Gears 5’s open world was not the innovation the series needed

Let me tell you a bit about Disturbed. The hard rock band had a string of albums that fans loved, starting with 2000’s The Sickness and going all the way to 2015’s Immortalized. Their sound never changed too much, even as their composition shifted and time moved on. They survived the nu-metal fad that they helped create and became a regular part of the hard rock scene. Then, on Immortalized, they covered a Simon and Garfunkel song and gained crossover success outside their normal fanbase. Driven by that single’s success, they released 2018’s Evolution, a hybrid album with half Disturbed songs and half rock ballads. They tried to split the difference to gain new fans and ended up pleasing no one. Playing Gears 5‘s semi-open world campaign is incredibly reminiscent of Disturbed. (Spoilers for Gears 5 and Halo 5 follow)

Gears 5 Open World | Reloading the Gnasher

As stated in our reviewGears 5 continues to provide top of the line third-person combat. The campaign’s best bits stand toe to toe with the franchise’s greatest hits, but there just aren’t enough of them. That’s partially due to the new open-world conceit, injecting two barren wastelands into the middle of a normally fast-paced single-player story. After a single act of straightforward action, you settle onto a skiff and traverse the frozen wastes. Each point of interest provides more Gears combat, but these encounters feel unnaturally short and inconsequential. You’re not always moving forward in Gears 5, and the last act fails to recover the lost momentum.

ALSO: Gears 5 Story Explained | What you need to know before Gears of War 5

It is understandable what The Coalition was going for here. The Gears of War franchise relies on an old formula that just doesn’t match with modern sensibilities. Several generations removed from the trends and inspirations that made it stand out, it just doesn’t make sense to repeat history. Releasing Gears of War 4 proved that as it failed to leave a huge mark on gaming as a whole. Since the campaign is what draws more casual players in, that’s where you have to innovate to move forward. However, there were problems with 4‘s offering that stretch far beyond outdated gameplay.

Gears 5 Open World | Wounds of the past

Gears 5 JD Fenix

As the developers realized with Gears 5, JD Fenix was not able to step perfectly into his father’s shoes. While his devil may care attitude is appealing, it’s a bland trope that can’t carry things forward. As we’ve seen with the immense success of Gears 5 on Game Pass, people still want to play Gears, they just lacked a reason to care last time around. Therefore, they made the right call by shifting focus to Kait, especially considering her interesting ties to the Locust. This drives Gears 5‘s campaign and its open-world design. Kait and Del have to hunt down her origins in the wastes surrounding Sera’s human settlements. It is admittedly cool to see another aspect of the Gears world, but that initial excitement faded quickly.

These wastelands just don’t feel filled in like you’d want an open world to be. Even keeping in mind the limited scope of this implementation, I felt no drive to explore these huge environments. Your skiff vehicle feels poorly implemented, with nonsensical physics and a slow turning radius. There are so few side missions that they don’t feel optional, especially since they give you unique abilities for Jack. You have to go out of your way to ignore these missions, and they are all busywork that gets in the way of the main story.

Gears 5 Open World | Embracing what works

Gears 5 Kait Marcus

In a perfect world, Gears 5 should have embraced what makes it unique in 2019. Linear third-person shooters are certainly not in fashion right now, but that doesn’t make them outdated. Why not focus more on the stealth system, a new mechanic that Gears 5 introduces and then does nothing with? If you want bigger environments, why not look to fellow Microsoft franchise Halo and introduce battlefields with real vehicles? Perhaps the team could work on the difficulty spikes that have popped up since we admired all dat juice in the first game? There are plenty of ways to utilizes Gears‘ strengths and the open world is not one of them.

Beyond all that, the real trick The Coalition missed with Gears 5 is how Kait’s story resolves, which does affect the gameplay. Halfway through the game, Kait finds and defeats The Matriarch, a massive Swarm foe included in a lot of the game’s advertising. After that, her tenuous connection to the bad guys ceases and she becomes just an average chainsaw-wielding COG. This goes against the end of the first act, which sees Kait take control of Swarm soldiers while temporarily captured. There’s a mechanic we haven’t seen before, and the payoff of making your new lead the queen of these monstrous mole men would be much more intriguing than reviving Kait’s dead mom for no particular reason.

Perhaps the developers felt that this reveal would be too similar to Cortana’s heel turn at the end of the latest Halo. Maybe the team didn’t want to switch back to JD as a protagonist. However, beyond the story implications, I mourn the loss of the gameplay implications of this change. Levels where you strategically summon specific soldiers and take control of generals could have been a great change of pace. Maybe I’m just the one fan of Beast Mode in Gears of War 3, but that was the curveball that the series needs. It retains the series endless torrent of action that is in Gears‘ DNA while taking the story in a direction that isn’t so damn predictable.

Gears 5 Open World | Looking towards Infinite possibilities

Ultimately, the open-world sections of Gears 5 aren’t a death knell for what is otherwise an excellent campaign. Fans will be playing the four distinct multiplayer modes for years to come, and the gameplay is just as enjoyable as its ever been. However, this larger world is a misstep, a move that screams of a lack of confidence in what you’re making. Not only does it make me nervous about what’s to come in the next Gears, but it is reason enough to worry about what 343 Industries is doing with Halo Infinite. Instead of shoehorning trends into aging franchises, Microsoft and its partners should focus on establishing a brand new open world to explore.

Or, Microsoft could just make a new Fable. That would work too.