Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PC

When all its cylinders are firing and (if you’ll pardon the expression) all its gears are turning, Gears 5 is one of the most comprehensive shooter experiences to date. Four distinct game modes ensure there’s something for every type of player, and an astoundingly deep progression system means there’s always a new reward to chase. Unfortunately, developer The Coalition’s latest also can’t seem to stop tossing wrenches into its own machinery.

I played Gears 5 during the early-launch period. During my play sessions, I encountered severe performance and networking issues in all four of the game’s core modes. I’m guessing these issues will be corrected over time, but their constant presence disrupted what otherwise would have been a very positive gameplay experience.

Gears 5 is great when it works, but it’s also more unfortunate proof that buying a AAA game at launch, or participating in any sort of early-launch program, isn’t a great bet to gamble on.

*The following contains light spoilers for the end of Gears of War 4     

Campaign

Gears 5’s story campaign has all the key staples that Gears of War fans have come to expect. There are tense corridor-based firefights against the villainous Swarm, there’s snappy dialogue exchanged between the core cast during the calm moments between aforementioned firefights, and each of the campaign’s four acts has plenty of big setpiece sequences.

Much as Gears of War 4 did before it, Gears 5 pays proper homage to the original trilogy’s characters even as it relies on a newer generation of COG soldiers to drive the story forward. Gears of War 4 leads J.D Fenix (son of Marcus), Kait Diaz, and Del Walker all return, and they’re joined by a lovable gruff named Fahz Chutani whose British accent quips where honestly one of the biggest highlights for me. Old dogs Marcus Fenix, Damon Baird, and Augustus “Cole Train” Cole also make frequent cameos, but they never overshadow the new blood.

For Gears 5, the role of playable protagonist is shifted from J.D. to Kait, which makes sense considering the major cliffhanger that closed out Gears of War 4. Kait clearly has some sort of connection to the hivemind that controls the Locust and newer Swarm forces, and she’s determined to find out what that connection is even as severe headaches and nightmarish blood-soaked visions threaten to tear her sanity to shreds.

Gears 5’s gameplay also adheres closely to the style of previous games, with a few notable exceptions. For the first time ever, players get to experience open-world exploration as they ride a sleek skiff across frozen tundras in the campaign’s second act and then across red sanded deserts in the third act. These open-world environments are each dotted with landmarks that contain hidden collectibles and optional side-missions. Completing side-missions awards components and unique upgrades for Gears 5’s other major addition: the playable robot companion Jack.

If a player decides to play Gears 5’s campaign via co-op, they can do so with up to two other players. The second player controls Del (who accompanies Kait throughout the entire campaign) and the third player controls Jack. The Jack player can’t use any firearms or grenades, but they can deploy unique support abilities and provide useful utility functionality. If a player is going solo or only playing with one other person, they can manually deploy Jack’s abilities using a quick menu.

Even for a solo player, Jack’s usefulness extends far beyond hacking computer terminals and opening locked doors. The various abilities and upgrades he slowly unlocks can support a surprising number of playstyles. For example, Jack’s cloak ability allows players to take a stealthier approach, while his Barricade ability is handy if you’re more of the run-and-gun type. All of Jack’s abilities can be upgraded using components hidden out in the environment, encouraging meticulous exploration for those who want to get the most out of their friendly robot companion.

Exploration is also encouraged for those who want to seek out all of the campaign’s hidden collectibles (yet another key Gears of War campaign staple). Aside from collectibles and achievements, though, there are no progression elements for the campaign, which means there’s little incentive to for multiple playthroughs unless you want to challenge yourself with higher difficulty levels.

Even if you only play through it once, Gears 5’s campaign brings the Gears of War narrative to some pretty crazy places (both figuratively and literally), including a late-game choice that can drastically alter the game’s ending. Yep, you read that correctly, Gears 5 is also the first Gears of War game to have multiple possible endings.

Sadly, as I mentioned above, severe performance issues (which I’ll cover more in-depth later) hampered my overall enjoyment of the story campaign. They weren’t enough to render the campaign completely unplayable, but it was frustrating to encounter them so frequently in what I assumed would be the most stable of Gears 5’s four game modes.

Multiplayer

Once you finally finish Gears 5’s suitably bombastic story campaign, it can be a little overwhelming to realize you still have three jam-packed multiplayer experiences to dive into. These multiplayer experiences compliment the campaign perfectly since they offer multiple avenues for experiencing both competitive and cooperative multiplayer gameplay.

For co-op fans there is, of course, the tried and true 50-wave Horde mode. The only major difference between Gears of War 4’s Horde mode and Gears 5’s rendition is the addition of character-specific ultimate abilities. Once charged, these ultimate abilities can provide powerful personal boons and, in some cases, even benefit nearby allies. Whether it’s Fahz detecting nearby enemies through walls, J.D calling in an airstrike, or Kait activating a personal stealth field, ultimate abilities can swing the tide of a tense Horde match if deployed effectively.

Those who prefer working alongside other players rather than against them can also partake of the brand new Escape game mode. In Escape, a team of three players has to make a speedy exit from a Swarm-infested facility that’s slowly being overtaken by a cloud of venomous gas. Players begin each Escape match with only a basic pistol, forcing them to scavenge on the fly as they head towards the final exit. Escape is an excellent counterpart to Horde since it involves linear fast-paced gameplay as opposed to Horde’s more deliberate “defend a single position” format.

Finally, there’s the Versus competitive multiplayer suite which encompasses a total of nine different game modes including familiar favorites like Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill alongside newer modes like Guardian and Escalation. These modes are curated into multi-mode playlists including Quickplay, Ranked, and a co-op vs. AI playlist (another returning feature from Gears of War 4) for those who’d rather fight solely against AI bots.

All three multiplayer modes (Versus, Horde, and Escape) sync with Gears 5’s ‘Tour of Duty’ progression system which awards a steady stream of new cosmetic items through completed challenges and long-form medal objectives. A microtransaction-driven cosmetics shop is also present, but a large majority of the game’s most coveted cosmetic rewards can only be earned via gameplay.

Similar to Gears 5’s campaign, my time with the game’s three multiplayer offerings weren’t without frequent issues, though they were mostly contained to the game’s first two early-access days and were mostly network-related. The Coalition was quick to stabilize the most tumultuous network errors, but even several days out I was still getting randomly dropped from Horde and Versus matches and being timed out of Escape lobbies among other issues.

Performance Issues

I know it’s a little unfair to harp so much on issues that will (hopefully) be resolved or at least mostly resolved by the time of Gears 5’s full September 10 launch, but I also feel it’s important to share my early-access experience. I doubt I was alone in suffering through these issues, and I also fail to see the value in offering pre-launch access as a perk when the game’s stability is in such a poor state.

The very first time I attempted to start up Gears 5’s campaign, the game hung and went into an infinite loading screen, forcing me to reset. After that, things went off more or less without a hitch throughout the first two campaign acts (other than an annoying boss fight at the end of act two). Act three, though, tested my patience in ways I don’t think any other game’s story campaign ever has. At least once every 20-30 minutes I’d encounter one or multiple of the following issues:

  • The game’s checkpoint system would freak out (I assume because I moved through a checkpoint trigger too quickly) and would fail to load level assets I needed to progress, forcing me to reload an earlier save.
  • The ‘Reload Current Checkpoint’ function wouldn’t work at all, likely because of the above mentioned freak-outs, meaning I’d have to load an earlier checkpoint and lose upwards of 10-15 minutes of progress.
  • If I tried to simply exit to the main menu rather than reload a checkpoint, the game would consistently soft-lock, forcing me to reset and again costing me many minutes of progress.

I did eventually make it through the campaign despite these issues, but their frequent occurrences meant I spent much of act three and even some of act four in a perpetual state of paranoia. I was unable to fully appreciate Gears 5’s excellent story in the moment since I was constantly worried I’d trigger yet another corrupt checkpoint through no fault of my own.

Word of Warning

Based on its narrative and gameplay merits alone, I’d wholeheartedly recommend you play Gears 5, especially if you’re already a fan of the series. However, I’d caution that if you haven’t already bought the game, maybe hold off for a bit, at least for a few days after the game’s full launch (which I’m guessing will bring in its own issues even while it fixes others).

The Coalition plans on supporting Gears 5 for a good long while through post-launch multiplayer expansions and season-based progression tracks, so the only thing you’ll lose out on by waiting a few extra days are the frustrations I encountered with unfortunate abundance. Gears 5 is undoubtedly Gears of War at its absolute best, The Coalition just needs to smooth out its rough performance-related edges.