Gears 5 review - a great campaign marred by painful progression
Jack of all trades, master of fun.
Gears 5 has a great campaign I'm happy to root for. On the competitive multiplayer front, though, it's a mixed bag. Gears 5 stalwarts Horde and Versus return like battleworn COGs from yet another fight against the relentless Locust menace, but annoyances mar the party. Escape mode offers something new, but it falls flat. And through it all runs a progression system that would feel bad in a free-to-play game, let alone a full-price game.
Let's start with the campaign, an entertaining 12-hour tour of Sera's unseen landscapes. Initially playing as JD, Marcus Fenix's generic soldier son, then for the bulk of the time as the impressive Kait, whose apparent Locust heritage is giving her the mother of all migraines, we are treated to a lean, mean, fighting machine of a campaign which features mechanics not seen in a Gears game before, such as sort-of open worlds, action role-playing game-style ultimate abilities, and the chance to approach combat in a few different ways.
I've gone back and forth on whether these new open worlds - a frozen wasteland and then a red desert - are good for the Gears 5 campaign, or simply serve to pad out the traditional fast-paced, linear action of previous games in the cover shooter series. Certainly the open-world sections, which you explore via a skiff, break up the pace, provide a platform for squad banter and look nice at times - but you're just travelling from one place on the map to your objective, which is clearly marked. There's little reason to explore. Only once did I stumble across something in the desert that turned out to be of interest. The rest of the time I knew where I was going and felt little reason to deviate from the path of least resistance getting there.
And yet, this Gears campaign has something about it. There are some inspired set pieces (the underground rocket hanger level really is wonderful); the cover-based combat is as slick as ever; and at times it's proper colourful (I know, right?). Kait is a fantastic character and good for Gears of War, and developer The Coalition has been smart in making her the star of the show. Hers is as compelling a journey as Gears has seen since Marcus and Dom were the headliners. Gears 5 deftly handles its themes of grief and parentage, and totally earns the big decision it forces upon the player at the end of the campaign. I was surprised to find myself caring for Kait. She's a good egg.
Outside the flashy cutscenes and grittier story, Gears 5's combat is reliable fun. The addition of Jack, a lovable robot who grants you ultimate abilities, lets you fight in ways that were previously impossible. Trigger Cloak and you turn invisible, which lets you go on an execution spree unseen. Complete a series of side quests and you can upgrade Cloak so you remain invisible while shooting. It's all a bit Mass Effect. On the harder difficulties, Jack becomes as indispensable as he is fun. You want to complete all the side quests not because they're particularly interesting, but because they unlock the most powerful versions of your super powers (Mass Effect, again). Stim, Flash, Shock Trap and, in particular, Hijack, which forces an enemy to fight for you, often turn the tide in battle. Unlocking their ultimates is the key to success.
One thing I was surprised to feel about the combat is that it seemed to lack punch, which sounds like a ridiculous thing to say about a Gears of War game. Perhaps this is my memory of playing Gears on the Xbox 360 playing tricks on me, but Gears 5's Lancer doesn't get my heart pumping. The Gnasher, that most Marmite of video game shotguns, has lost its bite. Chainsawing someone in half - the iconic Gears of War execution - doesn't have the impact it used to. Gears 5 bellows from the rooftops, sure, but it doesn't put the hairs on the back of my neck on end. This is most certainly a feel thing - on the technical level, the game is a marvel. But it doesn't pop in the way I remember. Perhaps it never can.
So, Gears 5 is well worth a shot, particularly at Xbox Game Pass prices, for the campaign alone. This being a live service, though, we must consider the endgame next, and it's here I'm most concerned.
Outside of the campaign are three options for play: Versus, Horde and Escape. Versus is classic 5v5 Gears, the kind I pumped hundreds of hours into on Xbox 360. Ranked Versus is as sweaty a Gnasher fest as it ever was, and, I expect, will forever be; the purists will love it. The new Arcade Versus is perhaps more interesting because it brings character-specific abilities and loadouts (but not ultimates) into the mix. But the big change here - and the one that's influencing the launch meta - is you earn skulls you can spend on new weapons, but the new weapons are unique to each character. Because of this, your character choice matters, which it never has done before in Gears of War Versus. The problem is, some of the loadouts are better than others, so you find teams filled with the same character. Arcade Versus is as much about spending your skulls wisely (on the Longshot, obviously) as it is your skill in combat, which makes it more accessible than the intimidating Ranked, but the upshot is there are Longshots everywhere. It turns out the Longshot is pretty good.
Overall, Versus is good and some of the maps are excellent, but it's not going to convert any naysayers and it seems unlikely to win back lapsed Gears of War fans. That will be fine for many, but I'd hoped for a bigger shakeup from Gears 5 here. As for Horde, well, it's Horde with some new mechanics but also some new annoyances. Bots will fill the gaps in your team, which, usefully, counters the inevitable disconnects. The new Power Taps add a risk / reward element to expanding your base and it makes what is a mostly defensive mode a bit more aggressive. And you can play as Jack, flying around the level, supporting your teammates while prodding enemies with your taser like an R2-D2 from the far future, not a long time ago.
But expanding the class system seen in Gears of War 4's Horde has had a negative impact. Gears 5 Horde doesn't allow for duplicate characters in the same team, so you may be blocked from playing as the character you want to. Even worse, The Coalition has tied the various classes to specific characters. It doesn't feel great to have to play as a character you don't like in order to play the class that fits your playstyle the best. Clearly, The Coalition is shooting for an Overwatch-style hero shooter feel here, but I'm not sure it's the best fit for Horde. Let the people play as Marcus Fenix, I say!
More disappointing, though, is Escape. This reverse Horde mode sees a group of three COG players, each a different Z-list Gears character with unique abilities, loadouts and ultimates, try to escape from a Swarm hive. The trick is to manage resources - ammo, ultimates, weapons - while avoiding getting swamped by the Swarm. Get to the extraction point, close the door, and you're out.
It's a bit boring, unfortunately. I'm a Gears fan, but I just can't get pumped for playing as Mac, who we know from his red hair is a Scot, or for running through uninspiring locations running from enemies I've already seen from elsewhere in the game. It's quite annoying when one of your co-op partners runs ahead, breaking up the group and thus making it weaker (strong Destiny strike vibes here). It's quite annoying when one player hogs all the ammo. It's also quite annoying when one player prevents you from getting through the closing door at the end. Mercifully, a game of Escape doesn't last long.
Perhaps video game grind fans would be happy to soldier through Versus, Horde and Escape if they had a grind worth... grinding for? But Gears 5's grind is a frustrating, uninspiring thing. The main issue here is the battle pass, dubbed Tour of Duty - Gears 5's main progression stream that unlocks cosmetics. To rank up and thus unlock a new cosmetic, you have to earn a set amount of stars by completing objectives (complete five Escape matches, for example, or get six kills with assault rifles). Three objectives are available at any one time and they refresh every 24 hours. As you move up the ranks the number of stars required to unlock the next tier increases.
Battle passes done well are a good thing, I think. Most people agree Fortnite's battle pass is a lot of fun and much better than that most dreaded of monetisation alternatives, the loot box. But the problem with Gears 5's battle pass, which, I should point out, is free, is that it forces you to wait 24 hours before it makes a new set of three objectives available. You get one free reset on one of the challenges, which you can burn if you don't like the given challenge or you've completed it, or you can pay real-world money (10 Iron) to make one new objective available without waiting. This is the kind of progression gating you expect from a free-to-play mobile game, not a full-price game from Microsoft. Whatever the intention from the developers (I suspect it was to encourage people to log-in and play a bit every day), the perception is this mechanic only serves to prevent Gears' most engaged players from rinsing each three-month long Tour of Duty in a few weeks rather than a few months. Charging real-world money to get through it ever so slightly faster feels icky.
What you're working to unlock, too, is underwhelming. There's nothing in Gears 5's first battle pass worth writing home about. The character skins are lifted from the campaign (desert Kait with sand goggles, for example). No-one notices your banner. In the heat of battle, no-one has the time to stop to gawk at a blood spray, some of which are truly bizarre (Sea of Thieves pirate ships, anyone?). Hardly anyone emotes. None of the executions float my boat. The final battle pass reward is a flashy Gnasher skin.
What I must point out is that Gears 5 ditches the controversial loot boxes of Gears of War 4, which is very much a good thing. In their place you earn Supply simply for playing Versus, Horde or Escape, and when you fill up your Supply gauge, you get a random customisation item from the Supply loot stream. It's also worth pointing out that all this progression unlocks customisation items only. There are no weapons to buy, so no pay-to-win elements. Skill cards, which are used to boost the abilities of characters in Horde and Escape, cannot be bought with real world money. Instead they're earned through levelling up the individual characters and can be upgraded by earning more of the same card or paying with Scrap, Gears 5's virtual currency earned when duplicate items are broken down.
Any goodwill earned from ditching loot boxes is countered, however, by the depressing battle pass progression system and the distinct lack of cool customisation items to unlock at launch. Let's have a look at the store, then, where no doubt we'll see cool new threads up for sale. Ah. Skins are bloody expensive. God dammit, Fortnite.
Coming to a conclusion that encapsulates the overall Gears 5 package is tricky, then, because it's such a mixed bag. A bulging bag, admittedly, but a mixed one. The campaign really is great. Perhaps even better than great, the more I think about it. All the new things about it - the open world stuff, Jack's powers, the light RPG elements, the side quests - all this stuff was done better years ago by other games. But those other games weren't Gears of War, which has actual decent third-person shooting, actual interesting things happening, and a story that doesn't try hard to win awards. But while Versus, Horde and even Escape are, ultimately, fine, they're let down by the party pooper progression system. The hope is The Coalition tweaks how the battle pass works, because as it stands, Gears 5's grind is depressing.
Will Gears 5 rekindle Gears of War's glory days on Xbox 360? I doubt it. But The Coalition has finally stamped its personality on the series, even if it's taken a few missteps along the way. Gears 5's campaign reminded me just how much I love a good Gears of War campaign. I'm not trying too hard. Gears isn't trying too hard. We're holding hands, safe in the collective knowledge we're in this together, and it's going to be one hell of a ride.