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Gears 5 is bold and beautiful – hands-on with the biggest Gears of War campaign ever made

Gears 5 campaign
(Image credit: Microsoft Studios)

"Screw your order. This isn't about you, it's about me. I need to fix this." As far as statements of intent go, Gears 5 establishes early on that this isn't going to be your traditional Gears of War experience. That quoted line is spoken early on in Act 2 of the Gears 5 campaign, as Kait Diaz confronts JD following a particularly heartbreaking series of events unfold in quick succession.  

The confrontation is a result of the Gears of War 4 protagonist attempting to assert himself into a position of power over Kait, and, by extension, Gears 5's action too. But this story isn't about Marcus, his father, or his son. In fact, that scathing retort from Kait may as well have been directed at the entire Fenix family line. They are in the game, of course, sat on the periphery – huffing and puffing through every exchange as they are want to do – but Gears 5 really is about Kait.

On The Radar: Gears 5

(Image credit: Microsoft Studios)

On The Radar: Gears 5
We travelled to The Coalition to deep dive into Gears 5. We played campaign and tried our luck at Horde mode, before then sitting down with development leads to discuss the making of this ambitious new game. 

It's about Kait trying to understand the dark secrets of her family's past, working to figure out what it might mean for the future of humanity. Considering all of this, Gears 5 could be best described as a fresh start wound tightly around decade-old mysteries – the thread beginning to unravel as yet another war threatens to consume what little of Sera is left standing. 

Gears 5 is the biggest, boldest, and most ambitious Gears of War has ever been. Its developer, The Coalition, is eager to express its creative capacity with Gears 5, delicately walking a line between leveraging nostalgia and laying out a new beginning for a core cast of popular characters.

I know all of this because I travelled to Vancouver to visit The Coalition. I was able to get my hands-on five hours of the Gears 5 campaign, and I'm happy to report that Gears 5 is Gears of War as you have never seen it before. It's a finely-tuned behemoth that works to surprise you at every opportunity that it can. 

A brave new world

Gears 5 campaign

(Image credit: Microsoft Studios)

The Coalition has only spent a little over two years developing Gears 5. Not that you'd necessarily be able to tell that from playing it – it's a truly gorgeous game that wears its ambition on its blood-coated sleeves. Gears 5 has been driven by passion and purpose; The Coalition is eager to treat this experience as an expression of what it is truly capable of. If Gears of War: Ultimate Edition was proof that the studio was worthy of taking control of the franchise, if Gears of War 4 was proof that it could deliver a faithful sequel, then Gears 5 is the team demonstrating that you haven't seen anything from this studio or series yet. 

This is best represented in what I was able to play of Act 2 and Act 3 of the campaign. These stages take the action out of the confines of corridors and out into huge open spaces, maps that creative director Rod Fergusson tells me are around 50x the size of any previous Gears of War level. It's here where you really feel Gears 5 pushing against the boundaries that once defined the series; as you take command of a skiff and skirt off across harsh icy wastelands and through deserts defined by their vibrant blood-red sands. These areas are so huge that The Coalition has even had to introduce a functioning map and waypoints to Gears of War – it's an unobtrusive addition before you begin to get all worried about it. 

These open spaces change the state of play. It means you are no longer tasked with roadie-running between mission objectives as the world crumbles around you. Instead, it gives Kait, Del, and JACK a chance to breathe. You can take in the scenery and marvel at the injection of colour and vibrancy, you can assist any struggling Outsiders or Nomads that you may come across in your travels for rewards, and look out for rare relics scattered across a planet that has been totally ravaged by generations of war. 

Gears 5 campaign

(Image credit: Microsoft Studios)

"The action is out of the confines of corridors and out into huge open spaces, maps that 50x the size of any previous Gears of War level"

Gears of War has always had palette cleansers between its more intense missions. You know, those times that you're given the opportunity to lean back and blast everything to hell with a tank or whip through enemy lines on a motorbike. The skiff is the extension and evolution of that concept, giving you the freedom to choose as and when you need a break from slamming into waist-high cover.

Navigating these spaces is an absolute delight, especially if you're lucky enough to be able to experience the game running on an Xbox One X in 4K and at 60 frames-per-second. Seriously, I know that Gears has always been defined by its wonderful hues of brown and grey, but the smattering of colour seen all across this game's spaces make the series feel fresh and vibrant in a way that it never has done before. I could happily have spent all day riding around sand-dunes and icy wilds. I'd have spent hours looking for side-missions, which typically reward you with Components to feed into the light RPG-elements that are being introduced to play. And I'd have kept my eyes peeled for even more of theRelic weapons, alternative versions of classic firearms that are scattered across the landscapes – usually found hidden beneath the iconic Crimson Omen marker – and can be stored on the weapons locker aboard your skiff for future use if you aren't ready to swap them out entirely. 

From what I can tell, there are only four Acts in the Gears 5 campaign, each of them comprised of multiple chapters, of course. But due to the way in which the game has been structured – the narrative intertwined so neatly with the mission structure and introduction of area traversal – it's already clear to me that I barely scratched the surface of Gears 5 in my time with it. The scope and scale of this game extends far beyond anything that has come before it. 

When Fergusson tells me that this is the biggest Gears of War campaign ever made, he isn't merely talking about the size of its maps and levels, but the content that is hidden away within them too. Gears of War has always been unreservedly linear, and with Gears 5 I can't help but wonder what could have been had the switch to this structure been made earlier in the series' life. 

Familiar but fresh

Gears 5 campaign

(Image credit: Microsoft Studios)

What really struck me in playing the Gears 5 campaign is just how well its traditional action slots into this new structure. Once you touch down at a point-of-interest, the game cleverly transitions into more familiar and focused missions. The tightly-delivered level design that the Gears of War series is so famed for comes into view, pushing you to steadily slot yourself between points of cover as you work to take out waves of ever-aggressive enemies. It feels right, it feels like Gears of War, only now you have to work a little bit harder to survive – the advancements in AI routines seen here are, shall we say, unkind to those that aren't willing to be bold in combat.

Gears 5 supports up to three-player co-op in its campaign. Kait is in the lead, player two is handling Del, with a third player able to get in on the action as JACK – the support bot that's been accompanying Delta Squad since the first game. JACK is where we see The Coalition introduce light RPG-elements into Gears of War, something that is sure to be divisive among players, but I have to say I quite enjoyed.

The bot is now a fully-fledged member of the team and has been heavily modified since you last saw it in action. JACK has a variety of offensive, defensive, and utility functions, each of which can be improved and upgraded throughout the game. For those that want to play it a little more safely, you'll be able to spec JACK in being able to better cloak Kait and Del, giving you time to take position or escape from chokepoints. If you're looking to play aggressively, JACK can drop stun mines into groups of foes and, eventually, even gain the ability to take control of their neural networks and fight on behalf of the COG for a short period of time. 

Gears 5 campaign

(Image credit: Microsoft Studios)

"Gears 5 is bold and beautiful, a testament to what this series is capable of when it is firing on all cylinders"

These commands can be executed easily, by staring down the barrel of your Lancer or Gnasher and hitting a button, all thanks to some intuitive linking between UI and controls. This relieves you of any pressure, ensuring that everything is as simple as possible – it doesn't take long before JACK feels like an extension of your arsenal, as easy to unleash (and just as destructive) as a bolt from a Torque Bow. 

I like that you have the option to choose what JACK gets more proficient in. I like the light skill-tree that lets you immediately dart between ability upgrades, rather than messing around with complicated skill trees. To work through any of this you'll need Components, meaning that exploring the open worlds and linear levels contained within them is immediately incentivised. If you're particularly adept at exploration, you'll even come across Ultimate Abilities for JACK, rewards for completing certain side-missions that can completely turn the composition of battles in your favour. 

All of this is particularly useful as it can give you the opportunity to change how you approach the carnival of carnage that the Gears 5 can be so adept at generating. The days of entering every room by automatically sliding into and behind cover under a hail of bullets are over, Gears 5 is offering something far more dynamic in its place. 

Still, even with these additions to play, Gears 5 still plays exactly as you would hope and expect it to once those bullets do start flying in. Moving between cover feels fantastic, the character animation the best it has ever been in a Gears game. Weapons have been finely tuned based on feedback from Gears of War 4, and it was hard not to be impressed by how weighty they each felt, each weapon is distinct and powerful in their own right. 

Gears is back and better than ever

Gears 5 campaign

(Image credit: Microsoft Studios)

Given how little of Gears 5 had been shown to the public since it was revealed back in 2018, I was beginning to wonder whether something had gone horribly wrong behind the scenes. The reality is that this couldn't be further from the case. In just a few hours with the Gears 5 campaign, I honestly believe that this has the potential to be a definitive Xbox One game, the sort of system-seller that Microsoft has been searching for this entire generation.  

I'm inclined to steer well clear of story spoilers as I wouldn't want to ruin any of the surprises, but suffice to say that if the quality holds up across the rest of the game's chapters and acts in then The Coalition will certainly have something truly special on its hands. Gears 5 takes a familiar set up – a group of armour clad soldiers searching out a Hammer of Dawn to solve all of its problems – and subverts it ever so slightly, enough to make this feel like the most energetic Gears of War game to arrive in some time. 

Kait is a killer protagonist, and there's no better person to help lead this series out of the linear nightmare it was becoming consumed within and into these freaking gorgeous open spaces, where new storytelling possibilities and combat opportunities await. This is Gears of War as you know and love it, only its action has been amplified beyond belief. Gears 5 is bold and beautiful, a testament to what this series is capable of when it shrugs off the expectations of the past and dares to embrace the future. 

Stay tuned to GamesRadar+ for more exclusive news and coverage of Gears 5 later this week.