Review: Gears 5 (Xbox Series X)

The Xbox Series X has just launched around the globe, and with it comes not a whole lot of games, at least new ones. While we have titles such as Tetris Effect Connected and Gears Tactics making their Xbox debut, the Series X is lacking in its new offerings. That’s where Microsoft’s optimization plans come into play. Xbox has gone back in their most recent catalog to optimize some of their titles to not only be compatible with the Xbox Series X, but feature new and enhanced visuals and performance features. We’re not talking an entire rework of Gears 5 as it’s only a year old at this point, but The Coalition has revamped one of the best shooters on the market to look and play better on the Xbox Series X. The latest in the famed third-person shooter series boasts rock steady 60fps framerate, 4K resolution and even additional graphical features. There’s even a mode where you can replace Marcus Fenix with wrestling and movie superstar Dave Bautista. Let us dive back into one of 2019’s most exhilarating games as we follow Kait around the war-torn Sera.

Story has never been a large bullet point for the franchise, but it’s a clear focus for Gears 5. Sure, there were tidbits of the universe spread across collectibles and quick pieces of dialogue, but we learn more about Sera’s past than ever before. While we still have a difficult time putting together a cohesive map of the world, we do learn about warring countries and ideologies, some of which were clearly influenced by America’s history. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s a meaningful and perfectly-executed plot, but it’s a clear improvement over its predecessors that sheds more light on the elements fans had burning questions about, along with plot holes that needed filling. This is almost entirely Kait Diaz’s story, with the revelation at the end of Gears of War 4 playing a significant role in her mental status. She is having nightmares and hallucinations to the point she decides to go on a journey to learn what’s happening to her. It’s a decently paced ten-hour adventure that brings us across the world, from sandy dunes to the frigid tundra.

Unfortunately, one aspect of the story that feels oddly tacked on is a choice you make near the end of the campaign. Just as ever before, for the vast majority of Gears 5, you’re going through a directed path with small deviations that primarily open up more lore about the world thanks to the surprisingly decent dialogue exchanges between characters (at least after the first Act). That changes abruptly in the final chapter where you’re given a choice that alters around three short cutscenes, taking up maybe a minute worth of time. It feels thrown in but affects the story moving forward in a way you have to question what The Coalition will do and how they will handle it going into Gears 6, because this is very much the Halo 2 of the Gears. Because of this, it put a bad taste in our mouth despite the rest of the journey being a fantastic and memorable experience. It felt sudden and unnecessary; it’s not like you’re making choices throughout the entire campaign, so why throw in this unforeseen moment that would have consequences that divide future games in an unnecessary manner?

Inspired by games such as Resident Evil 4 and Kill Switch, the Gears of War franchise perfected the third-person cover-based shooter. This continues forth with Gears 5 as The Coalition has created a mechanically iterative version of the beloved combat system. While you can still rev up your chainsaw Lancer, there’s an even greater arsenal at your disposal and that’s only exemplified with the latest version of the Lancer which now shoots rockets. In fact, I don’t think I ever was on the butt end of a chainsaw in the entirety of the campaign, but this is probably because most of the firefights were done from afar, unlike the multiplayer component. What has changed significantly is the progression. While it’s still very much a linear corridor shooter, this is only primarily true for the beginning and end of the game. The core section is filled with vast open areas to explore with even side quests to partake in. These give a whole new breath of life to the traditional Gears formula that’s needed. Sadly, the open area format does feel like a half measure. There isn’t an RPG element to Kait or your character, but instead Jack, your little helper robot. You can find components around the world and complete side quests in order to gain abilities to better enhance Jack’s capabilities. It’s something we hope to see expanded to the characters themselves, as we found ourselves forgetting our helper robot was even in the fight most of the time.

While the single player portion has always been a large component to Gears of War — the first game originally was going to ship without any competitive modes, after all — it’s the multiplayer that really sells the full experience. For Gears 5, we are treated to three distinct options: traditional Versus, Horde and the new Escape. Versus is absolutely stacked, with twelve starting maps that can played within nine different modes. This includes the already-established Arms Race, Dodgeball, Escalation, Execution, Guardian, King of the Hill, Team Deathmatch and Warzone, but we also receive a brand new Arcade Deathmatch. This a variant on the standard Team Deathmatch where you will be able to buy randomized weapons based in-match currency you rack up with kills. The more you contribute to your team’s victory, the more weapons you’re able to purchase. Because there’s an RNG aspect to it, it does somewhat rely on luck. Sometimes you’ll get a decent assault rifle, other times you’ll get a tri-shot chain gun. You have to be careful with this, though, as if you die with that weapon, anyone, including the other team, can pick it up, so it can be a double-edged sword. Regardless, Versus offers an incredible amount of value along, not to mention the others.

Escape is the brand new cooperative mode that contains a strong survival element. There are four templates to choose from, although most of them feel similar to the other. These are roughly fifteen to thirty minutes in length (depending on difficulty) where you and two others detonate a bomb in a Swarm nest and need to make it to extraction before the gas kills you (that or the Swarm). There’s a level of tension that you don’t normally get in Gears as it’s a race against the clock. It also ties into leveling characters who have unique special abilities that can aid your party; some will be able to put up shields while others can restock ammunition. The latter is important because you only start off with a pistol and any weapons you find in the world come with little ammunition. Because of this, you’ll be robbing the dead of their projectile treasure quite a bit. There’s also a means to create your own maps, which should offer a little more variation if you decide to keep playing this mode. It’s an entertaining mode while it lasts, but ultimately a distraction from the real attractions.

Lastly, we have Horde. Really, anyone who has played Gears before, especially the last one, will know exactly what you’re in for. This is a cooperative mode where you’re defending a Fabricator from wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies, with main attractions coming every five stages. You never know what they will throw at you, especially when it comes to bosses. Want two giant enemies with clubs that can one-hit you? Well best of luck. Luckily the fabricator can create weapons and barriers for you to slow down these creatures. Similar to Escape, your character’s level and abilities are carried over to aid you in your endeavor. My only real complaint would be that even on the second (of many) difficulties, it gets shockingly difficult after twenty rounds, even with a full crew of five. You’re technically able to modify the difficulty to your liking, but just be prepared to strategize quite a bit. Regardless, Horde is just as good as ever. If you’re someone who favors cooperative play over competitive, this will no doubt take up more time than you’d realize.

Now let’s talk about the presentation. The musical score in Gears of War has always been fantastic, to a point where I feel it’s a little underappreciated, and Gears 5 does not disappoint. Fast-paced action is treated to a heart-pounding rhythm while the sadder moment containing somber tones. There’s a good amount of variety and it’s aided by the sound effects, even though they are more or less what we’ve come to hear from past games. As for the visuals, Gears 5 is the best in the series. The first and final acts are handcrafted set pieces that will leave a lasting impression, while the core open areas are stunning. There are segments that look better in motion than they do up close, but you’ll be too busy admiring everything passing you by as you ride your Skiff to see the irregularities. There’s also an incredible amount of variety as we travel the world to witness structures we didn’t think we’d see in the universe. Suffice to say, The Coalition has put a lot of work in the presentation and it goes a long way.

With the release of the Xbox Series X a year after its initial release, Gears 5 has never looked or played better. While there are some games that get minor upgrades, there are games such as Gears 5 that get substantial enhancements that make you appreciate the amount of work that went into the technical side of things. Gears 5 already looked good when it hit Xbox One in 2019, but The Coalition has gone a step further than even we were expecting. The campaign now is displayed at a native 4K resolution — at least mostly as there’s some variable trickery happening in the background — and runs at a smooth 60fps with little to no hiccups. That’s not all as the developers have gone back into the game and reworked elements of the visuals, such as adding reflections, an increased draw distance, sharper textures and various other effects. By far the biggest breakthrough is the reduced latency to the controller, as you’ll be able to take full control of your characters with ultimate precision. You’ll still feel sluggish running around with 50lbs of armor on, but in the way it was meant to. In addition, load times have decreased substantially compared to the Xbox One version, utilizing the power of the custom SSD.

Closing Comments:

As it stands, the Xbox Series X version is the best and most accessible way to experience Gears 5. There’s no better time to play or replay the Xbox One shooter, especially consider it supports crossplay with PC and the older generation, so if your friends won’t be left out if they don’t upgrade. The core of the gameplay remains the same, as you’ll be hopping into cover and shooting Locust sponges from start to finish, but the semi-open areas expand upon the formula greatly, even though it feels like it’s only half a step in the right direction. The multiplayer and Horde modes remain some of the most fun you’ll have in a cooperative and competitive space, not to mention it now supports up to 120fps, which is astonishing for a console title. The Coalition has gone all out to create one of the best Xbox Series X launch titles, which is both great and sad about the state of things. It’s no system seller like a Gears game should be, but it allows those who experienced it last year to marvel in its glory once more and introduce new players to the world of Sera in the most vibrant way possible.