FBT finds his game of the year.
Gears of War 4 was a cracking shooter and a solid bit of rebooting; The Locust Horde were convincingly remade into The Swarm, JD and Del were a top double-act, Marcus as a sidekick worked so well, and Kait provided the story, which ended on a soft cliffhanger – how did the Locust survive and evolve, what did they want with her mom, and why was a family heirloom eerily similar to a Horde emblem? And it was such a good shooter; old-school but fresh; GoW 4 was a 10-hour running firefight that never ran out of breath. But Gears 5 is … all that and way, way more. It’s almost the best game of the year. Almost.
After the events of Gears 4, JD, Del and Marcus have cautiously re-joined CoG to help with the Horde/Swarm’s return, alongside ex-Outsider Kait who is plagued by Swarmy visions. JD and Del have their bants down pat now, with Kait joining in the jokes and Marcus not. Supported by a floating R2D2 in the shape of JACK, an autonomous AI bot, our motley crew’s fun is only spoiled by fellow soldier/dickhead Fahz. Oh and the Swarm of course.
During an overwhelming Swarm attack, JD makes a suicide run to manually guide the Hammer of Dawn satellite weapon onto the attackers. It succeeds, but then fires wildly, killing civilians, troops and leaving JD in a coma.
Sometime later, at an Outsider base, the Swarm attack and make contact with Kait ... How? Why? Abandoning CoG, Kait, with Del and JACK, sets out to discover the truth about her ancestry and the Horde’s origins.
Amazingly, after 4 games of fairly linear shooting, Gears 5 shifts in to a more open world setting – and pulls it off. It’s not an RPG, but we trigger missions rather than walk into set-pieces, have side quests, locations to 100%, stuff to find. At first it’s a little jarring - I’m trying to fight my way through a more than capable Swarm here, I don’t have time to go searching for JACK upgrades (although you’ll be happy you do), but given the depth of Kait’s story and the reveals of the Swarm’s increasingly tragic history, it needed this room to breathe, this immersion in the world we’ve been blindly chainsaw’ing through for so many years. Question is, what’s Kait’s role in all this?
I’m not telling, it’s too much of a spoiler but Kait is the best shooter-lead of the year; funny, charming, brutal, deadpan, committed, hurt, angry and more, struggling to find her place - is she an Outsider, a CoG? And what does her unwanted connection to the Horde mean to her and her comrades; is she a threat? Since we’re not mucking about with moral choices or actually have any say in her actions, the tension over her future works on us too.
Kait and Del’s travels first take them to a frozen tundra to uncover a hidden base that might reveal the origins of the Swarm, and oh boy does it. That entire sequence is breathtaking, terrifying, intense and upsetting. And it all gets explained by a TV on wheels.
While Kait looks into the Swarm’s past, they’ve been focused on the future. In G4 they were kidnapping humans and turning them into ‘juvies’ and while those scatty bastards are still everywhere in G5, the Swarm has new creatures to make life interesting – even our own; the robot support troops from G4 can be taken over by leeches and they turn into this horrible, slithering fleshy robot, like someone put Playdoh and a Terminator in a microwave.
The Swarm are a formidable enemy. You have to keep your head/mouse on a swivel, they’re opportunistic SOBs, circling and using distractions and cover. There’s enough differences in their army that it never gets samey and you change tactics based on what’s on the battlefield – often though it’s all of them – and they reflect you and your gang really well, equally matched to the point some fights almost end up in a stalemate, and the similarities are unnerving; when one of your guys goes down they’ll slowly crawl toward you for a revive, which the Swarm do as well - if they reach a compatriot they’ll pop up and get back into the game; assuming Del hasn’t spotted the crawler; ‘dont crawl away from me! Boom!’
Navigating about on a wind-drawn skiff, the tundra is great fun; there’s the main mission’s locations, but various other places to explore and fight through to gain insights, weapons or JACK upgrades. Fighting in a snowstorm isn’t new, but just seeing shapes in the snow and fighting by sound is as tough and thrilling as it sounds; the Warden is especially dangerous when you can’t see them until it’s too late.
Once the tundra is done, we switch to the exact opposite, a desert location where instead of snow-storms we have lightning strikes that cause the sand to leap into spiky structures. We're here to get the Hammer of Dawn online (correctly this time), but there’s several side missions supporting a local gang of scavengers; it could seem just like a reheat of the frozen wastes, but our focus is different after the reveals in the ice, and ... JD is back! And back on top form - “Swarm assholes have been wiped clean ... I’m aware of how that sounded.” He also brings supertrooper Fahz who brings the "WTF is that!" comments, and with Marcus still grumbling over the radio, this dysfunctional squad of misfits rivals Mass Effect for an against-the-odds but not-giving-up gang.
The missions rival Mass Effect too. While some story beats in Gears 4 reflected ME2, this is like ME3 but better – intense, compelling and there’s that realisation that this is bigger than just our hero who’s unwillingly at the centre of it all; it's got that ominous, ‘things are going to get worse’ tone that ME3 did so well, and like Shep, this is all on Kait's shoulders.
And we have plucky little JACK. He’s fearless, often charging into Swarm groups with little more than a cattle prod, but finding those upgrade packs turns him into a tiny Iron Giant. Blinding flashes force them out of cover and can be upgraded to freezes, he can cloak you, provide a shield, send a pulse to track ammo and Swarm, plant electro-mines, even control infected bots; he’s badass. Although during a mission to recover a warhead he wandered in front of it and got crushed. Pay attention little man.
The set-pieces are all showstoppers; a standout in the frozen wastes sees us attack an old building over a frozen lake, where shooting out the ice causes Swarm to fall through which is all fun and games until you realise they can do the same and you’re backed onto a small pier with dwindling ammo forcing you back onto the ice.
Some bits do fall flat; there’s a ton of weapons but some are too fussy or too tactical to waste time with in the extreme heat of battle - I could never master the Dropshot for example, but the damn muties controlled that thing like a sniper. And it’s odd that Marcus and co would just return to CoG so willingly, especially as they now happily report into the head of CoG who tried to kill them throughout G4 - a plot that already screamed filler in G4 and is largely dropped, much like JD’s checkered history reveal; it was hinted at throughout G4 and it's staggering, yet the tension it causes and his grumpy return is all just forgotten as soon as Kait forgives him, and his style change from jock to Max Payne 3 is hard to take.
There’s a couple of boss battles that you can forgive as retro throwbacks, or dismiss as annoying hindrances, and occasionally Del will stand idly as you’re getting killed or just disappear, but this works so incredibly well - as a story, as a shooter, as an intelligent game the likes of which we've been starved of for an age. The only thing to stop this being demonstrably the years’ best game is a sudden, unexpected and completely unfair choice forced not on Kait, but on us the gamer.
Throughout G5, Kait has been in charge of her own destiny; we weren’t her, we were along for the ride as much as Del or JACK; she was her own person, so to suddenly force a choice on us that Kait should be making is infuriating, especially as the game went out of its way to make it an impossible choice. It’s just there to f* you up and it pisses you off rather than makes you feel in control – which we never were; this was all Kait's choices and actions, and it exists in the story as a punishment by The Swarm for her rebellion – fine, but punish her not us. The game has enough emotional heft that it doesn’t need this moment to involve us and it reduces Kait as a character to suddenly have her stricken and unable to choose. Gah.
Once that outrage is over, it’s onto the final, exhilarating push which results in another heartbreaking sacrifice but at least this one is out of our hands (and so, it resonates). By the end you’re exhausted and thoroughly drained. It’s an exceptional game and story, which is a rarity in Triple A gaming those days – they’re either overwrought or hollow, bombastic but basic, but G5 hits all the beats perfectly.
If it wasn’t for that idiotic, unnecessary choice I’d chalk this up as the best game of 2019, no doubt. It’s as much as story as a shooter and we’re surrounded by the best crew since the Normandy. That horrible choice had better have an impact in Gears 6; it had better not have been for nothing. Or I’ll re-review Gears 5 as the worst game of 2019.