What makes decent Gears game? Is it the cover mechanics? Or the cast of characters? Gears 5 attempts to understand just what it is we want from the series in 2019. With incremental changes to the combat mechanics world design and story, Gears 5 is The Coalition’s first step into the future.

Meet Jack

One of the issues I’ve had with the Gears franchise over the years is that the game never changes from the script since the original game. Engage the enemy, close swarm pits, and stick to cover. It’s fun the first few hours, but by the end of the game, you’re just ready for it to be over. With Gears 5, The Coalition made one of the most significant changes to combat with the addition of your robot, teammate Jack.

Many of today’s shooters equip players with more than just a variety of weapons, we also have characters with various abilities and play styles. In Destiny, you can choose from three classes with multiple skills. In Overwatch, each character will perform differently than the next. It’s these variations that create new strategies for conquering enemies and finishing missions. In the Gears universe, however, giving the characters powers or abilities would feel out of place. While this is a world of “monsters,” it’s grounded in its realism where magic doesn’t have a home. That’s where Jack comes in. As a combat robot built by Baird, it comes equipped with all the abilities that you couldn’t give directly to the player. Having Jack on the team opens up new strategies and combat tactics. I can cloak my squad to find a better vantage point before engaging in combat or flash freezing stronger enemies for extra damage. Since Jack can fly, I can command him from cover, giving me an advantage over the enemy. But, I have to be smart about using him as enemies will target him, and if he takes too much damage, you have to revive him like any other teammate. This one addition opens up new possibilities on the battlefield and is a welcomed change to the Gears formula.

But it’s not all good news for our robot friend. There were instances were Jack’s response to commands were slower than I would have liked. If I initiated a roadie run, there was a chance I would have to wait for Jack to catch up before carrying out a command. It’s in this crucial moments that I need him the most and when he isn’t there, I’m usually bleeding out, waiting for my team to revive me or forcing me to use a healing ability that I wanted to use later. There’s also the problem with ability durations. There were moments where the flash freeze felt like it lasted longer in some moments than others which are frustrating when you depend on a certain amount of time for a strategy you’re trying to carry out.

New Versus Old

Even with your new abilities, the cover mechanics hinder your agility in battle. One of the things Gears 5 does well is creating enough variety in the encounters that each one feels different from the next. The difficulty ebbs and flows and during the low points the current mechanics work just fine. It’s when shit hits the fan that the “stickiness” of the cover mechanics become a problem.

When enemies are beginning to surround you, sticking to cover is the last thing you’re thinking. Your initial thought is to run from cover to a better vantage point. Or maybe you need to run and gun. Except the game isn’t built for a quick escape, which feels at odds with what I naturally want to do. I don’t want to wait for a reload gauge to complete before the actual animations take place. I need a new clip now, not in ten seconds, because by then I’ll be dead. When I’m running from enemies, I don’t want to cover then vault. I want to vault immediately and haul ass. I’ve grown accustomed to not only using cover in games but having the option to run and gun as well. But the cover mechanics are the foundations of Gears. So if you’re not using cover, are you playing Gears? At some point, The Coalition is going to have to answer that question.

Story Upgrades

Gears of War was never the game I played for the story. The story was just a means to an end. Marcus Fenix and his crew were action heroes in an action game. Sure, there were some memorable moments like the death of a specific character, but that’s about it. Gears 5, however, attempts to bring the story and character development to the forefront. Del, Kait, and JD aren’t just empty husks moving through story beats. They also have their ideals, goals, and dreams. And they don’t always mix.

Your first glimpse of this clash of ideas happens in the training mode when Baird asks Del to complete a series of tasks against some deebees(combat robots). As you learn the controls, Del continuously pushes back against the idea of fighting against these defenseless drones. In his mind, the deebees are living entities that should be respected. Baird, believes they are just hardware and software to be used for his research and development.

These new changes in the narrative are a step in the right direction but usually, miss the mark. At the beginning of the game, there’s a moment where JD is forced to confront a decision he made between Gears of War 4 and Gears 5. The scene loses its impact because we never experience the decision in-game or during a flashback. It’s presented offhand with the introduction of Fazh, the newest addition to the Gears team. Gears 5 wants you to care about the moments and characters but hasn’t laid the groundwork for the emotional payoff it’s looking for throughout the game.

More to Do

The Gears of War campaigns are linear experiences. You could only follow the path set forth before you, never to veer off that path to explore the world around you. That was fine for the original game when the open-world design wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. It’s my main gripe with Gears of War 4. At some point, it felt like a Disney ride. Constantly shuffled from one shooting gallery to the next before the credits rolled.

In Gears 5, the developers are warming the players up to the idea of exploring the world around them. To make sure we take time to explore, they created a simple carrot and stick approach. The most potent abilities are locked behind the side quests, spread across two open-world hubs. You can mainline the story if you want to keep it traditional, but I would suggest exploring what the game has to offer. The enemy encounters in the side quest can be more challenging than the main quest and provide some of the more memorable experiences. The only problem with this new design is that the same trick doesn’t work twice.

The first time you enter into a hub, it feels new and exciting. You work your way across the frozen landscape, finding new side quests and areas to explore. When you arrive at the second hub world, your initial thought is ‘again?’ Completing the first section of the campaign is fun, but once you understand the pattern, you don’t care to do it again. It actually would have been a welcome change of pace to go linear-open-linear instead of completing two hub environments back to back. I’d rather one open-world then two hubs with a palette swap.

Incremental Upgrade

Gears 5 is an incremental upgrade to the series formula. It’s not the overhaul that some people might have hoped for, but it is a glimpse at the future of the franchise. The trick going forward is finding a balance between past and present. For every advance this game makes, it’s held back by something that’s core to the franchise. At some point, The Coalition will have to revamp the cover mechanics. It cannot continue to play it safe and expect to keep up with the future generations of shooters. The devs did a great job with the enemy encounters, but as they continue to make the enemies smarter and more diverse, I must have the fluidity to take on those challenges. Currently, I feel a step behind. There are ways to create tension that does not have to revolve around a reload mechanic. I like the idea of an open world; you have to make sure to fill that world with story. Don’t limit the lore to just the main storyline, allow it to breathe and have room to grow. Power-ups should not be the only reward for exploration, but it should draw me closer to the characters and the goal the squad is trying to complete. The future is near, just not close enough.

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