Gears 5's campaign has been a bit of a mystery since its announcement in 2018. There were hints of changes to the Gears formula, but we never got a good, solid idea of exactly what those might be. Developer The Coalition has kept the campaign close to its chest almost right up to Gears 5's launch, but now that I've spent about five hours with it, I'm glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. I never expected I'd explore open environments, complete side missions, upgrade special abilities, and stealth-kill my way through entire encounters in a Gears game. These aren't unfamiliar activities in video games, but for the Gears of War series, it is brand-new territory. These changes may sound like an attempt to reinvent the decade-old series, but Gears 5 is more of an evolution.
My time with Gears 5 was split between Act II and Act III, covering two vastly different open areas: a snow-blanketed mountain valley and a scarlet desert. It all started in typical Gears fashion: main characters Kait and Del fighting their way through a linear, cinematic mission, set in a village under attack by the Swarm. This all felt good and familiar, something series fans will feel right at home with. However, shortly after the final Swarm soldier hit the ground, I was introduced to the game's first open world and the vehicle I'd use to roam it, the wind-driven Skiff.
Despite this new direction for the series, The Coalition was hesitant to call Gears 5 an open-world game. The open areas are big--director Rod Fergusson told me that in some cases, they were 50 times larger than the average Gears level. However, The Coalition isn't trying to fit Gears into a Grand Theft Auto-style mould; it's creating environments that fit the Gears mould and serve as open spaces that connect each mission and side area.
During my time with the game, an objective marker was always present to point me towards the next story mission; however, I was told that the story would branch at certain points and things wouldn't necessarily have to be completed in order. You also don't have to head straight for the next story mission, as there are quite a few points of interest to discover in the world. I found the area for my first side mission, an abandoned train tunnel, thanks to my in-game partner Del pointing it out as we drove past it. Gears 5 doesn't really draw attention to the fact that it's set in an open environment, and so it took me a moment to realize I wasn't locked into doing the main mission. What tipped me off to my freedom was one of the story missions in the second act's mountains.
It tasked me with getting into a tower and scanning for a specific signal. I scanned several before finding the one we were looking for; however, each of the signals I decoded were locations for new points of interest. Yes, it was that kind of tower--thankfully, you don't have to climb it a la Assassin's Creed. I didn't get to spend enough time with the game to see exactly how reliant the open environments are on these towers (I only ever found the aforementioned one during that story mission), but I was able to discover a couple side missions on my own while exploring the world. I hope the full game doesn't lean too hard on towers because having Del point out specific things in the environment as you drive near them was a much more enjoyable way of discovering the world.
However, during my time with Gears 5, there wasn't much going on in the environments outside of visiting new areas. I didn't experience any random encounters with patrolling enemies or characters of any kind. The only things I found in the environments were the occasional abandoned building, hiding a special Relic weapon. However, the two areas I saw were fun to roam, thanks to the Skiff. The Skiff is basically a sled with a big sail attached to it. You won't have to pay attention to the wind's direction or speed to get around, as it controls similarly to how a car would in any other game: Right Trigger to accelerate, Left Trigger to stop, and the left analog stick to steer. Despite the similarities in control, it does feel distinct from a gas-powered vehicle.
Fergusson told me the team hit some difficulties trying to nail the feeling of controlling a sail-equipped sled, with some on the team even asking if they could switch to the more obvious choice for Gears: a big ol' truck. The team persevered, and it definitely seems like it was the right choice. It felt great taking sharp turns, skidding, and getting air. I probably could have snuck in a couple more side missions if I had spent less time aimlessly driving around, trying to get the Skiff to tip over. It's hard to say whether the appeal of driving it from place to place will carry throughout the entire game, as the only thing to do between destinations was listen to Kait and Del's conversations. The two of them have great chemistry and were a joy to listen to, but if there isn't anything to surprise you in these open environments, the journey from place to place could become a chore.
Thankfully, this is still Gears of War, so every mission--regardless of whether it's a part of the main story or a side mission--showcases the classic Gears style of weighty, cover-based shooting. In past games, you would enter a room and every enemy would be aware of you. In Gears 5, the player almost always initiates combat. This means you can survey an area, see what you have to work with, and engage when you're ready. And yes, this also means you can take out enemies undetected--there's no stealth mode or crouching, but if you're careful you can get away without being spotted. Gears 5 gives players quite a bit of choice for how they want to approach situations. In one section, I took out every enemy with carefully planned stealth kills--it seems like you can even get away with some cautious sniper rifle kills and grenade tosses if no one is left alive to notice them. In another, I set up a trap and got an enemy to chase me through it, electrocuting them and allowing me to finish them off with little worry. And lastly, in my personal favourite moment, I shot the ice out from under a bunch of Swarm soldiers' feet, plunging them into the deadly, ice-cold water below.
While you have more options than previous games, combat in Gears 5 never felt like The Coalition was turning the series into Deus Ex or Dishonored. These combat arenas could have felt at home in any previous game in the series, and despite the removal of "War" from its title, you won't be able to play through Gears 5 non-lethally. Every encounter still feels like the combat puzzles that Gears is loved for; you just have more options at your disposal. While the environment definitely plays a part, most of these options come in the form of the series' good ol' drone buddy Jack, who gets reintroduced after being absent in the last game.
This time, Jack is a character that is directly involved with combat and can even be controlled by a third player in co-op. He has three types of abilities: Assault, Support, and Passive. Assault options include blinding your enemies out of cover, setting up shock traps to prevent flanking, and temporarily hijacking an enemy to have them fight on your side. Support options, on the other hand, allow you to temporarily boost your health, scan the area for enemies, and cloak yourself to sneak around unnoticed. Jack can also be used to fetch ammo and guns, as well as revive downed teammates. These Passive abilities can be upgraded to be more effective.
I got a chance to play Jack in Gears 5's Horde mode, and while they're an interesting support hero in a wave-based survival setting, I can't see it being compelling enough for experienced players to play through the campaign as him--though he may serve as a great starting point for less experienced players. Thankfully, whether you're playing as Kait or Del, Jack is incredibly useful and exciting as a support character. He added a depth to the combat that made me feel much less confined to the safety of my cover. As someone who hasn't always been comfortable flanking enemies in fear of getting rushed myself, the Stim ability empowered me to play more aggressively. And being able to cloak myself and complete small-scale encounters undetected was a strange and satisfying contrast to Gears' traditional in-your-face action. Gears 5 is still very much Gears, however, and in most situations, I wasn't able to get very far with stealth before a Swarm soldier spotted me and the real battle started.
Upgrading Jack requires components, which are often found by completing side missions. This usually means increasing the duration of certain effects, but every now and then, I came across an Ultimate Upgrade that added a new dynamic to one of his abilities. Support abilities were given new Assault-based utility in the form of increased damage to scanned enemies or three times the melee damage while the Stim ability is active. You're also able to respec Jack at any time for no cost, so you can refocus his abilities to better fit your newfound upgrades. This alleviated my skill-tree allocation anxiety and made me feel good about going in whatever direction I felt was right at the time. I was able to experiment with several different ability configurations over the course of my five hours. It feels strange to talk about the experimentation of different abilities and approaches to combat in a Gears game, but I'm very glad to be doing so. I hope there's more for me to find and be surprised by in the full game.
Gears 5 is doing things that make me excited to play the final game. The freedom to choose how I approach encounters and Jack's multiple abilities feel like refreshing additions to Gears' third-person action. I hope there are a lot more opportunities for combat experimentation that I haven't discovered yet, as finding out I could shoot out a frozen pond's icy surface was awesome. Of course, my reservations about the open world remain, but the cordoned-off areas will remain tense and exciting as long as they keep up the great level and combat design I saw in my preview. The changes and additions excite me as a Gears fan, and I'm hoping that roaming the landscape and discovering new locations remains engaging past those five hours.
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