Game Time

Gear 5
Xbox One

WHEN MICROSOFT acquired the rights to the Gears of War franchise in early 2014, it was evidently out to push back against the underwhelming results of Gears of War: Judgment. Granted, the fourth installment of the immensely popular series still moved seven figures in aggregate physical and digital copies. However, it produced numbers that paled in comparison to previous releases and thereby failed to match expectations. More importantly, the technology company saw fit to protect its intellectual property far beyond the near term.

In buying out Epic Games (which proudly paraded work on the first four Gears of War titles as proof of reach beyond mere licensing of the Unreal Engine), Microsoft sought to consolidate its assets. At stake wasn’t just the longevity of the certified moneymaker. Crucially, it wanted to dictate the direction its crossover series would take in light of the intensification of the console wars. After all, boasting of the technologically superior platform — particularly after the rollout of the Xbox One X nearly two years ago — is one thing. Keeping gamers in-house is quite another, and involves the successful buildout of highly sought-after exclusives.

In keeping with the plan to translate and convert the appeal of Gears of War to immense loyalty, Microsoft formed The Coalition, aptly named in reference to the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) from the series’ continuing narrative. Emerging from the shadows of Zipline Studios, Microsoft Game Studios Vancouver, and Black Tusk Studios, the wholly owned subsidiary was tasked with developing the next release. The principal objective: Keep the underpinnings of the overarching storyline and uniquely compelling gameplay, but introduce new facets so as to distinguish the IP from its Epic Games roots moving forward.

Gears of War 4 was the offshoot of The Coalition’s work, aided in no small measure by experience gained from remaking Gears of War into an Ultimate Edition for the Xbox One that included five chapters hitherto available only on the personal computer. Thematically, it represented reform rather than revolution, incorporating familiar mechanics with new features and picking up from where the story left off in the previous release but emphasizing a new lead character as well as a new enemy species. Which was all well and good.

Technically, however, Gears of War 4 distinguished itself from its older siblings — and to a point where it could no longer be offered for the hardware-challenged Xbox 360. It was the first game to utilize Speech Graphics resources aimed at automatically animating gameplay dialogue. Moreover, it tweaked the Unreal Engine 4 that chugged under its hood to allow for a dynamic scaling process and thereby ensure consistent frame rates. And when given a spin on the Xbox One X, it had the capacity to churn out native 4K resolution with High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut support, not to mention Dolby Atmos surround sound output.

Needless to say, Gears of War 4 met expectations and more, cementing The Coalition’s role as series caretaker and developer. To be sure, the resounding commercial and critical success meant it would need to keep upping the ante moving forward. And the revelation at E3 2018 that it was beginning work on the next iteration served to further fuel anticipation. A subsequent announcement on its release coinciding with the offering of a limited-Edition Xbox One X console with laser-etched designs served to underscore its importance in Microsoft’s grand plan to win the battle for market share.

For gamers, the good news is that Gears 5 more than lives up to the hype. And, if nothing else, the long road leading to its release sheds light on the motivations behind, and importance of, the development to Microsoft, The Coalition, and the constituency they aim to please — one that is projected to grow given the way their new creation goes out of its way to recap previous events in the series for those coming in from the cold. Parenthetically, a reasonable argument can be made that newbies will lose little by not playing the older titles, which focused less on story and more on gameplay.

Gears 5 is an opus meant to stand out as a standalone offering, long on both exposition and experience. It pays homage to its beginnings, but cuts a wider swath, allowing for narrative growth in a manner hitherto unseen. Mankind, under the auspices of the COG, continues to engage in a fight for survival against the reptilian Locust Horde and the Swarm, the species’ mutated offshoot off a quarter century’s worth of unintended hibernation. Bringing the conflict to the fore are familiar protagonists Marcus and JD Fenix and Del Walker, as well as new-to-the-series Fahz Chutani. For the most part, though, the light shines on Kait Diaz, whose biological ties with Myrrah, the Locust Queen, were revealed at the end of Gears of War 4.

Diaz’s quest to dig deeper into her lineage propels Gears 5 into uncharted territory, both figuratively and literally, offering twists that figure to keep gamers on edge and enriching the franchise lore. In this regard, character development is given prominence, and with a level of intricacy absent in the original trilogy and presented intermittently in its immediate past predecessor. Motivations will get to be questioned, and loyalties divided, en route to a denouement both satisfying and indicative of much more in the offing.

For all the meat lent to the story, however, Gears 5 remains an actioner at heart. Combat is abundant and set up extremely well, with difficulty spikes that test gamers’ wills but do not unfairly stack the odds against them. Old weapons are still on tap, but the relative dearth of ammunition compels the pickup of new equipment. And while Sera remains the planet in which the body counts pile up, it is unveiled to be vast and diverse; from temperatures to terrains, it exposes itself as eminently explorable. Which, of course, it becomes via side quests and runs for collectibles, thus adding to its appeal.

Significantly, the presence of Jack, the lead characters’ do-it-all hovering robot, enriches Gears 5’s campaign mode. Its roles in both the success of missions and the progression of the story have been heightened; compared to its iteration in the previous title, it now has upgradable assault, passive, and support functionalities. A conscious effort to climb the requisite skill trees yields myriad advantages that more than justify the undertaking of non-linear endeavors. In other words, supposedly optional pursuits become critical investments to advancement.

In any case, purpose is seamlessly integrated with plot. As focused as Gears 5 may be in keeping adrenaline glands pumping, it makes certain that confrontations, however grand and grandiose, likewise become avenues for introspection. Nothing in Sera is black and white; to the contrary, everything has shades of gray. And in the compelling calling for gamers to evaluate the Gears of War universe, top-notch visuals and audio tracks highlight spectacular settings and moments of melancholy in equal measure. Cut scenes, featuring excellent voice acting, are as much immersive as intimate.

Gamers so inclined can negotiate the campaign of Gears 5 through its entirety with up to two others, either ad hoc or online, or a combination of both. In any of these cases, the gameplay is exceptionally seamless post-patch, delivering the goods outside of the first act at a steady 60 frames per second and in glorious 4K resolution on the Xbox One X. It’s equally stunning and effortlessly engaging at optimum settings on a high-end gaming rig, as clear a testament as any to The Coalition’s resolve to elevate the series — nay, Microsoft gaming — to new heights.

Gears 5 certainly has no peer in rendering HDR images at any point. Long an enticing option that fails more than delivers in practice, the capacity to show both extremely light and extremely dark elements at any one time has been the bane of many a game developer. Not for The Coalition, as evidenced by the exquisite eye candy it manages to consistently produce from the get-go. And so serious is it in pushing the envelope that it even has gamers go through calibration settings at the outset. As an aside, it bears noting that the less patient or adventurous could well stick to default values — and still come up with superb graphics that bring about intricate shadows and deep blacks.

As with previous releases, Gears 5 offers a gamut of multiplayer options apart from those present for the campaign mode. Horde, long a favorite among Gears of War fans, amps up its core mechanics for up to five players depending on configuration and method of cooperative play; special character-specific abilities have been added, emphasizing the importance of choice and teamwork in standing pat against, well, horde after horde of a cacophony of enemies. Escape involves navigating through a Swarm-infested facility, cutting paths through awaiting opposition with limited ammunition, and finding freedom through extraction before a poisonous gas elicits certain death. For gamer/s-versus-gamer/s competition, on offer are the usual rules tweaks — among them Arms Race, Guardian, and Dodgeball — over 12 maps. The screen is split for collocated battles and presented at a lower 30 frames per second, but continue to be absent any stutters or lags.

All told, Gears 5 represents the apex of Xbox One X gaming through 30-odd hours of campaign play for completionists and countless more on multiplayer modes. It flexes its status as a product of the finest of cutting-edge technology while proudly adhering to the most basic tenets of successful gaming. It is sonorous and substantive. It is flashy and fundamental. It is epistemic and earnest. Bottom line, it’s the best from Microsoft by far, all credit to The Coalition. And, in terms of melding past with present for a future with endless possibilities, nothing else comes close.

THE GOOD:

• Outstanding storytelling

• Properly paced

• Excellent combat mechanics

• Audio-visual marvel

• Play Anywhere done right, doing justice to console and computer alike

THE BAD:

• Network issues upon release requiring a patch

• Best experienced on cutting-edge hardware

• Open-world missions scratch surface of potential

• Escape mode longevity dependent on community support

RATING: 9.5/10