I’m looking for answers in the frozen landscape near Mount Kadar when the ice storm hits. It’s cold this far north, and sometimes the sky drops hail the size of a van. As I make my way through the snowy wastes, running and dodging the giant blocks of ice, the attack comes — the Swarm look like mutant bug-lizards toting chainsaws mounted on the end of assault rifles. I crouch behind the nearest block of ice and prepare for the onslaught.
This is Gears 5, a third-person cover-based shooter from publisher Xbox Games Studios and developer The Coalition, out now for Xbox One and PC. As I played, I controlled a variety of characters as I snuck from cover to cover in tight corridors and semi-open areas while using a variety of weapons to take on the bad guys. The campaign lasted around 12 hours, but the excellent multiplayer ate up more of my time.
Some video games I play on the train while waiting for my stop. Some I play while a podcast or TV show runs in the background and my brain turns to gelatin. Some, like Gears 5, I play on a huge 4K television while surround sound explosions shake my walls. Gears 5 is the game equivalent of a reliably dumb yet fun summer action blockbuster. It’s like a Marvel movie or the latest Fast & Furious movie. Gears 5 won’t challenge you, but it looks and sounds incredible, controls well, and is worth every penny of its $60 price tag. In a video game market increasingly dominated by live experiences and “free to play” schemes, that’s no small thing.
Gears 5 is, weirdly enough, the sixth title in the franchise that started with 2006’s Gears of War. These games have always been over the top, but they take their story seriously. Sadly, I missed the last few entries in the series. Thankfully, The Coalition included a brief movie that caught me up on everything I’d missed. In sum: on an Earth-like planet in a futuristic world, humanity has been locked in life-or-death struggles with monstrous enemies called The Locust and The Swarm. In Gears 5, that struggle seems to be drawing to a conclusion as the pseudo-fascist human rulers, the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG), consolidates power. Players spend the first act playing as JD, the badass son of long-time series protagonist Marcus. Story events quickly sideline JD, leaving me to spend most of the game as Kait, a woman born on the fringes of the COG empire with a mysterious secret. The plot of Gears 5 revolves around Kait discovering the secret of her birth while battling alongside COG forces and against the monstrous bad guys.
Gears 5’s single-player campaign mostly involved making my way down linear sets of wide corridors with chest-high walls I ducked behind to fling grenades and take shots at Swarm and Locust troops. If I was out in the open, the bad guys would quickly kill me. Pushing a button would make Kait crouch and cling to the nearest chest-high wall. From there, I’d aim down the sight to attack the baddies, or move between cover to out-flank the enemy. Gears of War popularized the cover-based shooter that dominated gaming in the mid-aughts. It hasn’t updated the formula much since the first game, but it hasn’t needed to, either. Thirteen years later, Gears 5 plays pretty much like the original Gears of War — which is just fine.
Occasionally, Gears 5 opens for a few hours as Kait explores an area, taking on side quests and talking to people. I appreciated these slower, more carefully paced portions of a typically fast game, which helped to build Kait’s character as she explored the world around her. But these slower moments always gave way to bombastic, intense, and downright fun action sequences — the kind of action scenes where ice is falling from the sky and I was down to my last few bullets, praying I’d make it through. It’s a good time.
But plenty of Gears fans are really just here for the multiplayer — and they won’t be disappointed. Online combat has long been the secret to the Gears series’ success. Thankfully, Gears 5 continues the franchise tradition. It’s got excellent multiplayer that keeps what I liked about previous installments, while changing it just enough to keep the experience fresh. This being 2019, there are microtransactions, but they’re cosmetic and don’t get in the way of the core experience. It’s not great, but it’s also par for the course with big budget gaming these days.
Horde mode is back, a Gears of War standard in which players team up to take down waves of progressively more difficult enemies. Gears 5 expands the class system introduced in Gears of War 4, letting players take on the role of a tank, engineer, scout, offense or support. Tanks get on the front lines to take damage, engineers build fortifications, scouts creep ahead, offense is an all-around grunt, and support flies around the field as a small drone, healing team members and stunning enemies. It’s a fun update to the Gears of War formula and, though the game also has a versus and free form “arcade” multiplayer mode, I mostly stuck to Horde.
Gears 5 isn’t revolutionary. It doesn’t push the medium forward, and the story, while interesting enough, could just as easily be dropped. But it’s not bad either. It’s a serviceable game that does what it says on the box: provides players hours of mindless ultraviolence while flipping between cover and getting close enough to chainsaw the enemy. There’s a story, if you want it, but there’s just as much fun to be had in ignoring the campaign altogether and jumping right into multiplayer.