Gears 5: The Classic Cover Shooter Reloads
Gears 5 features lots of details in the characters and architecture
Microsoft entrusted its second-biggest exclusive franchise to The Coalition, a studio without a long gaming heritage of its own. That's not the first time that the Xbox maker has entrusted is big IP to a relatively unknown studio, as it did with 343 Industries and the Halo franchise back in 2007. In 2015, The Coalition ported Gears of War, the original cover-based shooter, to the Xbox One and Windows as Gears of War Ultimate Edition. The PC version of that port had some issues at launch since it was plagued with uneven frame rates and stuttering, although the developer did get that sorted out. A year later, Gears of War 4 ran much better on the PC and it seemed that The Coalition had learned its lesson.
Now's the time for Gears 5 (which is the official title; "of War" is no more). If you're familiar with the Gears franchise, you know how this works: make your way from cover position to cover position, pop up, and take out enemies. Rather than constant run-and-gun firefights, Gears rewards patience and strategic planning, which makes for a very satisfying experience. Each battle is a set piece that has its own enemies, layout, and waves of monsters—the same Swarm from Gears of War 4—to take out using a variety of weapons including pistols, rifles, rocket-powered grenades, a weapon that resembles the razorjack from Unreal, and (of course) a gun with a big chainsaw around the stock and barrel, because
The story of Gears 5 picks up with the COG's Delta Squad and Dave, the assistant Jack-bot from Gears of War 4, on a secret mission in an abandoned island base to try to send a Hammer of Dawn satellite prototype into orbit to bring the whole network back online. We learn that tidbit in the first 30 seconds of the game, and as far as the story goes, that's all you'll get—we'll do this spoiler-free. If we have any criticism of the game's plot, it's that it's pretty complex, and definitely assumes you've fully played the previous entries. Gears of War 4 lead writer and New York Times best-seller Tom Bissell is again at the helm for this installment.
Just like every other mainline Gears game, Gears 5's campaign is an excellent candidate for local co-op two-player shooting fun. As in the previous games in the series, the latest entry requires a teamwork and sticking together. While some games can have overly-long cinematics, Gears 5 uses them judiciously, and once the next scene has loaded from the disk you can skip the sequence and move onto the next area. The gameplay itself stayed fresh thanks to a constantly-moving plot and lots of interesting scenery. There's also a nice variety of weaponry, ranging from automatic machine pistols to big slow-moving portable rocket launchers, and there's plenty of ammo just laying around waiting for somebody to pick it up.
Gears 5 brings a bunch of new gameplay enhancements with it. First and foremost, your Jack-bot companion can do more than just rip doors open and pick locks. Early on in Act I we're introduced to a new and improved Jack that can heal players, scan for hidden enemies and items, and fetch unreachable items. Eventually he'll pick up a whole lot of additional abilities, all of which can be upgraded or re-specced by finding new parts scattered throughout the game. The Stim ability, which gives a nice armor boost and instantly regenerates health, saved our bacon on more than one occasion. There's some additional strategy in picking out the bot's special abilities, and you can change them on the fly if you need something fast. For newbies to the Gears franchise who aren't quite ready to dive into the action, the robot is a playable character in the cooperative campaign as a support role, too.
Gears has always been more than just a single-player campaign, though. Multiplayer options include co-op through the campaign, standard Versus deathmatch where shotguns and close-quarters combat still reign supreme, and Horde from previous games. New to Gears 5 is the Escape game type, in which you play as one of three characters who are willingly kidnapped by The Swarm and taken back to their base. This cooperative multiplayer mode involves planting a bomb on the map and then scrambling like mad to get out of the Swarm base before it goes off. Escape requires coordinating with your team and clear thought under lots of pressure, and it was a ton of fun in the matches we played.
For the most part, the game was free from technical issues. We used the latest drivers from AMD and NVIDIA on our test graphics cards, and never had the game lock up or crash on us. Over the weekend, there was a server outage (documented on the Gears 5 website) on Friday night into very early Saturday morning, which brought to light the fact that the game is apparently always online. While that's not normally a problem, the outage prevented us from getting into the mode selection menu. That meant we couldn't continue a single-player campaign or even run the built-in benchmark. It brought all of our testing to a screeching halt temporarily, though the service was back up and running again by late morning on Saturday. Hopefully those issues will be few and far in between, since it was the first day of availability to folks with Xbox Game Pass.