Reinventing the cog
Gears 5 2019, XBOX ONE X
Gears of War is by now an iconic series in the pantheon of gaming. From the very first trailers over a decade ago revealing machine guns with chainsaws hefted by towers of muscle clad in bulky armor, Gears had instantly established a style uniquely of it’s own. As the franchise changed hands at the conclusion of it’s trilogy from Epic to Microsoft, the daunting task of restarting the series fell squarely on Canadian developer the Coalition. 2016 saw the release of Gears of War 4 which aimed to not so much as reinvent, but re-establish Gears in the modern day after the tepid response to Judgement, the singular offshoot side-story helmed by People Can Fly. The result was a safe, albeit instantly recognizable Gears game that brought back old time favorites to support the new, young cast set on their very own adventure. There was an unmistakable feeling of Gears 4 relying strongly on it’s past to carry it’s future out of drydock. Just as our protagonists were coming into their own, Marcus Fenix and his band of retired brothers in arms had to strap back in and show these young-uns how it’s done, babysitting both the characters and the series along the way. The explosive finale of the 2016 game showed promise for twists and turns in the future of Gears, or at least things to look forward to once the Coalition had proven itself to the fanbase. What follows in Gears 5, the first in the series to officially drop the “of War” moniker, is not a reinvention of the formula, it’s not even an evolution, but rather a stilted attempt to chase trends from years past while desperately trying to stay exactly the same.
The plot is a direct continuation of the previous game that fills in some gaps and expands on the premise of it’s ending. While trying to fight off the Swarm our protagonists are also trying to find answers to Kaits past and the source of her continually intensifying visions. As the previous game focused on JD and both his relationship to the COG, his father and his friends, this brand new story shifts focus to Kait and her evolving narrative with the hivemind. While this story starts fairly strong, just as quickly it settles on old, familiar rhythms. Generally Gears 5 is a collection of ideas from past games that lack the character or novelty of their source material. All the hits are here ready to be retread once more, beginning with the very first mission that tasks you with bringing the Hammer of Dawn back online as the big trump card against the Swarm - seeing as this is the beginning of the game things, as you might imagine, naturally don’t go as planned. The new trio of Cait, JD and Del continue to be serviceable avatars to propel the story forward, but they likewise continue to lack any of the charm of their forefathers (quite literally in the case of JD). Early on one of the trio goes through a sudden metamorphosis of body and soul that I expected to lead up to a more complex and engaging story beat down the road, but then it just resolves itself in the most weightless way possible. It is difficult to discuss the plot in any detail without spoiling large parts of it, and at the end of the day there really isn’t all that much of it to go around. What I can say is that in large part, anything you might think of that has already happened in the original trilogy, is in some shape or form regurgitated in Gears 5 except not as well. You are still fighting the Locust except now they are the Swarm, a cosmetic difference in name only. You are still basing all your hopes on the Hammer of Dawn to save the day. You will even encounter a boss fight against a blind brute that charges at you in predictable patterns drawn by sound. The main “bad” of this episode gets very little screentime and is similarly, a lesser version of ideas that came before it.
In terms of gameplay this is Gears as you have always known it. To the uninitiated that might have never touched one of these games before, the simplest explanation is that it’s like controlling a tank that can magnetize to walls. The Coalition has done a great job at preserving the momentum and minute to minute gameplay of the series. You will enter rooms with waist high cover, and then proceed to clear those rooms of any living creature before proceeding forward. There aren’t a whole lot of new weapons to choose from and for the majority of the game you will be probably using the lancer chainsaw gun. It speaks volumes that despite the available weaponry I played through the entire campaign with Lancer in one arm and Longshot in the other. Since the Delta Squad are back in the good graces of the COG you are no longer facing off against the DeeBee robots so the strange weapons introduced in GoW4 are a lot more scarce this time around. Fortunately the Coalition have found a way to make you fight those same robots once again despite being on their side, so once in a while you will get to use an Overkill or the awkward charge-up sniper rifle. All your Swarm favorites make a comeback along with a few new friends, like an armored melee based enemy that charges at you with two clubs and forces you out of the comfort zone of shooting from behind cover. The shooting portion of Gears 5 feels as good as ever and is a testament to great game design that over a decade later, active reloads and sliding into cover with a nearly palpable thunk continues to be just as satisfying.
One of the big new changes is the addition of Jack to your permanent roster, the floating ball robot from “rip that door Jack” fame of past games(the game starts off with a different robot but true to design someone decided you just need to have the old one). Jack introduces active abilities to the mix of your standard cover based combat. You can now order a flashbang to flush enemies out from behind cover or even freeze them with increased upgrades, or place shock traps that slow and damage the highly mobile Juvies from swarming your location. There are several of these abilities which all have their uses in specific situations, work on a cooldown, and are all upgraded through component parts found strewn around the world. While in the past you might have stopped to look around for collectibles if you really cared about engaging with the lore of the world, now you are almost forced to stop and scour every room before moving on to find these little yellow canisters. You can choose to ignore these and simply not upgrade Jack in any meaningful way, but it feels like a lot of the encounters are almost built with his support in mind as you face increasingly more intricate combinations of enemies that don’t allow traditional Gears tactics. These abilities also help expand the range of combat options at your disposal, helping to vary up the tried and true cover shooter formula by allowing you to ironically stay out of cover more often. Jack is also your primary means of solving “puzzles” and bringing you weapons and ammo from afar. I use quotes here because there are no actual puzzles in Gears - you simply point at a vent or a switch and instead of walking up and pushing the switch yourself, now Jack interfaces with it.
The second and most widely advertised change ties directly to the first, and that is the addition of open world sections. In an effort to maybe modernize the corridor shooter aspect of Gears, the Coalition have attempted to offer the player more freedom by introducing these walled off gardens so to speak. Sandwiched between the traditionally linear first and final act of the game are two acts that introduce a small zone wherein the player can freely travel around on a skiff vehicle and take on side content before getting on with the main objective. The skiff feels great. Structured like a sled with a giant sail, it glides smoothly on the ground and impossibly catches the wind no matter what direction you take, swinging around corners in fun drifts. That is probably the most positive thing I could say about these sections. Exploration itself is largely not existent. The maps are fairly small and devoid of any life until you engage the tiny handful of encounters scattered around and marked clearly by billowing, yellow flags in case you actually missed the one explorable part on the map. Each side mission is basically a short, controlled combat encounter at the end of which you are rewarded with a unique upgrade part for Jack that unlocks an Ultimate ability on his skill tree. Sometimes you need to complete three in order to get the one part. Here is an example: You skiff over to a yellow flag in front of a field where you engage a number of Swarm baddies and at the end of the encounter you open a safe and find a part. Another example is entering a tiny building where you have to fight off a wave of Juvies before turning on a switch to get the pumps working, and once more you get a part. There is something incredibly deflating about hearing Baird let you know over the radio that you only need to find two more parts before he can craft you that sweet new Pulse upgrade. It just doesn’t feel like a Gears “thing” in the slightest. Instead of a reprieve from the action of the linear levels, these segments feel like drawn out busy work and it doesn’t help that they comprise the majority of the campaign. Each of the sections feels barren, and thats not just because one takes place on an iced-over lake surrounded by snow and the other on an arid desert. There are no enemies to encounter, no real secrets to discover. You might find a Relic version of a weapon but thats about it, there are no enemies, very few collectibles, and nothing particularly interesting to see within these maps. Worse yet, despite their “side content” label, they very much feel like mandatory missions or else you once again miss out on key Jack upgrades that you won’t find anywhere else in the game. The ability to get increased damage against enemies you’ve Pulsed is something you don’t want to miss. In past games choice was reflected by presenting players with forks in the road - take the high ground and use snipers or take the low ground and brave through a frontal assault. Those small freedoms were a much better idea as they were not only organically woven into the bespoke level design, but offered a little bit of replayability as you made your way through the same section but got to see it from a different perspective. In stark contrast there is nothing new to see if you choose to replay Gears 5 in the future, there is just a shopping list of upgrades you need to collect before moving forward with the story.
Rounding out the package a few short words on the multiplayer offering. Gears 5 is flush full of online options. You can play through the campaign in co-op with the brand new addition of one player taking on the role of Jack, an option advertised for less skilled players that want to join in on the fun as you fly around the map, use abilities and bring weapons and ammo to your buds. Horde and Versus modes make their usual appearance, with Horde mode now introducing hero abilities for each of the playable characters. Versus is your typical game of cat and mouse dominated by point blank gnasher shotgun kills and it does little to acclimate new players to the harsh realities of seasoned veterans capable of bouncing from cover to cover and turning you into a bloody mist with one hit kills. Escape is a brand new co-operative made that has 3 players attempting to escape maze-like Hives as quickly as possible. Much like Horde mode, characters have specific Escape abilities and can be leveled up and equipped with ability cards. It’s an interesting idea as the first leg of each escape has you racing the clock as toxic gas spreads across the map behind you. Once you reach a safe room the team gets a checkpoint and you no longer have to worry about the gas as much as making it to the escape point where you have to tough out a final extraction period as giant doors slowly grate to a close on the hive. In one match a fellow player managed to run in through a narrow gap of the huge doors just as they closed and it felt like something straight out of a movie. One final thing to say about Gears 5 multiplayer is that it is full of microtransactions. Skins for weapons and characters, quips, blood sprays, accelerators.. there are insane amounts of options for where to spend your fake currency and there are of course plenty of options on purchasing this currency, with real money. It’s all cosmetic, but it’s there, and there is very little you get for “free” as it is unless you want to really, really grind.
Reinventing a franchise is hard. There is no doubt about that. I can see how the idea of evolving Gears of War could have been absolutely terrifying for the Coalition. How do you make a brand new game, but still leave everything exactly the same? How to appease die-hard fans, the people that get COG gears and Lancers tattooed on their body, and yet create something new and exciting? When Ninja Theory rebooted Devil May Cry and completely re-imagined the series the fan outrage was extreme and they burned that game to the ground despite it actually being a great new addition to the dwindling character action genre. But it didn’t matter whether it was actually a good game, all that mattered was that it wasn’t the same Devil May Cry again. Years later when DMC5 came out fans were finally satisfied because it was more of the same, but with a new coat of paint. Gears of War 4 felt like a safe way for the Coalition to test the waters, dip their toe in and see if the fans would rip them to shreds. It also introduced novel ideas that could have been expanded on in meaningful ways going forward. Gears 5 doesn’t feel just safe anymore, it feels stale, a rehash of old ideas and a stubborn reluctance to move forward. It’s the middle chapter of a trilogy that is just spinning it’s wheels. By the end of Act 2 that delivers a big and very predictable reveal, all hopes for interesting new developments are flushed down the proverbial drain as we settle in for the same ride we’ve been on so many times before. The open world segments feel misplaced, like a half-step effort to catch up to the industry when it has already moved forward by a mile. Games like God of War or even the newest Remedy title Control are great examples of linear titles successfully integrating a more open approach without it feeling shoehorned in or worse yet out of place. The Coalition may have found themselves in an impossible situation, as Gears of War is such a specific style of game that harkens back to a different generation of third person shooters. This new trilogy was a chance to have that amazing watershed "Resident Evil 4" moment of taking on a bold new direction, but if anything Gears 5 is a clear declaration that it’s not going to happen, not here and not now.
To end on a high note I do want to compliment Gears 5 on being a gorgeous looking game. Playing on an XB1X the level of detail to each section, when you’re not in the clearly less detailed open world segments, is really breath-taking and the performance keeps up from start to finish. For all my complaining about the barren wasteland open segments, there is something about snow that simply looks great in video games and Gears is no different. As familiar as it is, the shooting still feels great in the classic Gears sort of way, and any campaign that can be played with a friend is instantly more fun - especially now that Jack is an option for a significant other that normally doesn’t play video games, to join in on the fun without feeling like they are holding anyone back. If you’re looking for more of that specific cover-based action then this game will do right by you. Returning fans that might be looking for a little more will still probably have a decent enough time with the campaign and horde mode offers a whole new lease on life after you’re done with that. For those that are tired of this formula altogether, I can’t say that this newest entry will hold your attention for long, but if you have Game Pass then it’s still worth a try. Gears 5 isn’t a bad game, it’s just a game that has failed to take any meaningful steps forward for the franchise as a whole, which will satisfy some and deter others, you just have to know which camp you belong to before diving in.