America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 16th Sep 2019 | 3,836 views
Chainsaws attached to assault rifles, splattered remains of a monstrous horde, and mobile fridges wearing cog-shaped dog tags can only mean more from the Gears of War franchise. There are tweaks to its name (foolishly) and attitude (smartly), which The Coalition has been adamant over. Whereas Gears of War 4 focused more on iteration and polish, Gears 5 experiments with previously-held templates in respect to single player and cooperative modes. You still know what to expect, but how these tweaks expand the series’ horror-action vocabulary warrant high praise. And I would be fully onboard if technical issues didn’t crop up so often.
Naturally, the plot follows up from the events of Gears 4. And, initially, it’s functioning at the same wavelength: JD is the protagonist, he and his crew are in the COG, and the mission structure feels identical to series’ past. After that intro, this becomes Kait’s story. As the Swarm threat grows larger and larger, she has to uncover her shrouded legacy and discover her connection with this enemy.
As a preface, I should admit that I enjoy the Gears stories (aside from Judgment); mind you, this comes with preemptive caveats. It’s less about getting a richly-layered story with three-dimensional characters a la War and Peace and more about individual elements I latch onto: the alien-like culture explored with the Locust, the limited-but-still-fascinating lore one can discover, the structure and ever-increasing stakes, and on and on. It’s one of those things where if you get past the meathead interchange there are a lot of aspects which don’t receive due credit. That said, I was never one to say any of these stories reached their storytelling zenith. Gears 5 puts in great effort to break that cycle—with some caveats.
For as compact as some characters’ screen time is, there’s something tangible to connect with each of them. It could be something minor like a noted familial connection, an embittered relationship, or something else that leaves an impression. These moments don’t often feel blatantly expositive either. Well, some have that issue but when considering the series’ past and how often it’s necessary Gears 5 hits a better balance.
Also worth noting is how its history fills every crevice. For any ‘Gearhead’ there’s a buffet of interesting collectibles and main plot details which lend a greater appreciation for the planet Sera. Sometimes it feels like a Herculean effort in seeing the main story naturally incorporate the background of three distinct periods (the Swarm, Locust, and UIR) but they don’t get in the way of payoff. As much as I enjoy Gears 4, unanswered questions bothered me once the credits began rolling. 5 pulls a double-shift in comparison to feel less like an expansive chapter and more of a complete story.
Out of all the main protagonists, I’d go so far as to say Kait’s my favorite one. Sure, sure… the competition isn’t strong. Let’s clear the air. That aside, the way her and Del play off each other works well. These young heroes work because of their disparity from the old; the casual sarcasm and brighter demeanor mirrors the effects of peacetime after the original trilogy.
For all the good here there are some low points. In respect to any grating dialogue, most falls back to a new character: Fahz. Think the smarmy Britishness of Uncharted 3’s Cutter but less interesting. More tool than character, he serves as the squad’s temporary bully to drive a forced emotional wedge. And for all the great aspects of Kait, her story of ‘finding answers’ runs into an issue that’s become common today: the audience knowing more while characters have to catch up. Ever since she dangled her mother’s Locust emblem many followed this to the next step. This is somewhat avoided by an eventual revelation which has an unexpected twist; even still, it’s the one area where level structure overrides narrative expediency.
All told, Gears 5 is among my favorite 2019 campaigns due in no small part to its storytelling. There are qualifications to consider that are endemic to the series, but they fizzle away over time. It’s a game with a grander scope in mind yet doesn’t ignore the smaller details.
The combat arenas maintain a similar formula, yet feel more varied in environment and strategy then before. If you’ve played a Gears game, the routine is expected: cover-based third-person shooting. It’s the series that cemented this template. The chainsaw bayonets, gruesome executions, and a varied arsenal to play with in linear combat arenas is here and extremely polished.
The expected retinue of pistols, ARs, SMGs, and two-handed weapons from Gears 4 are accounted for with some new extras. A new Lancer variant opts out of bayonets for a grenade launcher; Claws, Swarm’s LMG variant, are one of the most interesting risk/reward weapons; the two-handed Breaker Mace is great for sweeping mobs; and the new flashbang grenade is a tactical alternative to standard frags. There are a few other new weapons, but these are the most prominent.
While the expanded arsenal doles out creative death-dealing, a part of me feels there’s a slightly-diminished intensity to the violence. That’s different than saying diminished polish, mind you. Gears 5 is the console example of having a 60fps standard across the campaign and multiplayer. That’s great! But some minor details seem to have been sacrificed in return. Reduced violence compared to classic Gears can be seen through generic hit reactions, quickly disappearing blood, and underwhelming melee knife strikes. For such meaty characters one would think slicing through a Swarm enemy would result in knife sounds cutting to the bone.
Dampened intensity doesn’t mean The Coalition is slacking on visual invention. In offensive or defensive moments, the panoply of theatrical shoot-outs is wonderful.
First, the doubled enemy variety says something about the enthusiasm to modify enemy encounters. Some of this comes from reusing classic enemies whilst others are an amalgam of Swarm and DeeBees, the COG robot caretakers. Leave it to the most aesthetically-uninteresting enemies of Gears 4 to be retooled into something more exciting. Second, the diversity of environments with specific characteristics is just as impressive. Set-piece moments range from a live theater play, frozen lakes which can be broken to freeze submerged combatants, and tumultuous lighting storms producing fulgurite upon striking the sandy surface. Lastly, mixing arenas of the default cover-oriented variety with mobile horror-action moments in the vein of Resident Evil 4 keeps you on your toes. My one complaint about stealthily killing infected COG-bots (dubbed ‘Rejects’) is the wonky detection system.
What separates this mainline entry in the whole series is your robo-partner, Jack. Previously relegated to fancy lock pick, Jack is now a combative custodian whose tools have saved me on more than one occasion. What starts as fetching items in the distance and pinging enemies within radius evolves into new measures of approach. Flanking routes can be temporarily held by his shock trap or perhaps half a room of enemies can be cleared by using Cloak and stealthily executing them. It’s even possible for him to yank a drone’s weapon right out of its hands! And these rudimentary powers are expanded upon by exploring the world to discover more components, enabling you to buff these talents further. There are so many stratagems to employ that I’d not even considered during my first campaign run, and I’m excited to go back because it’s such an enjoyable campaign.
The expansion of combat tactics extends to the landscape as well. Gears 5 is the first in the series to incorporate hub worlds. Think Uncharted series’ open-linear parts like Madagascar (in 4) or The Western Ghats (in Lost Legacy) and sprinkle about some side-objectives. For transportation, swap out a Jeep for a wind-sailing skiff which lithely glides across snowy terrain of Northern Tyrus and the carmine-tinged sand of Vasgar.
Some polemics have been written regarding this open world too, varying in justification. There’s the staler evaluations about the world’s emptiness and more thoughtful critiques regarding how the skiff design mars the co-op dynamics previous Gears games have handled. It’s true, only one player does the manual work when sledding around while up to two buddies are really there for the ride. In regards to the empty worlds? That’s disregarding the design intention and the context of this war-torn planet. You lose the existential threat posed by The Swarm by opting for patient quest-givers or Ubisoft towers. What’s presented are polished side-arenas to allow for more experimentation. What’s also great is the subtle reinforcements to complete everything; many of these diversions are tied into upgrading a unique Jack ability while one stop is necessary to progress the campaign. I couldn’t get enough because they didn’t overstay their welcome.
It’s easy to see I’m a fan. I’ve enjoyed the series since getting an Xbox 360 and The Coalition impresses me with concepts I didn’t even know I wanted—a sign of a great studio. They did the work and made a new standard for the series. But there is a catch. I think now is the best time to pump the brakes and detail my launch-day issues (from Game Pass release onwards). Here’s a rundown of my complaints:
This puts me in a bind because these objective flaws only constrain my excitement for the mechanics and design. Complaints aside, it’s a large step which sets the mainline series in an exciting direction. Everything feels like a natural expansion upon one of the most refined shooting formulas out there.
What elevates said refinement comes back to the impressive audio-visual design. As great as 4 was, I don’t think the series has gotten this kind of response since Gears of War 3’s graphical feats in 2011. Much of that comes down to an improved & distinct artistic direction. The Gears series has had some of the most underappreciated architecture. Industrialist buildings with classical Greco-Roman inspiration has always gelled so well. This time, there’s more focus on outdoor environments like mines or small towns scattered across the frozen tundra and sand dunes, respectively. A personal favorite detail was the destruction and gradual reformation of an ice sheet. Even one-off environmental designs like the Hamilton musical homage give more personality between the shooting galleries. Nitpicking can be aimed towards shifting resolution (even on Xbox One X) and some textures, but I’ll take the resolve in keeping framerate as the highest priority. Better to marvel at how it looks in motion than in photos.
Sound is also exceptional across the board. Several weapons are given a bit more punch from before, all of the new environments sound fitting, and aural design of obliterating enemies still sounds detailed and crunchy. The renewed focus on Kait also means more lines for Laura Bailey and Eugene Byrd, so no complaints there. The weakest link would come back to the VA for Fahz: Rahul Kohli; although, it’s more dependent on the annoying lines he has to squeeze out than the performance. Somehow The Coalition were able to wrangle the talent of Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Westworld, System Shock 2) and he’s not resting on his laurels either.
It’s exhausting to think of all the multiplayer/co-op options. I’ve touched on the diminished role of player two and three during open world parts, but the arenas are still fun with friends. The options are easy: one player must be the main protagonist, up to three can play online or locally but that forces one to play Jack. Although I don’t think it’s for me, having Jack as a playable option is a neat gimmick which enables a new level of strategy. Less time is spent commanding him to do *x action* and seeing how a friend can think on the fly.
Horde Mode 4.0 is an interesting remix on what came before. There was a peculiarly simple method of progressing in 3.0 in comparison: do your best to quickly acquire power and hunker down in one specific spot with the Fabricator in hand. Power taps scattered about each map puts a greater reward on aggression. And now the character abilities of the campaign have been transplanted over: Kait’s ultimate is cloak, Fahz can see through walls, and on and on. It’s a nice expansion on the class system of before.
A new mode has been added: Escape. It’s a three player co-op mode revolving around three Hivebusters who intentionally get caught by a Snatcher to break free and set off chemical bombs in a Swarm Hive. Initially armed with nothing but a pistol and knife, squads have to move fast in subduing enemies to avoid the poison. Currently, it’s a great diversion but doesn’t capture the long-term appeal of Horde. I like the character abilities between the three, but the engagements feel more rote given the constraints. I also wonder how many roadblocks might be hit simply due to the limited amount of ammo and the greater perks that must be upgraded over time. It’s great to see shareable community maps, akin to Super Mario Maker, but I don’t see the long-term appeal to warrant the grind. It currently feels more like a nice palette cleanser, but there’s promised future content on the way.
Versus mode, on the other hand, is filled to the brim. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the Gnasher fest in traditional game types, Arcade is your flavor. It starts off typical but the accumulation of skulls from downs, kills, and/or deaths is stored in your bank where you can eventually purchase better weapons specific for that character. There’s an incredible suite of modes to play in Ranked or Classic Quickplay. Here’s a rundown:
These have all been in multiple past titles and they’re still as engaging and frustrating here.
The dynamics for battles are fundamentally the same, though some tweaks are needed. Lancers feel like more of a legit option for downing enemies when engagements are mid-range. Wall-bouncing with Gnashers is still a go-to tactic but feels more risky. One clear criticism against weapons in Versus would be the unbalanced Breaker Mace. There’s something about the unjustified range of the ground pound (RT) that feels broken. It ought to be removed from every mode except Arcade.
Although the total map count between Escape and Versus is 11 (four and seven unique maps, respectively), I’m left disappointed by some of the designs. Vasgar’s aesthetic is excellent and the layout is among my favorite—minus Breaker Mace inclusion. Then locales like Exhibit and Bunker illicit a jaded response. The Coalition is already committed to extensive post-launch support and they’ll certainly follow through. Meanwhile, what’s here feels like a chance game as to whether I’ll be excited or unenthused about the next map vote.
Gears 5’s multiplayer is equivalent to a surplus store: every aisle having different tools for different purposes. All the ways to play feel staggering. Each central addition (Versus, Horde, Escape, Co-op Campaign) could warrant thorough breakdowns of noted improvements and potential declines. As impressive as it all is, I come away slightly disenchanted. Although Gears 4 was a safer iteration, that seemed to give more time at the drawing board in respect to weapon balancing and map design. No, it wasn’t perfect; then again, it was solid enough and only improved as time went on. Considering how many fixes have been made since launch, there’s reason to hope other frustrations will be addressed as well.
Less hopeful to see a fix would be the microtransaction system. The Coalition has been quite enamored with themselves shifting away from Gears 4's lootboxes, but there's still an inherent grind. Purchasing in-game currency for real-world money is simpler than roulette-styled prizes, yet it's still compounded by the unappealing card system. Winning can't simply be winning; it's also a visual overload of unlocking more levels that eventually net you "Iron" (in-game money) and/or cards for unique skins. Grind dozens of levels until maybe you can net something cool, or put money down on an Ultimate Edition to have playable advertisements like Linda Hamilton or The Terminator! When you sit back and look at all the reward systems at play it starts to feel like homework.
After a stint of Microsoft’s first-party releases galvanizing player concerns in respect to polish and/or content at launch, Gears 5 arrives at a convenient time. It prompts a certain question: where does it land in comparison? The answer: somewhere in between. Without question, it’s an impressive compendium of different splatter-fests to partake in either alone, cooperatively, or competitively. But I’m still drawn back to cogitating technical issues that wasted an amount of time I don’t take lightly. They weren’t copious enough to destroy my excitement of an otherwise-exceptional title, but sufficient enough to dampen it.