One of the most important plot points in Gears 5 (no “of War”, this time—it’s cleaner) involves melting ice. You’re isolated in a snowy tundra, a series of frozen ridges and sheets of ice covering what lies below, and you need to go down. So your job becomes to find a way to melt or blow up that ice, revealing a path forward that is also a path precipitously downward. Starting with thinkers like Freud, ice has been used regularly as a metaphor for the deeper, darker parts of our mind, for traumas buried and covered over with a placid surface. Traumas that need to be unearthed.
The Gears series, at the margins, has always been interested in that kind of thing. Its stories of big, gruff warriors are laden with subtextual layers of trauma, of old wars that bleed into the new and inform them in ways that slowly reveal themselves as you learn more about Sera, the not-quite-Earth that serves as the series’ setting. Gears decided, very early on, that if it was going to be a series of videogames about big, violent wars then it was going to at least try to care about the toll those wars take on the people who fight them and the world in which it’s fought. Gears 5‘s strongest contribution to its parent series, and its strongest moments as a game, come through the way it re-centers those questions of trauma, of melting ice, and the way it uses those questions to offer a new perspective on its world of war.
Gears 5 begins by focusing on JD, the son of badass gruff manly man Marcus Fenix, who was the protagonist of the first generation of games. But it quickly switches perspective to focus on Kait Diaz, a side member of the new generation of heroes who has always been the most interesting part of her trio. She’s an outsider, part of one of the many small communities of people who didn’t want to assimilate with the COG, the government that consolidated global power during a war with the monstrous Locust. Now, the Locust are back in a mutated form as the Swarm, and Kait, along with many Outsiders, has been forced to join up, fighting as part of a global, arguably fascistic military in the hopes of saving the human race from the onslaught.
As such, Kait is in a divergent position, a fighter struggling to protect her loved ones while also being personally very aware of the evil things regularly done in the name of that protecting. She knows the cost of the COG’s militarism, and when, at the outset of her story, she finds herself out in the wilderness beyond the government’s protection, she is a compelling window into both the good and the bad of the world of Gears.
From Kait’s perspective, the player explores that tension in a vast snowy mountain range and an equally open desert full of rotting relics of a civilization virtually destroyed before the Locust even emerged. These limited open-world segments, which make up a large portion of the single-player campaign are shot through with bits of quiet exploring, and an air of melancholy as Kait discovers lost secrets of herself and the COG. Much of the story work here feels like a revision of the older games, taking deep lore that hardcore fans would already know and reshaping it to explicitly include Kait’s outsider perspective, making the gritty sci-fi world-building feel weighty, intimate. In the game’s best moments, its frenetic gunfights are surrounded by a feeling of watching ancient tragedies burst through the ice beneath these characters, threatening to swallow them up. It’s surprisingly sad, and reaches a subtle but effective tonal balance, despite being a game about extreme violence. The color-scapes help: wide tableaus of stark white punctuated with red gore and green undergrowth, barely holding on; endless red dunes. War is endless in Gears 5, and it’s exhausting.