Gears 5 Campaign Review: Gears Has Never Been Better
We're still a few days out from handing down our final verdict on the expansive Gears 5 multiplayer suite, but in the meantime, we want to weigh in on the campaign.
Unlike many popular multiplayer games, the Gears series has always attracted a large number of campaign players as well, and that's never felt more justified than it does with Gears 5.
By taking some stunning risks, delivering a better script, and putting on an audiovisual clinic, Gears 5 offers the best campaign in the series. Ever.
Gears 5's biggest shift — that being its move to Kait as the main protagonist — is apparent in all its marketing materials, but that change doesn't come until Act II. Before that, it's JD, Marcus' son and the flawed hero of Gears of War 4, who remains the still-imperfect playable character.
These first few chapters look and feel a lot like what series veterans are used to, even as it still bears the style of The Coalition's more colorful makeover. City streets and corridors re-invite players to the Gears we've had for so long, where you can chainsaw ugly monsters or cut them down from a distance with loads of firepower. After an unsettling story moment at the end of Act II, one that represents this script's best-in-series writing well, the tone abruptly shifts to something that feels quite different.
Kait's saga is the most personal in the series to date, even literally, as we often see inside her own unwell mind. However, it's the best in the series for reasons that go beyond just that introspection. Gears 5 makes a welcome habit out of subverting expectations over and over again throughout the 12-hour campaign.
Moments big and small are upended by surprises, like the ebb and flow of combat and dialogue, which has for so long been metronomic in this and other shooters but now cleverly unravels in Gears 5. Character moments will be interrupted by chaos when you least expect it, while the game lets things breathe more than Gears is known to do.
Gears 5 cares more for its characters, too. Even as many fans were invested in the likes of Dom, Baird, and Marcus in the original trilogy and scoffed at JD, Del, and Kait in 4, the latest in the series does more for all the living characters, both past and present, than ever before. Beneath the bulky exterior, Gears has fully-fledged human beings in its starring roles now. I even got goosebumps a few times. That's new.
The series once dedicated to gravel-voiced testosterone junkies is no longer afraid to cry, and it's a beautiful thing. It's so affecting in Gears 5 that it's made me retroactively care more for the series' earlier narrative shenanigans.
It's especially daring how Kait is promoted to the starring role, and even more so when you realize she's likely to be the pivotal character in Gears 6, too. I can't think of other series that have pivoted from one hero to the next mid-trilogy like this, and it seems unlikely any similar moves would've been successful. From a storytelling view, it feels unfathomable — almost improper — that the story could unfold as it does in The Coalition's first two outings as Gears caretakers, but they've nailed it, and I'm excited for what's ahead.
The final scene of Gears 5 has the pitch-perfect summer blockbuster cliffhanger mood they're going for, and I now find myself a bigger fan than ever thanks to Kait's motivation.
It's one of many sweeping changes that The Coalition has made since taking over with Gears of War 4, and the handoff looks even more secure here in Gears 5. New enemy types in basic combat and boss battles are to be expected from any shooter, but the cover-shooting heart of the franchise still doesn't miss a beat. Supplemented with new environmental tactics, like shooting the ice beneath enemies, as well as the returning storm mechanics from 4 make Gears 5 a game that always feels great.
The Coalition's north star seems to be paying homage to what worked before but not fearing big changes. They've made many in this game alone and most of them work well.
A pair of open-world hubs have their ups and downs, though. With one main objective in each of the two areas, players are left to their wind-sailing skiff to explore for more blips on the map. Twelve side missions and some collectibles round out the optional content in total, while the bookend sections surrounding Acts II and III don't offer any similar areas, making the move to open-world feel half-baked.
Stuck between a linear past and a future potentially more vast, Gears 5 feels like a trial run for an even more expansive Gears 6 in a few years, and that move will be a smart one as the side missions are a fun addition to the series. But for now, players may be wondering why they have so few toys for so much sand.
But at least that sand is gorgeous. Environments in Gears 5 make it the best looking Xbox game to date. It instantaneously becomes the new benchmark for their first-party titles and will help usher in the next generation with this pretty of a picture. Act III's red sand screams of The Last Jedi, but Gears makes it work for itself just as memorably. Before that, the crystalline blue tundra helps diversify the battlefield like never before for the once grey-brown franchise.
Character models have always been inflated, though The Coalition slimmed them down a bit when they took over. However, by imbuing the world with a wider color palette and using some amazing lighting effects, Gears 5 is visually flawless, even as sawing Swarm monsters in half doesn't tend to be the most portrait-ready scene.
It also sounds great thanks to awesomely designed audio, including the return of Ramin Djawadi, of Westworld and Game of Thrones fame, as composer. The Coalition has found their sonic soulmate in Djawadi and can't let him out of the building until he scores the finale to this new trilogy.
As this review arrives post-launch, I didn't experience some of the issues reported elsewhere regarding progression bugs, though I did encounter some that required checkpoint restarts. Given how unforgiving the checkpoints often are in Gears 5, those were annoying. Thankfully, they never persisted and some have already been patched out, too.
Still, this is Xbox's biggest game of the year and the flagship launch for its holiday rush Game Pass initiative. It would be silly to say Gears 5 is unpolished since it does so much so impressively, but several of the bugs, like an interact prompt that never seems to work the first time, have the feeling of QA reports deliberately overlooked.
- Revitalizes the series with a new emotional core
- Environments are more varied and interesting than ever before
- Takes big risks in the story and gameplay and most of them pay off
- Frequently subverts expectations
- Some bugs cause annoyances and force restarts
- Open-world sections feel half-baked
Before Gears of War 4, the series felt like its future was up in the air. For some, that feeling grew stronger after a polarizing debut for The Coalition.
Gears 5 not only puts that debate to rest, it delivers a new benchmark for Xbox Game Studios. When Master Chief returns next Christmas, it's Gears 5 he'll need to contend with to claim the top spot among Microsoft's first-party campaigns.
[Note: A copy of Gears 5 was provided by Microsoft for the purpose of this review.]