How Gears 5 is a Modern Take on the Already Near Perfect Formula

After several games across a number of platforms Gears of War has established itself as one of modern gaming’s tentpole franchises, and yet despite being nearly fifteen years into it’s evolution the main basis for each Gears of War game has remained almost exactly the same with the only huge difference being a different story each time (which also often follow a pretty similar structure). But in the series’ defence, that is far from a bad thing, and largely thanks to the original game getting it right in the first place. Gears of War really is the video game embodiment of ‘if ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

In terms of story 2006’s original Gears of War introduced players to the human planet Sera, which had been at war with itself for generations. Just as that war between different factions of humans was drawing to a close, a new threat arose in the form of the ‘Locust’ Horde a subspecies that had been unknowingly living beneath Sera’s surface for years. War then broke out between the newly unified humans and Locust, for control over the planet. The sequels Gears of Wars 2, Gears of War 3, Gears of War Judgement and Xbox One’s Gears of War 4, which saw development shift from the original creators at Epic to a specifically set up Xbox company ‘The Coalition’, continued that original story.

Following the grizzled and muscle-bound Marcus Fenix, each game was a great third-person shooter filled with lots of conveniently placed objects to hide behind, waves of bullet sponge enemies, and some terrifically gory chainsaw-based executions. And although there were a few refinements, new enemy types and weapons here and there each sequel kept to those same basic systems and principles.

That held for the sequels on the Xbox 360, and even the console jump to Xbox One, where Gears of War 4 sees the story pick up twenty-five years after the third game, and focuses on Marcus’ son JD. Even with this new console and the addition of two new enemy factions, the core game was still very ‘Gears’ and arguably the game didn’t take advantage of being on a more powerful console, in any way other than some improved visuals.

That is something that Gears 5 (which has officially dropped the ‘of War’ from the title) more than remedies, adding a host of new features like a partially open world, a fully upgradeable and modifiable robot companion named Jack which varies combat dramatically, and yet the game still manages to feel very ‘Gears’ in nature, and ultimately feels like a modern advancement on what the Gears formula should be in today’s gaming world.

The campaign of Gears 5 takes the franchise in an intriguing new direction, with an in-depth look at Kait, who has been upgraded from supporting character to main character, and her connections to the Locust and Swarm Hordes. It has everything long term Gears fans could want, including lots of going against COG orders, plenty of inconveniently powered down facilities that just need one button pressed to be back up and running, countless encounters with ridiculous amounts of enemies, and of course. the lasting impact of some dangerous secrets from the COG’s sinister past. And as much as Gears 5 is filled to the brim with typical Gears tropes, they are all wrapped up in a number of new features, namely the partially open world.

Many open world games often suffer from simply being too big, not just in terms of space, but content as well, with a continuous chain of missions and seemingly unlimited side quests a lot of which feel empty. And these shortcomings are usually made even worse when a game makes the leap from not being an open world, or perhaps just a smaller one into a massive new environment in one of its sequels. And so any Gears fan could be forgiven for being sceptical about this segment of Gears 5.

Thankfully however the two open world sections are not only mostly optional in terms of side quests (which you can ignore and simply go from one main mission point to another), but it’s also small enough so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming, and is specifically designed in a way that works with new mechanics, like upgrading Jack.

This extra incentive, on top of being able to explore the world of Gears more openly than ever, makes you want to uncover these new areas, something made even more impressive by the fact that Gears has never done this before, and yet it’s inclusion doesn’t feel too jarring or ‘un-gears’.

In fact, far from feeling like a slog, the time spent traveling around on the Skiff sees Kait and Del have a number of conversations, which feel reminiscent of PlayStation’s God of War, where some of the best parts of the game are on the boat with Kratos and Atreus simply talking to each other as you go from area to area.

One of the biggest incentives for exploring these sections and as many areas as possible throughout the game is a new type of collectable; Jack upgrades. On top of the regular deceased COG tags and a number of typical Gears collectables, Jack upgrade components are hidden throughout this latest version of Sera. These lead to unlocking and upgrading a number of abilities for the new version of Jack, a floating robotic helper who featured in earlier games and is for the first time a playable character in Gears 5.

Jack’s special abilities include the likes of an area scan, an armour buff for players, health packs, the ability to turn players invisible, a shock trap that can slow and harm enemies, and a flash grande that forces them out of cover. These abilities, along with a range of passives and powers for Jack are all upgradable, adding a huge amount of customisability and variety to a new element of the franchise, which already changes the field of play significantly.

On top of this, Jack is a key part of the story, unlocking various doors and hacking computers, but one of his most useful abilities is being able to retrieve weapons and ammo from almost anywhere in sight. This allows the player to bring new weapons and reloads to them, which alters that typical Gears of War gameplay quite dramatically (if you choose to utilise it).

Another of the big additions for the game is the possibility of two separate endings. Simple decision making such as which route you and another character will take whilst the other squad members take the alternate route has always been a part of Gears, and the fifth game takes that a step further by regularly asking the player to pick between two types of reinforcements. But that system is taken to a whole new level towards the end of Gears 5, where the player has to pick which character survives. After the decision, the closing act of the game plays out relatively similar either way, except for a few brief cut scenes, but it does set the stage for a very different looking Gears 6, perhaps one with differing stories depending on who that player picked to survive.

A lot of what makes Gears 5 so impressive stands before taking into account the new tweaks to Horde Mode, the returning multiplayer modes many of which have seen similar refinements to those in the main campaign, and then new modes like Versus Arcade and Escape.

Versus Arcade sees the player start the game with a loadout based on their character, and through the course of the match earn skulls (from kills, executions and even deaths). These skulls act as an in-match currency, with which the player can buy new gear and weapons. Arcade is Gears at its purest, and yet it allows for a little more personal style than the many modes we’ve seen over the years, and lets the player build themselves up throughout the match, almost like you do in Horde mode, but with more hectic multiplayer action at the centre.

The other new multiplayer mode, Escape, which was announced a few months before the games’ release, is, in essence, an inverted Horde mode, which sees players trying to escape from a Swarm nest, rather than defend an area from it. After planting the bomb the area is slowly filled with toxic gas and the three players have to fight their way out.

Each of the three characters has their own style, active and passive ability, that varies how each of them plays. The inverse of Horde in almost every way, Escape is tight and fast game mode with just enough story (which was expanded in the prequel comic ‘Hivebusters’), differing gameplay, and gory executions to show off the best of the franchise.

Ultimately Gears 5 is the product of nearly fifteen years worth of sharpening an already near-perfect formula, one that is built on such a solid foundation, that adding in open world elements, a host of new features and game-changing mechanics can still feel wholly ‘Gears’, all whilst setting the franchise up for a brand new direction.