Less Grind, more Gears: A review of Gears 5 and commentary on the Xbox One in 2019

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Image from Xbox.com

Part 1: Me and the Xbox One

My Xbox 360 Slim, which I believe was the last iteration of Microsoft’s prior generation game console, had an un-salvageable ventilation problem, which in all fairness was partially my fault. I should have made sure to wipe the dust from the console more regularly but unlike my Playstation 3, 4 and Nintendo Switch, there was more openings in the console for dust to accumulate overtime.

I suppose the grated sheeting for the console is a byproduct of Microsoft’s PC legacy. That doesn’t excuse making it so difficult to manually open up through screwdrivers and pliers to get the dust out of the machine. There are YouTube videos which can instruct you on disassembling, cleaning and reassembling your console, but I was not about to risk damaging my 360 further than it already was.

Instead, I headed over to Best Buy to either see if the Geek Squad or some other customer service could clean it for a fee. Sadly, they could not, mostly because Xbox 360s have long  been off the market, at least at official retail stores, brick/mortar or digital. You can definitely find them on Amazon, Ebay and the like, but a thought occurred to me. Was this an opportunity for an upgrade?

I asked then if I could sell the Xbox 360. They said no. Then I asked If they could recycle the system. First I should’ve wiped the system before arriving, so no again. Finally, realizing I had some spare money, some from savings, I decided to buy the cheapest Xbox One Best Buy had available, which was the Xbox One S. For an additional $50 dollars came the Gears of War collection which included the next gen update of the 2006 original, Gears 2 4 and the brand new Gears 5. They excluded the divisive spin-off Gears of War Judgment.

I bought the One S with the excellent package deal of most of the Gears of War series, though I almost bought a copy of the console which had NBA 2K20, the newest basketball gambling simulator( look it up for further,sordid details). After all this time, and with the next Xbox coming roughly a year from now, I had Microsoft’s struggling third generation console. I thought it would never happen.

The PS4 and Nintendo Switch have,by comparison, a far better number of exclusives not to mention the benefit of strong first impressions through marketing and game lineup. Sony has the new Spider-Man and God of War. It has other impressive exclusives like Bloodborne, Uncharted 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn and the upcoming Death StrandingGhost of Tsushima, Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part II

Microsoft, even after getting past the terrible first impressions of its unveiling and launch in 2013, couldn’t muster the same quality and quantity of exclusives. True, there is Gears of War 1’s “Ultimate” Edition, Gears of War 4 and now 5. Halo got an initially disastrous but increasingly comprehensive collection of the series since 2001 with remastered versions of the first two games as well as the fifth.

Most exclusives were lackluster (Crackdown 3), cancelled for apparently no reason (Scalebound), glorified tech demos (Ryse: Son of Rome), featured an unacceptable lack of content (Sea of Thieves, Titanfall 1) or were broken messes (State of Decay 2). One of the most well-regarded exceptions to the Xbox One’s streak of bad luck came from an independent title that may well become a new Xbox mascot, Cuphead.

The cute but challenging side-scrolling platformer shooter, based on classic 1930s’ cartoons, is one of the most visually convincing recreations of another medium in a video game, in this case being early animation. Another example of convincing translation would be the recent South Park RPG games. Cuphead was a hit for Microsoft, but was it enough?

Of course not, as the PS4 has been the dominant console of this generation. But the One was profitable enough that Microsoft can comfortably continue competing into hopefully a better generation. They are promising Project Scarlett, the code-name for the fourth Xbox, to be the most powerful game console ever created.

That is a common promise for every generation and I have little doubt the PS5 will be a beast as well, what with the shared promise of both upcoming consoles fighting a war against load-times, one of the most hated if presumably inevitable aspects of the medium.

So, why buy an Xbox One now at this late date? Well, I have really wanted to play the next gen Gears games, as that is the only Microsoft franchise that has had any real sway over me in the past. I have and probably never will get into Halo in any meaningful way. I’m hoping next year’s Halo Infinite will change my mind. Of course, playing next gen Gears can’t be the strongest reason. I also wanted to keep playing the Gears games I already had. As well as all the other 360 titles still in my possession.

One of the few areas where the Xbox One had a definitive upper hand over the PS4 was the post release introduction of backwards compatibility to the prior generation. That has now extended to original Xbox games as well. Most of your favorite 360 games became convertible to a new system and by all accounts actually performed better than before. Not every 360 game has been made backwards compatible, sadly.

The first two Batman Arkham games which I had for 360 were not translatable likely because of the HD rerelease of the two for current gen through the “Return to Arkham” collection. I could certainly get those back on the new consoles but the port’s performance has not been kindly received so I might just find the PS3 versions digitally or at a Gamestop instead.

All the other last gen games I had were convertible onto the One including Red Dead Redemption, Spec Ops the Line, Alan Wake, Bully: Scholarship Edition, Dead Space, and Gears of War: Judgment.

If there is one request I would make of Microsoft Xbox for their next generation aside from the obvious, like stepping up the exclusives and their quality, it’s keeping backwards compatibility for prior consoles. Permanently. You started a good precedent, one which I hope Sony extends for their line of consoles.

So, now that I have written over a thousand words on why I have an Xbox One console now, what about one of the console’s newest titles, Gears 5?

Part Two: Gears 5

Gears 5 almost seems conscious of a harsh truth about its series: they know they cannot really innovate much further than they already have. Many would argue that either Gears 2 or 3 was the last game in the series to have substantial additions to the third person, cover based shooting the franchise pioneered into an industry standard.

Yet, the Fifth Gears of War doesn’t feel tired or lazy. It knows its limits and tries to further refine and polish what has been pretty good about the series for over a decade. The shooting of the various weapons still feels good, even if the recoil seems a little too strong in comparison to prior entries.

The new ability to manually reload most of your weapons at any time, to gain the damage boost from a perfect reload, which has been a feature unique to Gears from the beginning, is a welcome addition. That the damage boost runs out so quickly or if you then switch your weapon does somewhat lower the quality of that update.

The movement of the bulky and overly buff characters is better than ever though controlling their movements when coming in and out of cover can still be a pain when in relation to the position of the camera. Either that’s an unworkable issue or it intentionally stays that way for the purpose of emphasizing the importance cover has always been to the series’ identity.

I haven’t yet touched upon any of the multiplayer modes such as “versus”, which is standard fare team based fighting. there’s the fourth iteration of their influential “Horde” mode that inspired other games to incorporate a sub-game where players locally or online fight wave after wave of tougher and tougher enemies. There is the brand new mode, “Escape”, which pits three players on a literal run’n’gun mission to infiltrate an enemy base, set up explosives to destroy the base and as the title asserts, escape the stronghold before you die.

I imagine they are all good, if the online opinion of the game in general is any indication. Maybe soon I will try them out and know for myself. Of course, the main crux of the review is the story mode which continues the adventure of the titular Gears, new and old, fighting a new enemy literally in the mold of the old one, but with some new nasty tricks waiting ahead.

For newcomers or those that have nor never will play a Gears game for whatever reason, Gears of War is set on another planet called Sera that also happens to have humans much like ours. Perhaps the game not being set on Earth can explain the considerably larger body structures of most of the men and to some extent, women. Different planet, slightly different rules.

The main conflict the humans face throughout the series is fighting a seemingly hopeless war against genocidal, humanoid beings from underground called the Locust. They can best be described as a cross between the Uruk-Hai from Middle-Earth and the cinematic goombas from the terrible Mario Bros. movie, released the year of my birth,tragically. Here is a image by image comparison so you know what I’m talking about:

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Images from Pinterest, Mario wiki and Gears of War wiki

Anyway, the Locust per se are not the driving antagonists of the series any longer as they were wiped out completely in the trilogy capper that was 2011’s Gears of War 3. Upon dying from a doomsday device directed at their species by our heroes, the Gears, they instead crystallized into unbreakable cocoons and two and a half decades later reawaken as the Swarm, with new terrible classes of enemy, big and small for the humans of Sera to face.

By Gears 5, the new war for survival has become one being fought cross-generationally first with veteran characters from the last gen era, including series’ icon Marcus Fenix (still voiced by Bender Bending Rodriguez himself, John Dimaggio), Football player turned legendarily jubilant soldier Augustus Cole, soldier turned mechanical scientist Damon Baird, his fellow Gear turned snarkily loving wife, Samantha Bryne, and the sole survivor of three brothers from the original war, the ever helmeted Clayton Carmine. The Carmines are a half darkly comic, half deadly serious running gag of a family of soldiers who appear in every numbered entry and always get killed, save for Clayton, as a fan contest for Gears 3 decided whether he would live or die, not unlike Jason Todd’s Robin.

The old fights alongside the new including Marcus’ son, James Dominic (JD), Delmont “Del” Walker, JD’s best friend and practical brother, newcomer Fahz Chutani, an overly prideful and initially hate-able team-member and last but not least, Kait Diaz, whose likely catastrophic family heritage is the main focus of the story. It’s so important that she takes over as the main protagonist from JD who led in the fourth.

At the end of the last game, Kait and the Gears discovered that the awakened Swarm have been capturing humans to help breed a new, deadly army to continue their war to wipe out and replace humanity. Kait’s mother Reyna ,however, was special in the worst way possible. For reasons the game finally sheds light on, the Locust/Swarm need a human female to become their Queen, the one who influences and commands the entire species.

Reyna, and by extension Kait, seem to be part of a line that goes back to the Locust Queen from the last war, that Marcus slew to end the conflict. Kait fears that this hereditary nightmare will be forced on her and make her a catalyst for her friends and civilization’s annihilation. So soon after humanity started to successfully rebuild it, some questionable, authoritarian streaks along the way.

The game has Kait and the rest of her squad journey across the world in search of both answers to who she is as well as a deterrence against the growing Swarm threat. They’ll journey by chopper, plane and controllable skiff through snowy mountain ranges, red sand plateaus and deserts. They will fight their way through cities under siege, research facilities hidden by mountain and tropical island. They will slay hundreds if not thousands of enemy swarm and even robots, as the new automated robot defense system Baird created can be corrupted and turned right against their creators.

The weapons selection is always great, with some new additions such as a variant on the lancer assault rifle that fires missiles rather than the infamous chainsaw. One hit or miss gun, pun intended, is called the claw, which upon firing is initially unstable and inaccurate but the longer you shoot the more accurate it becomes until eventually it stalls.

The one mechanical addition to the campaign that helps give some new amount of strategy to the cycle of fighting is the new version of Jack, a cute floating robot buddy that has been a mainstay for most of the series, starting with the original. Once used only for communications and opening an endless array of shuttered or locked doors, Jack still does that as well as actually contribute to your fight for survival.

Jack, through hundreds of glowing gold components scattered throughout the four act campaign, can be upgraded to be tougher and have stronger weapons that can be activated on command by Kait following a cooldown period.

They extend to flashing, freezing and shocking opponents, as well as cloaking you and your team, pulsing the surrounding area to discover where enemies are positioned, hijacking synthetic enemies, and increasing your protection through shields of various kinds.

This new layer of strategy Jack gives to the many encounters with enemies helps open up new ways of fighting in a Gears game. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it does make Gears 5 feel distinct enough from past entries. It can also make getting through tougher areas easier, assuming you have the right abilities for Jack equipped.

Two sections of the game have semi-open world areas which involve completely miss-able bonus content, including bonus objectives, special upgrades for Jack and collectibles which help further color in the plot past and present for Gears of War. One special group of collectibles represent fallen heroes from the original three games. A bittersweet flavor of nostalgia, which is right in line with Gears’ generally balanced tight rope crossing of awesome, macho action and melancholy reflection on the costs of war.

Again, the semi-open world was probably not needed to make Gears 5 a fun new chapter for the series, but it does at least allow you to tackle how you approach a considerable portion of the campaign’s content at your pace and discretion.

Even more fun I would imagine is when you have a friend to play with as Gears 5 proudly continues the series’ tradition of experiencing the entire story mode with at least one other player at your side. Gears of War has always been the best at making story modes where your enjoyment is untarnished whether or not you’re by yourself.

What Gears 5 lacks in clear cut evolution of the series’ formula, it makes up for in a confidence to keeping and refining what is not broken about the series. Perhaps by Gears of War 6 or whatever the next one will be called, and whether it will be current or next generation, it will no longer be able to cut it for one of Microsoft’s biggest franchises.

Halo Infinite seems to be promising a mechanical retooling of the series, to help make the franchise that defined the Xbox as a true competitor stay that way or become one once more. I don’t know if making Gears 6 “Gears Infinite” is the solution either, but like the titular soldiers of this great series, it’s best for them to face that problem when they must. They will do so, chainsaws revved up and ready, I can tell you that much.

Originally posted 2019-10-12 19:58:24.

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