Screenshot of the opening Gears of War 5 co-op screen
Gears 5 came to Xbox One and PC in early September. A continuation of the Gears of War franchise, which has been one of Microsoft’s only first-party titles and the first Microsoft game to hit the number one spot in Japan, Gears of War is known for its co-op. While it wasn’t the first to bring in a dynamic co-op, it is the one that mastered it. Since Gears of War came to the Xbox 360 in 2006, the franchise has been a staple for friends, couples, and any other kind of pairing you can find. So, when Gears 5 was announced, I thought I knew what I was in for.
For some perspective, I have never soloed a Gears of War game. The game, while playable by yourself, loses a lot of the challenge and ease – the challenge of having to work together and the ease of dropping buggy AI. While it was announced to some ire that Gears 5 wouldn’t have 4-person co-op, the prospect of 3-player was enough to keep me excited. It’s perhaps that excitement and the long-standing positive reputation that the franchise has had in terms of co-op play that has led to many reviewers to ignore the large glaring issue in the Gears 5 co-op: it sucks.
I’ve long left the days of gaming by myself and instead opt to play games with my husband in co-op or my community in multiplayer. So, with the releases and announcements of so many amazing co-op titles like Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Borderlands 3, and even Square Enix’s Avengers, I have been on gaming cloud nine. Then, on my one day off of the week, I sat down to boot up Gears 5. I had played Horde already, which was extremely fun – even if it’s still much of the same of what we see in other installments. I’ve seen hours of Escape mode, the new game mode introduced in this title, and of course, the traditional Versus mode holds all the regular excitement and trappings of the Gears of War franchise. I wanted to play co-op, and I wanted to fill the team, as I had done in other games.
The Gears 5 campaign is split into four sections called acts, and each act has multiple chapters, resulting in 15 total chapters to be played through. At the start, you select your character and difficulty. Since once of my friends had already soloed the first act we jumped into expert since he explained that the difficulty was extremely easy and he thought it would get easier as he added in two more people who are infinitely smarter than the AI, as is the case with most co-op games that can be played both alone and with friends.
Right off the bat I was worried. As the guys, my podcast co-hosts, rolled into their picks, JD and Del, I was left with Dave…the robot. Now, they rolled into these characters because we had the assumption that I would roll into Kait in Act II and they could keep the progress on those characters. Then, after a few hours, I did something I haven’t done in a video game in a long time, I rage quit. As we progressed through the chapters, even with my husband searching for all of the component parts, the currency used to update the robot’s skills, it never felt like enough.
In three separate instances, your job as the robot is to hover and just kind of guide the other players as they stealth kill their way through a sea of motion-triggered robots, watch as the others shoot grenades at mini-bosses while unable to fight because your little zapper has to be used at close range, or just kind of wait in an area because you can’t make it through the crouched entrance. It was all extremely frustrating as a player and as a fan of the franchise.
Instead of booting up my game, becoming a COG, and chainsawing every swarm insight, I got to zap a couple, apply a “stim” spray to JD and Del so that they could keep fighting, and ultimately, fall asleep at my controller because my existence had little impact on the game. I had hope that I would just make it to the end of the first act and then we could roll into the COGs and get in the fight and actually play together instead of the guys playing together while I hovered and looked cute in the background – the robot is useless but adorable.
While the robot does receive upgrades and a full skill tree in the game, it’s hard to believe that they will ever be enough to replace the joy of using a lancer, performing executions, or honestly, even messing up a duck into cover. I was upset to say the least. This was only amplified when I realized no matter how far I played in the game the third player would always have to be a robot. While you begin as JD and Del, Act II sees you move to Kait, Del, and the robot. That is not okay. It also isn’t something that reviewers have pointed out. Instead, they’ve focused on the story and the single-player experience. While that is all well and good, reviewing a game that helped build the co-op standard, you need to talk about the co-op.
Luckily, I got Gears 5 through the Xbox Ultimate Game Pass so I can’t complain about the price. That being said, the main excitement and purpose of getting the game was to play with my husband and our friend because even though we record together weekly, our lives have become so busy that we haven’t played games together. Gears 5 co-op was supposed to be that. While we still can play together with Horde mode and Escape, the campaign in the Gears of War series has always been amazing to conquer with friends, and all three of us wanted to do it together.
While this isn’t game-breaking, since running a duo works just fine and gives you the experience you’re looking for, this does prove why co-op games deserve co-op reviews. Or, more accurately, people who play co-op and pick up games for the feature deserve to get the full picture of what co-op experience they’re buying. Before launch, the vast majority of all promotion for Jack, the new robot which replaces Gears of War 4’s Dave, was focused on his improvements from the last game.
But in these announcements, the fact that you must play as the robot for the third person in your squad was not mentioned. Upon launch, there have been many articles that explain how to play Jack, upgrade him, find the locations of components, and ultimately how to make him overpowered. That said, before launch, major sites, and demo reviews featured none of this information (as noted by GameRant) and it took a lot of reaching to connect that the Jack announcements were in fact co-op play announcements.
Add in the fact that almost every cinematic transition jarringly cuts jack into the spot where the human players moved, the 3-person co-op feels forced at best and non-existent at worst. The fact that the cinematics are so poorly optimized for a non-human playable character is frustrating and that only touches the surface of the faulty mechanics and moments in the game’s campaign, including enemies not spawning which forces a restart, audio problems, and of course, glitching through certain areas while hovering around as Jack and getting stuck in ceiling textures.
Ultimately, when the co-op used to its fullest potential it loses the gory magic of Gears for one of the players, and the failure is on Coalition. But, it’s also up to game journalists to report on it; to review the intended features of the game and explain whether they hit or miss the mark. With many more co-op games coming out in the last quarter of the year, there is a lot of improvement to be made in covering the intention of the game. For players like me, it’s of the utmost importance.
One of the reasons a single player may not notice this imbalance in character choice for the 3-person co-op is because in each part of the first act you are in a large group of cogs. In total, you are in a group with Marcus, Kait, Cole, Fahz, or Lizzie at any given time. My husband said it best as we started the playthrough, “Why can’t I just play as Marcus or Kait, they’re right there.” This element is frustrating and can easily make some solo-players think that there isn’t an issue.
Even while Gears 5 co-op still offers a fun duo campaign and Horde mode, Escape, and Versus, all of which all for great community play, the lack of a dynamic 3-person co-op left a bad taste in my mouth. Had the franchise not built itself on co-op experiences and had it not marketed itself as 3-person co-op, there wouldn’t be a problem. But when I loaded in with a squad for the Gears 5 campaign, I was doing so to play a COG, not a robot. While you are able to upgrade him throughout the campaign, no amount of upgrades fulfills the reason I play Gears of War games. I want to chainsaw, I want to duck and cover, and I don’t want to be a robot.