When Gears of War 4 came out, sentiment around the first installment in the series developed by The Coalition was more or less consistent. Microsoft's newly-formed studio had faithfully captured the feel of the series, but did little to push it further.
With Gears 5 debuting tomorrow, the initial wave of reviews is similarly unified when it comes to what The Coalition did with the game, but varies a little more in how well that turned out.
Eurogamer's Wesley Yin-Poole opened his review talking about how much the first section of Gears 5 feels emblematic of the series, with players spending "a lot of time doing that Xbox 360 whack-a-mole Gears thing from behind cover" in the role of JD Fenix, son of original series protagonist Marcus.
"These early hours felt like The Coalition doing its best Epic impression," Yin-Poole said. "All of Gears of War 4 felt like this to me, perhaps understandably so for a new studio charged with continuing a beloved series built by a developer who had moved on to what would become Fortnite. But then, a couple of hours in, Gears 5 does something different, and for most of the rest of the campaign I couldn't help but think The Coalition had finally stamped its authority on that most head-stompy of video games, and I was pretty delighted for them."
One of those key changes is the game's new open-world sections, where players ride a skiff through new worlds.
"This is not Gears of Skyrim, or Assassin's War," Yin-Poole said. "It's more of an open hub akin to a destination in Destiny, where there's no real need to explore because while the map is big, it is not packed with secrets to uncover. Rather, it is a play space for surfing to and from objectives, marveling at the impressive visuals and listening to the Delta banter. But, it is right to say this is different for Gears of War, and while this is no revolution for video games, it is a significant evolution for Gears 5, and I found myself enjoying my surf in the cold."
As with any change to an established formula, some welcomed it more than others. In his 8.5 out of 10 review for Game Informer, Andrew Reiner cited the open-world bits as a blemish on the overall package.
"This vehicle looks cool and the world it rips across is beautifully detailed, but all you do is drive from point A to point B," Reiner said. "Even when undertaking side missions, you don't engage in combat on the skiff. If you are playing co-op, the people who aren't driving have nothing meaningful to do. They just sit there until the journey ends. This lifeless open-world exploration doesn't work and drags the experience down."
While Reiner's tone was fairly negative, the substance of his criticism lined up neatly with that of Sam Byford in The Verge's exuberantly positive review that called Gears 5 "a spectacular return to form."
"Imagine if Shadow of the Colossus had, like, 10 side missions and the horse controlled like Tony Hawk, and you're pretty much there," Byford said of the open-world segments. "It's not a revolution in design, but the freedom to take on objectives at your own pace does make Gears 5 feel a lot less repetitive than its predecessors. This is still a game predominantly about shooting monsters. But for much of its campaign, you can at least decide when you want to shoot them."
The free-roaming gameplay isn't the only new quality the open-world sections bring to the Gears franchise. A number of reviewers also noted how they break away from the muddy gray and brown dreariness for which the franchise was known.
"Gears 5 is one of the most visually stunning games ever crafted, and the skiff sections show it off at its best," Byford said. "From blood-red deserts stricken by lightning storms to icy tundras where enemies are just a well-placed bullet away from plunging to their watery doom, The Coalition flexes its artistic muscles as well as its technical abilities throughout the entirety of the Gears 5 campaign."
The Coalition also broke new narrative ground for the series with the campaign, as described in Maddy Myers' review for Kotaku. While the game begins with JD Fenix, it pivots partway through to center the story around fellow soldier Kait Diaz.
"Kait Diaz is the first Gears protagonist to successfully reorient the gravitational pull of the series away from Marcus Fenix," Myers noted. "Marcus is in this game, too, but unlike his former cameos in Judgment and Gears 4, he doesn't steal every scene he's in. The new heroine's grip is too strong for that and shows that this franchise really can be bigger than Marcus Fenix, or at least be good even when he's on the sidelines."
Hirun Cryer agreed it was a positive move in a 3 out of 5 review for USgamer, saying it's "incredibly satisfying that Gears 5 isn't afraid to take the series in a very different storytelling direction."
"Gears 5 doesn't walk a fine line by any means between [tonally disparate] elements"
"If you view Gears of War 4's story as the setup in establishing the characters and a new world, Gears 5 is the payoff. This is a game that looks back on a thirteen-year history, not through rose-tinted glasses, but with commentary on how past elements of the series were deeply problematic."
Cryer and a number of other reviewers appreciated that the game acknowledged issues with the franchise's fascist COG army, its use of weapons of mass destruction, and the collateral damage the war has on innocents. However, many were quick to note that some of the qualities that make Gears of War what it is undermine any serious attempt at reflection or commentary. Cryer brings up wild tonal swings as a concern, such as how the game follows up a harrowing scene depicting the slaughter of civilians.
"The aforementioned theatre massacre, for example, is succeeded by Cole riding a motorbike off a ramp and into the mouth of a huge monster, so that 'its mouth is filled with boom!,' in a Tom Cruise Mission Impossible-style moment," Cryer said. "Gears 5 doesn't walk a fine line by any means between elements. The horrors of war, passing judgment on past actions of the series like the Hammer of Dawn, and the Hollywood blockbuster moments of explosion and pure adrenaline-inducing action are all a bit mangled together."
There are also new multiplayer elements to Gears 5, but many of the initial wave of reviews focused more on the game's campaign mode, with many outlets running tentative reviews that should be updated after they have a chance to test the multiplayer additions after the game's proper launch. As with the campaign, reviewers generally applauded the things the series was known for (like Horde mode), and had mixed reactions to the changes, like the new Escape mode.
Cryer called Escape mode "a garbled mess," noting that its premise -- three players look to escape a level as quickly as possible to outrun a cloud of poisonous gas -- runs counter to the franchise's core gameplay.
"Gears of War has never been a 'run and gun' sort of game, as the very nature of cover shooting itself can attest to, and Escape mode's poisonous death gas pursuing you at all times results only in pushing you into fights that you are your team are woefully underprepared for," Cryer noted.
Reiner was modestly more positive, saying, "The final seconds of Escape are great, as the three players unload everything they have left to stop enemies passing through slowly closing doors -- but the excitement isn't always at that peak, and the thrills are fleeting. Escape is a fun little diversion to hit up from time to time, but isn't going to steal me away from Horde mode."
What the critics seem to agree on is that with Gears 5, The Coalition put its own stamp on the franchise. It tried to push the series' gameplay, narrative, and color palette to new places. And while even the most gushing reviews acknowledged those changes don't always work perfectly, they have combined to produce a game that clicks in much the same way its predecessors clicked, but not so similar as to feel dated or irrelevant.