There are few franchises in the world as time-resistant as the Gears of War franchise. Initially raised out of the ground by a team at Epic, the franchise has since moved onto being one of Xbox’s biggest in-house IPs. However, despite the clear investment both gaming history and Xbox have had in it, the Gears of War series has undoubtedly been on something of a decline, crawling its way towards total irrelevance in modern gaming. The series has been frequently labelled as a cash grab, relying on churning out the same worn gameplay with a new coat of paint. But, with the release of the most ambitious and impressive title in the entire series, Gears of War may have just gotten the very energy boost the series needed; Gears 5 is a wildly entertaining ride of astounding technical feats and a brilliant single-player campaign that never lets up until the credits roll. The narrative of a team of macho yet soulful post-apocalyptic soldiers tying it all together flourishes, and the significance of which is bolstered by its multiplayer components. Some of its innovative features may not land quite as well as expected, especially the open-world sandbox the middle acts are framed in, but at least there was a strive to innovate; something that I can’t necessarily say about past entries. Gears 5 is more than just another Gears title; it redefines what a Gears game can and should be, making a landmark effort in terms of quantity of content and accessibility.
Set after the 2016 revival, Gears of War 4, Gears 5 picks up in a meaningful place with the bombastic and charismatic roster of characters we’ve grown to love. Kicking off with perhaps the finest opening act of any Gears title; melding cinematic, blockbuster action with witty and smart dialogue, developer The Coalition wastes no time setting the stage for a truly fantastical, epic experience. It’s in the preceding acts, however, that things start to get dicey, and by dicey, we mean open world gameplay. Yes, Gears 5 positions itself in its middle acts as something of an open-world, linear shooter hybrid. It doesn’t work quite as well as its creators may have intended. For one, coming off the magnificent first act and to be continued by the equally enjoyable final act, it labels these chapters immediately as black sheep, sticking out from the herd-like the Sun burning high in the night. They appear inferior even though upon reflection, they aren’t. The middle acts are made with the trademark triple-A quality that the opening and final act glimmer with, and there’s clear ambition on The Coalition’s part to shake things up for the franchise. Unfortunately, it’s a one-note effort, lacking the necessary content and interactivity that makes open-world games so enjoyable to play and immerse in, creating the dreaded emptiness of an open map with nothing to do in it.
However, when all is said and done, the single-player campaign of Gears 5 is still a fabulous treat for dedicated fans, tossing one massive, almost ridiculous set-piece after another and tying it all together with an honest narrative that serves these characters well. From returning Marcus Fenix to the 2016-introduced JD, Kait, and Del to the newly introduced Fahz, the roster of characters is written with such a macho flavor that it isn’t surprising when you see them flare up massive chainsaws. Marcus Fenix is as snarky as ever with his lines masterfully performed by returning veteran John DiMaggio; his son JD Fenix, the main protagonist of Gears 4, undergoes a remarkable change from the one-note hero to a complex and layered human being. And of course, the brand-new character Fahz, captured wonderfully by iZombie’s Rahul Kohli, lends himself to some of the most hilarious moments in the entire series. All of these characters do a magnificent job of tying the grand narrative altogether, bringing it in as one cohesive whole. Despite the growing pains of the middle acts, the estimated six-hour campaign is easily the most impressive of the entire series and is a competent showcase of the mechanic that is essentially the very identity of Gears: the combat system.
Targeting and remaining steady at a 4K and 60 FPS performance on Xbox One X, Gears 5 is one of the most daunting feats of optimization engineering. Even when playing on PC, the game is so well optimized for lower hardware models as well as amped for the more powerful models that it quickly comes into focus that Gears 5 is designed so everyone can play it, which is evident of a true dedication of keeping this game accessible from all “corners” on Microsoft and Xbox’s end. That’s a good thing as the game’s smooth, buttery action and performance complements the combat of Gears 5 so well. Flaring up the chainsaws from the Lancer weapon feels better than ever, bolstered by some satisfying controller rumble techniques. And for those uncomfortable with all the aggressive gore and blood, The Coalition has smartly carried over accessibility settings from Gears of War 4, including the option to disable incessant swearing and the disturbing level of gore. In fact, this combat system will be familiar to anyone who has ventured into any Gears installment. Not too much fundamentally has changed, meaning multiplayer champions of 2016’s Gears of War 4 should be able to slide into their familiar groove without so much as a hiccup. However, newcomers will also be able to discover their successes remarkably fast as well, thanks to a well thought-out collection of tutorials in the form of “Boot Camp Missions.” Ultimately, the combat system does a fantastic job of paving the way to the element of the game that will surely live on for years to come: the competitive multiplayer.
Included multiple modes are the brand-new Escape and Map Builder, a play style where players can craft their own challenging Escape maps. There’s quite literally something for every Gears fan here, all rooted in the tried and true combat system. The returning favorites like Versus and Horde have a new coat of paint as well, as a batch of quality of life improvements, elevating the two modes past the divisive representation they had in Gears of War 4. Also, I encountered little to no stress on my side from the multiplayer serves and with the game becoming the most successful Xbox Studios title of this generation, that says a lot.
Even with all of this, Gears 5 still has a couple of snarky little tricks up its sleeve. For one, it’s been positioned as one of the most consumer-friendly titles to launch in recent memory. Competitive multiplayer has cross-play functionality, meaning players are able to challenge opponents across the Xbox One family of consoles, Microsoft Store PC users, and even Steam PC users.
When tying it all together, Gears 5 is a masterful composition of such exceptional parts, chock full of big, gory fun that fans have come to expect of the franchise, but also with a resonant and heartfelt core, thanks in large part to its fantastic single-player campaign. It’s undoubtedly the most impressive title in the entire Gears of War franchise and it even tops the list as the best game Xbox has put out this generation. Simply put, as clichéd as it may be, Gears 5 is everything fans could have hoped for and so, so much more.