Also available on Windows
Gears 5 is the infuriatingly named sixth game in the Gears of War series (don't forget the Xbox 360 prequel, Judgement), and it's a game that I had eagerly awaited despite then waiting a year to actually buy and play. I really came to dig Kait's character in Gears of War 4, so having her feature prominently in the promotional material really excited me even if I do hate that they randomly dropped the "of War" from the title making it look awkward on my shelf (bastards). A note before we get into the meat of this review, though; I absolutely do not count this as an Xbox Series X game. They can offer all the patches they want, if I don't see a box that says "Xbox Series X" that contains a disc that my Xbox One X won't play, it's just backwards compatible, not an Xbox Series X game. I will die on this hill.
Gears 5's campaign offers gameplay variety in a way that a lot of cover shooters' don't. A lot of the missions are the kinds of battles I love - run in with my guns blazing and my chainsaw roaring and try to send as much blood everywhere as humanly possible. Other missions have you take a stealthier approach, giving you an enormous amount of enemies that you need to thin out via stealth executions before risking an open engagement. Some missions have you exploring on foot whereas others have you traversing large distances on a skiff. The story will run you through a pretty wide array of emotions, too. There's a lot of the funny "best bro" situations that the series is known for, but there are also a few points where your heart will ache for the characters, too. The Coalition definitely knew what they were doing here from both a character development and a game design perspective. That's not to say that it's perfect - I have some issues with JD's character development over the course of the game - but all things considered, this is another excellent narrative-driven shooter.
As is usually the case with this series, multiplayer offers a plethora of options. You've got your traditional shooter multiplayer, the always welcome horde mode, and my personal favorite, the co-op campaign. The campaign's co-op allows for three players. You can choose between the two "main" characters for that given mission and Jack, the support robot. The two main characters are usually Kait and Del, but there are a couple of missions for which that varies. I played through about half of the campaign with Grant and the other half solo. I can confirm that this isn't like Destiny where it's boring and stupid to play by yourself; the Gears 5 campaign is equally enjoyable solo as it is co-op.
I played half of the game on my Xbox One X and half on my Xbox Series X. My TV doesn't support 120 Hz, but it supports 2160p60, and while Gears 5 uses a variable resolution to maintain a higher frame rate even on Series X, it does hit a native 4K in less busy scenes, and it looks absolutely beautiful especially when coupled with a solid 60 fps frame rate. As I said in my review of the new Call of Duty on PS5, I never realized just how much ray tracing adds to a game, and it's used to great effect in Gear 5. Water ripples, lighting effects, reflections, and character models all look fantastic on the Series X. If you haven't upgraded to 9th gen hardware, yet, though, don't fret; it's still an Xbox One game, and it still looks amazing on Xbox One X. Honestly, as good as it looks at native 2160p and with the new visual effects, the biggest difference you'd notice moving from One X to Series X like I did isn't even with the gameplay; it's the load times. When I died and had to reload a previous checkpoint, it literally only took a couple seconds. I've said many times to various friends that I look at the faster load times the new SSDs bring as a "nice-to-have" more than a true game changer, but man, I have to admit, it's a VERY-nice-to-have.
Gears 5 is another solid narrative experience for the series and a definite must-play exclusive for the Xbox line. The multiplayer is the same top tier experience that fans of the series have come to expect, and the integration of co-op into the campaign is done with the same smoothness that usually accompanies games produced by an Xbox studio. The enhancements on new hardware definitely aren't enough to justify dropping $500 on a Series X on their own, but if you went ahead and upgraded to future-proof (or because you're an idiot like me), it's a definite plus and absolutely the preferred way to play Gears 5. However you play, though, be it on a steroid-fueled Series X or an oversized 2013 Xbox One, Gears 5 is a truly fantastic game that all Xbox gamers need to check out.
My Rating - 4 Neps
The “pack-in game” is a longstanding tradition in gaming for console launches that, depressing, seems to have lost popularity. The Wii U is the last console I can think of that had a pack-in game, and even that was only if you bought the more expensive 32 GB model. To the best of my knowledge, no pack-in game was included with the Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, or Xbox Series X (I’m not counting the subscription games). Sure, the PlayStation 4 had The Playroom, but I doubt anyone would seriously consider that a true “game” given that it was just a few shallow mini-games and how barebones they were. PlayStation 5, however, is a return to form in this regard with Astro’s Playroom. Not only is this a cute little game that comes pre-installed on every PlayStation 5 console, but like Wii Sports and NintendoLand did for the Wii and Wii U, respectively, it also serves as a brilliant tech demo to show customers just what their new console’s controller is capable of.
Astro’s Playroom is a 3D platformer reminiscent of the genre’s 5th generation glory days. There are four worlds - each themed on one of Sony’s previous home consoles - all connected by a hub world. Each world is broken into four levels for a total of sixteen, and within each level are puzzle pieces that go into completing a huge PlayStation mural in the hub world as well as hidden collectables - models of Sony’s previous console models and their accessories - that show up as decorations in the hub world. It gives the game the feel of an appetizer-sized collectathon platformer like Banjo-Kazooie. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to bother playing the game, let that push you onto the “Yes, Please” side.
As a platformer, controls are what will make or break Astro’s Playhouse for gamers, and the controls here are as tight and responsive as I would expect from a Mario title. Describing exactly what makes the controls for this game feel so good is hard to describe, though. You know how food reviews will often talk about “mouth feel” as a metric by which to judge food? It’s kind of like that, although I’m not sure what you’d call it. “Hand feel”? “Control feel”? Whatever you want to call it, it’s that thing you can’t quite put your finger on but that just feels right with a game, and Astro’s Playhouse has that in spades. The haptic feedback vibration, the adaptive triggers, the touchpad, the gyroscopes, and the overall more ergonomic design of the controller all come together to form one of the best “feeling” platformers I’ve played in a long time, and all of this is from a free pre-installed game. Even the controller’s built-in microphone plays a role in gameplay.
Astro’s Playhouse may not show off the new hardware’s visual power like Demon’s Souls or the frame rate stability like Call of Duty, but it’s no slouch, either. The characters models are bright, the worlds are colorful, and ray tracing adds a certain flair that I never even knew older games were missing. The crispness of the detail and shine of the lighting effects, even for a short pack-in game, drive home the point that this isn’t just a stronger and oversized PS4; this truly is a next generation machine that delivers a next-generation experience in every sense. While the sound design doesn’t really show off any neat hardware features or controller gimmicks, it is absolutely worth mentioning here as Astro’s Playhouse has one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a 3D platformer. It strikes that perfect balance of unobtrusive yet addicting. It’s not Mariah Carey in November and December, but every song on this soundtrack is an earworm all the same except these songs won’t have you bashing your skull against a cinderblock wall by the end of November.
What really sets Astro’s Playroom apart from “just another tech demo” is the underlying theme of the game - an homage to the PlayStation brand’s history. Every major first party accessory for all four previous consoles and both previous handhelds is represented and honored here through the puzzle piece mural and the collectables, and for lifelong PlayStation fans, that’s got to be something special to witness. Even for someone like me who grew up a Nintendo gamer and didn’t jump on the Sony bandwagon until the last year of the PS3’s generation, it hit me in the nostalgia. That’s the thing about video games especially for us Millennials; even if you didn’t have a system growing up or weren’t a fan of a brand, you probably had a friend who did have it and played it with them. I never had a PS1 until 2009, but I played it a lot at John’s house. I never had a PS2 until 2009, but I played the hell out of it at Thomas’s house. This game is a tribute to the legacy of the PlayStation brand as much as anything else. If you have a PlayStation 5, don’t let the “Oh, it’s just a dumb tech demo” mindset deter you; this is a game in its own right, and it deserves your attention.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Windows
Call of Duty is a franchise that we all know, some of us love, and most of us are getting tired of in one way or another. Some (read: most) people play it for the multiplayer or the zombies mode. Personally, I’m in that minority that plays for the story. That’s why I refuse to touch Black Ops 4 with a ten foot pole (also their insistence on stylizing it with Roman numerals but using the wrong numerals is unforgivable to an academic like me). I admit that I’ve never been one to get Call of Duty games at launch. In the past, the only ones I’d gotten at launch were Black Ops III and Advanced Warfare, and that was because of the actors cast in the game. When I saw the trailer for Black Ops: Cold War in the PS5 presentation a few months ago, though, I was very excited. Those who know me know that while I absolutely despise Ronald Reagan with every fiber of being, I also love Cold War thrillers with every fiber of my being. When I saw a game that involved Ronald Reagan telling me to go do war crimes against the Soviet Union, I turned to my roommate, Rome, and said, “Dude, this is a game I have to get day one.” Or something to that effect.
Cold War doesn’t take a lot of risks, and that’s a mixed bag, in my opinion. They took a risk a few years ago by returning to World War II, something that I personally thought “made Call of Duty great again,” to paraphrase the outgoing American president, but critics seemed to disagree with scores being a bit lower than previous entries. On the other hand, I would argue that the exclusion of a campaign mode entirely with Black Ops 4 was a risk that I hated but review scores seemed to forgive. With that said, it makes sense that they played it pretty safe with Cold War; you’ve got your fan favorite multiplayer and zombies, but you’ve also got the campaign for us misanthropes who want to enjoy our video games free from the shackles of human interaction. The odd thing, though, and something that is definitely a frustration for me, is that while multiplayer and zombies is included on disc, the campaign is not; it requires a separate three-part download totaling nearly 60 GB. I understand the necessity to leave something off the disc as even triple layer Blu-ray discs only have a capacity of around 100 GB whereas this game clocks in at 140 GB if memory serves, but what strikes me as odd is the fact that one game mode most likely to be played offline is the one game mode that they required a download for. You already have to be online for multiplayer unless you’re playing with bots, so why not make that the download? Most people play Zombies online, so that could be the download. I don’t know exactly what the size of each of the three game modes is, so it could be that it had to be the campaign that got left off, but I find it unlikely. I think they probably just said “Most people ignore the campaign anyway, so screw it.” And, in all fairness, that’s a reasonable decision. I’m just a little butthurt about the continued disrespect that single player story modes are so often shown by first person shooters, but at least they included one.
I’ve not managed to find a game in Zombies yet, although I admittedly haven’t tried since the day the game came out; I have, however, played the entire campaign and a good bit of multiplayer, and those are both rock solid game modes. The multiplayer doesn’t really do anything new, but it does the same old same old very well. 6v6 matches keep the action pretty constant and fun, and there are a ton of attachments to unlock on various weapons. The unlock tokens from WWII are gone (I didn’t play Black Ops 4 or the 2019 Modern Warfare, so I don’t know if they were in those games), so you unlock new weapons by just leveling up. Attachments are then unlocked by leveling up that weapon. The maps are all pretty solid and well crafted for a variety of game types. The campaign is where it’s at in my opinion, though. It’s not the best campaign in Call of Duty or even the best campaign in the Black Ops sub-series, but man, it’s fun as hell. Most of the missions are really well executed but not especially creative, although I do have to give props to three missions in particular. One of the early missions - the one featured in the aforementioned PS5 trailer - involves a super dramatic car chase slash gunfight on an airstrip, and that mission feels like it was pulled straight out of an 80s action movie. There are also two side missions that you don’t have to complete in the campaign. Both of those optional missions have puzzles that you can solve to get the “best” outcome for the mission. To solve those puzzles, you have to find hidden pieces of evidence in the campaign’s required missions and then use the clues in those pieces of evidence to solve the puzzles. They’re not difficult puzzles, but they do require some logical thinking, and I found that to be a very welcome addition to the normal Call of Duty campaign. In addition to optional side missions, you also have some optional objectives that you can choose whether or not to complete in each mission, and there are a few dialogue choices to choose between. I’m not sure how much if at all the dialogue choices change things, but either way, it’s a very nice break from the normal pure linear formula, so kudos to Treyarch for that.
With the game’s performance, I played on PlayStation 5, so my experience was nothing short of breathtaking. The character models looked so photorealistic that some scenes could be reasonably mistaken for a live action movie. The frame rate never seemed to drop enough for me to notice, and the ray tracing is just...wow. I never gave ray tracing any thought before, honestly, but there’s one specific mission where you in a helicopter flying over a river in Vietnam, and holy crap, it looked stunning. The sound design is impeccable, as usual, but what really stands out is the use of the DualSense controller’s features. The haptic feedback and adaptive triggers in the PS5’s new controller are used to fantastic effect here, giving every gun a truly unique feel. You can feel in your hand the moment a bullet leaves your gun in a way that was never possible with the DualShock 4 controller, and the adaptive triggers give each gun its own unique trigger resistance. Does that really matter much? No, of course not, but it’s little details like that that will deepen my immersion more than just about anything else. The only things that deepen my immersion more than the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers did would have virtual reality and motion controls, and honestly, I think it’d take the haptic feedback and adaptive triggers if made to choose.
Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War, despite having a mouthful of a title, is quite a solid entry in the series. The multiplayer is exactly what you’d expect, and while most of the campaign is just more of the same done well, the addition of side missions, optional objectives, and dialogue choices really do make it stand out from the rest of the series even if only a bit. Truthfully, on PC, PS4, Xbox One, or Xbox Series X/S, this is just a very good game. On PS5, though, with the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, it really does feel like a great game. Maybe not a masterpiece. Maybe not an amazing game. Maybe not a system seller. But it’s definitely a great game on PS5, and I’m extremely glad I made the last minute decision to move my pre-order from Xbox to PS5.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.