Once upon a time, back when then the Xbox 360 was just a babe, the original Gears of War was a much-needed dose of adrenaline. Third-person shooters were all the rage back then, but it wasn’t until Epic Games came along and created its own line of bulky space marines that the genre finally stepped up a gear (if you'll pardon the pun). The series has slowly been moving away from its meat-headed machismo as its sequels have come and gone, with 2015’s Gears of War 4 marking new development stewards The Coalition’s first attempt to make this once unstoppable juggernaut feel fresh and relevant again. Gears 5, while far from perfect, is a natural evolution of this approach, and it makes for the most enjoyable and experimental instalment since the Geas of War: Judgement spin-off.
Making Gears feel relevant again is no mean feat, either. The meaty gun mechanics; the slow yet weighty movement model; the wave-based gunfights; the over-the-top set pieces. Without these elements, it would just feel like every other third-person shooter out there. But players – even those that have loved the series since 2006 – want more from their virtual slaughter simulators these days. For new-ish development steward The Coalition, part of that change stems from some of the more personal stories showcased in the previous game. Rather than following one of Fenix clan, this new Gears follows the journey of fellow jarhead Kate Diaz as she attempts to wrestle with the recent death of her mother and how it ties into the rise of the Swarm, an even deadlier successor to the Locust.
The Gears games have never been afraid to delve into some uncomfortable emotional beats – the fate of Dom’s wife in Gears 2 being one of many shockers over the years – and while Kate’s story doesn’t always land in the way the studio clearly intended, it does establish some interesting new world building for the Swarm and hints at some potential new avenues for the series to explore for the inevitable next instalment in the franchise. The story won’t be winning any awards for narrative excellence, but The Coalition’s attempts to experiment with level design and mission structure deserve far more praise.
After a few hours of classic linear gameplay, Gears 5 opens up – quite literally – as it introduces some of its largest and most open-ended levels to date. You can explore these larger environments with your new Skiff (even if it is a little unwieldy to control, like the Mako from the original Mass Effect), and while it’s not a proper open-world (there’s plenty of gating to ensure you don’t roam too far) the option to seek out and complete secondary objectives helps flesh out the world, extend your time with the game and provide access to upgrade options for Jack, the floating robot companion introduced in Gears 4. In fact, Jack is more important than ever, with his many abilities (including a very helpful health stim) giving you more options in a hectic gunfight.
The sheer variety of enemy types the Swarm will throw at you puts the Locust to shame, and it’ll force you to move around a lot more rather than hunker down behind the same piece of bullet-ridden cover. Jack can help retrieve all sorts of items, including special gear and ammo that might be out of reach in a tense gunfight. Being able to freeze or stun enemies before you tear into them really helps mix up the skirmishes you get into, which, when paired with the more open level designs and that tried and tested Gears gunplay, makes for Gears 4’s most enjoyable element. So while its sometimes brave – but mostly predictable – story doesn’t always live up to the hype, those gore-ridden gunfights consistently deliver. It’s a formula that works, even if it’s not one that’s particularly pushing the envelope too far.
Gears 4’s crowning jewel is still a selective title, depending on whether you’re playing this for the campaign, multiplayer for Horde mode. Multiplayer hasn’t changed that much since the previous game, but then again, neither has Call of Duty, Battlefield or any other popular online shooter experience. The new maps are some of the best the series has seen in years, but the metrics remain the same. Rush in, get your shotgun out and make heads pop like pinatas. Horde mode remains much the same, although the introduction of new prize traps gives you more incentive to avoid hunkering down in one spot with your fabricator and fight off waves around the map. It’s a nice touch, but it’s not enough to change the fact Horde mode isn’t the unit-selling mode it once was.
Escape is the newest addition to the fold, offering up a co-op experience that’s far more aggressive than the defensive tropes of Horde. It plays a little bit like a cross between a battle royale and a PvE mode, where you and three other teammates need to outrun an oncoming toxic gas cloud while taking out packs of Swarm. The immediacy of having to constantly be on the move while taking out enemies is actually a neat little combo, and while there four maps to choose from, the location of enemies doesn’t change between so it’s possible to learn the best strategy if you have a decent team with you and your clear areas effectively. It’s enjoyable, but likely won’t have the staying power of Horde come the next few instalments.
Gears 5 is an odd thing; it's neither a grand leap forwards, nor a complete rehash of what came before, and therefore sits somewhere in the middle of the two. On the whole, the improvements do outweigh the negatives (the non-linear approach to campaign levels and the small changes to horde mode being some of the most notable), and while The Coalition still has some work to do to really make the series its own, this is a far bolder and more varied approach the relatively safe Gears 4. If you love shooters and you want a good place to jump back into the series, this is perfect place to work the rust out of your lancer.