The first time we met Kait Diaz, the protagonist of PC/Xbox blockbuster Gears 5, a butterfly larva, encased in a chrysalis, was dangling from her fingertips. This was back at the beginning of 2016’s Gears of War 4, when Kait was still a supporting player.
“You know how this little guy starts out?” she asked JD Fenix, the son of series star Marcus Fenix and, by birthright, Gears of War 4’s leading man.
“Trying to stay alive?” he ventures.
“True,” she responds. “But if it survives, and most don’t, it finds a way to change—the little larva becomes a chrysalis. Inside it destroys and rebuilds itself, changing its color, its shape. It gets wings. Claws. It slashes its way out of its cage. And then … and then it’s new and beautiful.”
Gears of War never struggled to survive. The first game in the gory third-person-shooter franchise displaced Halo 2 from its top spot on the Xbox Live playlist when it debuted in 2006, sold more than 5 million copies on Xbox 360, and moved a few million more when it was remastered and rereleased on Xbox One in 2015. Its initial success guaranteed a slew of sequels: Less than three weeks after its release, Mark Rein, the vice president of original Gears developer Epic Games, responded to a rumor about a Gears trilogy by boasting, “Why would we have to stop at three?”
Rein was right to be confident. Gears 5 is actually the sixth game in the series, counting 2013 prequel Gears of War: Judgement (and excluding Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and mobile spinoff Gears Pop!). A full-fledged spinoff called Gears Tactics is in development, Gears 6 is almost a certainty, and the IP is still spreading via comic books, novels, and (maybe) a movie. Creatively, though, the series has slumped since 2011’s Gears of War 3, breaking less ground than a Locust beneath Jacinto City. But for the first time in this console generation, Gears is poised to do more than merely survive. Gears 5, which comes out this Friday, doesn’t reinvent video games, but it does reinvigorate a video game series that had started to stagnate. Like a larva, the franchise is finding ways to change, even if its metamorphosis follows a predictable blueprint that’s become a common solution for series that are stuck in a rut.
Although Gears of War 4 featured a 25-year time jump, a new protagonist, and a new enemy, it was mostly new in name only. The game still centered on an existential battle between humanity and a race of reptilian/insectile invaders, set on Sera, a devastated and depopulated planet. The new main character had the same surname, and the new enemy, the Swarm, looked a lot like the Locust horde that plagued humanity in the first trilogy—and, as soon became clear, was as closely related to the Locust as JD was to Marcus (who also returned in a nonplayable role). Aside from a graphical facelift and a few tweaks—new weapons, new multiplayer modes and maps, and a snappier script from lead writer Tom Bissell (who returns for Gears 5)—the game played almost identically.
Gears of War 4 didn’t dishonor its ancestors, but it didn’t push the franchise forward the way, say, God of War did when it went from PS3 to PS4. Its Metacritic rating, a respectable 84, was subpar for a series whose previous mainline entries had all topped 90. That dip reflected the fatigue that Gears lifers felt when confronted with a recipe that seemed much the same as it had a decade earlier. Like a lot of sequels, Gears of War 4 was different in degree but similar in structure to the title that fans first imprinted on and paid for.
In a now-inaccessible forum post referenced on Gears of War’s Wikipedia page, Rein reputedly wrote of the then-rumored follow-ups to the 2006 game, “It’s not over until it is not fun anymore.” Gears of War 4 was fun, for the most part. Many games before the first Gears incorporated cover systems, but none perfected the camera and controls that imparted the visceral thrill of roadie running toward trouble and slamming into safety behind a barrier as bullets sprayed inches above. Every shooter rewarded headshots, but few featured skulls that exploded so wetly, providing players with a sick sense of satisfaction. Countless action games have starred big, beefy, military men laying waste to massive adversaries, but Gears’ armored bros were bigger, beefier, and deadlier. All of those things were still true in 2016, but none of them felt fresh.
Some rehashing of old ideas was expected, because Gears of War 4 was the first Gears game developed by the Coalition (formerly named Black Tusk Studios), an Xbox Game Studios subsidiary that took over development of the series after Microsoft purchased the franchise from Epic in 2014, much as Microsoft’s 343 Industries had inherited Halo from Bungie. The Coalition took its new name from Gears’ Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) and its new studio head, Rod Fergusson, from Epic’s past. At Epic, Fergusson had produced the first three Gears games; Gears of War 4 was his attempt to prove that his new studio could supply the same sort of experience.
The resulting title was too faithful to the timeworn formula. But his team paid attention to that critique and set out to take risks in the latest installment. Some of the changes are subtle strategic or cosmetic tweaks: The series’ signature melee weapon, a chainsaw attached to the standard-issue Lancer assault rifle, is as grisly as ever but bound to a different button, and enemies now have visible health bars by default (although that, like most other settings, can be adjusted in the interest of accessibility and customization). Some mix up the multiplayer: Along with its obligatory (and fine-tuned) Versus and Horde modes, Gears 5 introduces a three-person, Left 4 Dead–esque “Escape” mode, in which players flee from enemy-occupied levels that they can design and share. But the single-player campaign—which supports three-player co-op, up from the two-player max in Gears of War 4—is where Gears 5 most emphatically leaves its earlier boundaries behind.
Fergusson told Kotaku, “We’re really trying to find new ways to play with the formula, and not just being a hallway shooter.” There’s only so much a designer can do to shake up a venerable franchise while preserving its appeal to its established audience. With apologies to the genre-crossing Gears Tactics, Gears fans weren’t clamoring for Marcus Kart, Fenix Wright, Mortal COGbat, or Super Swarm Bros, much as those might be billion-dollar ideas. (The Coalition can have them for free.) Shooters shoot, and players who were weaned on Gears-style action sign up for each sequel in search of a new spin on the series’ familiar mechanic.
The first of Gears 5’s four acts doesn’t stray far from the series’ set ways. At the beginning of the game, the player controls JD in a series of adrenaline-inducing, close-quarters encounters in bombed-out buildings and ruined city streets. Marcus’s meaty son proceeds from checkpoint to checkpoint along a largely preset path, crossing off objectives in a predetermined order. If Act One were a preview of the rest of the adventure, Gears 5 would deserve the same slights as its predecessor.
In its next two acts, though, Gears 5 goes big. Beginning in Act Two, the player controls Kait, and Gears 5 becomes Kait’s story. It’s a richer, more nuanced tale than Gears has told before, one that weaves in old characters and events and traces Kait’s conflict as she’s pulled among competing ties to the COG, the Swarm, and the anti-COG Outsiders she identified with at the beginning of Gears of War 4. (The “fascists are coming,” one Outsider boy says as the soldiers stroll through his town.) Although she suffers serious psychological strain, she makes time to crack jokes and mock Marcus’s macho, gravelly, video-game voice, a verbal deconstruction of the simplistic, stereotypical, and sexist storytelling that defined the early entries in series such as Gears of War, God of War, and so many more.
As Kait comes to the fore, Sera opens up, and the horizon recedes in the distance. Instead of traveling on foot or riding and shooting from vehicles that she doesn’t drive, Kait steers a skiff that skims across snow or sand, carrying Delta Squad between distant locations—some recycled from previous Gears games but dramatically altered from their original looks—that the player can visit in almost any order, or choose not to visit at all. The only loading times are disguised during animations. Although Gears 5 compels the player to slaughter certain enemies in certain places in a certain sequence to propel the plot forward, the game offers far more freedom to explore its huge hub areas and pursue optional objectives than any Gears game has before. It also includes multiple endings (both somewhat sudden), a sign of its newfound deferral to player choice.
Injecting open-world elements into a largely linear franchise is a tried-and-true method for mixing things up in a nonthreatening way. Franchises as disparate as Tomb Raider, Ghost Recon, God of War (an explicit influence on Gears 5), Dragon Age, Fire Emblem, and Need for Speed have employed that proven tactic to differing degrees. Opting to pivot in the same manner as several other series doesn’t qualify Gears 5 as original, but Gears has always worn its influences on its sleeve; Epic didn’t really revolutionize shooters so much as it synthesized aspects of other series into a more polished, well-paced, distinctive-looking product. It doesn’t diminish the player’s enjoyment that Gears is taking its cues from games that got here first, because those other games aren’t Gears, and they don’t deliver its singular, violent delights.
Open-world games fall prey to tropes of their own, and Gears 5’s middle acts are prone to repetition, particularly for players who go about their business without taking detours into nonessential assignments. Somehow, the Swarm always materialize inside secret, sealed facilities, even if Delta Squad has cleared them out before, and some missions border on glorified fetch quests. In one self-aware moment during the umpteenth time the player is forced to fight off waves of attackers while waiting for a sealed door to open, a new COG character, Fahz, says, “Surprising no one, we’ve got more Swarm coming in.”
But Gears 5 finds a workable balance between its former, strictly linear layout and the often overwhelming, sidequest-and-collectible-crammed open worlds of games like Assassin’s Creed. On the plus side, you won’t be climbing towers to fill in blank regions of the map or compulsively collecting objects that don’t do anything other than infinitesimally pump up your completion percentage. The downside is that Sera’s unsettled and uncluttered landscape doesn’t provide Horizon Zero Dawn’s geographical variety, Breath of the Wild’s wondrous discoveries, or Grand Theft Auto’s spontaneous distractions; Gears 5 won’t make you feel as if your experience is unique. But Gears gets by without that depth and detail. Each franchise’s first dalliance with a less restrictive format feels special, and that looser leash is only part of Gears 5’s appeal. The game’s leisurely open-world elements also set up a synergistic contrast with its claustrophobic, white-knuckle combat.
That combat has never been more engaging, thanks in part to another new addition: Delta’s robot companion, Jack. What Jack lacks in personality, he makes up for in supplementary skills. He can stun, freeze, and possess enemies, enhance Delta Squad’s strength, conjure a shield that repels fire from the Swarm, disabled generators, and identify and retrieve objects of interest in the environment, among other abilities. All of Jack’s attributes can be upgraded via yellow, glowing components stashed throughout each map, giving the player more motivation to sightsee and unlock the upper reaches of the RPG-style skill tree. Fergusson worked on BioShock Infinite during a post-Epic stint at Irrational Games, and Gears 5 owes a debt to BioShock’s player-empowering blend of gunplay and plasmid powers, as well as Horizon’s variety in enemy design. Ammunition is just scarce enough to force players to try out whatever weapons are lying around, and although the difficulty level during boss fights can be capricious at times, it’s rarely unfair or frustrating.
Thanks to that extra content, the only thing shorter about Gears 5 than past Gears games is its title. Previous Gears games lasted 10 hours or less, on average, but a typical, non-deadline-driven playthrough of Gears 5 might take close to twice as long. As Kait’s comrade Del says, “Nothing wrong with the scenic route. At least when you’re finding good stuff along the way.”
Gears goes back far enough that the industry has reshaped itself multiple times since it was conceived in the early 2000s. Originally, the series was supposed to be a “class-based, Battlefield kind of game” that would be branded Unreal Warfare, according to Unreal Engine lead programmer James Golding. By the time Epic focused on the project, Golding explained, “It’d been a couple of years and the industry had completely changed. We saw the rise of more single-player and campaign-based games, so we took Unreal Warfare back to the drawing board.”
Almost 20 years later, the industry has swung back toward online, multiplayer-centric, games-as-a-service experiences that keep paying off indefinitely, so much so that Epic divested itself of Gears—citing the unsupportable expense of single-player campaigns that people play once—in favor of free-to-play phenomenon Fortnite. In light of Fortnite’s success, it’s hard to find fault with Epic’s choice, but Gears 5 should make players pleased that someone is still making campaigns to pair with player-vs.-player fragfests. It’s also a feather in Microsoft’s cap, which has lately looked a bit bare compared with its competitors’. Microsoft remains committed to keeping its first-party games exclusive to its platforms, but Nintendo and Sony have produced much more system-selling software during the current console generation. Gears 5 doesn’t come close to evening that score, and it may not entice anyone who hasn’t been tempted by Gears games before. But any Gears diehards who bought an Xbox partly to keep up with their favorite franchise should have less reason to regret that decision.
As Gears 5’s end draws near, Del declares, “We need a new plan.”
“No,” Kait answers. “We need the old plan.” In its final act, Gears 5 surprisingly returns to its roots, sandwiching the experimental middle sections between old-school slices of more mindless, developer-directed gaming goodness. It’s as if the Coalition, having held X to revive a fallen franchise, concluded: There, we did something different. Now it’s time to play the hits.
Midway through the game, sinister scientist Niles Samson says of the Swarm, “They may withdraw, they may hibernate, but my children will always return.” We could say the same of Gears, which got old but evolved and adapted to be just new enough. As Fahz says after one exciting sequence, “This has actually been a pretty ripping time, all in all. To sum it up: 8 out of 10, would do it again.” If the Coalition is confident enough to keep tinkering, we may be doing this for decades to come.