by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 15th October, 2019
Gears 5 features more than solid single-player campaign with a decent story and superb shooting as well as excellent multiplayer slightly marred by cosmetic microtransactions.
Ever since the first Gears of War title launched the series was known for its amazing multiplayer along with more than solid single-player content.
The latest Gears 5 confirmed that Gears of War series is one of the most consistent gaming franchises in terms of quality.
Its sprawling single-player campaign takes players across the world of Sera allowing players to visit stunning polar regions, arid deserts where sand storms are as common as rain in Ireland, and the heart of the COG, New Ephyra.
The start of the game takes place on a remote tropical island, Azura, where Delta Squad has to search through the ruins for the Hammer of Dawn satellite. The satellite is to be launched in order to reinstate the (in)famous defensive network since Locust are back in the form of the Swarm, posing a new threat to the COG and the whole humanity. Azura was chosen for a reason as a starting point of Gears 5.
The tropical paradise serves as a perfect showing of the visual lavish that is Gears 5. Its lush green carpet will stun your visual lobe as soon as the game starts and you will immediately be in awe of Gears 5's incredible graphics.
Everything is super detailed, from the ancient rainforest seen in the intro video to old and gritty ruins of the former COG base. Lighting is spectacular and it proves that even without fancy RTX effects a video game can deliver incredible illumination effects that are on par with what we've seen in Metro: Exodus, Control, and Battlefield 5.
Crepuscular rays have insane details, especially if you're playing on a beastly PC with all effects turned to insane. The rich volumetric fog looks better than in recent Assassin's Creed titles, the champions of next-gen fog effects until now.
The beauty of the world is enriched with super detailed objects thanks to the opulently used tessellation that makes both walls and ground fully 3D, adding depth and incredible amounts of intricate details. Screen space reflections look superb on ultra and insane setting, allowing reflections to render in HD resolution on walls and shiny surfaces and rendering reflections at a huge distance from the player.
Character models follow the same suit, with impeccable design and stupendously exhaustive physical attributes. Each character looks photorealistic, with lots of minuscule features about them and almost perfectly done animations. It's quite prominent that Gears 5 went for sharp, accentuated animations as we've seen in recent God of War title but the game isn't quite matching Sony's exclusive.
While certainly looking impressive animations are just tad off of being called impeccable. That cannot be said about texture work. Textures in Gears 5 are indeed impeccable and ultra-sharp.
Things get really exciting after you download the ultra texture pack for the PC, which improves textures seen on characters and objects to the point they really start looking next-gen. Particle effects are also astounding. Particularly while you're cruising across the frozen north and dry wastelands, rising specs of snow and dust.
Overall, Gears 5 sports incredible visuals. Some scenes have the power of stopping you on your feet, leaving you speechless and in awe at what team at The Coalition did with this game. And as a cherry on the cake, we have superb optimization. The game runs like a mountain river after the snow starts melting during spring on a relatively modest PC (i7-7700, GTX 1060 6GB, 16GB RAM) with most settings cranked at ultra or insane at 1080p.
The only slowdowns happen while riding the skiff when performance drops to low 40s. Turning on the dynamic resolution option stabilizes the game to steady 60 frames per second with resolution changes being slightly visible (again) only while riding the skiff.
The Xbox X runs Gears 5 at steady 60fps and in 4K with the Xbox One S going for 30 fps at dynamic 1080p resolution. This is one of the best (if not the best) PC ports we've seen in the last decade. Everything runs smooth and looks incredible, a sight that's extremely rare to see on the PC.
But not all's great in Gears 5 when it comes to visuals. While most scenes look stunning the game doesn't feature advanced physics making most in-game objects stationary and completely non-interactive. You can drop bombs, cast rains of bullets, and go wild with Lancer's chainsaw but most objects don't react at all. There's no cloth physics, you can destroy just a few objects (usually breakable covers), and move only chairs and such.
And some scenes look burned out, like when you play those old games that didn't have ambient occlusion. Everything is oversaturated and overexposed like someone cranked colors and contrast to the max. Luckily this strange issue happens only during a couple of scenes throughout the game.
These visual shortcomings are in sharp contrast to the overall looks of the game and can be really jarring once the initial visual awe wears down. But in most cases Gears 5 looks spectacular thanks to its huge maps that look amazing at the first sight.
Yes, Gears 5 went to semi open-world level design but in its heart, this is still a good old Gears of War game featuring small, linear sublevels filled with plenty of cover and enemies that attack in bulks. While the second and third chapters of the game take place in large open maps most of the map area is empty space used for creating an illusion of size.
You just ride the skiff from one to another point of interest, each being cut from the rest of the world by (often artificial looking) various borders. There are destroyed trains where there are lots of carts around the crash site, cutting the player from the rest of the map or buildings that have tall fences again cutting them from the rest of the map.
Often you notice that millisecond when the game loads sublocations, which only increases the feeling that Gears 5 is not an open-world game, just a linear game with sublocations where main and side missions take place. These locations are not natural parts of main maps you ride the skiff around. This makes Gears 5 less open world and more semi-linear game with vast areas of nothing between points of interest.
Level design stayed pretty much the same compared to other Gears of War games. You have sublevels that are linear, narrow and relatively small compared to huge maps that host those sublevels. They are bigger than in previous Gears games but still feel rather small compared to other similar games. They are fairly linear and maximally limit your movement and exploration options. You have your regular combination of quiet moments and brutal gunfights, with lots of tactical cover and some new tricks.
For instance, you can break ice underneath enemies and send them below in just a few moments which is a great tactic for larger members of the Swarm. You also have eerie horror-like moments of proto stealth gameplay when dealing with infected DeeBees and the game's also much more atmospheric thanks to the lots of quiet moments between gunfights. Moments filled with dialogue between characters or exploration, which is expanded upon previous games but still fairly basic.
Shooting is extremely enjoyable with most weapons packing a noticeable punch and fairly sharp upward recoil being present in each automatic or semi-automatic weapon. The recoil can be handled quite easily when playing with keyboard and mouse but those playing on a controller will have a much harder time trying to control automatic rifles and pistols.
The game is filled with gore and body explosions, headshots that pop enemies' heads like watermelons, and generally lots of gratuitous violence but this is Gears game after all where gratuitous violence feels like at home. Gunfights are bloody and vicious and they will fill you with adrenaline. Enemies aren't very smart but they do their job fairly okay.
At moments the game can be really challenging even when playing on normal, and these moments are the high points of the game. Moments where you and your squad are surrounded and have to struggle for your life while at the same time you have to kill everyone really fast. These moments are the core of Gears 5 experience and one of the biggest reasons why the game's so good.
You will experience lots of frantic set-pieces filled to the brim with explosive combat that feels amazing and extremely visceral. There are more heavy weapons than before so expect lots of explosions and fireworks, often overstimulating your senses to the point where you'll just start shooting at empty space hoping that bullets fired will find their way to some poor Locust's skull.
Boss battles are exciting and somewhat tactical but, in most cases, you'll just struggle for your life while trying to kill that damn, 15 feet tall monster who has only one desire - to eat you alive. When it comes to gunfights Gears 5 more than delivers and if the game would be judged based only on its shooting and set pieces, I would give it a perfect grade.
The largest gameplay change is the addition of Jack, a levitating droid that hides lots of trick in its sleeve. Jack is a helping hand throughout the game, noticeably more helpful than your squadmates. He has a plethora of abilities some of which are genuinely game-changers. He can infuse you and your squadmates with metallic nano armor, shock enemies, collect weapons and ammo, erect a huge shield in front of you, even take control of enemies for a short time.
You can collect parts scattered across every level and upgrade its abilities, which can often break the pace of the game. It's funny when in moments of urgency you search rooms for ability parts instead of running to help allies. But the upgrade parts will make you search every level in detail, often finding collectibles that add small details to the game's story.
The story is pretty good in Gears 5. You take control of JD at the start of the game but after the prologue (the first chapter) ends you switch to Kait and soon after you find her and Del riding the skiff across the arctic region in search of secrets that will help her understand her past and future. The story doesn't go too deep into Kait's mental struggles and is usually very easy on hard issues found in Gears games.
COG's fascism and enslavement of other states is mentioned a few times and the general violence that's the heart of the Serra's culture is mostly used as a joke. The game doesn't try to explore these themes and for the most time, it just rides on top of them to push the story forward.
While not exploring deeper subjects Gears 5 story is interesting since it uncovers stuff that's part of the Gears universe but that's not officially mentioned in previous games. You will find lots of info about the creation of the Locust and the history of COG before the Locust wars. And the final third of the game can really get you at times, pulling no punches when it comes to emotional moments.
This is mostly thanks to the phenomenal voice work from every single voice actor. Every character in the game sounds genuine, emotional, and like they're really part of a squad of soldiers who spent all their life waging war and who genuinely care about their comrades. This leads to lots of cheesy conversations filled with one-liners but, surprisingly, those work most of the time. Sure, you have your fair share of cringy moments (each Gears title had plenty of those) but you also have lots of laugh-out-loud moments where you're really amused by dialogues.
The sound, in general, is great and another high point of the game. Voices are clear and loud, directional audio is spot on, and mixing is top-notch. You can hear every sound while wearing a quality set of cans and gunfights get another dimension when playing the game with headphones. The only minus it the sound department are the sounds the Lancer rifle makes.
The rifle sounds muffled, like someone recorded its samples with a microphone placed under a pillow. But luckily, every other weapon sounds powerful and genuine.
Multiplayer, the main reason most people buy Gears of War games, is top-notch. You get a plethora of co-op and competitive modes. Horde is back and is fun to play with friends as ever and the newly introduced Escape mode is a bit shallow and short (games can be finished in about 20 minutes, even less) cooperative mode that can be fun for a couple of weeks.
Of course, the meat on the bones are versus modes that are as enjoyable as ever. Classic modes such as Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and Arms Race are accompanied by a new mode called Arcade.
This is a five-vs-five mode where players play as various characters with their own special skills which can be upgraded. Kills earn you skulls which are used to get better weapons and each round gets you skulls based on your performance in the previous rounds. Arcade mode plays like a simplified hero shooter and is a solid addition to the already stellar Gears multiplayer. The only dent in the multiplayer experience are cosmetic microtransactions that don't affect the gameplay but still, there are microtransactions and that's always a bit troubling.
Gears of War 5 is an iterative upgrade over Gears 4. It brings excellent single-player campaign, huge maps to ride the skiff across along with bigger but still linear levels where shooting takes place. The story is quite good for a shooter and near the end it really becomes emotional. Visuals are stunning and voice work is professionally done.
In other words, Gears 5 doesn't have any big downside but the game also doesn't have many stellar elements. Ultimately, this is another very good Gears of War game with an excellent campaign and (if you're into it) rich multiplayer experience that will last you till the inevitable Gears 6 comes out. Not really a GOTY material but nevertheless one excellent cover shooter. And since Gears 5 can be played on Xbox Game Pass on the Xbox One ($10 per month) and PC ($5 per month) you can play the game for a price of a fancy cup of coffee. For that price, this is a steal and if you like shooter games be sure to check this one out.