Gears 5 AAA epic journey The Coalition personal narrative Kait JD Del

Gears of War isn’t a franchise known for subtlety. While the first entry’s reveal trailer promised a bleak yet poetic world, the majority of the series is more akin to a Michael Bay movie crossed with Chronicles of Riddick — excessive, crass, nerdy, and extremely passionate. Yet with the series revival of Gears of War 4 and Gears 5 under The Coalition, something fascinating happened. Gears grew up and figured out how to make that M for Mature mean more than blood and guts.

Gears of War 4 was a marked storytelling improvement, taking its predecessor’s emphasis on set pieces and close-quarters combat to offer a surprisingly small-scale journey. JD Fenix, with friends Kait and Del in tow, was nothing like his old man Marcus. He was pleasant, crack-wising without despair, and was willing to take whatever risks necessary to protect those he cared about. In essence, he’s Nathan Drake in power armor. At the time it felt like The Coalition was playing it safe, but with the benefit of hindsight, Gears of War 4’s sense of familiarity was a masterstroke of subversion if ever there was one.

You see, while Gears 5 was billed as being Kait’s turn in the starring role, it doesn’t start off that way. Instead, Gears 5 puts us right back in JD’s COG fatigues as the resurgent Locust horde encroaches on the last cities of humanity. The COG army is struggling to stem the tide and relaunch their Hammer of Dawn weapons satellites from their last war with the Locust. After managing to at least get one online, they’re off to save a task force trying to evacuate a city.

This time around, JD and company are joined by the latest Carmine, Lizzie, and unlike her late uncles, she’s every bit the effortless badass to warrant her own starring role. Everything’s going fine too, until JD has the brilliant idea to unleash the COG’s only Hammer of Dawn despite being told repeatedly that it’s not ready. After an entire preceding game where breaking the rules was the way to go, JD gambles with everyone’s lives, and Lizzie pays the price as the beam tears through her truck. To make matters worse, we come to learn through JD’s newest squadmate Fahz that he’s not as squeaky clean a protagonist as we thought, including being responsible for COG forces opening fire on human protestors.

It’s in this moment we can see Kait and Del realizing the man they’ve fought alongside, a man they called friend, isn’t who he says he is. That behind all the bluster and jokes is someone deeply problematic, and when it all comes crumbling down, four months later, JD’s worst side is showing. This is when we step into the boots of Kait Diaz, after Gears 5 has summarily torn to pieces everything traditional in a third-person action game. And that’s just the first two hours.

While all this is playing out, Gears 5 naturally establishes Kait’s blackouts and issues with psychosis in the background. JD’s so focused on being the big hero that he doesn’t overtly respond to it, but his father Marcus does. Marcus is the only person who’s figured out that Kait is the granddaughter of the Locust Queen, Myrrah, and that Kait might still have that connection to the Locusts running through her blood. Everything is established without grinding the experience to a halt or revisiting past events. Outside of an optional prologue video to refresh your memory on specific plot details, Gears 5 sets the stakes and upends the table in an effortless opening.

Gears 5 AAA epic journey The Coalition personal narrative Kait JD Del

It’s this spectacle and horror that Gears is known for, yet it’s maximized to its fullest at key moments, primarily at the start and finish, rather than repeated everywhere. Once Kait and Del start on their journey to discover the origins of the Locusts and seek a way to end this new swarm before it’s too late, everything becomes subdued. By series standards, the two hub areas that Kait and Del search through are massive, each boasting multi-part side quests you can pursue or ignore at your leisure. There are also moments of downtime in non-hostile areas, just enabling exploration of the world so that the story can breathe.

Kait’s quest is humbling and, save for Del’s presence, incredibly isolating. The howling winds of Mount Kadar’s frozen wastes and the bitter desert storms of Vasgar aren’t simply there for show, but their own unique challenge to navigate. You have to sail across them with an air glider, dynamic weather able to turn against you at a moment’s notice. It’s not The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but Gears 5 is packed full of flourishes like this that make its world feel inherently more alive.

Gears 5 doesn’t just feel like a series of wide levels where you’ll find some sort of experience points for a mandatory progression system. In fact, the only progression available is for your robot buddy JACK and is an optional tactical advantage rather than mandatory.

Instead, the priority is on narrative design above all else. What weapons are available, whom you can talk to, why things flow the way they do — it’s not purely in service to a predetermined gameplay element or emotional beat, but what it all conveys in unison. Gears 5 is the sort of cohesive, lavishly detailed craftsmanship AAA games offer when at their best, and it does so with gusto.

Gears 5 AAA epic journey The Coalition personal narrative Kait JD Del

Early on, the latent spirit of Myrrah reaches out to Kait through the Locusts. You spend a brief section playing as various Locust units, with a twist. Gears 5 doesn’t tell you whom to attack or what to do as these Locust. Maybe you’re conflicted and stumble about until someone shoots you. Maybe you instinctively try to attack the other Locusts and discover that friendly fire isn’t disabled like when playing normally. Or perhaps you instinctively play along and tear into the human threats that keep attacking you.

While the conclusion of the segment is the same, leaving Kait guilt-ridden, player agency isn’t lost and it’s made clear in the end that Kait’s control was slipping with every new unit she controlled. This is how you tell a story while letting the players provide their own flourishes. It’s absolutely brilliant, making for a crucial moment in her character development that fuels her desire to rid herself of any connection to the Locust.

Gears 5 practices due diligence in terms of respectful representation as well. Kait might just be the first female indigenous nations protagonist in a AAA video game, in addition to being her own hero rather than playing second fiddle or just serving as a love interest with a gun. She also has clear mental illness but isn’t stigmatized for it, nor are her struggles trivialized. Characters take the reality of her struggle seriously without belittling her, and when JD threatens to do so, Del is the one to call him on his bullshit without hesitation.

Speaking of Del, the what-would-be sassy black friend gets to have a personality with his own wants and goals. After an entire game of riding JD’s coattails as the Gus to JD’s Shawn Spencer, Del is Kait’s partner. They’re equals to the end, relying on each other in every way while supporting each other. Del’s a nerdy, kindhearted man who just found out that his so-called best friend was lying straight to his face. He needs direction and time to figure out how to forgive JD, as well as atone for the mistakes he and JD made in years past.

Gears 5 AAA epic journey The Coalition personal narrative Kait JD Del

This level of texture and detail extends to damn near the entire cast. None of the main party, even JACK, is a piece of emotional furniture. They all have something to contribute to the plot, leaving a mark no matter how brief their time on screen may be, which is fantastic as Gears 5 is a celebration of the greater Gears universe. From callbacks to previous games, even Gears: Judgement, to the fact that all the original actors reprise returning characters, it feels like a fan’s dream brought to life.

What cements all this is that nothing feels out of place. You aren’t forced off the main path, just offered some side servings if you’re so inclined. Every cameo and surprise return adds to the story, feeling significant rather than blatant fan service. It all adds up meticulously to a personal narrative about overcoming trauma, guilt, and the sins of one’s family, and it actually works.

You feel every emotional beat when it hits. The gameplay can be amazing one moment and terrifying the next. A character might warrant disgust one moment only to get a laugh out of you an hour later. It tackles complex themes and expands the horizons of what can be said within even a mainstream framework like Gears of War.

Gears 5 is not only an achievement by The Coalition’s team, but a fundamental example of how to harness everything the industry’s top studios can offer with cohesive vision, clarity, and a razor-sharp focus. Even in its final moments, it delivers a gut punch that’s left countless COG soldiers champing at the bit to put an end to the Locust menace whenever Gears 6 launches. This is what we should expect from a great AAA experience, and I can’t wait for the new story campaign on the horizon for early next year.

Elijah Beahm
Elijah’s your Guy Friday for all things strange and awesome in obscure gaming. He spends way too much time talking about such things on Twitter @UnabridgedGamer and his YouTube channel The Unabridged Gamer.

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