Gears of War 5 is a great Gears game.
As it pushes the story into deeper, stranger territory and serves up its first foray into open world exploration, Gears of War 5 doesn’t lose sight of the heart of the series. And that’s good news, because at its center, the Gears series is an intensely engaging experience that weaves back and forth between gritty action and poignant, heartbreaking gloom.
Gears 5 has all of that and more.
The story of Gears 5 picks up right where 2016’s Gears of War 4 leaves off, following the next generation of characters including JD Fenix, Marcus Fenix’s son, and Kait Diaz, daughter of Rayna Diaz, as they get thrown into yet another conflict with the monstrous underground race called the Locust Horde.
By following the previous game so closely, Gears 5 isn’t exactly friendly to newcomers. Sure, there’s a brain-numbing tutorial to kick the game off (which feels very dated), but there’s little-to-no explanation about who these characters are, where they are, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because over-explaining the past wouldn’t feel natural in these circumstances, but people who are new to the series should probably check out some plot summaries on Wikipedia.
The game starts off with players controlling JD as he and a familiar squad of fighters head out to follow some generic objectives. It starts off slowly, especially for a Gears game, but really starts to ramp up quickly as the first of four acts in the campaign comes to an end. The Locust Horde hasn’t been eradicated nearly as much as humanity thinks it has. The destructive war technology called the Hammer of Dawn has gone awry. People are dying.
The next three acts are some of the best, most entertaining parts of the Gears series. There’s plenty of action with a wide variety of weapons that turn Locusts into bloody messes, dark and moody ruins to explore, and that classic soldier banter that keeps everything from being overbearingly grim.
The way Gears 5 explores this is brilliant
Players control Kait for the rest of the game (unless you’re playing co-op, then you have a few options, but at least one person has to be Kait) as she becomes the beating heart of Gears 5. She has these headaches that you first see as JD, but when you get in her head, you find out they’re much more than just searing blips of pain. She’s seeing sees. Locust things.
At the end of Gears 4, Kait receives her grandmother’s necklace from her dying mother. On that necklace is a Locust Horde symbol, and clearly there’s some sort of strange connection between Kait and the Locust Horde.
The way Gears 5 explores this is brilliant. It’s inventive, it’s surprising, and the method of delivery is wrapped up in a scary and enticing series of events that is delightfully gripping.
As the story progresses, Kait’s involvement remains a key element but the scope gets pulled further back into the conflict that has propelled Gears of War forward since the beginning: Humans vs. Locusts. This particular war is quite the spectacle.
Classic Gears meets new ideas
The combat of Gears of War remains pretty much unchanged in Gears 5, which is good because you wouldn’t really want to mess with that special sauce, especially the iconic lancer weapon.
There is one big addition though, and his name is Jack. Jack is a robot that players can command in battle that comes with some really handy functions. Players find upgrades for Jack throughout the game and unlock things like the ability to turn themselves invisible, stun enemies, and hack into mechanical enemies.
Aside from that, it feels familiar. The characters all pick up where they left off; Marcus’s voice is still ridiculously gruff, Cole continue to do badass things like drive a motorcycle loaded with explosives into the mouth of a giant Locust enemy, and the world is filled with conflicted ideas about the government and military actions.
Gears 5 even manages to feel familiar in its biggest departure from the rest of the series: the open world exploration. In acts two and three, there are large, open maps that contain your main objectives along with a handful of secondary, optional objectives to check out for story purposes and some upgrades for Jack.
By keeping the secondary stuff pretty short, it doesn’t detract from the main, urgent storyline, which is key. For what has historically been a completely linear series, Gears 5 nailed the addition of open world content. Sailing back and forth across the snowy and sandy landscapes on your trusty skiff is a fun break from the otherwise nonstop gritty action.
Act four wraps up in familiar territory: a war in an urban setting. Even though it feels like something we’ve seen before, the stakes remain high. Death isn’t off the table. Your actions have consequences. Also there’s another Riftworm and it’s tearing shit up.
In case you were worried, the Gears 5 story leaves room for more from the series. Groundwork has been laid for the next game, however that looks.
Gears of War 5 is available on Xbox One and Windows.