This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Gears 5.
Prologue: New "Limited Edition" Merch
We're doing another round of limited ZP merchandise with sharkrobot.com! We've got t-shirts, hoodies, long-sleeved shirts, and hats! Free shipping in the U.S. for orders over 60 bucks and international over 100! AND THEY'RE ALL GOING AWAY ON OCTOBER 2! JESUS CHRIST, WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?! ...Oh, right, the video.
Well, I have successfully navigated Gears of War 5's story campaign the way a Taco Bell family platter navigates its way out of a desperately-clenched sphincter, and now I have to give my impressions by spontaneously dropping dead like a coal mine canary. Oh wait, sorry, it's not "Gears of War 5"; it's just "Gears 5" now, Microsoft having apparently abandoned the idea of getting the target audience to internalize more than two words at a time. I don't think they thought ahead; what will they call the next one? "Gears 6"? Sounds too much like "Gear 6", like it's a label in a technical manual.
No obviously, the next one, they're just going to call "Gears", and the one after that "G--", but I digress. Gears 5, despite being a traditionally Xbox-exclusive franchise, came out on both Xbox and Steam, which I found suspiciously convenient. What are you up to, Microsoft and Valve? Is this a sign of battle lines being drawn for the upcoming Subscription Service Civil War? Or have the two of you realized you had more in common than you thought? "Wow, I thought I was the only one who liked squatting over the balcony and disgorging torrents of warm diarrhea onto the peasants below, and then wiping my arsehole with fistfuls of bloodstained money!"
Well, anyway. The war against the Locust, I mean, the Lambent, I mean, the Swarm, I mean, actually, I think it's the Locust again now, continues, and is showing no sign of clearing up because this game ends on an unsatisfying cliffhanger; I guess Microsoft is still paying off the death ray satellite. Again, the war has to be fought through a never-ending stream of cover battles in now-ruined-but-once-pristine urban environments, but you expected that; that's the cylinder of minced-up pork scrotums that make up the core of the sausage roll. What's different this time is that the plot mainly centers around one of those willowy ladies the franchise keeps around to juxtapose against the way every single male character is built like a Quake 1 Ogre cosplaying as an electric stove.
I wonder if this is a smart move from Microsoft's perspective though, since the usual target audience of Gears of War thinks that girls are icky and have cooties, but I can reassure you that main character Kait can very much keep up with the boys when it comes to completely irresponsible decision-making, moving like she's running through a scrapyard with an electromagnet strapped to her genitals, and participating in a constant "show how unrattled you are by making glib remarks" contest for very insecure people. Want to know how to do a Gears of War witticism? Step 1: Say something relevant but completely obvious to stir the players from the latest trance the combat put them into. Step 2: Continue talking uselessly until I hate you. "We need to go over there, and by 'over there', I mean towards that big, scary building full of enemies." "Oh, great; so what's the good news?" "Well, the good news is that I'm very handsome and glib and--" SHUT THE FUCK UUUUP!! (...) "Okay, but by 'shut the fuck up', do you mean--?" OH, MY GOD! Why can't you just accept that Joss Whedon will never hire you?
"Oh, come on, Yahtz; so far, this is all par for the course in Gears of War, and if we're five games in, they must be doing something right." Okay, Shitnose McGee; let's talk about the new things that Gears 5 brings to the formula. For one thing, RPG-style character upgrades, except not for you, hands off, Greedy. They're only for the little robot that follows you around. But effectively, they're just another of the constant entourage of NPCs we're dragging along into every battle; why can't we upgrade anyone else's level of armour or damage output? I can't get a feel for if my robot pal needs an armour upgrade, not being able to monitor their battle prowess much, concerned as I usually am with keeping myself and my six-ton clit piercing away from enemy fire.
The other new thing is open-world gameplay where you travel around in a wind-powered skiff, but before you all sit up and wag your tails, here comes a shower of qualifications like there was an explosion at the degree mill: it's only for two of the chapters, there's a maximum of about two side-quests per sandbox, and combat never happens in the sandbox. I thought it was a bit suspicious that every time we arrived at a mission area, we were obliged to get out of the vehicle and essentially pass through a fucking turnstile before enemies start showing up again. I'm thinking that the skiff and the enemies can't be in the same place at once because they never programmed the necessary interactions - i.e. the ability to plow through them and send their scattered body parts raining down like there was an explosion at the body part mill - either because of budget, scheduling, or an orgasm denial fetish.
And the end result is two great big maps full of bugger-all. The classic example of the open world that adds nothing but a commute; just that and more opportunities for characters to make glib remarks. But you know what? The sandbox maps do provide a convenient metaphor for my feelings about Gears of War as a whole, because it is a massive blank space that doesn't go anywhere and contains nothing. Except glib remarks.
If I played every Gears of War game back-to-back, I probably couldn't tell you where one ends and another begins, although partly because I'd eventually lose the power of speech; all this grand environment design and setpieces serving mind-numbingly repetitive combat is like a Magnum condom on a two-inch dick. There's one setpiece early in Gears Give that's an extended reference to the musical Hamilton, of all things; when you find yourself onstage at a theatre with a monstrosity, spotlights come on and jazzy music plays as you fight it. And as is often the case when a game starts singing at you, this could've been quite a highlight, like the ashtray maze in Control, or that number the Joker does in Arkham Knight, or the wonderful musical sound that Wolfenstein: Youngblood makes when you smash it with a hockey stick. But in this case, it just stops after a bit and we get hustled along to the next setpiece, just another grape lowered into the mouth of a fat, hedonistic emperor.
But for all its grand setpieces and constant violence, Gears of War just doesn't feel like a living world to me. It's the way every character freezes in place the moment the combat or setpiece for the current area is over, waiting for you to move to the next environment like undercover cops trying to look nonchalant until the moment the money changes hands. Eventually, you get past enough delaying tactics that the plot makes a significant turn that probably won't hold up to analysis. Oh no, the Locust have a queen again! Now they will...become really violent and attack our cities, in stark contrast to what they've been doing up to now, mostly basket-weaving and five-a-side football!
Oh yes, and every now and again, a named character dies and the tone awkwardly shifts to mawkish, melancholy brooding in a way that I'd be slightly offended by if I were one of the hundreds of implied background characters dying by the second that the main cast never bat an eyelid about. Somehow, these Quake 1 Ogres wearing dustbins have engaged in ground warfare their entire lives but never learned to deal with the deaths of people they know. They're like eight-year-olds swaggering around pretending to be superheroes after one of them gets cracked in the eye with a rock and starts crying, and everything has to stop so they can be persuaded not to tell their mum. That's the level that Gears of War operates on, but with so much bombast and pretension and enough constant fucking heroic orchestral music to make Saving Private Ryan advise it to turn it down a notch. But in the end, all I can do is laugh, and then spit, and then laugh again because there's spit all over it.
- So sick of that fucking heroic orchestral music: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I've seen Hamilton live actually, I particularly liked the bit where a dude in a crown complained about Americans for five minutes
- If in doubt, end on a wedding
Extra: Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash
As of September 26, 2019, my latest audiobook, Will Destroy the Galaxy for Cash, will be available from audible.com! It's a sequel to Will Save the Galaxy for Food, in which our down-on-his-luck space hero protagonist returns to make an exciting new batch of hilariously bad decisions!