Gears 5 Embraces its Dorky Side
A little self-awareness goes a long way
When Gears of War 2 was on the horizon, ahead of its 2008 release, there was a phrase that Epic used to describe the sequel that really caught on: “bigger, better, and more badass”. It was, believe it or not, an effective tagline, and one that many believe (myself included) the game delivered on. Gears of War 2 is probably still the highpoint of the series, a game that, yes, delivered on the badassery promised, but was also poignant and bleak when it needed to be. Gears of War has, I’d argue, always been a series with more on its mind than the explosions and chainsaws people associate it with — this is a series about a colonisation effort gone wrong, after all.
Gears is a series in which humans have wrecked the planet, fled to another one, wrecked that one too, and then found themselves attacked by its natural inhabitants. In 5, it’s also about a generation that has only known war their whole lives, and the push between those who see war as a necessary way of life and those who refuse to bend the knee to the COG forces, even as everything goes to shit yet again.
In 2019, you can’t call your game ‘bigger, better, and more badass’ without looking like a bit of a dope, and Gears of War doesn’t have the same cultural cache it once did. I was never a big fan of Gears of War 4, but Gears 5 — which drops the ‘of War’; perhaps because whether there’s a ‘war’ happening in the game or not is a point of some contention (or perhaps because God of War sort-of owns the GoW abbreviation) — feels like a massive improvement. I’m halfway through the campaign, and one thing that really strikes me about Gears 5 is that The Coalition, the series’ new developer, seems a bit more self-aware about the series now. Gears 5 isn’t trying so hard to be cool, which is, of course, what makes it cool.
For starters, there’s the fact that you play most of the game as Kait, a character who is strong without being a pile of muscles on top of more muscles. She’s got a weird backstory that’s very much tied into the lore of the series, and a lot of the game is about her trying to unravel her own past. I love Marcus Fenix and the gang, but Kait is the only member of the new gang to make any real impression on me.
The plot, without getting into it too deep, delves right back into the murky waters of the COG regime being a bit fascist and the idea that humanity brought all of this on themselves, which is my favourite thing about Gears. This entry is also fairly open in its parallels to modern politics — the world has changed since Gears 1, but 5’s brief direct discussions on the state of things, and the way it portrays the distinction between the COG and the people who object to and protest against them, is smart. It’s good to have another Gears game that, I imagine, people won’t give full credit to for having a few bigger ideas on its mind.
Gears 5 isn’t trying so hard to be cool, which is, of course, what makes it cool.
There’s also just…a lot of dorkiness in Gears 5. Of course, at heart, Gears has always been dorky. It’s about big ropey aliens that look like figurines from a Warhammer-adjacent series yelling out their catchphrases and firing big dumb guns at their oppressors. It’s a series full of giant worms and laboratories and, now, robots. But Gears 5 is the game in the series that seems most aware of it.
Baird, the gruff try-hard of the original Gears gang, is now a big bald dude in a coat who has some clear romantic tension with his AI bot who has learned to understand sarcasm. That’s great! I love that for him, the big dork. He’s excited about his toys and he clearly loves the goofy banter he gets to have with his AI. The game is excited about this stuff, too, as your personal robot assistant Jack can now be upgraded with components you find to become more powerful, and any game that asks you to invest in the growth and well-being of a dumb little floaty robot is, let’s face it, dorky. The phrase “by my calculations” never appears, but I live in hope that it’ll pop up in Gears 6.
None of the characters feel like they’re trying to be ‘cool’ anymore, except for Cole Train, who is more of a comic relief figure than ever. Gears 5 is smart enough to realise that AJ Fenix lives in Marcus’ shadow, and formalises it somewhat by pushing him into the background for (seemingly) most of the game. Del really shines in this one, not because he’s a complex character, but because he’s a really good friend to Kait. That’s dorky, but it’s also, you know, very cool.
There are two moments in the game’s first act that really stand out to me, neither of which I would consider to be spoilers (although one of them I’m going to describe vaguely, just in case). In one instance, you find yourself battling a bunch of corrupted robots inside a hall that was clearly, until recently, the home for a very lame ball or gala. There’s the ratty disco-ball, a big ugly pink cake, the drum kit of what was almost certainly a cover band that usually plays weddings for cheap. It’s a fun aesthetic backdrop for a fight, and it speaks to the fact that the world moved on somewhat after Gears of War 3 — and that included some of the fun, dumb parts of life, and a return to a dweeb-y sort of aesthetic. It stands in stark contrast to the greys and browns that have dominated the series, and I like it a lot.
The phrase “by my calculations” never appears, but I live in hope that it’ll pop up in Gears 6.
Another scene, a little later, is even more explicitly dorky. You come across a theatre stage, and eventually…something I’m interpreting as a sort-of homage to bad community theatre plays out. In amongst all the shooting, there’s a suggestion that art has become important to the people of this planet again during their time of (relative) peace, but that, perhaps, no one really knows what they’re doing with it (how many novels and films made the transition to this new planet?) That’s fascinating, right? I’d love a whole game set in a post-apocalyptic period after society has rebuilt, about people who must rediscover art and end up making a lot of great-but-terrible weird stuff.
So far, my least favourite parts of the game are when it feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to be cool and interesting and modern. The skiff that you travel around on in the game’s semi-open world sections is a neat design (it’s like something out of some dorky steampunk fantasy series), but the open world itself left me cold, and not just because so much of it is blanketed in ice. Gears has always been a series about shovelling you between interesting moments, and the series is at its best when it avoids downtime. I’m also not a huge fan of the weather effects The Coalition introduced into the series, although they’re a bit more engaging in this one, at least.
But Gears 5 succeeds because it embraces being a little goofy, very nerdy, and by being very upfront about not wanting to be cool. It’s bigger, it’s better, but it’s not more badass — and that’s what makes it good.
Oh, and the shooting’s also really fun, for whatever that’s worth.