Alongside Halo and Forza, the Gears of War franchise stands as one of Microsoft's flagship gaming franchises. The original trilogy earned widespread critical acclaim, with many considering the first Gears of War the Xbox 360's killer app. Gears of War 4, while still a solid game, earned lower review scores than its predecessors, with many complaints targeting the campaign. It's clear that The Coalition took those criticisms to heart with Gears 5, delivering the best Gears of War campaign to date, and the most content-rich game in the series period.
When it comes to Gears 5's campaign, the name of the game is variety. Players will go from typical Gears of War action-packed, cover-shooting gameplay to intense, puzzle-like stealth sections where they have to quietly sneak around and disable enemy robots. Other times they'll find themselves exploring open world-like environments for side quests, collectibles, and hidden weapons. All the while the game is constantly throwing a different combination of enemies at players and giving them a wide variety of weapons to choose from, so the firefights never get boring. Gears 5's variety is really the key to its success, and it ensures that players won't once feel bored from the start of the game to the time they reach its jaw-dropping conclusion.
Those who haven't been keeping up with all of the Gears 5 news may be scratching their heads about the game's open world elements, but it's true. Gears 5 features a couple of different large hub worlds that let players go pretty much wherever they want. Players traverse these environments, said to be 50 times bigger than other Gears of War levels, using a vehicle called the Skiff. They can choose to just keep going through the main story objectives, or they can stray off the beaten path to explore other areas they find along the way.
Piloting the Skiff in Gears 5 is a lot of fun, and if nothing else, it gives players something new to do and adds to the campaign's variety. Exploring is also worth it as players will often be rewarded handsomely for their efforts. For example, we came across a special "Relic" sniper rifle that would let us shoot twice before reloading if we were able to perform its Active Reload correctly.
The side quests players find in Gears 5 go a long way in enriching the story and helping players learn more about the game world. Collectibles in Gears 5's campaign accomplish this as well, and they're far more interesting than the collectibles found in past games, which were often relegated to boring dogtags. We found ourselves actively looking for collectibles in the Gears 5 campaign, thoroughly exploring each level so that we didn't miss anything.
As for the main story, Gears 5's campaign has the most consistently entertaining story in series history. We were enthralled from start to finish. The Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson has admitted that Gears 4 played it safe, but Gears 5 pulls no punches. It tackles some more serious themes than one might expect from a Gears of War game, but it is also full of shocking moments, stunning revelations, and absurd, popcorn flick moments. For those worried that Gears 5 would shy away from over-the-top action sequences with its more serious story, there is a part early in the game where Cole drives a motorcycle into a Swarmak's mouth and blows up its head. So Gears 5 is just as ridiculous as ever before, but the story also has more stakes and more interesting, better-developed characters for those who need a little more substance with their video game stories.
Character development in Gears 5's campaign is perhaps one of its biggest improvements from past titles. Del Walker barely had a discernible personality to speak of in Gears of War 4, but in Gears 5, his character really shines. Since a huge portion of the game is all about Del and Kait Diaz, we get to spend more intimate time with these characters, letting both of them shine and become infinitely more interesting than they were in Gears of War 4.
The only downside to Gears 5's otherwise vastly improved character development is JD Fenix. It seems as though The Coalition has stopped trying to push JD as the replacement for Marcus Fenix, as his role in Gears 5 is significantly reduced when compared to Gears of War 4. There are some interesting things done with JD's character throughout the game, but his arc feels a bit rushed and unearned. We didn't buy certain developments with JD's character, but with the rest of the campaign and its characters delivering in such big ways, it's really a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things.
All the time Gears 5 players spend with these characters culminates in a crazy final act that's basically a nonstop, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride. The final act is chock full of the shocking moments that fans have come to expect from Gears of War campaigns, as well as spectacular set-pieces that left us breathless. It's a memorable finale, to say the least, and completely blows Gears of War 4 out of the water.
Gears 5 players can play through the excellent campaign in 3-player co-op, with two human characters and a third taking the role of JACK. JACK is a robot that has usually been relegated to opening doors for players in past Gears of War games, but this new version of JACK is a lot more versatile. After being upgraded by Baird, this new JACK functions as a support character, buffing players, reviving fallen allies, laying traps, and more.
Some of JACK's more unique abilities include turning players invisible for a short period of time, as well as offering an armor boost that allows players to move through hazardous environments. Players can upgrade JACK using components found in the game world, which further rewards exploration and adds some interesting RPG elements to the mix. Players can quickly swap through JACK's abilities so they don't have to waste time in menus, and even when JACK is AI-controlled, he's still extremely useful and responds to commands quickly.
Between JACK, the multitude of enemies on the screen, and all the ridiculous set-pieces, one would think that Gears 5 would have some performance issues, but on the contrary, it runs perfect. We didn't experience a single technical problem throughout the entire campaign, with Gears 5 delivering a level of polish that many games lack. And it does all of this without sacrificing visuals, as Gears 5 is also one of the best-looking Xbox One games available.
Just like Gears 5 delivers more gameplay variety than any other Gears of War game, it also has the most visual variety as well. There are plenty of drab city streets that the series is known for, but players also venture through a desert area with dark red sand, and explore old, abandoned research facilities. The snow levels, which have been highly promoted in the Gears 5 trailers and the like, are the standout from a graphics standpoint. The snow crunches realistically and reacts as the Gears characters push through it with their massive boots, and the ice storm weather effects are breathtaking.
Better yet, the snow and ice are more than just eye candy. Ice actually plays a role in the gameplay, with players able to shoot frozen lakes to make enemies fall in the water. There's also a weapon that functions essentially like an ice version of the flamethrower, freezing enemies in place and leaving them vulnerable to being smashed into pieces with a melee strike.
Players will freeze and smash many enemies over the course of the Gears 5 campaign, which is quite possibly the longest one yet. The in-game playtime tracker claimed that we beat it in around eight hours, but it was really closer to 12. This was also without pursuing all of the side quests, finding all the collectibles, or playing on the higher difficulty settings, so completionists will be spending a lot more time with the Gears 5 campaign compared to past games.
When players are done with the Gears 5 campaign, there's still a ton of content for them to sink their teeth into. Of course, the standard Gears of War Versus mode returns in Gears 5, complete with fun match types like Arms Race, Dodgeball, and more. Versus is exactly what fans have come to expect from Gears of War and lacks innovation, but there's nothing really wrong with that. Versus has a collection of fun maps, plenty of customization options, and even bot support so even if the servers are borked on launch day, players can still try out the maps and modes.
Horde mode also returns, and it offers the most value out of all the game modes besides the campaign. This time around, Horde has a lot more enemy variety, even reaching back to Gears of War 4 enemies that aren't seen in the Gears 5 campaign to keep players on their toes. Every 10 waves is punctuated by an intense boss encounter that will push players to their limits and offer a genuine challenge, forcing them to think strategically about how they spend their points on upgrades and the like.
Gears 5's Horde mode demands more coordination and teamwork than past games, and that's largely thanks to a switch to a class-based system. The Horde mode characters are all given roles like DPS, Tank, and Support, with their own unique equipment to craft, starting weapons, Ultimate abilities, and more. Each character has their own level and individualized progression, encouraging players to experiment if they want to unlock everything. Players are rewarded with skill cards that they can use to make subsequent runs of Horde a little easier on themselves, so even if players fail Gears 5's Horde, they will still feel like they're making worthwhile progress.
Something disappointing about Gears 5's Horde mode, and really the multiplayer and Escape modes too, is the selection of playable characters. Granted, there are neat guest characters like The Terminator and a pair of Spartans from Halo: Reach, but there is a lot of missing characters as well. Unless there's a way to unlock them that we didn't discover, players can't suit up as Cole or Baird, and Carmine is also missing. In their place are some unique characters that were made with Escape in mind, but it still would have been nice to see some fan favorite characters as part of the lineup.
Escape, by the way, is the fourth main game mode in Gears 5, and it's by far the weakest. That isn't to say it's bad; Escape is fine and functional, but it just won't hold players' attention like the other modes will. Escape mode sees players rush through a dungeon of sorts, fighting enemies and collecting loot along the way while trying to outrun a toxic gas. Escape levels end with an exciting standoff as players wait for their evac to arrive, but it can get old quick. On the bright side, there's a decent number of Escape maps available at launch and players can even create their own. It's not going to have the lasting impact on the Gears of War franchise as Horde and it'll be surprising if it returns in the next game, but Gears 5 would be a complete experience even without Escape, so it's really just icing on the cake.
Really the only thing to be concerned about when it comes to Gears 5 is the in-game shop and potential for microtransactions to ruin the progression. This is something we can't really test ahead of launch, but we do know that Gears 5 has a Fortnite-style shop with rotating items and it has premium currency. Having said that, Gears 5 has a free battle pass-like system called Tour of Duty that will let players unlock plenty of items for free, and nothing that can be earned in-game can be purchased in the store. This should mean that The Coalition won't be tempted to balance the game's progression in a way to encourage microtransactions, but we'll have to wait and see on that front. We're cautiously optimistic for now, and the promise of free maps and other multiplayer content should make up for the microtransaction approach.
Monetization concerns aside, Gears 5 is the perfect Gears of War experience. The Gears 5 campaign delivers everything fans would want from a Gears of War story, with shocking moments, epic set-pieces, and actual character development for a change. Multiplayer and Horde offer compelling experiences that will keep players engaged for the long-term, and the promise of free DLC (like Batista as a playable character, for instance) should ensure that the game has even more legs than past Gears of War titles. After the slightly disappointing Gears of War 4, Gears 5 shows that the series is back with a vengeance, with what is the best Gears of War game yet.
Gears 5 launches on September 10 for PC and Xbox One. Game Rant was provided an Xbox One code for this review.