Lee Henaghan travelled to Canada for a special Gears 5 preview event at The Coalition studios in Vancouver. Could this be a return to form for the game that gave the world the chainsaw bayonet?
Franchises, sequels, spinoffs, reboots, remakes and remasters – for an industry supposedly built on innovation and creativity, modern gaming is arguably more reliant on decades-old franchises than ever before.
Traditionally, the tried and true trilogy formula has been an effective one. Introduce a new IP, double down on the good stuff in the sequel, make everything bigger and better in the third outing. After this though, things can get complicated. Developers tend to get caught between two stools – “return to the roots” and risk criticism from fans who want something new, or go in a completely different direction and alienate their core fanbase.
This is the crossroads that the franchise formerly known as Gears of War (now just plain old Gears), found itself at after the fourth game was released in 2016. The initial trilogy redefined the modern cover shooter while establishing itself as second only to Halo in the ranks of Xbox of first-party exclusives but GoW4 was generally received as a decent, if unambitious effort. There was nothing particularly wrong with it but we’d seen it all before. It felt like the series that was desperately in need of a kick up the arse.
Gears 5 provides exactly that. At a time when most developers run out of ideas, The Coalition has introduced a glut of new features, new modes and taken the game’s story in a completely different direction. Like all the best sequels, it somehow manages to feel fresh and familiar at the same time.
What’s the story?
Picking up directly after the events of GoW4 (don’t worry if you missed it, there’s a handy ‘previously on Gears’ catchup option), Gears 5’s Campaign mode focuses first and foremost on Kait Diaz, a world-weary COG soldier facing an existential crisis. While Kait featured prominently in the previous game, she’s now the star of the show and – thanks to some stellar voice work from Laura Bailey (Uncharted, just about every video game out there) – knocks it out of the park as leading lady. For a franchise that’s been frequently criticised for its dudebro machismo, opting for a female lead is a bold move and it’s paid off in spades.
Fellow Gears Del and JD also make a return along with original Gears protagonist Marcus Fenix who plays more of a supporting role here, embracing his grumpy old man phase with gusto. Again, the voice acting stands out, as the dialogue between characters and banter as you move between areas creates a real sense of camaraderie between the squad and reveals insight about their hopes, fears and motivations.
While previous Gears games followed formulaic approach to level design with tight corridors opening up into battle areas filled with convenient waist-high cover spots, Gears 5 opts for a pseudo-sandbox open world environment where you use a wind-powered skiff to traverse between missions and points of interest. This has a huge effect on the size and scope of the game – the world feels infinitely bigger and more connected while the skiff travel across icy tundras, arid deserts and lush jungle terrain serve as a perfect palette-cleanser between firefights. The move to an open-world environment is backed up by the addition of RPG elements. Skyrim it most certainly isn’t, but simple things like side-quests, skill trees and upgrade points add a new dimension to the old run-hide-shoot gameplay loop.
Then again, it wouldn’t be Gears game without a whole heap of cover shooting and if that’s what you’re here for, you won’t be disappointed. There’s a familiar focus on finding safe spots on the battlefield, waiting for the right time to take your shot and moving between cover to eliminate the enemies. Gunplay has always been one of the most popular features of Gears – every weapon just has that satisfying feel to it – and that’s even more prevalent here, with every shotgun blast packing a powerful punch.
On the graphical side, hitting the benchmark of 4K and 60 frames per second (on Xbox One X and PC) has to be highlighted as an incredible achievement by the developers. Most games usually opt for one or the other but Gears 5 manages to combine sharp resolution with smooth animation. Character models are well rendered, environments are diverse and detailed and the big, flashy set pieces are jaw dropping. it’s by far the best looking Gears game to date and arguably one of the most visually impressive Xbox games full stop.
Technical improvements aside, the biggest compliment I could pay Gears 5’s Campaign mode was that I was fully engaged with the story throughout. Games like this often have me distracted or reaching for my phone during cut scenes as the plot is usually secondary to the action, poorly produced, or both. This is one of the rare games where I actually found myself looking forward to the next cinematic section – the story goes in some seriously surprising directions with enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes throughout.
Horde mode has been a Gears mainstay since the second game in the series and for many fans, it’s the game’s most consistently entertaining feature. Your team of five faces 50 waves of increasingly dangerous enemies, with a boss arriving at the end of every tenth wave. Between waves, players can set defences and use the fabricator to create new weapons and barriers before the next swarm descends.
Horde has been given a real shake-up this time around, most notably by the addition of character classes and ultimate abilities obviously inspired by hero shooters such as Overwatch. Whereas in previous Gears games characters handled identically and differences were purely cosmetic, now there’s a real emphasis on play style and tactics when it comes to choosing your squad loadout.
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New characters like Emile and Kat from Halo: Reach and Sarah Connor from Terminator seem somewhat gimmicky at first but it’s the addition of robotic saviour Jack that really gives Horde mode a shot in the arm. Jack is prominently featured in Campaign mode as your upgradeable AI buddy but as a playable character in Horde he fulfils the healer/support role, providing assistance to more offensive characters and reviving downed players. Playing as Jack is a completely different experience – he hovers straight over the cover sections and can use cloaking to evade detection. He won’t rack up many kills but it would be a tough ask to get through 50 waves without him on your squad.
Best of the rest
Other modes that weren’t playable at the preview event were multiplayer battles (standard Gears fare with the same classes/hero abilities as Horde). Escape (a multiplayer battle against the clock to get your team out of a range of sticky situations) and map builder (a simple tool to build and share your own Escape maps).
There’s also a strong emphasis on couch co-op in Gears 5. At a time when most other games are moving away from local multiplayer, it’s good to see a few developers still recognising the fun to be had in shared experiences.
Lee Henaghan travelled to Vancouver courtesy of Xbox
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