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Gears takes over as premiere Xbox series with gruesome, grounded sequel

Players take the role of Kait, former outsider and reluctant COG soldier, as she searches the world to nail down the truth about her monstrous family history (as teased in the cliffhanger ending of Gears of War 4). Along the way Kait and company uncover a lot of secret COG history they certainly wouldn’t read about in the official history books; especially regarding the true nature of the Swarm, the formation of the Locust before it, and the conclusion of the Pendulum Wars against the Soviet-like UIR.

From a presentation standpoint this is potentially the best looking game of the entire generation so far, with an insane amount of detail in characters and environment. While the world is still ruined, Gears 5 brings an unprecedented level of colour to the series, escaping the rubble and catacombs to visit locations from hidden island lagoons to blood red desserts. On Xbox One X it all runs at an effortlessly smooth 60 frames per second, while on older consoles framerate differs by mode (60 for multiplayer, 30 for campaign).

While much of the familiar running and gunning remains, including the snap-to-cover systems and timing-based active reloads that power up your weapons, there’s a new-meets-old approach to game mechanics that keeps things interesting. Every weapon is great in its own way (except for maybe the redundant Snub pistol), including old favourites like the chainsaw-bayonet-toting Lancer, recent additions like the repeating shotgun Overkill, and some brand new options like the chaotic assault rifle Claw. In that case, you need to hold the trigger down a bit before the random spray of bullets becomes an accurate stream, but hold it down too long at it will start missfiring.

That every possible element of the game works towards making combat as fun and interesting as possible is a trademark of the series, and it continues here with everything from new enemy types that demand a shift in strategy to a new RPG-style system that has you constantly re-speccing your robotic helper Jack so he can help you kill and survive with special abilities. Sera’s insane weather also returns, from frozen ponds that can become deadly water traps with a few well-positioned shots, to deadly lightning strikes that can instantly turn desert sand into jagged towers of glass.

Gears 5 has the most diverse environments the series has seen yet.

Gears 5 has the most diverse environments the series has seen yet.

By far the biggest change (apart from the move to a female protagonist for the first time, which brings a welcome new tone to the familiar violence and shouting) is that the middle part of the game takes place over two massive areas you explore in a semi-open world setup. Riding a wind-powered sled between objectives while looking out for optional missions and hidden secrets gives the game a much grander and adventurous feel, and also provides ample time for banter that fleshes out the great cast of characters. I especially love how original series heroes Baird and Marcus now take on the role of of “Control”, guiding you over the radio and imparting their wisdom about the old-school COG.

My one real criticism of the campaign is that the story’s conclusion isn’t wholly satisfying, with a player choice in the final act that branches the narrative unnecessarily and feels out of step with the rest of the storytelling. Much of the game’s story feels crafted and intentional, with some revelations early on that seemed particularly promising, but the weak choose-your-own adventure twist somewhat robs the whole thing of a payoff.

Original series protagonist Marcus Phoenix returns, and is as hilariously grumpy as ever.

Original series protagonist Marcus Phoenix returns, and is as hilariously grumpy as ever.

Gears 5 of course does come with a full suite of multiplayer modes and options. The campaign is playable in a group of two or three online (with the third player taking the role of Jack), and there’s local split-screen co-operative play for up to three as well, which is appreciated.

Outside of the campaign, the multiplayer keeps the strong cover-based combat and interesting locales but lightens the tone with wacky premises and cameos from the likes of Sarah Conner (from Terminator) and Batista (from the WWE). There’s something for everyone here with Versus for serious and esports players and the more chaotic Arcade for casual deathmatches.

Escape mode is a new twist on Gears' co-operative multiplayer.

Escape mode is a new twist on Gears’ co-operative multiplayer.

If you’d rather co-operate than compete there’s Horde and Escape modes, which have you shooting and trapping massive waves of enemies or ploughing through them to get out of a poison-filled tunnel respectively. It’s shaping up to be the most fun of any Gears multiplayer yet, even for a casual competitor like me that generally prefers the story-based mode.

Aside from being a stellar game, Gears 5 represents everything Microsoft’s systems have going for them right now, from 4K HDR support and Dolby Atmos to advanced accessibility features and inclusion in Game Pass at no extra cost. And with its outstanding campaign, endearing characters, impeccable multiplayer suite and overall high sheen level of polish, it’s arguable this Gears has finally taken over from Halo as the premiere Xbox series.

Gears 5 is out now for Xbox One (reviewed) and PC.

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