Gears 5 grew on me as I played through its meaty, 12 hour campaign. At first it felt so Gears of War. As JD, Marcus Fenix's son, you spend a lot of time doing that Xbox 360 whack-a-mole Gears thing from behind cover, shooting up the Swarm, a new twist on the Locust horde, almost in cruise control. Accompanied by Jack, a chirpy drone-like robot whose upgradeable, RPG-like support abilities prove incredibly useful during the more challenging firefights, you soldier through acres of Destroyed Beauty; the world of Sera, which, it seems to me, looks a lot like Croydon on a Sunday morning, under threat once more.
These early hours felt like The Coalition doing its best Epic impression. All of Gears of War 4 felt like this to me, perhaps understandably so for a new studio charged with continuing a beloved series built by a developer who had moved on to what would become Fortnite. But then, a couple of hours in, Gears 5 does something different, and for most of the rest of the campaign I couldn't help but think The Coalition had finally stamped its authority on that most head-stompy of video games, and I was pretty delighted for them.
When you get to play as Kait Diaz, a COG soldier who's troubled by visions in which Locust speak to her, not only do we leave the urban chaos behind for a new, frozen wasteland setting, but we go open world... sort of.
Via a skiff, you surf along the snow and ice, heading to objectives and, very occasionally, stumbling across something of interest that's off the beaten track. Now, it is not right to say Gears 5 has gone open world. This is not Gears of Skyrim, or Assassin's War. It's more of an open hub akin to a destination in Destiny, where there's no real need to explore because while the map is big, it is not packed with secrets to uncover. Rather, it is a play space for surfing to and from objectives, marveling at the impressive visuals and listening to the Delta banter. But, it is right to say this is different for Gears of War, and while this is no revolution for video games, it is a significant evolution for Gears 5, and I found myself enjoying my surf in the cold.
The move to bigger play spaces affords a slightly different approach to combat, which now, on occasion, resembles a Halo or a Crysis encounter in that you have active enemies already patrolling an area when you arrive (previous games would just spawn enemies at fixed points rather than having them already present in an environment). With your wits about you and Jack's special abilities (the cloak is great) a button press away, you can trim the herd before dealing with the rest of the Swarm, which is definitely something you want to do. This slightly different approach to combat and super light RPG-style abilities is nothing revolutionary for video games, but this is a nice twist on Gears' famous cover shooter combat. It helps keep things interesting!
The long-running joke about Gears of War is of course that it's a brown, muddy game. It feels like The Coalition had that joke pinned up on a wall or something, because Gears 5 is the most vibrant Gears yet. I've already mentioned the frozen wasteland, but we also venture into a bleeding red desert hub that's home to enormous, gold-coloured structures. Surfing the sand I was reminded of Dune. Gears 5 still has work to do when it comes to art direction (in some areas you'd struggle to tell whether you're playing a remaster of an old Gears game or a brand new one), but that brown, muddy game joke is old now.
Ultimately, Gears 5's campaign falls back on what it knows best for the bulk of the action. This is a game about wide necks exploding into chunks of mutant meat. It is a game about moving from cover to cover - which the enemy can blow up - and popping up to pop some heads. It's about chainsawing monsters in half, about frustrating boss fights (the Gears trademark), the occasional bout of light horror (The Coalition has had tremendous fun playing with light), and nailing active reload, which still, even after all these years, is enormous fun.
And as Gears 5 falls back on what it knows best, you start to see parts of the combat that really have not come on a great deal since the series' heyday. So often a door is locked and Jack gets to work, and, you know what's coming next - survive the onslaught until everyone's dead and... good timing! Jack has opened the door. Let's move, Delta!
But when it's good, Gears 5 is very good. One area, a vast rocket hanger built into the desert, is easily the best Gears of War level in years. This multi-level installation is a joy to behold and a joy to blow up. It is Gears 5's Mines of Moria moment - a lengthy slog that involves all sorts of different set-pieces. Oh, and it's one hell of a looker, too.
A note on the story. Gears 5's always been a tonal disaster, and the push and pull of serious and silly is present and correct here. Still, it feels like The Coalition has shot for a grittier affair, and I found myself surprised and impressed with how it dips its toe but never dive bombs into issues such as environmentalism and fascisim. The spine of the plot - and what makes Gears 5 very much The Empire Strikes Back of the series - are revelations about Kait's family, but it also touches on grief, toxic friendship and redemption. I spent a lot of time rooting for Gears 5's story (I'm reading it as an anti-fascist pro-environmentalism cautionary tale and no-one can stop me), but every now and then the tonal disaster comes crashing down on the feels - usually via Cole's massive mech.
I've got to hand it to The Coalition, though. It's finally made it mark on the Gears of War campaign. As Marcus Fenix would say: nice.