I'm a huge fan of the Gears of War franchise. Right from the first game, it became a tradition in my household for me and my siblings to co-op it up with some Gears, as per every new release. But like that sense of tradition, Gears of War, as a franchise, has certain expectations attached to it.
I adored Gears of War 4, which introduced us to a new generation trying to carve out a niche on a world recovering from a devastating war. The monstrous subterranean Locust almost succeeded in wiping out humanity, was it not for the Marcus Fenix, Dom Santiago, and the rest of Delta Squad, across Gears of War 1 through 3. Gears 4 took a slightly different approach, introducing us to a new threat — the Swarm — born from the ashes of the Locust. But beyond that, it played it extremely safe with the "Gears" format. Chest-high cover walls, cinematic set pieces, and linearity, with little in the way of surprises.
Shed your expectations — Gears 5 changes everything.
Microsoft invited us to The Coalition studios to check out Gears 5 ahead of the game's launch. (Gears 5 officially launches on September 10, 2019, and a bit earlier for Ultimate Edition and Game Pass owners.)
Suffice to say, this isn't "just another Gears."
Gears 5 is a story of paranoia, betrayal, and trauma
For our preview, The Coalition propelled us forward a few chapters, near the setting of that mysterious original trailer. I don't want to give too much away for those looking to avoid spoilers, but the snippets of the 20 plus hour campaign we explored offered more insight into the dynamics between Kait, Del, and JD, and the current state of the trio's relationship.
The three were previously Outsiders, living outside COG government jurisdiction. Now, they're all enlisted, along with almost every Outsider village as the skirmishes between the Swarm and the remaining humans become more intense. The first act we played had us venture into one of the remaining Outsider outposts to try and get them on board voluntarily.
Already I got a sense of world-building that felt like a step up from Gears of War 4. Exploring the village produced tons of collectibles filled with lore, which offered context for the tension between the Outsiders and the COG. Kids ran around playing "Kill the Fascists!," in reference to dictatorial iron grip the COG maintains over the remaining nations of the world.
Eventually, you'll meet the village chief — a familiar face. But there was little time for a reunion. A whole cavalcade of diabolical new Swarm enemies suddenly assault the outpost, slaughtering civilian NPCs as you lead the counter-attack.
The Coalition is signaling loud and clear that they are ready to grow this franchise
The Swarm, like many of Gears 5's systems, has begun to evolve beyond their Locust roots. New leech-like parasites that swarm in the air, similar to the Kryll, can also subvert COG technology. One of the new enemies is a grotesque half DR-1 DeeBee robot half Swarm biomutant, which functions as a living turret known as a Stump. These enemies have piles of health, and can attach themselves dynamically to walls or ceilings, as you chip away at their health. They tend to wield heavy weapons too, making them all the more tricky to deal with. The meatier corrupted DeeBees are also far more fun to fight than their more metallic cousins and should prove a little more popular than they were previously.
During the attack, Kait loses control, subverted by the Swarm hivemind. During this sequence, you're given the ability to control various Swarm units, while harrowing whispers swirl in Kait's head. It is in this instance Kait realizes that something is desperately wrong and that her ties to the Swarm might be deeper than she had previously realized.
Throughout the acts we played, Kait experienced headaches from the Swarm Hivemind, along with paranoid visions filled with dark mutterings, full of ill-intent. It provides some insight into what being plugged into the Locust / Swarm hivemind is like, adding a layer of horror into the mix. The Hivemind attempts to drive Kait into mistrusting her allies, showing her visions of them conspiring against her. It's hard to tell who to trust, which makes the campaign all the more mysterious — nothing seems safe, and it is that invasive sense of vulnerability that could help this to be the most engrossing Gears story to date.
Gears 5 flirts with an open-world RPG format
As Kait journeys across Sera to unearth the truth about her origins, you'll travel across expansive open-world hubs that represent some of the largest Gears of War areas to date. A sail-driven Skiff (which handles very nicely) is your primary mode of transport, complete with the ability to store heavy weapons for later use. We experienced two biomes for Gears 5, one in the ice-blasted wastes surrounding Mount Kadar and New Hope, and another in the red sands of former UIR territory.
These areas are perhaps closer in size to those found in games like Metro Exodus — not truly open world — but designed to foster exploration and reward players who enjoy traversal. To accommodate the format, Gears 5 is the first in the series with an actual map function, giving you access to "?" locations which could contain resources, story elements, or collectibles.
The two areas we explored were tightly packed and dense. Kait and Del frequently spoke too about the landscape, random banter, and every location you came across, helping Gears retain its signature cinematic feel. This isn't open world for the sake of it, The Coalition has quite clearly worked hard to ensure Gears maintains the feel fans expect while creating a canvas to truly evolve the franchise.
You can simply ignore all of the side quests and content if you so choose. We were told that The Coalition expects a player skipping side quests and exploration could get through the campaign in around 12 hours, while those who dabble would see 20 plus. A completionist might find even more to uncover. In addition to story collectibles like text logs and data files, there are also unique "Relic" weapons to uncover, which have unique properties. One Relic weapon we found was a Boltok pistol designed for hip firing, gunslinger style. To obtain it, we had to battle through two Swarm flocks and waves of enemies to get it, who had swarmed upon a crashed COG aircraft.
To enhance the more open areas, The Coalition also had to pile on additional reasons to explore. One of those reasons comes in the form of Jack the robot, who represents Gears 5's first foray into light RPG progression systems. Jack is far more powerful and potent than he was in previous games, used primarily to open doors. Now, he can zap Swarm enemies with stunning electric bolts, spawn over shields on his allies, and generate stealth fields for the entire party.
Gears 5 creates a sense of scale that previous games simply couldn't achieve.
These systems and features can be upgraded using tech found around the game's maps and locations, as well as unlocked as part of the story. The enemies have been tuned in response to Jack's presence as well, requiring some of his abilities and tactics to progress effectively. For example, levels aren't washed with ammunition like they were in previous games, but you can send Jack out to pick up ammo from downed enemies in the field. You can't depend on Jack, however, since a lot of his skills come with fairly long cooldown timers, especially when playing on "Experienced" difficulty or above.
Connecting these more open areas are more traditional Gears-like levels. We dived into the frost-bitten ruins of the New Hope facility, with its familiar labyrinthine hallways. We explored UIR rocket silos in the scorched desert, with unique cultural arctehicture of its own, hinting at a broader world. These more structured areas provide some of the epic cinematic set-pieces Gears is known for, while the open-world areas that connect them together make Gears 5 feel more modern, while also creating a sense of scale that previous games simply couldn't achieve.
Gears 5 sets the groundwork for the future
While the RPG layer on Jack and the open-world systems are relatively rudimentary, they show the care and attention The Coalition is taking as they evolve the franchise. Clearly this is all about exploring the boundaries of what Gears of War can truly be, without sacrificing everything that made the franchise great in the first place. The fact the studio has kept things quite densely packed and tight represents a desire to maintain that level of cinematic pacing that often gets completely lost when other games make the leap to "open-world." Don't expect to spend 30 hours gathering herbs or doing repetitive fetch quests, for example. Every locale came with something interesting to find, complete with unique dialogue and scenes.
The fact Gears 5 somehow achieves 4K 60 on the Xbox One X across all of its modes, without apparently sacrificing any of the visual quality from Gears of War 4 is nothing short of wizardry. The game was as smooth as they come, with fluid, satisfying gunplay and polished vehicle handling on the Skiff. Some of the lighting and draw distances simply defy belief, and although the game uses dynamic resolution scaling to maintain that frame rate, it's difficult to perceive with the naked eye.
I found myself ensorcelled by the game's snow and sand effects, which glisten in the light and part naturally under the weight of your boots. The dynamic cover that spawns along with Razorhail spikes hitting the ground, or springing up from the earth as lightning strikes and instantly glasses the sand is awe-inspiring, creating an ever-evolving battlefield. Even in the slower-paced sections, where you can initiate combat from the game's stealth mechanics, felt polished, albeit rudimentary, perfect for exploration in future installments. The game even has some light puzzle elements, as Kait guides radio sensors to uncover locations on the game's open-world map.
Gears 5 is everything the franchise needs
As good as I'm expecting Gears 5 to be after this gameplay demo, what excites me more than anything is the fact The Coalition is signaling loud and clear that they are ready to grow this franchise.
Gears 5 is the evolution the franchise desperately needed.
They aren't going to complacently milk the very basic Gears of War format over and over for years to come. The fact the studio is exploring ways to introduce exploration, vehicle traversal, and RPG progression mechanics, all without sacrificing the dense cinematic action Gears is known for, convinces me that The Coalition is the perfect steward for this legendary franchise.
In 2019, there isn't a universe where Gears of War could continue to plod ahead with the linear corridor shooter format. Like the game's ever-mutating enemies, Gears of War has to evolve to meet the expectations of modern gamers. It looks like Gears 5 is the evolution the franchise desperately needed.
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