The Gears of War franchise first herded its bulky, heavily armored Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) soldiers onto the Xbox 360 back in 2006. And this franchise has been blasting and hacking reptilian-humanoid foes into gory chunks ever since.
So after all of this series’ many titles and spin-offs, you might just expect more of the same with the latest game. And while that’s true in some ways, Gears 5 offers up several changes that go beyond simply taking “of War” out of its title.
Early games in the series focused on an incredibly huge-muscled guy named Marcus Fenix, who storms around with the combined mass of three fullbacks and a water boy. And while Marcus is still around for cameos some 25 story years later, the spotlight in recent games has shifted to his son, JD, and his quick-quipping squad of teammates. This time, though, the story propels JD’s ally Kait Diaz into the protagonist role.
And, frankly, that battlefield reassignment is a good call.
Gears of War 4 left gamers with a cliffhanger conclusion. After COG fighters waged long, hard battle against their mortal enemies—the deadly and never-slacking Locust—the creatures tried to assimilate Kait’s mother, who was ultimately killed. But before dying, she gave Kait a family heirloom: an amulet that features the symbol of a Locust faction.
Since then, Kait has suffered from severe headaches and nightmares. Then, in the heat of battle with a horde of the fearsome creatures, she finds herself mysteriously able to jump back and forth into the consciousness of several different alien combatants—even controlling them in some cases.
Is this an ability granted by the amulet? Is it tied to her mother? Is it something woven into her genetic DNA? Does Kait have some direct link to these invading creatures?
In the face of so many unanswered questions, Kait decides to step aside from her duties as a soldier. With a fellow trooper named Del, she strikes out to learn more about her mysterious heritage. And that opens the door to a new adventure in self-discovery, one that changes the narrative focus of Gears 5 and, in a way, the structure of a Gears campaign.
Kait is somewhat lost and searching at the outset. So gamers scour this open world for clues to help her regain her sense of emotional equilibrium. The story sends Kait and Del out to wander an icy landscape full of quests, then to a blood-red desert riddled with lightning storms and deadly attacks at every turn.
Gameplay gets a lot less linear here—and quite a bit more interesting—as the action jumps from ancient space bases to Broadway-like theaters to alien hives. And the storylines weave in more complicated threads, with questions of loyalty, past choices, distrust, and right and wrong all taking center stage at some point. It all adds up to a less familiar tack for this normally Hoo-rah warring series.
Of course, players still get sucked into plenty of bloody warfare. There are still many, many, many blazing gun battles at the meaty heart of this game. Gamers employ a myriad of mechanical and organic weapons that riddle, erupt and saw through foes savagely. A limitless army of brutal enemies of every size snipes, drags, swallows, tears apart and crushes human forces in every scene.
One particularly fearsome attacker this go ‘round is a football-sized leech that flies in swarms and latches its sharp teeth onto human and robot targets. The attacked robots then turn to the enemy side, while humans screech and writhe before being ripped to pieces.
Combat scenes feature frenetic and sometimes overwhelming firefights. Humans and beasties are killed in multiple ways. We see execution-style, bullet-to-the-temple kills, as well as explosive rounds that cause foes to burst open in squirming chunks. A chainsaw gun slices through armor and rips open alien chests, which spill with goopy entrails. Limbs and heads get lopped off, while skulls can be crushed under a heavy metal boot. With many of these sloppy, gushing kills blood splashes and drips on the screen as if spewed into your face.
The dialogue may be a little more interesting in this Gears entry, but that doesn’t keep the soldiers’ quips from turning saucy or crude. And their language is regularly replete with f- and s-words, blasphemes of God’s name and other sundry profanities.
So while this third-person shooter has added a few positives and taken “War” out of its title, Gears 5 still aims its weapons in an unmistakably warring direction. There’s plenty of bloody, violence-desensitizing trigger-pulling and flesh-rending goo to navigate. And a more complex hero and open-world tale doesn’t make that bumpy trip any smoother.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.