VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Gears of War 5, which launches on Windows 7, Windows 10, and Xbox consoles starting on September 6, is not yet in a reviewable state, in terms of how we typically talk about video games’ value. But based on what I’ve already seen of the sprawling game (the sixth of its series), that may already be a moot point.
After a six-hour gameplay event at Microsoft’s Coalition studio—and hours more spent testing its online versus options in a July beta test—I’ve come to a conclusion that I can’t shake off. The Xbox Game Pass subscription service now has its official, signature game: the something-for-everyone blockbuster that lands less as a “must-buy” product and more as a no-brainer action game to sample. If you’re already paying for Xbox Game Pass ($10/mo on console, or $5/mo on Windows 10 for a limited time), Gears of War 5 arrives with a Baskin Robbins counter of surprisingly varied action options, all easy to try with a tiny, silver spoon.
Start with an open-world twist to the campaign, which hews to the “cover-shooter” formula of old while injecting just enough new ideas. From there, sample a thoughtful expansion of the “Horde” co-op mode. You can also dive into multiple flavors of online versus battling and an admittedly unproven “Gears of Duty: Zombies” option, too (dubbed “Escape”). On top of those, The Coalition has built one of the most compelling new “helper” characters I’ve ever seen in a shooter, one tailored specifically for people who might otherwise prefer not to play, for both its campaign and Horde modes.
Is that combined package worth a $60 purchase? Maybe. At the very least, aiming less for the $60 sale and more for the Xbox Game Pass content proposition is already a good thing for a series that I was seriously ready to shrug off. Call Gears of War 5 anything you want, but it sure isn’t “lazy.”
It’s not all gushing praise
The above introduction sounds pretty positive—and for good reason—so I’d like to offer some reality-checking notes before diving further.
First off, Microsoft’s timing on promoting this game, arguably its biggest holiday Xbox exclusive, is bizarre. We expect “big campaign reveal” blowouts at events like June’s E3. Instead, Microsoft and The Coalition left us scrambling to put together impressions only 11 days before the game unlocks for Xbox Game Pass subscribers, on September 10.
Coalition studio head and Creative Director Rod Fergusson argued that this PR timeline is an intentional reaction to how crowded the gaming marketplace is in 2019. “When we did Gears 4, we started the hype fire 18 months before launch, constantly reheating and reheating. It’s better to save a bunch of stuff up to allow us to be loud right before the very end.”
My experience with the games industry, on the other hand, makes me suspicious of another possibility. The development team didn’t hint to it, but I wonder if the game’s many moving parts (so many moving parts) didn’t necessarily snap into place until very late in production. I acknowledge some of that suspicion between the bits of praise below.
Additionally, this game does not see The Coalition breaking the Gears series out of its most familiar elements. Here’s the checklist: third-person combat; constantly ducking behind chest-high cover; previously seen weapons, including the usual half-gun-half-chainsaw Lancer; and a lot of enemies returning from prior entries. If you hate this kind of gameplay, a lot of the Gears 5 package will leave you unmoved. (With one exception, hinted at above.)
But if you, like me, were ready for The Coalition to shake this series up with fundamentally new ideas, there is enough new here to get disenfranchised players back on board.
Listing image by Sam Machkovech