrieve fuel. The game turns into an escort mission, with Jack's abilities disabled (because he's carrying the fuel) and if he takes too much damage, the mission fails. It was here that the AI-powered Del got caught on a ramp (consistently, I might add) until I led him off, and Jack, instead of hanging back like a good robot, pushed ahead into the line of fire. That's not the only time Del got stuck, either. In another section, he got caught on a mountain trail and only caught up with me when I passed a checkpoint and he reloaded for the cinema scene.

The AI failure was also apparent in Act IV, when you're trying to attack a large creature and take out its weak spots. The easy solution is to flank and draw fire, so that that beastie exposes itself. There's no obvious way to tell the AI characters to hold position while you flank, so you lose the advantage. It's like the AI needs to be tethered to you.

Speaking of being tethered, that's one area where the "open world" illusion falls apart. While exploring Act II and Act III, there are a number of areas where you run into invisible walls. One of those is actually due to distance from the skiff itself. In Act II, you need to enter an old launch facility. I had parked in front of the outer wall and was following the side until I saw an area that had crumbled and would allow passage, but the game wouldn't let me progress on foot. I had to run back to the skiff, drive the skiff over, and then I could get out and proceed.

Some other oddities I encountered was the next section of a level not loading (fixed by reloading a checkpoint) and the audio going out of sync in a cinematic scene, making the whole thing look like a bad dub. That one resolved itself automatically when the next scene loaded.

If these sound like gripes, they'll all pretty minor. None were game-breaking, and I'd expect most to be resolved by a post-launch patch (except for the invisible barriers, which would take a lot of map updating). The issues simply stood out because of the polish applied to the rest of the game.

As for the story, I'll stay vague to avoid spoilers, but you shouldn't expect anything groundbreaking. Gears 5 does a solid job of fleshing out its characters and giving them real personalities, but the overall plot plays it safe. Heavy on references to prior games, Gears 5 starts out with a visit to a Gears of War 3 location, before revisiting a number of locations (and characters) from Gears of War 2. There isn't really anything new here, so much as confirming what was heavily hinted at in the prior game. In short, if you paid attention in Gears of War 2, you've probably already guessed most of the key story points in Gears 5.

With that said, of all the characters in Gears 5, Damon Baird was my favorite. You don't get to play him, but his personality shines through like a beacon. Old Baird is now the team "tech guy," similar to Q in the James Bond series. He still hasn't lost his rebellious streak, though, and sees orders as guidelines. You'll encounter him more than once as you progress through the story, and you'll learn more about his backstory in the process. Honestly, after finishing Gears 5, I now want to revisit Gears of War: Judgment, just for more Baird.

Where the story falls apart and where Gears 5 has its biggest miss, is in the ending. A new "big bad" is introduced over the course of the game. A key character is eliminated from the story. Just as you think you're building to a reckoning ... the game ends. Much like Gears of War 2, it's a sudden ending, and it has the same unfinished vibe as the end of "The Matrix Reloaded" or "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." In fact, the final, game-ending boss fight is just a rehash of the Act III boss fight. I get that the team probably wanted to save certain bits for the inevitable conclusion to the new trilogy, but it shouldn't have been done at the expense of the Gears 5 campaign experience.

Interestingly enough, the most challenging fight for me occurred at the end of Act II. There were random spikes in difficulty throughout the campaign, but the Act II boss was on another level. It wasn't unfair, with smart use of Jack being the ultimate key to winning, but it was strange to have the biggest challenge be something that occurs at the story midpoint, rather than a massive fight at the end.

Although it has a few stumbles and an obvious setup for Gears 6, the overall campaign package is a satisfying experience, whether you're a longtime Gears fan or entirely new to the series. It's great to see The Coalition trying new things here, but the team played it pretty safe. The campaign in Gears 5 is more of a minor iteration than a major evolution in gameplay. Maybe Gears 6 will push the envelope a bit more.

Editor's Note: This review only covers the single-player campaign element of Gears 5. Check back next week for our thoughts on the multiplayer component, after we've had a chance to play on the production servers.

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