Gears 5 proves that when it comes to heart-pumping firefights and slick shooting mechanics, it is still king. But while we appreciate The Coalition experimenting with open-world elements and trying to build a deeper narrative, it doesn't always stick the landing.
Plenty of multiplayer modes
New mechanics make it feel fresh
More areas to explore and lore to uncover
Open world elements feel off
Doesn't flesh out narrative to full extent
Why you can trust TechRadar We spend hours testing every product or service we review, so you can be sure you’re buying the best. Find out more about how we test.
Platform: Xbox One
Time played: 15 hours
It's been nearly 13 years since the release of the original Gears of War and it's fair to say the series has changed a lot - it's not quite the same meat-headed testosterone-fest that it used to be.
We don't mean that in a bad way. When the original Gears of War came out in 2006, we weren't looking for much more from our shooters beyond mindless fun: point gun, shoot gun, dead enemy. The B-movie-meets-80s-action-flick vibes were something we had loved and, in some cases, still do.
But The Coalition has tried to do something with Gears that few game franchises have managed to achieve: modernize gameplay without losing the key elements that made the series so beloved in the first place. It doesn't always hit the nail on the head, but Gears 5 is certainly the best the series has been in a while.
Gears 5 naturally picks up where Gears of War 4 ended. Forgotten where that is? Don't worry, there's a quick video recap at the start to remind you.
Players step into the shoes of Kait Diaz for the first time who, following the events of Gears of War 4, is trying to come to terms with the death of her mother, unravel the twisted roots of her family tree and deal with her own personal baggage. Meanwhile, humanity is being threatened once more - this time by the Swarm, the successor to the Locust horde.
We want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but essentially this is where Gears 5 begins: Kait is looking for answers and tensions among the Gears are high.
This is also a strong jumping-off point that immediately tells us that Gears 5 is going to delve into narrative and story elements more than any of its predecessors. While we've watched Marcus, JD, Cole and co. grow and change over the years, it's clear that Gears 5 aims to flesh out these characters even more - an admirable goal, though it doesn't necessarily click.
We feel an affinity to Marcus Fenix and the Gears - they are flawed heroes that we've watched become less meat-headed with each addition to the series. The Coalition tries to dig further into this 'human' element in Gears 5: the politics behind Gears, the controversial decisions some members have made and their impact on the world around them. But it just feels like the developers haven't gone far enough - like the game has dipped its toes into the pool but has no intention of swimming into more complex waters.
It's also difficult to warm to Kait as the new protagonist, mainly because we haven't grown with her over the years. Change isn't always a bad thing and a fresh new look is definitely needed, but it's hard to pin down what makes Kait so difficult to connect with: she just doesn't feel relatable.
That said, strong narrative isn't Gears' selling point. The series has never tried to be something that it isn't and knows where its strengths lie: strong combat mechanics and multiplayer (which we'll come to). While it may not stick the landing when it comes to immersing players in the story, we appreciate the direction its taking in identifying that this is something we want more of - more connection to these characters - and its not to say that the narrative is poor. It just doesn't quite go far enough.
And yet, Gears 5's lore elements are the best they've ever been. There's now more lore collectibles to pick up than ever, including coins, posters and books, plus plenty of nooks and crannies to dig into, from settlements to hidden research facilities to snow-clad mountains. The environment truly builds the world rather than the story and dialogue.
The problem with change
With Gears 5, The Coalition has got quite experimental - and it's something that was needed. The developer took over the Gears franchise from Epic Games starting with Gears of War 4 and, due to the scrutiny of having been passed the reins of the beloved franchise, there wasn't much the team wanted to change in terms of core gameplay.
After Gears of War 4 was well received, and with fans seemingly offering their blessing on the change of hands, The Coalition has stretched farther to try out some new open world and choice-based elements.
With Gears 5 being marketed as the "biggest Gears to date" it's unsurprising that there's more chances for exploration than ever. You've now got the wonderful (but frustrating to control) skiff vehicle which allows you to explore the biggest maps we've seen to date. It's a palate cleanser that gives players a little breathing room between big missions, giving them a little time to soak up the beautiful world The Coaliton has created and generally just slowing the pace when you need it.
However, once again, it just doesn't feel like enough. The open world elements are just that: elements. You are teased with the prospect you can investigate anywhere and explore at your leisure, but then you'll often hit very clear walls that harshly remind you that this is not the case. There are only certain areas where this happens and it almost feels pointless.
Thankfully, The Coalition has given players more space to approach objectives in different ways, which is a welcome addition. It allows you to have more autonomy over how you choose to play. Will you stealthily approach a situation or go in guns-blazing in classic Gears style?
It seems like a minor change, but it makes for a much more dynamic combat experience that lets you feel like you're doing more than running and gunning through linear gameplay routes. Though, that's the aspect that Gears truly excels at...
Combat is king
While Gears 5 may not shine when it comes to narrative or experimental elements, there is no denying it truly remains one of the slickest shooters on the market.
Despite sticking to its cover-shooter roots, Gears has gone from strength to strength with each addition to the series, and Gears 5 is the most refined. The game flow of shooting, reloading, swapping cover and switching out weapons all feels smoother than ever - much of the clunkiness that we've seen before is gone. It's more satisfying than ever to mow down horde waves, seamlessly dodging and sawing through those brave enough to get in the way of your Lancer.
The classic 80s-style, over-the-top action movie cheese is still firmly there - and if we're honest, its a sight for sore eyes. Each firefight is a blood-pumping extravaganza that reminds us how good Gears feels to play when you simply want to shut off your brain and power through masses of enemies.
In another experimental addition, we also have the ability to upgrade our new robot companion, Jack. Throughout the world you can pick up components that are used to upgrade Jack's abilities such as his health, zapper, core and stealth, giving you more strategies and choice when its comes to combat scenarios than ever before.
Let's talk multiplayer
Gears games have always excelled when it comes to multiplayer, especially in its unique co-op modes, which are built to be social games where you and your friends can take a whack at time and time again. Gears 5 is no different - and if anything, its multiplayer modes are magnitudes better than those the series has offered to date.
We knew before release that The Coalition was promising the biggest Gears game yet, with more co-op and PVP options than you can shake a stick at - and it wasn't lying.
Gears 5's multiplayer modes fall under three camps: Horde, Escape or Versus mode. Horde mode sees you battling alongside other players to fend off 50 increasingly difficult waves of AI-controlled horde enemies. During the course of the game, you collect power to build defences and get better weapons. It's a time-consuming gauntlet and a lot of fun, just like it's always been.
Next up is the new Escape mode, a labyrinth of gun-blazing chaos that sees you working in a team of three players (online or local co-op) to battle through an enemy hive map as quickly as you possibly can, striking down anything that gets in your way and avoiding the poisonous gas that is creeping behind you.
Escape mode allows for a quick burst of multiplayer action, especially for those who don't have the time for horde mode. However, it risks becoming tedious due to a lack of maps and characters.
Finally, we have versus mode which in itself has plenty of options that include a mix of classic and new arcade modes such as Tour of Duty, Bootcamp, Escalation, King of the Hill, Arms Race, Dodgeball, Execution, Guardian, Team Deathmatch and Warzone. And that's just the ones we know about so far: The Coalition has already said there's plenty most to come post-launch.
These quick matches are great for those who enjoy classic Gears (or most FPS) multiplayer modes with a bit of extra bite and slicker mechanics. While there may not be many maps currently, as we mentioned before, the matches don't necessarily feel restricted by this.
While loading times are currently a bit slow, all of Gears 5's multiplayer modes are truly its crowning glory.
Gears 5 is the best we've seen the series to date and cements Gears of War's place as arguably the greatest shooter on the market. It's hard to find a title with sleeker shooting mechanics, more multiplayer modes, adrenaline-pumping firefights and a campaign that has you enthralled from start to finish.
However, when it comes to creating a clenching narrative or a world we can sink our teeth into - it's a bit of a tease. We wish The Coalition had gone even one step further in delivering a compelling and rich story that they hint at but don't deliver. At the same time, those who know what to expect from a Gears game are likely to be more than happy with the latest offering.
- Best Xbox One games 2019: essential Xbox One releases
Vic is TechRadar Gaming's Associate Editor. An award-winning games journalist, Vic brings experience from IGN, Eurogamer and more to the TechRadar table. You may have even heard her on the radio or speaking on a panel. Not only is Vic passionate about games, but she's also an avid mental health advocate who has appeared on both panels and podcasts to discuss mental health awareness. Make sure to follow her on Twitter for more.