In the four hours I spent playing the Gears 5 campaign, there was a pivotal moment where I audibly gasped “wow.” It could have been JACK’s new upgradable and switchable powers, or the campaign’s focus on telling a more personal story. But what it ended up being is the campaign’s new and expansive open world segments, particularly a moment where I witnessed several fire tornadoes and molten lightning shards. It was a breathtaking scene, made even more impactful by the other enjoyable additions. I came away feeling the Gears 5 campaign not only builds on what the series has established in the past, but speaks to what it could become in the future.
Building on what works
The most notable feature of the Gears 5 campaign are the open world aspects. In them, you can use a Skiff, a cool boat and snowboarding hybrid, to zoom across large portions of land, all while passing locations both marked and unmarked on the nifty, new map. Using the Skiff to travel across the icy tundras of Act II and the crimson deserts of Act III is simple, and while the actual controls of the Skiff don’t offer too much variety, it’s an easy way to see some of the gorgeous locales of Gears 5. With the Skiff helping to bridge and connect all the locations you’ll be traveling to, the campaign feels a lot more like a journey over the more linear design of previous Gears games.
That moment I mentioned earlier, the one where I had to take a minute to absorb it all in, happened while riding the Skiff. I was tasked with heading towards an abandoned rocket facility and it required a lengthy trip across the sand, a desert very reminiscent of the dunes from Mad Max. About halfway through, one of the disastrous weather storms rolled in and forced me to weave in and out of incoming lava shards that crystalized on impact, all while avoiding the many, many fiery tornados that spawned all around me. Maybe I’m just really into weather, but it was incredible.
Granted, I played on a PC version that ran on an ultra-wide monitor, one of the only game stations featuring this resolution when I visited The Coalition in Vancouver. My experience may vary because of this, but I doubt the explosive sandstorm I experienced won’t be just as awesome on consoles and standard monitors.
Anyone worried Gears 5 might change or alter the series’ renowned cover-based shooter combat can rest assured. Nothing has really changed, thankfully, as it was excellent as is, but a few additions have been added to give combat a little more flavor. JACK, the robotic ally from the original trilogy, is back and offers special abilities and powers that you can use during a fight.
A support ability and an assault ability, both of which feature multiple variations unlocked by collecting components found throughout the world, are added to your arsenal with a set cooldown after use, along with a passive ability like the one that quickens your cooldowns as you land headshots. One ability — Shock Trap — lets you send JACK out to a location you point to, and stun enemies that get too close. That, along with the invisibility-granting Cloak, offer enough to mix things up while staying true to the Gears formula.
JACK also offers a couple of puzzle functions within levels that offer a breath of fresh air between all the chaos. It’s not much, but the ability to send JACK off to another location, like when you want him to retrieve a weapon that’s out of reach, is used to progress through certain rooms. At the previously mentioned abandoned rocket factory, JACK is needed to drop and raise concrete pipes so that Kait and the rest of her team can pass through. You do this by searching the surrounding areas and looking for a blue panel, be it far and in the distance or obscured by a wall, and sending JACK to hack the controls. It’s small, but it’s a nice way to give you something else to do.
Although this wasn’t part of what I played, I was told by The Coalition that JACK can be used as a third character in co-op. This brings yet another angle to the co-op experience that lets you play Gears 5 in a way the other two players cannot. Speaking with Zoe Curnoe, Lead Producer at The Coalition, one of her favorite uses of JACK is his ability to fly up ahead and scout the enemies before the main team even makes contact. That, and his function to retrieve weapons too far for you to get yourself, add an extra layer the series hasn’t had before.
Making some refinements
Focusing the story on Kait and her connection to the Swarm is certainly paying off. Thanks to Gears 4, we’ve already become acquainted with these characters. With Gears 5, we can finally delve a bit deeper into who they are. Kait’s story is certainly interesting. JD’s redesign and mysterious injuries raise eyebrows. The Locust have always been viewed as the ultimate evil, and while that is still true in Gears 5, there’s at least the angle where Kate’s connection could blur the lines between the good guys and the enemy a bit. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait for the full review to find out more about it.
With that said, Kait’s struggle to understand her nightmares and control her visions is intriguing, but it’s a bit disappointing knowing it doesn’t affect the gameplay at large. Yes, there are moments where her issues are brought to the forefront and you’re forced to play through a segment in her mind, but standard combat isn’t affected in any way.
If you were to cut the story segments about Kait’s current mental state and nightmare influence, you wouldn’t have any way of picking up on that story through gameplay. It’s all great, I just wish it had more of an impact when I was in control of the game.
Horde mode is back once again and continues to refine the class additions made in Gears of War 4. Instead of simply giving each character specific roles like an engineer who can fully control the fabricator and its tools, each of the nine characters you pick will have their own special ultimate. This ability grants a special power for a limited amount of time before hitting a cooldown before the next use. Kait has the cloaking ability that allows her to maneuver the field without being detected, and Fahz has the ability to see and shoot through walls.
Horde mode itself remains just as fun as it was before. Skill cards are no longer locked behind microtransaction packs and can be unlocked within the game itself. These new additions only add more variety to a mode that already provided a great amount of strategy and fast-paced fun.
Gears of War 4 brought the series to a more modern visual standard. Gears 5, on the other hand, brings modern gameplay standards that help push the series forward. The new additions are great and help improve on the previous entry in every way, but I can’t help but think of how this will affect the future of the series.
I see a Skiff with upgradeable components that allow it soar in the air longer or grant it a booster for faster speeds. I see a JACK that features a full and customizable skill tree rather than a small list of upgrades. Most importantly, I see a more focused story that lets characters shine in both the narrative segments and in the gameplay. Gears 5 and its campaign is certainly the most ambitious of the series, and it’s a solid foundation for whatever is to come next.