Spoilers ahead: Gears of War is one of Microsoft’s most storied franchises. During the early days of the last console generation, it was the title that helped to sell Xbox 360s during their juggernaut, Halo‘s absence. Microsoft early in this generation had an arguably strong first-party lineup with unique titles such as Titanfall and Sunset Overdrive, both games that I am a fan of, but in the years that have followed, they have seen their first-party output wane and rely less on new experiences and have the burden carried by their big-name franchises.
So it would be fitting that this reliance on presumed past success and unwillingness to take a chance would result in their recent releases failing to move the needle. Halo 5 arrived to tepid reception from its fans and titles like Crackdown 3 didn’t exactly set the world on fire. With Microsoft directing its focus away from day-one sales and to their subscription platform, Xbox Gamepass, it would seem pertinent that they have strong titles to spearhead the service while letting smaller indie and third-party titles be supplementary. A new title in the Gears of War series, now just referred to as Gears, would be perfect to drive such a service.
It is a shame that the latest Gears game not only fails to do many exciting things, but it also flubs the execution of nearly everything it sets out to do. Some would say that the multiplayer is the only important aspect of this franchise. I would call them disingenuous. The Gears campaigns of the original trilogy were mostly good, enjoyable romps that did a solid job of mixing intense action, well designed set pieces, and campy humor (whether intentional or unintentional). You won’t find anything like this in Gears 5.
Right out of the gate, something seems to be off with enemy feedback. In past games, enemies did a better job of reacting to your gunfire and this made the combat feel more impactful. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Enemies soak up damage, might flinch once, and then fall over or explode into a bloody pulp. Rarely do the kills feels as satisfying as they did in previous games. This might seem like a small gripe, but in a third-person shooter series that emphasizes its combat, it makes a lot of the encounters feel like slogs in comparison.
The level design isn’t much better either. Nothing really memorable occurs in the opening act of the game and I barely recall what the location looked like. Soon after the traditionally linear intro, you’re thrown into this weird, pseudo open-world that you navigate with a skiff. This part of the game feels half-baked as it offers little other than to pad out the length. There are no encounters in the open-world, no cities, no real points of interest other than a few locations with a collectible. They simply break the already uneven pace of the game by adding upwards of ten minutes to reach the next mission or plot beat.
It’s unfortunate that this is the case because many of the locales are breathtaking. The game as a whole is a visual treat and probably one of the best looking games I’ve ever played. Textures are detailed, the dynamic lighting system results in some gorgeous shots. The Unreal Engine is really being put to work here and the optimization and performance when working are also great. Rarely were there any framedrops or screentearing, and with max settings I was able to run the game consistently over 120 FPS. I often found myself in awe at some of the vistas and the attention to detail to elements outside of normal gameplay is incredible. However, the campaign was plagued with bugs and crashes that resulted in my co-op parter and me having to restart the game and losing progress. One egregious bug was where we would make our lobby invite only but players were still able to join and play as Jack.
The pacing is another problem. Even outside of the open-world, the game, more than others in the series, interrupts gameplay to drop exposition bombs on the player to progress the narrative. In previous entries, small dialogue would occur to keep the game’s forward momentum in tact. But in this iteration, entire plot threads are explained in detail through radio chatter or in character conversion. In a game that at its core is about shooting stuff and making it blow up real good, it brings it to a screeching halt. Not only that, but the game wanted to develop Jack, the AI companion, as a crucial gameplay element with an RPG style progression system.
Upgrades litter the game’s map and levels and serve to progress abilities the game periodically doles out for Jack. The issue, is that these rarely feel like meaningful additions to the gameplay and mostly feel like yet another undercooked idea. You’ll get a new upgrade for Jack to solve a very simple puzzle, only to forget about its existence until later when the game contrives another situation for you to use it. The game never creates situations where you’re incentivized you use Jack’s abilities other than maybe the instant revive/health boost ability. They, much like the game’s open-world, are barebones and superfluous.
One of the biggest offenders in this mess is the story. The characters JD, Kait, and Del don’t see much in the way of character development. JD undergoes an offscreen transformation that happens during a time jump that isn’t elaborated on. You play as either Kait or Del for the majority of the game and they don’t exactly have a great dynamic. There’s nothing similar to the bond and banter that results from it like with Marcus, Dom, Baird, or Cole. Most of the interaction between the two protagonists comes from jokes and off kilter comments.
And that’s another big issue; the writing. This game tries incredibly hard to build up emotional climaxes only to have any gravity completely undermined by a joke. This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the jokes weren’t horrendous. For example, there’s one shortly after a revelation meant to be world shattering during one of the better segments of the game. We learn the origins of the locust and how Kait ties into the narrative, but during this process we get a joke about scrubbing assholes. It’s like this game wants to be taken seriously but can’t keep a straight face.
Those two missteps are compounded by a narrative that goes absolutely nowhere. Near the end of the game, you’re forced to choose between saving either Del or JD while the other dies and this is meant to be a moment with gravitas that the game does not earn. What was meant to be a difficult choice was ludicrously simple. Why would anyone pick JD over Del? You barely interact with him during the game and the game also spends much of its time disparaging him. Instead of a tense moment, it’s a wholly contrived plot device.
By the time the game reached its conclusion, I had the realization that nothing had happened. I had engaged with roughly twelve to fifteen hours worth of gameplay for a plot that had zero substance to the series canon. The carrot on the stick driving the plot was the destruction of the Swarm hive by using the Hammer of Dawn, a satellite weapon system. You spend the entire game working toward this goal only for it to be destroyed immediately after setting it up. No damage is dealt to the Swarm. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained. It makes the death of either Del or JD seem even worse because the Queen of the Swarm, the main antagonist just pops up for a few minutes to kill one of them and then dips.
It inevitably ends on a cliffhanger to set upon Gears 6, but someone could easily skip Gears 5 and not miss a single major bullet point for the plot. It’s a total non-factor.
Multiplayer has its own set of problems. It admittedly is the smoothest and best playing of the series. However, due to a combination of the Lancer (the game’s default assault rifle) being broken and many of the maps designed with bottlenecks and elevation, instead of the fast-paced close quarters combat exhibition, games are often slow and stagnant with little player movement. The Lancer does insane amounts of damage and has little recoil which gives it a low time-to-kill. This deviates from the gameplay that has kept the multiplayer alive for multiple iterations in a way that isn’t complimentary. The series’s lauded Horde mode is a different story. Waves take entirely too long due to the bullet sponge enemies and issues with AI rotating around the map. Reaching the 50th wave seems like a daunting time commitment, even on easy difficulty.
What we’re left with is an entry in this series that takes no steps forward and instead stumbles because it can’t even find its footing in what it’s done right. It doesn’t so much fall as it does faceplant. It’s an unnecessary title that does nothing to justify its existence other than to be a new Gears title. The campaign is a trudge that rarely offers any entertainment and a story that feels like a poorly conceived fanfic. Gears 5 fittingly mirrors its execution of open-world gameplay, insofar that it is nothing. Bereft of purpose or substance, it is a great expanse of nothing.
Gears 5 was played on PC through Xbox Game Pass