Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Gears 5

Note: This review contains spoilers for Gears 5.

Since I’ve played the previous Gears of War console titles, including Gears of War 4 (a game I never gave a full review for), it felt inevitable to me to play Gears 5, the second installment developed by The Coalition. I even went out of my way to get the version with the Terminator: Dark Fate DLC. When I finally got around to playing this game, I was curious about where this presumed second trilogy was heading, but I left very wary of how a Gears 6 will turn out.

After the events of Gears of War 4, JD, Del and Marcus have been officially reinstated in the COG army and Kait has received the rank of corporal. As the new Delta Squad, they get to work on launching Hammer of Dawn satellites to restore the Hammer of Dawn network in an effort to defeat the Swarm. At the same time, Kait struggles with her familial connection to the Locust and her loyalties to the COG.

In spite of an interesting setup, I had a hard time getting invested in the storyline overall. The lack of a cohesive direction and surprisingly simple plotline made me realize just how flawed this new trilogy is so far. As a point of comparison, I made a similar revelation when I watched the entire Star Wars sequel trilogy, although in this case I’m less eager to blame a change in directors and would instead blame the writer.

To elaborate on the lack of cohesion, Kait and JD go through rapid character development, most of which is conducted offscreen for the latter. No one trusts JD after a certain reveal early on and he’s a hardened person as a result, but he disappears for several hours and comes back as a completely different person that everyone is suddenly willing to trust. The main conflict, Kait’s relation to the Swarm, is resolved too quickly, as her connection to the hivemind is severed halfway through, leaving the entirety of Act III devoted to finding Hammer of Dawn satellites and reassembling a rocket. This leads to a sense of uneven pacing that makes certain chapters feel like they drag on with seemingly no end in sight, but then the final minutes feel like a string of setpieces that I had barely any involvement in. When the game does finally reach a conclusion, it feels less like it ends and more that it just stops with a single shot meant to instantly keep you waiting for the next game with bated breath.

Kait's conflicting loyalties are supposed to fuel the main conflict,
but gets resolved far too quickly to feel meaningful.

Late in the game, however, it then suddenly asks you to make a major decision that left me confused the more I thought about it. You’re asked to pick which of two major characters will survive the events of the game, something I thought they only reserved for Clayton Carmine’s fate in Gears of War 3. It seems this choice came too early in the trilogy, as the characters involved still didn’t get complete arcs and now Gears 6 will somehow have to write around their absence or risk angering fans who stood by their particular choice. In other words, The Coalition have written themselves into a corner and muddied the future of the trilogy, all for the sake of shock value.

The gameplay is more or less the standard Gears formula, but more ambitious in its attempts to shake things up. One of the more noticeable changes is that the JACK drone from the series is now playable and plays a more direct supporting role in combat. JACK has a number of abilities, including, but not limited to, stunning and freezing enemies, creating a shield in front of the player or cloaking and buffing the other player characters. Players can upgrade JACK’s abilities by collecting Components found within the environment, which are often hidden to encourage exploration. I liked the inclusion of JACK within the gameplay, as it added a new layer of depth to the combat, but I’ll admit that I eventually got comfortable with certain abilities.

JACK is now playable and has a wide range of support options.

I could say the opposite for the guns. There’s not much innovation in the weapons themselves, with the Lancer GL, Cryo Cannon, Flashbang, Breaker Mace and Pipe as the only notable additions in single player. Though the game tries to encourage changing your weapons to match the situation, even peppering the environment with the most appropriate ones, I grew complacent with a specific set of weapons that fit my playstyle and only budged when forced or necessary. These included the Lancer GL, Boltok Pistol, Markza MK1 Marksman Rifle, Claw, Talon and Gnasher, along with standard Frag Grenades.

As for enemies, this game introduces DeeBee robots, specifically ones that are mind controlled by Swarm Parasites. I’m on the fence about these since while introducing robotic enemies opens some avenues for enemy design, they are, more often than not, used to mindlessly swarm the player or serve as the basis of awkward stealth sections where you inevitably have to fight them off. I wouldn’t mind more robotic enemies in the future, but I think they would need to have more variety in their purpose to really see greater acceptance.

I’ll also admit here that until partway through the game, I legitimately forgot that the Swarm and Locust were supposed to be separate entities. To me, this says that even having played Gears of War 4, the appearance and purpose of the two groups blended together in my head after a three-year gap between games.

One of the more ambitious changes is the inclusion of large pseudo-open world segments in Acts II and III, where there are specific destinations you need to reach for the sake of the story, but with some side missions that require you to go out of your way to hit up other locations on the map. These usually result in extra combat encounters, but they’re worth the effort to unlock more of JACK’s ultimate abilities. Unfortunately, these can also contribute to the game’s overall pacing problems.

At least the environments look great.

You see, Gears 5 will at times have odd, random difficulty spikes where certain encounters feel more difficult than they really need to be for the sake of it. This isn’t to say the game is too difficult, I actually elected to play on Intermediate and found it fairly balanced most of the time, but there are encounters that seem to have one too many enemies with unnecessary layers of defense. For example, there’s one fight in an icy area where the last wave includes two Scions protected by shields projected from Bastion units, which inevitably trap you in a corner and overpower you (the worst part is that you can’t use any of JACK’s abilities, as he’s opening a door at this point).

Now, while I did say I played on Intermediate, I’ll admit that just to get past the encounter I described, I lowered the difficulty down to Easy to get it over with and actually see what the rest of the game had to offer. However, I forgot to raise the difficulty back up until much later in the game, but then dropped it back down during the last few minutes of the game. Hopefully, once you read the next few paragraphs, you’ll understand why.

As a preface, I’ll reference the uneven pacing again and say that while the dodgy story wasn’t paced too horribly, it seems like The Coalition gave up within the last few minutes or so. At this point, after getting on a truck, the game felt like a bunch of set pieces with barely any participation, save for one absurd fight and an anticlimactic final boss. At this point, I’d have considered Gears 5 just okay, certainly not the worst thing in the world but an experience that could’ve been handled much better.

Honestly one of the lazier bosses in terms of strategy.

What really crippled my experience, however, were the glitches. I’ve played every Gears of War game up to this point and none of them had nearly as many glitches as Gears 5. These started out fairly minor and wouldn’t have affected my opinion too much. Every so often, I could see the seam between floor textures, like a line of light between giant tiles. The game was also fairly free of texture loading, though at the beginnings of some cutscenes I would notice textures and entire character models simply pop into existence. At this point, the worst thing that happened was minor choices not popping up on screen when prompted to make them, even though they showed up the first time.

These glitches really ramped up, however, during Act IV. During Act IV Chapter 1, the game suffered a very noticeable framerate drop once a Swarmak spawned, chugging along despite being a Microsoft property running on an Xbox One, which you’d think would have some greater quality control. The framerate would return to normal after the Swarmak died to a Hammer of Dawn strike.

But then Act IV Chapter 2 took it several steps further. At the end of an encounter with a Swarm Flock and a Carrier, I noticed that two Leeches that the Flock spawned were drawn under a stairway tucked in the back. In order to kill them, I had to bait them with my mere presence to try and attack me, causing them to explode while still underneath the stairwell, finally completing the mission and allowing me to advance. What followed next was a specific string of glitches that I never imagined I would ever see in a Gears of War title.

After advancing to the next mission, I went through a set piece with a Swarmak, but the game started infinitely saving the checkpoint. When a cutscene ended, the game drew Kait outside the truck she was riding in, which led to her death and a Game Over. The infinite saving that I mentioned persisted at this point, preventing me from actually reloading my progress, even after quitting to the main menu. I could only reload my progress after a cold boot of the game (in this case, quitting the game, then fully removing and reinserting the disc), but loading my progress brought me back to the fight with the Swarm Flock and Carrier.

But it didn’t stop there. This time, when the Swarmak appeared during the subsequent cutscene, it floated above the ground and harmlessly followed the truck, then moonwalked back to a spot it was supposed to stand in. However, this glitch prevented “Super Cole” (Augustus “Cole Train” Cole in a mech suit) from showing up and the Swarmak, along with the rest of the Swarm in this set piece, just stood there and got mowed down by the Cog, which gave me flashbacks to the General RAAM fight at the end of the original Gears of War (where taking advantage of a glitch was the only way to beat him). I figured that killing the Swarmak might get things moving, so I killed it with a turret, but “Super Cole” still didn’t show, preventing me from advancing the game and leaving me stuck in a nightmarish purgatory. Once I reloaded the checkpoint, the set piece and the rest of the game played properly.

Imagine this thing moonwalking and then standing
there shooting but not hitting anything.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the game never gave me the achievement for beating the campaign even though I watched the credits. If you need any perspective, there were forum and Reddit threads about this specific issue back in September 2019, meaning this problem existed since launch and wasn’t fixed, even though I played with the latest patches. I’m truly speechless at The Coalition’s pure ineptitude at this point.

I’m sure you’re wondering by now if I’ll talk about the multiplayer modes, but I can’t. Unlike some previous entries, there’s no way to actually play any of them locally and I don’t have Xbox Live Gold (as I opted for PlayStation Plus), so you’ll unfortunately have to look elsewhere for that.

The only other praise I can give this game, outside the beautifully rendered and visually distinct environments, is the voice acting. In spite of the quality of the script, all of the returning cast, especially John DiMaggio as Marcus Fenix, did a great job in their roles. I’ll also give props to actually having Linda Hamilton voice Sarah Connor in the Terminator: Dark Fate DLC pack, even if I can’t take full advantage of it.

Linda Hamilton is an unexpected highlight.

If you’re looking for a good Gears of War experience, Gears 5 is difficult to recommend. The script is dodgy, the gameplay holds itself back in places and the glitches left a really bad taste in my mouth, especially considering The Coalition has yet to actually fix them. Only play this if you play the Gears of War multiplayer religiously or you’re in the story for the long haul. I’ll probably play Gears 6 anyway just to see how they plan to wrap up this mess of a trilogy, but I’m not enthusiastic about it.

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