If you listened to Episode 6.9 of the Online Warriors Podcast, you’ve already heard some of my thoughts on Gears 5. However, I really enjoyed the game and felt it warranted a “5 Thoughts” article here on the blog. So here goes. *Please note, I don’t really play Gears multiplayer, so this will be focused on the campaign.
1) Gears 5 has one of the most engaging stories in the franchise thus far.
I’m a huge fan of story driven games. I love connecting to the characters in a game, exploring lore-rich worlds, and following cinematic story beats. I think that’s why I typically gravitate to and enjoy games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Spider-Man. That said, while Gears has always had a compelling story, the games themselves are typically focused on the gunplay while the story is largely developed in outside novelizations.
Gears 5 took a different approach. The bulk of Act II, for example, is (no spoilers) focused on searching for answers. You go from location to location fighting the Swarm, but you’re really trying to find out why Kait is having her headaches and where the Swarm came from to begin with. And, for the most part, you actually get the answers that you seek – not only to the new questions posed in this second trilogy, but also to some questions never answered by the original three Gears games. Sure, some of the story is fleshed out via collectibles that are easily missed, but the majority of the answers are written right into the main dialogue and quest lines.
It was a refreshing approach for a franchise that has habitually been about clearing enemies, and it definitely benefited by way of player engagement. I was much more interested in these new characters than I had been in Gears of War 4 and I was compelled to keep playing as I unlocked some of the original mysteries left over from the first trilogy.
2) The “limited” open-world areas were just enough.
I will be the first to raise my hand if anyone asks about Open-World Fatigue. I have it, and I have it hard. As I’m getting older (and more tired), I find that I generally don’t have the attention span or time to keep up with sprawling, open-world games. I tend to prefer tighter linear experiences, or at least shorter open-world games. That’s why I was somewhat shocked to find out that Gears 5 was making the franchise’s first foray into the realm of open-worlds.
I was initially worried that this would make the cinematic experience feel too bloated. How can you have a sense of urgency, as Gears campaigns typically have, when you have the option to pursue offshoot adventures? Well, my fears were quickly dashed once I actually got to the open-world sections of the game. Honestly, the open-world sections were extremely limited. They contained a handful of completely optional missions that, upon completion, granted non-critical rewards. The missions themselves were relatively quick – more “clear the hoarde” missions than fetch quests – and it wasn’t like I had to traipse all over a large map to find them. If I didn’t want to do them, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything major, and even though I did hunt most of them down, it didn’t feel like they took me that far off the path of the main storyline.
The limited scope of the open-world sections seemed to work perfectly with the overall Gears 5 campaign. It offered a chance to catch my breath and digest what just happened in the last cinematic mission, while still allowing me to maintain a fast-paced game if I so chose. It even opened up an opportunity for loose banter between the characters as you moved from area to area, adding another layer of characterization that I really enjoyed. I found it to be a welcome addition to the franchise’s game format.
3) I really liked the addition of Jack.
Gears 5 has always been known as a great third-person cover shooter. There are a variety of guns to use and tactics you can take, but when it boils down to it, the gunplay from game to game has been largely similar. Obviously, there have been tune ups to make play smoother over the years, but most battles can be summed up in a few steps: dash to cover, throw a grenade, shoot down enemies, and move to the next safe cover.
The addition of Jack and his various abilities really spiced up combat, especially as his abilities skilled up and fleshed out. If you told me a few years ago that I would be cloaking and stealth-ing my way through a mission in a Gears of War game, I wouldn’t have believed you. I particularly enjoyed Jack’s ability to freeze enemies once the “Flash” skill was leveled up. It worked surprisingly well, even on the most difficult of enemies, and added an extra element of strategy to every fight.
Now, points 4 and 5 are pretty spoiler-ific. If – and only if – you’re okay with spoilers, you should forge on ahead with the rest of this article.
4) The Matriarch was annoying as hell.
The Matriarch boss fight in Gears 5 is notoriously difficult. And when I say notorious, I’m not over-exaggerating; do a quick search on Reddit or your favorite Gears forums, and you’ll undoubtedly find people complaining about this battle. I myself complained about it. I was playing co-op with another person and it took us about an hour before we could fell the beast. I honestly wonder who play tested this section and gave it the all clear.
So what made it so egregious? First off, the Matriarch basically one-hit-kills any character that she comes into contact with. The thing that makes this so frustrating is that the gameplay loop to kill her takes quite a bit of time. The Matriarch is only vulnerable in one location and you can’t get a good angle on it until she’s frozen. Unless you have the Flash Freeze ability equipped to Jack (gained only through the side missions, mind you), this requires that you shoot the ice around the Matriarch as she rushes you until she falls through and temporarily freezes. This loop can take quite a while to whittle down the Matriarch’s health and, if you’re 15 minutes in, starting at the beginning after a one-hit-KO is extremely frustrating.
Not only that, but at three intervals of the Matriarch’s health depletion, the player controlling Kait will go into a fugue. The red dream-sequence basically covers the entire screen… but the Matriarch hasn’t stopped moving. You can’t see her location at all (unless you use Jack’s Pulse ability) and if you don’t have a co-op buddy, you’re basically wandering around in the dark, hoping you don’t get rushed for one of the aforementioned one-hit-KO’s. Couple that with the annoying voiceover of “Kaiiiiiiitiieeeee” and you’ll be ready to throw your controller at the wall.
Alright, so it’s a hard boss – given enough time to mull it over, you should be able to put together a strategy and Jack’s abilities to make it much more manageable. But what makes it over-the-top “THE ABSOLUTE WORST” is the unskippable cutscene before the boss fight. I don’t mind grinding out a boss, but sitting through a semi-longish cutscene when a boss fight is guaranteed to take a few tries is just irritating. I hope at some point an update is rolled out allowing for it to be skipped. I don’t need to see a robot torn in half 20 times over, ever again.
5) I was totally shocked by the ending choice… and how rushed the ending felt.
Okay, I’m not joking now. There are seriously some spoilers ahead. Right after this sentence. Beware.
I know I already talked about how Gears 5 introduced some elements of the open-world game style. However, I’d ultimately classify Gears 5 as linear… right up until the end. I was incredibly shocked that the game made you choose between saving Del and JD and actually allowed your decision to stick. When the option even came up on my screen, even though I gave the choice a fair amount of consideration, I figured that it would ultimately be overruled to allow for JD to live. After all, he’s Marcus Fenix’s son and was the main protagonist in Gears of War 4 – I figured he was untouchable. As such, I chose Del (who was my buddy throughout the entire game) and was honestly shocked when JD was terminated.
I’m a little confused to see how this will work out for the next installment in the franchise. Will the Coalition retcon our choices and force us down one path? I can’t see the next game having a branching storyline – that’s just not in the Gears DNA – but this was a huge decision that will have huge ramifications on the characters. I’m stunned and intrigued to see how the ending choice will be handled moving forward, especially given it occurred right at the end of the game and we didn’t really get to see the characters react.
That said, the ending of the game felt a bit rushed. You finish up a boss fight, but there’s still a big battle going on… and the group just kind of drives off into the sunset. I understand that they want to leave a bit of a cliffhanger, but I’m a firm believer that every entry in a franchise should feel like a complete game. Some kind of concrete conclusion would have been nice.
Overall, Gears 5 was a lot of fun and a refreshing jump back into the world of Gears of War. Have any of you played Gears 5 yet? What were your thoughts and impressions? I’d love to know – drop me a line in the comments.