When I began the campaign with a close friend of mine, another guy who has played through the entire series, we wondered what a new game could bring to the table other than proof that The Coalition could keep the IP — which Microsoft purchased from Epic Games in 2014 — respectably afloat. But by the time we skipped the credits, both of us agreed that Microsoft’s internal studio had created a knockout experience that stands in flattering contrast to many of today’s big budget shooters.
Stylistically, the Gears look is thick-limbed, thick-necked male and ultra-athletic female soldiers, known as Gears, versus all manner of fantastically designed creatures — from waist-height packs of corpse-white Juvies that can overwhelm with their numbers, to hulking monsters that can pulverize, swallow, or otherwise tear you apart. Gears’ sensibility has always been that of flesh-in-chunks-violence (a machine gun with an attached chain saw is the series’ iconic weapon). Yet sentiment has also been a part of the equation for some time. Major characters have died along the way and the heroes who have been at it since the beginning are now older and have ceded the spotlight to a younger generation.
Much of the plot around “Gears 5” revolves around a small band of young Gears trying to bring a devastating weapon, known as the Hammer of Dawn, back online. This laser-powered weapon, which relies on satellites for operation, has been deemed too dangerous by the Prime Minister of the
Coalition of Ordered Governments (the COG). Though they recognize the Hammer of Dawn’s potential for indiscriminate mass destruction, the Gears disregard the Prime Minister’s injunction. In their view, the possibility of eradicating an alien threat known as the Swarm outweighs the acknowledged risks. Their decision to follow their own path is not without consequence. People die and personal bonds are strained. You don’t have to peer too deeply to spot the subtext of loss and anguished responsibility that runs through the story. However, pithy dialogue and meaningful glances notwithstanding, “Gears 5” is very much a capital-A, action game that caters to itchy trigger fingers.
In recent years, a number of big budget shooters like “Destiny,” “The Division,” “Anthem,” and “Wolfenstein: Youngblood” have acted as poster children for the games-as-service design template. Developing blockbuster games is a costly, multiyear process, so publishers are eager to keep consumers hooked for as long as possible. Each of these titles feature open worlds that players are encouraged to cross and recross multiple times to grind experience points for better weapons, equipment, and abilities. In practice this means that one is often fighting the same kinds of enemies, in the same location, that have been fought before. This is a recipe for staleness. Having played through a number of these games in recent years, I appreciated the more crafted combat scenarios in “Gears 5” where new enemies are generously introduced throughout the campaign and enemy groupings are meticulously remixed to make one fight feel different from the next.
Like 2016’s “Doom,” this is a shooter that expects you to internalize enemy patterns to the point where you can efficiently, almost unconsciously, adjust your tactics to suit the situation and the enemy. That means knowing at a glance what to prioritize and what to ignore. (Thus, whenever a Bastion — a small, flying contraption that flies behind and shields much larger enemies — appears, kill it ASAP.)
The environments in “Gears 5” are gorgeous. So luminous is the red sand in the game’s Act 3 desert level that it reminded me of the lovely saturated colors in the BBC’s “Planet Earth II.” It also, oddly, made me think of red velvet cake. Although I encountered a couple of glitches, the overall performance of the game running on the Xbox One X is remarkable. Frame drops are incredibly rare despite the profusion of effects that occur in the most intense combat situations. The Gears of War games have always been technical showcases and this one extends the tradition.
I did not have the chance to dive deep into “Gears 5’s” multiplayer modes due to the limited number of players on the servers during the prelaunch period. But my friend and I did play a few rounds of Escape, the new cooperative mode which pushes to the fore the series’ roots in the survival horror genre. In Escape, you play an intrepid saboteur. At the start of each match, a Snatcher, a large reddish-pink alien with a droopy stomach, swallows then deposits your body in a pod back in its hive. After your character escapes the pod and plants a bomb it’s up to you to vacate the area as fast as possible. Weapons and ammo are scarce which means you must weigh the value of engaging in a firefight against high-tailing it past enemies that can be outmaneuvered. It’s a fun mode due to its frantic pacing, but I wonder if it will inspire the sort of long-term engagement that Horde (the cooperative mode in which players face off against waves of enemies), or competitive multiplayer do. In any case, I look forward to trying it out more.
“Gears 5” is the rare action game I‘d love to play again.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.