The Gears of War series has proved to be one of Microsoft's hottest properties over the years. Alongside the Halo and Forza franchises, it has served as a console driver for both the Xbox One and 360.

But, that's not to say it's been as consistent as its illustrious stablemates. In comparison, the Gears suite has occasionally lacked layers and/or depth, favouring simplistic plot lines and blood and bluster over involving narratives and gameplay variety.

That's one reason why development duties on the fourth outing (Judgement notwithstanding) was handed to newly-minted in-house team, The Coalition. And, in doing so, the bar was raised a tad, at least where depth and story were concerned. New protagonists, settings and plot direction were matched with a brighter colour palette and an overall prettier aesthetic.

It presented a more modern take on Gears, not least by being the first original instalment for Xbox One. However, with a familiar linear campaign and many of the same gameplay tropes as before, it could be argued that it didn't go far enough.

That's where Gears 5 comes in. It goes far enough. In fact, it goes further than we could have hoped for.

Epic game

To begin with, the decision to switch focus to a new lead character immediately sets the game on a refreshed, welcome direction. Where the previous instalments put you in the (huge) boots of Marcus Fenix and then his son, JD, the spotlight is primarily on Kait this time around, bringing her forward from the supporting cast and making her the first female lead in the franchise.

Presenting a female perspective lends the game a more considered, less gung-ho flavour and, although it would be churlish to suggest that Kait's gender is her most important attribute, it adds something the Fenix never could. She exhibits a sense of purpose and emotion beyond machismo, gruff anger and love for shooting Locust in the face.

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This might be, in part, because she seems better written and voice acted than characters in previous games. Most of the cast do this time around and that helps drive the narrative more effectively. You feel invested in the adventure, rather than just hoping cutscenes would end so you could chainsaw another enemy to bits.

In many ways, this Gears feels as much like an Uncharted or God of War, as it does one of its predecessors. It is no longer simply big and stupid.

We'll not dwell on the story itself to avoid revealing any significant spoilers, but will say that Kait is central to everything that happens. She's not just a typical grunt you use to get from A to B, but soon becomes an integral part of the entire enterprise. And, the game is so much better for it.

Fisticuffs

That's not to say she's not a badass too. Combat is still key in Gears 5 and the duck-and-cover mechanics are as good as ever. There are also some setups and boss fights that will stay long in the memory.

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Plenty of ammo and weapons can be found throughout story and side missions, ensuring you will always have something to throw at the Locust or other enemies, and there a few new tricks to discover too. We'll again refrain from detailing them, to avoid spoilers, but we do suggest you give the breaker mace a whirl in melee at least once.

Firefights are well-tuned too, adjusting for one, two or three players. Co-operative play is on offer throughout the campaign, with chums taking on Del and other supporting characters. One of the co-op players also gets to take on the role of Jack, your helpful drone that can heal, zap and do all manner of useful in-game tasks. It's a different way to play Gears, with the option also available in Horde mode, as he can't really hurt foes that much, but is of great help nonetheless.

Even in solo play, Jack is an essential part of the experience. You can collect components throughout the game to improve and enhance his abilities, while completing side missions can help you earn new ones.

Later in the game, Jack will be an integral part of your strategy, so exploration is very much advised.

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Open (world) for business

In fact, that's another of Gears 5's most welcome additions. This is the first in the series that sports open-world sections - another nod to Uncharted and God of War.

Like those games, the open world aspect is limited. Some of the regions of play can be travelled around, with secrets and secondary tasks rewards for taking in every nook and cranny.

Once found, the side quests are often just another excuse for a skirmish, but by opening the game up this way, it feels more epic. And, as extra conversation flows during travelling, you get more background by simply scooting about. Plus, as you are given a kite-powered skiff during one ice-covered landscape, which you snowboard behind, just hurtling around and off cliff faces is often reward enough in itself.

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Crisp and clean and even

This is aided no end by a superb visual feast, especially on Xbox One X and higher-end PCs. The game looks great on Xbox One S, leaving you sometimes wondering how the developer has achieved such detail and grandeur. But, even with dynamic resolution that sometimes dips under 4K on the One X, the detail is stunning. It is one of the best-looking games on the platform by far.

In addition, it runs at an almost constant 60fps on the higher-specced console. The Xbox One S produces a solid 30fps. Both come with superb HDR colour and contrast for compatible TVs too - making even the dark and dingy sections ping with cleverly placed lighting and effects.

In short, Gears 5 is a technical triumph that looks as good as it plays.

Verdict

We must admit, we were nervous when we saw the first Gears 5 trailer a couple of E3s ago. It looked like we were going to be served more of the same and, while fans would still have lapped that up, we couldn't help feeling the industry was moving into more interesting areas.

But, Gears 5 surpasses all our expectations. It adds brains to the brawn and is, by far and away, the best in the series yet.

There have been few exclusive in-house titles from Xbox or PlayStation this year, so much was riding on this sequel's shoulders. But, like any of the COG soldiers, it has heavily armoured epaulettes more than wide enough to cope.