Gears of War has, in recent years, started to look a bit... tired. Gears of War: Judgment delivered faster gameplay mechanics and new challenges, but it felt like an uninspired detour nonetheless. Gears of War 4 was an incredibly solid foundation for the multiplayer of the series and looked phenomenal from a purely technical perspective too, but it lacked the charm of past games with its "edgy" new protagonists and their almost Uncharted-like attitude, as well as an uninspired campaign. However, Gears 5 (why did they decide to remove the "of War" from the title?) is a completely different beast, and The Coalition has been working hard to get the brand back on track with some ambitious new ideas.
Some might see Gears of War as that series where macho men with chainsaws smashed their way through grey, war-torn ruins, but the series has always been more than its simplistic facade seems to suggest. Alongside its violent premise, Gears has always been brilliant mechanically, delivering some truly memorable moments, and along the way we've been treated to some beautiful scenery. These positives are highlighted once more and further polished here, yet at the same time the developer has done what was so badly needed; it is trying something new.
Gears 5 picks up shortly after its predecessor ends. Mankind needs a solution to the Swarm, the new threat that is rapidly growing in the shadows. We also have Kait, our protagonist whose past and mysterious connection to this threat is still unclear. Everything is set for an adrenaline-pumping adventure and quick bursts of drama, and that's exactly what the series needs to be quite honest.
The campaign begins in a traditionally linear fashion as The Coalition proudly displays its detailed environments, which on the Xbox One X (which we played on) runs in glorious 4K and at 60 frames-per-second. We still follow a group of chunky soldiers, but we soon noticed that the hovering robot that has always been in the background of previous games now has a bigger role to play. We can ask it to fly away and pick up weapons during battle, and it can interact with items that help us advance in other ways. During the course of the game, we will also have access to abilities and upgrades that temporarily make us invisible or release electric traps. The robot, Jack, is even playable in the campaign's co-op mode where all of these features can be utilised by up to three players.
However, one of the biggest changes is how the studio has chosen to break up the linear level design. For example, there are large areas to traverse using a sail-powered hovercraft, a ride which allows us to gracefully slide around as we explore. It's not a case of Grand Theft Gears or anything like that, rather it's more reminiscent of the setup in Metro Exodus. Not to reveal too much, but as an example, we have the snowy landscape we've seen in the trailers. It has several different locations where we can look for upgrades for Jack, bits of story to unravel, and weapons to find, before it takes us to a new story mission more reminiscent of the old-style Gears of War. It helps the world feel more grounded and connected in a way we haven't seen before.
Another change - which is also an improvement - is that we have more choice and a better sense of control during battle. Take a battle with the Swarm during a snowstorm as an example. Around us, pillars of ice begin to plunge into the ground. These become shelters that we can hide behind, but also shoot so they roll over, changing the dynamic of the cover. This, together with all of Jack's abilities (that you level up via its own skill tree), more interactive locations, and a bunch of interesting challenges and environmental dangers, makes this the most engaging game in the series since Gears of War 2. It's hard to describe just how much more fun it is compared to Gears of War 4, which occasionally decided to throw Horde elements into the campaign to artificially increase the challenge. Gears 5 is a long game, but it feels well-paced.
However, there are some minor issues worth pointing out. We played most of the campaign on the second-highest difficulty (Experienced), and it often felt like the game was penalising us for playing alone. Our AI-powered comrades are nowhere near as efficient as we are, which makes some battles feel almost unfair. There were some sections when we got held up for almost half an hour as we died again and again, with enemies carrying explosive weapons that could turn us into mush with just one hit. It always felt good afterwards when we had won the fight and moved on, but it would have made it easier if it wasn't just us doing all the legwork. It hurts the illusion of having allies.
It's also worth mentioning that some of the game's side activities can be quite simplistic. They are not bad by any means, but they feel fairly predictable and fall back on ideas that make exploration feel artificial at times. If we find part of an upgrade, we immediately get a "you've found one of three" notification that temporarily pulls us out of the moment. We also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs that forced us to jump back to a save point, although hopefully these issues will be ironed out via an update sooner rather than later.
The Gears 5 campaign is brilliant and pacey, with well-implemented new enemies (like the Flock, a shoal of flying leaches that can take over machines) and some new weapons. A favourite of ours is the new Lancer rifle which, instead of the usual chainsaw, has a grenade launcher that can save the day in many a situation, and even has a ruthless finisher that we'll let you find out for yourself. Basically, the gameplay is excellent and complemented by an effective story. What's more, all the less-inspired characters who featured in Gears of War 4, like Kait and snarky JD Fenix, feel more interesting here.
We have also received several additions to the multiplayer. While we didn't get a huge amount of time with these modes, we have been playing both Horde and new game mode: Escape. Escape is basically Left 4 Dead where up to three players are captured while infiltrating the Swarms' home in order to destroy them. A bomb is placed at the beginning of the game, which then releases gas, and with limited time and resources, we must try to escape from the nest before we are either suffocated by the gas or brutally murdered by monsters. This is a mode for perfectionists who want to try to maximise their tactical options and escape as quickly as possible. Here we also have several choices in terms of the characters we can play as, as all of them have their own superpower. For example, Keegan can drop an ammunition box that refills all Allied weapons in one area, or Mac can place a mobile shield in front of himself.
On top of all that is the fact that these characters can level up and unlock special cards that upgrade or modify them in different ways, like Terminator's Sarah Connor, who can unlock extra grenades, for example (there are also some Spartans from Halo: Reach to call upon). These cards are also possible to upgrade, and it's a bit like the Star Cards in Star Wars Battlefront 2, but doesn't feel as frustrating as they feature in a collaborative mode and the team is using everything together. This character system also spills over to the Horde mode, where we have even more playable characters with additional abilities and possible upgrades, allowing us to choose our play style or even try to balance a group.
Horde allows up to five players to deal with increasingly hardy waves of enemies and it is still highly entertaining. In addition to the expanded roster of characters, we also noted a slightly more aggressive playstyle overall as we need to knock out and take over generators that will gradually be unlocked during the round. This gives us the resources we need to expand the base we are trying to keep alive. Horde is frantic and addictive to play with friends and we're looking forward to going back for more.
Gears 5, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, is back and in top form. The Coalition has added in the most important ingredient that the series seems to have lacked since Epic released the two first games, and that's ambition. It's technically brilliant with engaging battles that we can't get enough of. Maybe some updates are required in order to squash a few bugs and tweak the solo experience, and Escape will need mores stages (which have already been confirmed), but other than that, what we have here is a complete package and one of the best action games Xbox can offer right now. If you were hesitant after Gears of War 4, know that this is a definite improvement in almost every area and one of the best action games of the year.