Gears 5 review: An evolved formula brings home a big win for Xbox

Gears 5 is here, almost three years after the fourth installment. The Coalition is looking to grow the franchise with features fresh to the formula. But can they stick the landing?

Gears 5 is the next installment in Microsoft's triptych AAA lineup, typically comprised of Halo, Forza, and Gears of War. Gears is typified by its unapologetic violence and apocalyptic setting, showcasing an alt-universe planet in the perpetual grip of war. While the first game is undoubtedly a product of its time, Gears grew beyond its "dudebro" roots into something deeper and more complex. Gears 5 tries to explore the boundaries of what might be possible in this broadening world.

For the first time in a Gears game, we now have soft RPG-style progression in the campaign, alongside wide-linear, near-open world segments, complete with free-roaming vehicular travel. Gears 5 also incorporates several Versus modes, a Left 4 Dead-style "Escape" mode, an enhanced PvE arena Horde mode, and even a map builder, which will roll out across all multiplayer modes over time.

There's no disputing that Gears 5 is packed to the brim with content, representing insane value when you consider you can get it for just $10 a month as part of Xbox Game Pass. Is it good quality content, though? Welcome to our detailed Gears 5 review, ahead of its early access launch on September 6 for Ultimate Edition owners and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers, and September 10 more generally.

Gears 5: Visuals, sound, and performance

Gears 5 is a magnificent technical achievement, gracefully hitting 4K resolution, with 60 frames per second on Xbox One X across all modes. On the Xbox One S, Gears 5 sacrifices its 60 FPS in the campaign, but maintains 1080p 60 FPS across all of its multiplayer modes, ensuring a smooth competitive experience across devices. PC players can expect a similarly potent, well-optimized experience, with extreme visual options for the most powerful rigs.

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Gears 5
Genre | Third-person shooter
Developer | The Coalition
Publisher | Xbox Game Studios
Players | 1-3 player campaign, 1-5 players multiplayer
Platforms | Steam, Windows 10 PC, Xbox One
Release | Sept 10 2019 generally, Sept 6 for Ultimate Edition and Game Pass Ultimate subscribers
Price | $60 retail, from $10 as part of Xbox Game Pass

Gears 5's art direction is also stunning, but clearly, some sacrifices in visual depth have been made to maintain the frame rate. There are some utterly incredible set-pieces with meticulously detailed environments and shadows. The frozen plains, with ice-blasted trees and 3D snow, looks simply jaw-dropping and makes for some of the best visuals on Xbox One X to date.

That being said, outside some of those more linear areas, the open-world segments can be quite barren, with foliage that looks almost cartoony. Some of these dips in quality contrast jarringly against Gears' gritty photorealistic aesthetic. The contrast in visual details is particularly sharp in Act III, where the wind flare lightning strikes create pillars of jagged glass clawing upwards out of the sand. It's simply stunning. But they sit next to some low-poly cacti that look like they came out of a Pixar movie. You have to go looking for the seams to find them and be bothered by it, though, and it amounts to more of a nitpick than a real criticism.

On performance, Gears 5 is relentless. The game will sacrifice resolution to maintain its frame rate in some of the game's more intense moments. But you'll struggle to perceive it with the naked eye. It simply feels stunning, at all times, without compromise, complimented with a sobering soundtrack and bone-crunching audio cues that are as satisfying as they are disgusting (in the best way possible). It's also worth noting that Gears 5 has no loading screens whatsoever, using clever gameplay transitions to stream the next area. It creates a seamless experience that keeps you locked into the action, and oh boy, is that some serious action.

Gears 5: Campaign Gameplay

Gears 5 masterfully injects new gameplay into the tried-and-tested (and possibly, tired) Gears of War formula, reinvigorating the franchise for a new generation. That said, many of the new systems The Coalition have introduced seem more exploratory and rudimentary, rather than revolutionary. It's as though they are experimenting to see what sticks. The new gameplay features are a welcome breath of fresh air. But they do feel a little constrained in some ways, perhaps as to not risk alienating long-time Gears fans. Personally, though, I think Gears fans are going to embrace the direction proposed by Gears 5 in droves.

For those who are expecting a classic Gears experience — it's still there, and it's better than ever.

For those who are expecting a classic Gears experience — it's still there, and it's better than ever. The shooting mechanics have been tightened and enhanced, each weapon feeling like a unique paintbrush on a canvas of gore and destruction. Various weapons classic to the franchise make their return, such as the Lancer, Gnasher, and so on. Alongside them are some of the newer ones like the rapid-fire Overkill shotgun. Some of the Gears 5-fresh weapons include the Claw, which is a twisted, rough vision of a Lancer created by the Swarm, and the Breaker mace, which is a heavy melee staff that can reduce enemies to piles of viscera.

The Swarm is evolving, and so too are their weapons and tactics. New Swarm hunters pop smoke grenades and co-ordinate flanks more effectively, while armored Grenadiers aggressively close in with shotguns and grenades. There are also new enemies to be wary of, such as the melee-focused Wardens, who hound players across the map with near-impenetrable armor, susceptible only to headshots. The game also has a few incredible set-piece boss battles that will test your reflexes and tactics, particularly on greater difficulties.

To complement the return of the classic Gears experience, The Coalition has famously begun experimenting with open-world systems, RPG layers, and even a quest-oriented non-linear approach to missions. They work quite well, but their first iteration is perhaps lacking in depth in some ways. We argue that this is intentional to prevent Gears from losing its dense, cinematic experience. For example, the "open-world"-ish segments are more like wide-linear paths, which allow you to undertake side objectives to upgrade Jack's robo-tech abilities.

The side-objectives are hard to miss, given the relatively compact size of these areas, and offer some fun additional content that makes little sense to skip. Most of them are effectively just mini-arenas or mini-dungeons in exchange for some upgrade points for Jack, or access to unlock the "ultimate" variants of his abilities. Traversing around on the Skiff is very satisfying, particularly when you factor in some genuinely impressive environmental effects that I shan't spoil here. I think The Coalition could have done a bit more to make some of these side-sequences feel a bit deeper. You almost want them to explore some of the more interesting side characters or have more unique boss battles. Either way, it's an encouraging first step into the format.

The fact the exploration doesn't feel particularly deep is probably partially symptomatic of the simplicity of Jack's upgrade systems. The road to upgrading Jack is very linear. And there are no consequences for selecting one ability or the other, since you can just respec him at any time to meet the needs of the situation. I think that detracts a bit from the essence of RPG progression, since it's non-committal one way or the other, and trivializes the gravity of choosing a playstyle. On the flip side, I get that they wanted it to seem approachable, and in that area, they certainly succeeded.

Jack's abilities are diverse and interesting, particularly once you unlock their "ultimate" variants. The flashbang grenade can disorient enemies out of cover. But fully upgraded, he can freeze them in a layer of liquid nitrogen, allowing you to satisfyingly shatter them into chunks of crimson ice. That's certainly on-brand. Jack can also resurrect teammates, be sent out to pick up weapons and ammo, and reset your health counter back to maximum in a pinch. The abilities add fresh variety into the Gears mix. Although the more powerful defensive ones can muddle the unique sense of vulnerability for which Gears of War's combat is known. Either way, it's a strong basis for the growth of the franchise, and something I'm excited to see The Coalition explore more in future installments.

Gears 5: Story And Narrative (Spoiler-Free)

Gears 5's story delivery and character writing feel like another step up for the franchise. But much like a lot of the fresh gameplay additions, it also feels a bit like Gears 5 is laying the groundwork for the future.

Gears of War has historically existed in this relatively vague alternative universe, set on a planet called Sera. We don't know a huge amount about the game's world setting. But Gears 5 begins to explore the edges of this relatively condensed world, branching out into new territory, and delivering new context.

Gears 5 primarily follows Kait, as she works to uncover the truth about her lineage and her possible connection to the Swarm threat. Without giving away too much, Gears 5 delivers a range of genuine surprises along the way, that thankfully sidestepped some of the more obvious possibilities, theories, and expectations.

Sadly, you cannot fish in Gears 5, but the world-building is on-point.

The game takes place across several months, rather than the few days or weeks of previous games. I don't think Gears 5 does enough to emphasize that fact, outside of some text that appears between chapters. There are some great character interactions between returning characters JD Fenix, Kait, and their companion Del. Interactions that still could have been more impactful had they received some additional context or filled in between the gaps in those huge time jumps. It's hard to describe what I mean without spoiling some major story beats. But it came across a little jarring to me how quickly some character's behaviors changed without that context. Gears 5 perhaps could have done with slowing things down a bit to that end, but what they do have is still incredibly engaging, mysterious, and evocative.

This is the first game in a long time to make me teary-eyed.

Gears 5 has some genuinely harrowing moments that will give you goosebumps. The return of certain characters made for some satisfyingly nostalgic moments, while also setting up some truly disturbing set-pieces upon which the future plot can be built. The Coalition has also gone further than ever before to fill in some of the gaps in the wider lore, with a wealth of narrative objects and collectibles to find, as well as a journey through UIR territory that fleshes out the Pendulum Wars between battling human factions in greater depth.

Some of the most interesting, impactful aspects of the story are inherently spoilers, but I will note that this is the first game in a long time to make me teary-eyed. Well played, team Coalition.

Gears 5: Multiplayer Modes

As of writing, the multiplayer modes haven't been generally available. But I've already played enough of Horde, Escape, and Versus Arcade during beta tests and on-site events to have a good handle on how they're going to be in practice. The critical thing to note here is the genuinely insane amount of content Gears 5 fits into a tidy, $60 package, bought down further by its inclusion in Xbox Game Pass.

Gears 5 multiplayer content ensures that you'll still have an insane amount of stuff to do after the credits roll.

Admittedly, I've never been a massive fan of Gears' brand of competitive multiplayer. It's quite unique which makes it a little tough to access for newcomers, at least until now. Gears 5's Arcade mode puts limitations on some of the more advanced cover bouncing techniques skilled players use to avoid shots in core playlists. It also changes the way spawns are handled to create a more Call of Duty-like advantage for respawning players, also limiting the opposing team's ability to gang up and farm the spawn point of a struggling team. For those who want the classic Gears competitive experience, it will still be there as part of the core playlist, but Arcade mode is far more approachable for newcomers and should help on-ramp people to more skilled, higher-level play.

Horde mode has gained some similar enhancements, rewarding deeper investment with an evolving metagame, and the removal of pay-to-progress loot boxes. All Horde (and Escape mode) skills must be earned through play, as the gaming gods intended.

The wave-based PvE Horde mode has a range of different characters that have soft "roles," such as tank, support, and so on, letting you tailor your playstyle a little more than the previous entry. Character "ultimate" abilities can give you a boost and help turn the tide of battle, but they aren't as spectacular or exciting as other games with "ultimates," like Overwatch or Destiny. They might grant characters abilities from the campaign, such as the stealth field, or the enhanced melee swinging attacks. But they feel a little bit too soft to live up to the "ultimate" monicker. Still, they're quite fun to use but could have perhaps used some deeper iteration.

Speaking of ultimates, they also extend to the game's new mode, "Escape," which clearly takes cues from the likes of Left 4 Dead. In Escape, you and a team of up to three must proceed through linear dungeons that fill with toxic gas. Narratively, you and your companions are there to eradicate Swarm nests in daring suicide missions, as the fight with the Swarm becomes ever more intense.

Escape mode is frenetic and fun, and just piles on the variety of things to do once you're through with the campaign. It gets even crazier when you consider Escape's map editor, which allows you to make sprawling dungeons to share with the broader community. The map editor is incredibly easy to use and very intuitive. It should make for some exciting post-launch community content down the road.

All of the Gears 5 multiplayer content ensures that you'll still have an insane amount of stuff to do after the credits roll. They're all rock-solid, high-quality experiences that should remain fresh for weeks and months to come.

Gears 5: Conclusion

Gears 5 makes me feel like The Coalition is ready to step out of the shadows and truly own this franchise, stepping above and beyond expectations to secure the longevity of Gears. The core format was arguably already refined to perfection by Gears of War 4. But there is simply no way The Coalition could have continued to release the same linear cover shooter year in, year out, without updating the state of play for contemporary audiences.

Gears 5 is absolutely the evolution that the franchise needed.

While some of the new elements come across as a bit under-iterated and rudimentary, it's the basis for growth that is perhaps the most exciting aspect as a long-time Gears fan. The Coalition shows that the franchise has legs for some serious longevity.

As a benchmark for visual excellence balanced against stellar performance, Gears 5 is technical wizardry. It also bridges platforms and storefronts, hitting Steam, Windows 10 PC, and Xbox One consoles complete with (optional) cross-play. The fact that Gears 5 manages to jam a truly "AAA" 12-18 hour campaign, several multiplayer modes, a map editor, and the promise of post-launch support represents one of the best deals in gaming right now. It's an even better value when you factor in Xbox Game Pass.

The future of Gears of War has never been so bright — and sure, there's room for improvement, but this is the evolution that the franchise desperately needed.



Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!