For thirteen years now, the formula for Gears of War games hasn't changed one bit. You take cover, you shoot the enemies as they pop out of cover to try and shoot you, and sometimes enemies will explode if you can riddle them with enough bullets or put a chainsaw through their torso. I guess Epic Games, and later The Coalition, subscribed to the 'if it's not broken, don't fix it' theory when approaching Gears of Wars' various sequels.
It made sense in the mid 2000s-chainsaws attached to machine guns in the same era as Linkin Park-but what's Gears of War doing now that it didn't do in 2006? In regards to gameplay, there's not a lot that Gears 5 tries to do differently. It still feels incredibly satisfying to duck into cover, grab a Gnasher shotgun or Boomer grenade launcher, and watch any one of the hordes of enemies bearing down on you explode into giblets. Ultimately, there's a reason the Gears franchise hasn't been forced to change over the past decade-because it still feels excellent to play.
Nonetheless, I think Gears 5 is the first game in the series that feels the need to justify its existence. After the original trilogy was tied up in a bow with the defeat of the Locust Queen, Microsoft resurrected the franchise with a (mostly) brand new cast of characters for Gears of War 4. But the 2016 revival didn't do anything interesting with its story after it established the new cast, merely acting as a stepping stone for what would come next after its major reveal about Kait.
In 2019, Gears 5 has you playing as Kait, quite possibly the most charismatic lead a Gears of War game has ever had. She's on a bit of a journey of self-discovery in this sequel, with Del and J.D. tagging along, recruiting older characters like Baird, Cole, Marcus, and newcomer Fahz for the story. Kait is certainly more endearing to play as than the bland J.D. Fenix, and the time spent with her and Del is some of the best character development a Gears of War game has perhaps ever done.
If you view Gears of War 4's story as the setup in establishing the characters and a new world, Gears 5 is the payoff. This is a game that looks back on a thirteen-year history, not through rose-tinted glasses, but with commentary on how past elements of the series were deeply problematic. Have you ever thought about the role that the Gears super-soldiers play in the world they inhabit? Neither has the franchise itself, up until now. Gears 5 presents a world in which, without giving away plot details of the game, the Gears soldiers are definitely not the badass heroes the series has held them up to be in the past, and are instead macho men that can be very easily exploited to work against the human population they so desperately protect.
The 'Hammer of Dawn' for example, the super-weapon that beams a pillar of destructive energy from the sky, is viewed more as an outright weapon of mass destruction rather than "cool, it makes big enemies go boom!" Pertaining to the Hammer of Dawn-and I can't quite believe I'm writing this-Gears 5 might actually have more to say about WMDs than Call of Duty has had for the past decade. Somewhat remarkably, it's the standard cover-shooter campaign that isn't afraid to tackle some dark areas of the series' history.
It's incredibly satisfying that Gears 5 isn't afraid to take the series in a very different storytelling direction. It's also a game that, for the very first time, features some open-world hub elements. Think of the hub areas as less God of War (as was certainly rumored before launch), and more little bits of land, tied exclusively to certain chapters of the story, that offer up a more subtle storytelling approach. There are areas of intrigue scattered all around the hub zones, like an abandoned mine for example, that pull in Kait and co. for a little bit of worldbuilding and context for the planet that they're struggling hard to save.
With these optional side areas, and certain elements of the story, Gears 5 partially returns the series to its horror roots. Playing the original game back in the late 2000s (when I was much too young for it), the standout moments for me were always the more horrific and tinged with terror, like the abandoned factory caked in blood that was overrun by the screaming Wretches, tearing survivors limb from limb. Gear 5 comes tantalizingly close to recapturing these horror elements with the new 'Flock,' a horde of parasitic creatures that descend from the sky in a group to tear soldiers limb from limb. In one chilling sequence, they even hack a robotic soldier to massacre an entire theatre full of hiding civilians.
It's just a shame that these moments are juxtaposed so harshly with the more cartoonish elements of Gears 5. The aforementioned theatre massacre, for example, is succeeded by Cole riding a motorbike off a ramp and into the mouth of a huge monster, so that "its mouth is filled with boom!", in a Tom Cruise Mission Impossible-style moment. Gears 5 doesn't walk a fine line by any means between elements. The horrors of war, passing judgment on past actions of the series like the Hammer of Dawn, and the Hollywood blockbuster moments of explosion and pure adrenaline-inducing action are all a bit mangled together.
Just over a decade removed from its inception in Gears of War 2, Horde mode is still up to its old tricks in Gears 5, with 50 waves of increasingly difficult enemies for up to five players to face off against. Gears 5 actually provides the biggest addition to Horde mode that the series has ever seen, giving unique abilities and skills to every playable character, such as the ability to see through walls or power-up teammates on the fly. The result is a Horde mode that feels like it's beginning to lean into being a hero shooter.
But character skills aside, the main body of Horde mode hasn't changed much in a decade because it still feels satisfying to play. The character skills are subtly baked into the base gameplay, resulting in a Horde mode that's fun to play for a couple runs, but doesn't have any longevity outside of DLC characters being added further down the line. There's simply not enough dynamic variation in the moment to moment gameplay to have me coming back for more Horde.
Escape mode is the big new addition for Gears 5. Just as its reveal back at E3 2019 was a garbled mess of noise and action, so too is the mode itself. Three players are stuck deep within a mysterious facility, and tasked with escaping to extraction in the quickest time possible, all while a poisonous gas of sorts is pursuing you. You'll have to battle all sorts of enemies as you sprint toward extraction, scavenging for weapons and precious ammunition along the way.
Gears of War has never been a 'run and gun' sort of game, as the very nature of cover shooting itself can attest to, and Escape mode's poisonous death gas pursuing you at all times results only in pushing you into fights that you are your team are woefully underprepared for. There's mere seconds to scavenge ammunition, and you'll expend it in the blink of an eye, resulting in your entire team attempting to stab foes to death while outrunning the green mist of doom. Escape mode tries to push the Gears gameplay formula into a new rapid tempo, with very mixed results.
As the sixth game in 13 years, Gears 5 shows how relatively little the franchise has changed in over a decade. Subtle changes to multiplayer and the related game modes spice things up a little bit, and Gears 5's campaign resembles some of the best horror traits of the original game, but The Coalition's latest is mostly business as usual for the Gears franchise.
Gears 5 survives on its solid cover shooting gameplay and a campaign that isn't afraid to pose difficult questions about problematic topics. But the largely stagnant Horde mode and general mess of an Escape mode really pull the sequel back from being a bold step forward.