A good friend. A reliable night in with appointment TV. Comfort food and your favourite undies, shorts and socks in your spot on the couch. That one pillow among your fort that you just know will lead you comfortably into the land of sleep. Your local and its friendly staff. Dear old burnt-to-the-ground Happy Chef and not wanting to go anywhere else because their Chinese is soooo good... what do all of these things have in common with Gears 5? They’re all familiar. They’re all safe. And they make you happy.
Routine is the hallmark of productivity, and longevity.
Or so they say.
But with familiarity comes known and manageable expectation. This, however, can also be a slippery slope towards stagnation, and right now, Gears 5 is sliding down that icy precipice -- a metaphor more on-the-nose than at first it might seem. And problematically, for both players and the combined business of development and publishing between The Coalition and Xbox Game Studios, is that what we have here is a game and franchise that is scared to shake its cogs for fear of a machine no longer functioning from a sales and success perspective. Gears 5 changes things up, but only in so much a shop changes the clothes of its shopfront window mannequin -- we know they sell clothes. That’s nothing new. I’m just not sure if that inanimate model’s garbs are really for me. I mean, I’m already comfortable with what I have on, and they all seem really familiar, anyway -- buttons, zips, leg-holes. All of it.
Maybe I just want some auto-fit Back to the Future high-tops over tired old lace-ups, though.
"There’s an unnatural sense of devolution that comes with this sort of business behaviour. “Franchise fatigue”, as our industry likes to call it, is a very real problem..."
Gears 5 (or, for traditionalists, Gears of War 5) is just another COG. This isn’t to be translated as entirely negative, because what made this franchise so popular is that it was an action game outlier; the cover mechanics, the gore, the Saving Private Ryan steady cam while you run… and the visuals. My Science, the visuals.
But while Epic, Cliffy and co sold it all off and Microsoft went on to build a Gears-specific team in The Coalition, in much the same way they did with Halo and 343 Industries, there’s an unnatural sense of devolution that comes with this sort of business behaviour. “Franchise fatigue”, as our industry likes to call it, is a very real problem. Entire IPs have been brought to their knees as a result of it: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Medal of Honor... even old-school Resident Evil suffered before Mikami came along and reinvigorated the series’ namesake with the indomitable Resident Evil 4. And while those IPs -- and many others -- were/are at the hands of large publishers capable of shredding contracts and projects in the blink of an eye, they all represent a restless and ever-changing gaming audience. An audience that is both fickle and quick to move.
"Gears 5 is simply Gears of War. It’s a 4K posterchild and HDR definitely brings the game-world to life. But it suffers from mistakes of the past..."
The problem is, games aren’t quick to develop, or be developed. The audiences, however, are quick to move on -- something publishers are perhaps too acutely aware of.
So why the lengthy preamble?
Gears 5 is simply Gears of War. It’s a 4K posterchild and HDR definitely brings the game-world to life (especially on my 65" Samsung QLED 2019 Q9 TV). But it suffers from mistakes of the past that should have been fixed. In the aforementioned “franchise fatigue” games, most at least made changes to try and present something new. In Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Neversoft realised it was less about the rails, transitions and gaps, and more about how you could string them all together for combos -- so revert was added. This was a simple single-button push link between environmental tricks and regular skating that allowed for insane combos, changing level design and how people played the game forever. In both Guitar Hero and Rock Band it was about bands. Adding percussion simply changed everything.
Numerous games have done this type of thing. This year’s Metro Exodus -- a Metro game at heart, added a train-ride road rail-trip to its makeup, which freed up the devs to craft new biomes and truly shift the game’s narrative and claustrophobic structure to areas that challenged their own design. And, in turn, the expectation of players.
In Gears 5 what we get is a game that is a true sequel to the Jock-centric stylings of Gears of War 4, only with an added sense of maturity where character development and narrative is concerned. It’s all still a bit silly and binary, but the moment-to-moment banter between characters in each Act is actually very good. The conversations between Kait and Del in Act II, for example, are fantastic. The overarching story is still pretty naff, but it’s nice to see the writers at least stretching their wings on the day-to-day minutiae of character-to-character small-talk. We’ve been here before, but it’s kind of nice to hear the characters mention they have been here as well.
"In fact, it’s not until you get your Skiff as Kait out among the Kadar Mountains alongside Del that the game ‘opens’ up for you. And yes, those single quotation marks are me being sarcastic..."
Gameplay is a repetitive affair with little-to-no major expansion on what's come before. Upgrade Jack, get into cover, master reloading, and attempt to use evade peroperly. Recoil remains an annoyance and while some cover is destructible, the game still allows for those much-needed breathers. Health is regenerative which all sets up a familiar loop and cadence. Honestly, the best way to play Gears 5 is with a friend -- what's more fun than shooting monsters in the face with a mate? Not much, and it's arguably Gears 5's most redeeming feature.
So, on all of that, what’s wrong in 5? Well, you still need to double-tap to vault. In boss battles, the same double tap used as an evade can throw you into sticky cover, which means you can often be a sticky target for OP baddies. In the game’s ‘story’ moments, you’re slow and there’s not a lot to interact with, while the story team throws saccharine beats at you that just don’t stick, to maintain the word. In fact, it’s not until you get your Skiff as Kait out among the Kadar Mountains alongside Del that the game ‘opens’ up for you. And yes, those single quotation marks are me being sarcastic, because even this seemingly ‘open’ space is just smoke and mirrors; a binary distraction from the fact Gears simply hasn’t changed gears.
I’d love to regale to you that Gears 5 is the best in the series, but I can’t. It’s simply in the series. Movement remains a ball-and-chain to the game’s progresion, while its lite-on exploration and exposition does little to fill the extra ground the studio has given us to cover here. Jack -- your hovering AI robot buddy -- has more personality than most of the game’s main characters. Yes, it’s pretty. Yes, it’s gory. Yes, it’s ‘Triple-A’. Yes, it’s Gears. But are we not entitled to more? There’s a dedicated team on this series now and we’re in hardware transition. We live in a world where games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Dying Light 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 are becoming the benchmark.
I played the first Gears of War, and right now, Gears 5 has barely changed the flavour of the original. And while the original might have been a revelation, Gears 5 presents as a corrupted DeeBee needing to be reprogrammed, at least.
What we liked
Gorgeous (in the parts that matter)
Great character-to-character banter
Familiar enough Gears players of old won't need a refresher
Shooting monsters in the face with friends in co-op
The Skiff level is fun (for a bit)
What we didn't like
Poor overarching narrative
Takes itself too seriously when it shouldn't, doesn't take itself seriously enough when it should