When it first released for the Xbox 360 back in 2006, Gears of War was a mark of dominance for its respective generation of consoles. It showcased everything people loved about Microsoft’s second foray into the space. Breathtaking visuals, exhilarating multiplayer and a solid solo campaign. You name it, and Marcus Fenix’s debut outing likely had it.
At the time, Epic Games had created something truly revolutionary, redefining how third-person shooters would operate for years to come. But that was 14 years ago, and gaming has moved on significantly since with the shooter template moving to embrace both explosive bombasse and narrative depth in equal measure.
Halo 5: Guardians is one exception this generation, with developer 343 Industries taking what made Master Chief so wonderful and expanding into something greater. You felt more attached to the characters and more lost in its growing world. It’s clear developers have matured alongside their works, a sentiment echoed in God of War’s themes of struggling fatherhood or The Last of Us and its harrowing perspective on morality.
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You’re probably noticing everything I just mentioned, Halo aside, comes from Sony’s slate of exclusive games. That’s because, if I’m brutally honest, Microsoft hasn’t laid a scratch on the Japanese company’s library this generation. The volume, quality and willingness to experiment simply isn’t there, and it’s made Xbox One hard to care about as a result.
With any luck, that will change with Gears 5. After a competent yet undeniably vanilla start to the new trilogy, The Coalition has rewritten the rulebook Epic Games penned all those years ago. No longer is this a linear third-person shooter punctuated by the occasional set-piece. It’s an ambitious, semi-open world affair that puts narrative at the forefront. It definitely fumbles, but in a way, I expected it to.
Gears 5 doesn’t reach the heights of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End or God of War when it comes to blending a thrilling story with a world brimming with optional activities to tackle. It very much feels like an admirable first attempt, taking a franchise renowned for its pedestrian approach to pretty much everything, and turning it on its head. To me, this was the best thing The Coalition could’ve done.
In my eyes, Gears of War 4 bordered on cowardice when it brought back the likes of Marcus Fenix, Baird and The Cole Train; featuring them as secondary characters while their offspring took the spotlight. These new personalities, such as J.D and Kait, were excellent but are intrinsically linked to what came before. Gears 5 owns this element of the story, twisting the legacy into a yarn filled with unexpected surprises.
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The game’s opening act is Gears-by-the-numbers, drawing you into a false sense of security before blowing the doors off with a startling plot revelation and protagonist swap. Once the next chapter begins, you’re placed into the shoes of Kait, provided a vehicle and unleashed into a sprawling world to explore. Beyond an objective marker many miles away, the world is your oyster. Just be aware it’s filled with locusts, evil robots and other horrible things.
While exploring, I dynamically came across new locations while Kait and Del’s charming banter unveiling objectives and providing more substance to a world that once felt like a generic backdrop to constant ultra-violence. The Coalition clearly cares about the lore behind Gears 5, with plot threads revolving around politics, familial relationships and the true nature of COG – a military institution once thought to be the epitome of good. Turns out they’re a bit tyrannical, controlling the world, its media and how citizens perceive them.
Two acts are dedicated entirely to exploring a massive space with my squad-mates, fulfilling objectives and embarking on quests, which felt like a brave evolution for Gears 5. That being said, it doesn’t leave the spectacular set-pieces and macho melodrama that helped define it behind. Those moments are present and accounted for, but spaced in a way that compliments the characters and their own personal stories. This is one of the best in the series, and I can’t wait for this trilogy to close out on a high note.
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In a generation filled with only a few standout exclusives (I’m looking at you Sunset Overdrive) and rampant cancellations, Gears 5 is not only a beautiful swansong for Xbox One, but also a thrilling glimpse at what Project Scarlett could be holding back. Halo Infinite looks phenomal, and Microsoft’s acquisition of countless studios means that, in terms of first-party bangers, the next generation could be Microsoft’s for the taking.
I’m a sucker for epic JRPGs and action blockbusters, two types of experiences the PS5 will no doubt offer in equal measure, so Microsoft isn’t out of the woods just yet. But, if Gears 5 is any indication, the company is maturing and genuinely stands a fighting chance at competing with Sony’s legendary output. Gears 5 isn’t the best blend of narrative and open-world action out there, yet it remains a brave step for the franchise regardless, and that’s more than enough for me.
Gears 5 is coming to Xbox One and Windows 10 on September 10. You can check out our full review here.