Gears of War has, in recent years, started to look a bit... tired. Gears of War: Judgment delivered faster gameplay mechanics and new challenges, but it felt like an uninspired detour nonetheless. Gears of War 4 was an incredibly solid foundation for the multiplayer of the series and looked phenomenal from a purely technical perspective too, but it lacked the charm of past games with its "edgy" new protagonists and their almost Uncharted-like attitude, as well as an uninspired campaign. However, Gears 5 (why did they decide to remove the "of War" from the title?) is a completely different beast, and The Coalition has been working hard to get the brand back on track with some ambitious new ideas.
Some might see Gears of War as that series where macho men with chainsaws smashed their way through grey, war-torn ruins, but the series has always been more than its simplistic facade seems to suggest. Alongside its violent premise, Gears has always been brilliant mechanically, delivering some truly memorable moments, and along the way we've been treated to some beautiful scenery. These positives are highlighted once more and further polished here, yet at the same time the developer has done what was so badly needed; it is trying something new.
Gears 5 picks up shortly after its predecessor ends. Mankind needs a solution to the Swarm, the new threat that is rapidly growing in the shadows. We also have Kait, our protagonist whose past and mysterious connection to this threat is still unclear. Everything is set for an adrenaline-pumping adventure and quick bursts of drama, and that's exactly what the series needs to be quite honest.
The campaign begins in a traditionally linear fashion as The Coalition proudly displays its detailed environments, which on the Xbox One X (which we played on) runs in glorious 4K and at 60 frames-per-second. We still follow a group of chunky soldiers, but we soon noticed that the hovering robot that has always been in the background of previous games now has a bigger role to play. We can ask it to fly away and pick up weapons during battle, and it can interact with items that help us advance in other ways. During the course of the game, we will also have access to abilities and upgrades that temporarily make us invisible or release electric traps. The robot, Jack, is even playable in the campaign's co-op mode where all of these features can be utilised by up to three players.
However, one of the biggest changes is how the studio has chosen to break up the linear level design. For example, there are large areas to traverse using a sail-powered hovercraft, a ride which allows us to gracefully slide around as we explore. It's not a case of Grand Theft Gears or anything like that, rather it's more reminiscent of the setup in Metro Exodus. Not to reveal too much, but as an example, we have the snowy landscape we've seen in the trailers. It has several different locations where we can look for upgrades for Jack, bits of story to unravel, and weapons to find, before it takes us to a new story mission more reminiscent of the old-style Gears of War. It helps the world feel more grounded and connected in a way we haven't seen before.
Another change - which is also an improvement - is that we have more choice and a better sense of control during battle. Take a battle with the Swarm during a snowstorm as an example. Around us, pillars of ice begin to plunge into the ground. These become shelters that we can hide behind, but also shoot so they roll over, changing the dynamic of the cover. This, together with all of Jack's abilities (that you level up via its own skill tree), more interactive locations, and a bunch of interesting challenges and environmental dangers, makes this the most engaging game in the series since Gears of War 2. It's hard to describe just how much more fun it is compared to Gears of War 4, which occasionally decided to throw Horde elements into the campaign to artificially increase the challenge. Gears 5 is a long game, but it feels well-paced.