If I had to summarize Gears 5 in one sentence it would go something like this: You know that buddy we all have, who says he’s going to change and then starts to do some things differently where you see some difference, but stops halfway through? That’s Gears 5 in a nutshell; it realizes it needed to shake things up, add some new ingredients before stirring the pot, but never finished intergrading then into the recipe, which end up feeling half-baked and tacked on.
That’s not to say that Gears 5 is a bad, unfinished, mess of a game; on the contrary, it is an incredible looking, extremely polished, fun game. But, as an evolution of the cover-based shooter formula the franchise pioneered during the previous generation, it fails to deliver a complete package; in almost every department, Gears 5 at most will give a suggestion on how to evolve the formula, but will rarely have a fully-fledged, functioning, and complete feature to showcase what that evolution looks and feels like.
Take for example the “biggest” new feature for Gears 5: open-world sections. On paper (and to be fair in practice for the first hour) it’s a welcomed addition, a great way to have variety in the campaign, and provides a break from the action to allow the characters some needed time to communicate with each other; this also allows the developers to introduce side missions, a vehicle to get around, and build different levels, in order for the player to have more interesting ways to progress their characters, have new mechanics to master, and have the story and world be told/build in a different and more engaging way. However, the open world segments don’t really provide the game with anything new or exciting, besides the novelty of their existence in a Gears game; while the route is open form, your destinations are set and are the only interactive points on those maps (with the exception of a few collectibles scattered around) and even those are either the main mission or side missions that play out identically to normal Gears mission (in a smaller and cramp scale). Getting to those missions is fun and a nice break of pace, but the chatter and banter from the characters is not meaningful or engaging enough to make searching the maps interesting or feel useful, which makes getting to side missions or points of interest more lackluster than the rewards gained from those activities, because those are either collectibles or abilities for Jack (your new robot partner) which sometimes require you to complete a series of three side missions to get. Even narrative wise, the open world structure shows promise, but fails to fully deliver; it’s a great idea to have things told to you as world-building materialize as side missions, where you get to see the journey of two outcasts through the map you are currently exploring, but also it’s fairly generic and boring when those side stories always end up in segmented, regular fights that lead to another collectible without any real advancements in the narrative or our understanding of the characters and the world.
Likewise, the story of Gears 5 is on the right path to be evolved into something more nuanced and interesting than previous iterations, but still falls short from being a fully evolved and better narrative. Firstly, it’s not a Phoenix family oriented joint anymore; Kait Sanchez, introduced in Gears of War 4, is the protagonist of the story and with elusions to a connection between her and the Swarm, Gears 5 is focusing on a more personal story about Kait’s mental state and how someone can deal with inner demons, trust issues, family stuff…but also, it’s mainly an action blockbuster about saving the world alongside stereotypical, action heroes. Again, Gears 5 sets out to create something more intimate and focused with Kait’s backstory being fleshed out and having genuine impact on the world and her psyche, engaging the player, and offering a story with actual drama and pathos from the perspective of characters and their growth; however, most of that is wrapped up by Act Two, and is revisited at the end of the game before being dropped again in favor of a climactic boss fight that serves no real narrative purpose and leaves the interesting plot threads developed unfinished and makes the ending feel unsatisfying. Beyond those shortcomings, the game starts with JD as the playable character and ends your time with him in an interesting place, but those questions raised are not really resolved again and are representative of a narrative shortcoming of Gears 5: it wants to ask questions, start narrative themes, and explore its characters, but never does so with any success – it starts that process, but leaves all of the questions unanswered. Even the big decision players will have to make (which genuinely surprised me and made me feel guilty and bad for 5 seconds) is not really resolved (at least in this game) and its conclusion is generic and emotionless – because it has to work no matter which decision you make, so they are both basically the same.
Yet despite all of these flaws and unrealized potential, I still really enjoyed Gears 5; as I have talked about all the things that didn’t work for me, I could talk about all the things that have like the excellent combat, new weapons and enemies that spice up the campaign and add new and interesting challenges, the praiseworthy accessibility options for all types of disabilities and difficulties, the amount of content available at launch (a full campaign, 4 multiplayer modes that could all be a game of their own, and split screen co-op), the awe-inspiring visuals that showcase the amazing technology and technical wizardry the Coalition are capable of, and many other features that I could spent a whole different article just listing. But, to me Gears 5 is the definition of a game that I wished they did more with, because they began to do more with; they found the changes that were needed to evolve the Gears franchise, but they did not stick the landing to fully explore them and make them part of the recipe. Hopefully, that means Gears 6 will be the full evolution of Gears; they will fully explore these changes and bring them to a mechanically and narrative satisfying conclusion, they will answer all the unanswered questions they raised, alongside raising and answering new ones. As for Gears 5, it is still a fun, enjoyable, and valuable experience, but it leaves me with a feeling that it could have, and should have, been so much more.