I’ll open with a disclaimer - I didn’t buy Gears 5, I haven’t even played it. I’m in a foreign country for an indeterminate amount of time and I can’t justify buying a whole new console just to play a single game… so I watched the four hours of cut-scenes on YouTube. Does that count as dishonest, or in poor taste for an Indie-Author? Maybe, but I’m made of neither money, nor time, and so I did what I did. It was either that or wait till I’m back in Australia this time next year, which just won’t do in today’s internet environment. Who will care about Gears 5 in a years time?
Gears 5 is an interesting beast, because in typical Gears fashion the ‘Beautiful Destruction’ aesthetic is visually amazing, and the combat is as intense and solid as ever, but then there’s a few narrative and design choices that left me scratching my head. To further add to this, while JD Fenix couldn’t escape the shadow of Marcus Fenix in Gears of War 4, it’s almost as though Gears 5 can’t escape the shadow of the original trilogy. Over the course of Gears 5 you return to Ephyra, which was in the original Gears of War, the New Hope Facility from Gears of War 2, as well as Azura from Gears of War 3. Along with this, I think Gears 5 only introduced two new characters - Lizzie Carmine and Fahz, and one of them dies real early on. If you’re a Gears fan, you’ll see the names and know which one I’m talking about. Besides those two characters, everyone else has appeared in at least one other game, and most of them were from the original trilogy or Gears of War Judgment. The old antagonists make a comeback too, we see Queen Myrrah in these psychic attacks that Kait is suffering, and we eve cross paths with proper old-school Locust and Sires.
It’s almost like the developers were so concerned about other drastic changes they were making that they doubled down on the nostalgia to compensate. They added extra of the old ingredients to help mask the taste of the new ingredients. The developers continually talk about how complex and multi-faceted their new characters are compared to the one-dimensional characters from the original trilogy, but then the originals are all still there. The new heroes are running around trying to make a name for themselves while the old guard are still there, handling everything just like they’ve always done. Hell, you literally build a mural to all the characters that have died so far in the series and you end up seeing their ghosts. So in a weird sort of way, Gears 5 is something sort of fresh but also something very old at the same time.
It does work in one weird kind of way though, because there’s this sense of decaying history to the world. All the old and battered heroes running around the old and battered ruins of a second apocalypse does ground you in the story and it’s setting. Nothing new lasts, it’s just the old that lingers on. While Gears of War 4 added the Dee-Bee’s as the latest technology in use, Gears 5 takes a step back and has you scavenging for the last remaining Hammer of Dawn satellites - because they just don’t make them like they used to. The Dee-Bee’s are cool, but nothing makes a story feel Post-Apocalyptic like scavenging for Pre-Apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction. It’s the simple fact that nothing made after the apocalypse could compare to the super weapons that were built before it.
Kait was a fine protagonist, and there wasn’t any of the girl power rah rah rah schtick that we so often see in media these days. She’s got her internal and external motivations for chasing after the Swarm, and so she’s driven and she’s always invested in the events of the story. My only problem, still, is what I said when Gears 5 was first announced. Kait being the protagonist of the new trilogy’s second game weakens JD as a protagonist of the first. Now, that’s nothing inherently weakening about Kait, it’s just that swapping protagonists weakens every protagonist, I’d be saying the same thing if their roles were reversed. Having one protagonist over three games will always result in a stronger and more well-developed character than three protagonists who each get one game, that’s just what all that extra time in the spotlight does for a character. Which brings me to my main big issue with Gears 5.
Gears 5 introduces the game-play mechanic of player choice in regards to the narrative, which is just a weird fucking move. Kait is given a choice of who to save, JD or Del - and whoever she doesn’t choose ends up getting their necks snapped. But why? This is the strangest thing I’ve seen in a video game series. Why would you suddenly add in player choice in the fifth game when it’s never been part of the series? How will Gears 6 work out? In a narrative driven series, only one character can live and so how will this choice play out? Which choice will be considered canon? And if it’s only going to be one choice, why bother with the choice at all? I’m actually shuddering at the thought of the choice being made null and void by the other character simply dying at the start of the next game as well, allowing the developers to have their cake and eat it too.
It’s a weird choice also, because to me it sets up a lose/lose situation. If JD is killed off, then he never managed to escape the shadow of his father and he’s just left as this failure of a character - both in terms of the story and in the series as a whole. But if Del dies, then he can’t be the protagonist of the third game and so not every member of the three-piece team will get a chance to star in their own game. And what would you be left with then? A trilogy where one main character gets one game, another main character gets two and the third just dies? That’s a very strange design choice…
Moving on, I have to say that I’ve never realized how repetitively banal Gears boss fights are. While actually playing the game, and fighting the massive Kaiju monster from beneath the surface of the world, you’re a bit too wrapped up in the action to notice. But while you’re sitting back and watching someone else play, you see that it’s just this back and forward loop of shooting small glowing bits off the big bastard before going in for a king-hit. Wash, rinse and repeat and that’s basically how every boss fight in a Gears game has worked.
Next, the emotional levels are all wrong in this game, too. We’re following Kait on her journey and you see her and Del grow as friends, but then she’s being mentally manipulated into doubting him. It flares up in one scene but then doesn’t really go anywhere. She get’s her brain toyed with and suddenly the visions stops and she instantly trusts Del again. Kait is shown to be more emotive and emotionally well-rounded character, and she’s definitely more so than the guys, but she’s still pretty blasé about character deaths. She gets a bit upset but she still charges on. And as someone who’s been through multiple deaths already - I can tell you that that’s not really how it works in real life.
The early deaths are handled well, although they’re characters that we’re not really invested in so it’s still a bit meh, but then there’s this really weird stretch at the end where character deaths and handled really poorly. Either JD or Del are killed, and the characters are sad, but it’s nothing on the deaths of Tai or Dom from the first trilogy. Then Cole has a fake death that’s sort of brushed past, because it’s fake. He’s being his usual idiot self, whooping and leaping about in a giant robot instead of being an old man who’s perhaps grown and evolved beyond such behavior. But then when a robot dies, in the exact same way the robot in Gears of War Judgment died, the sound fades away and the sad music starts up. A main character dying, nothing. A main character from the original series (fake) dying, nothing. A fricking robot dies, bring out the orchestra and start peddling the feels.
I feel at this point I need to say something good things about Gears 5, because I’ve just been tearing it apart up until this point. Like I said at the start, the visuals and gameplay all look amazing, but there’s a lot more too. The lore of the series is being expanded, and we’re finally given answers to some very old questions. Who was Queen Myrrah? What’s her connection to the Locust? Along with this, we’re able to further explore the world, and despite visiting a lot of previously visited locations we also get to see a lot of new places too. The world of Sera is become a lot more fleshed out, and it is decidedly pissed at humanity. Super-massive wind flares attack cities, razor sharp hail storms dice those without protection and lightning strikes create large fulgurite structures in the desert sands of an evaporated ocean bed. It’s like the very planet of Sera is trying to eject all life from on, and beneath, it’s surface because it’s simply sick of all the shit that sentient life gets up to. Every time these people; Human, Locust or Swarm, go to war, it’s the planet that suffers the consequences.
Just to wrap things up, I’ll point out this interesting moment that’s probably more of a comment on how the military is portrayed in video games. In series such as Gears of War and the Halo, female characters were often relegated to an officer position. It got female characters into the game, but it tended to keep them out of direct combat roles. The problem was when you had front line grunts, Privates, Corporals and Sergeants, telling a female officer where to shove her orders because they know how to properly handle a situation. Halo did it in Halo: ODST with Captain Veronica Dare taking a back seat to Sergeant Major Avery Johnson. It happened in Gears of War 3 with Sergeant Marcus Fenix ordering around Lieutenant Anya Stroud. It was cool to see chicks in the game, but it didn’t make much sense for the power dynamics to play out like that. That’s just not how the military works.
Gears 5 actually addresses this, somewhat, at least to the extent that we can put the complaints to rest. Fahz, a First Lieutenant, is constantly complaining that nobody is listening to him despite him being in charge, and is eventually told to “shut the fuck up” by a Sergeant. Along with this, we’ve got all these male characters of varying ranks following Kait’s lead, despite the fact that she’s only a Corporal. A character of significantly higher rank than her just flat out tells her that she’s good at leading others. If nothing else, this should show that it’s the protagonist of a game that get the final say, regardless of their military rank and even in spite of the gender. It was never about power dynamics between men and women, it was narrative dynamics between protagonists and side characters. Thanks to Gears 5, it doesn’t matter what you’ve got between your legs, if you’re a protagonists then it’s your story and it goes the way you want it to.
I’ve had a lot of complaints about Gears 5, they took it in a new direction and while I applaud a lot of their efforts I think it’s been somewhat hit and miss. Don’t even get me started on how they whored out the series for cross-promotional purposes - I’ll do another blog post on all that of that. All up, I’m glad I sat down and watched the cut-scenes. I’ll still buy a copy of the game in a year or two when I get back to Australia and settle down in a location a little more permanently, because I still want to play through it on my own. I love the Gears series, and I’m interested in seeing where they take it next. They’ve managed to stay afloat this long, so I’m keen to see how this second trilogy finishes up. At the end of the day, we’ve still got Gears of War Tactics coming out… which, as you can see back here, is something I hypothesized months before it was announced. So I am very much looking forward to that game.