Whereas 2016’s Gears of War 4 felt like a greatest hits mirage of what the title’s namesake embodies, 2019’s Gears 5 has taken drastic steps to evolve the semi-stale franchise into a fresh new beast.

As the midpoint to this iconic series’ new trilogy, The Coalition’s second stab at revitalising Microsoft’s flagship series is decidedly more than one step forward. For starters, the hulking muscle-bound Fenix family no longer take centre stage. While the story in GOW4 was tightly bound around the fiery sidekick Kait Diaz, Gears 5 is brave enough to make her the primary protagonist.

It’s a bold move, but it makes sense. While it was clear from the previous game that this new trilogy was Kait’s story, it’s also made clear that this tale doesn’t require the Fenix family as anything more than an intrusion. It does take a short while to let go: the fantastic first arc of the campaign plants you back into the heavy boots of JD, but once that arc is over its all Kait from here on out.

A new primary protagonist and a slimmer title isn’t the only new thing that differentiates the fifth mainline Gears entry from its predecessors. Much like Sony’s game-of-the-generation competitor God of War, there’s an effort to burst the franchise out of its constrictive linear form and allow players to explore more open areas.

Within the four acts of Gears 5, the middle two allow you to explore vast environments that enhance the series’ lore. It’s not as intricately designed as the aforementioned Sony exclusive – the side missions here are more collectible gathering tidbits than full-on side quests – but they’re tastefully handled. Nuggets of lore are interspersed throughout these side locales: diary entries and miniscule NPC interactions help to bring Gears to life outside of chest-high walls and dirty corridors.

The dirty grey-brown aesthetic that the flagship franchise is known for has thankfully been almost abandoned outside of thematic use. Whereas New COG locations are colossal monuments of that grey concrete look and Old COG bases revel in the original trilogy’s green-grey grime, the more open locations bring a much-needed colour. Whilst the game’s visual featureset makes for one of the most beautiful games ever made, the vast colorful open locales really drive home the unbridled beauty of The Coalition’s newest work.

After 13 years of cover shooting, combat in this new entry has seen some much-needed improvements. Moment-to-moment, combat remains identical. The satisfying cover-snap and traditional movement options return alongside the smooth gunplay and ever-so-fantastic active reload, but new additions freshen up the action more than previous entries.

With a new character called Jack, a cutesy robot that can do anything you need it to, you’ll be able to use a wide array of abilities during combat. From hijacking enemies to freezing enemies in place, Jack adds a much-needed new and tactical layer to combat. Through exploration, you’ll even be able to discover powerful unique abilities.

But with all of these changes to the core of Gears of War, does Gears 5 stick the landing? Well, in terms of its campaign (our multiplayer review will go live in the coming days), this is the best Gears of War title yet. While it’s more personal story could have been longer and more in-depth, it sets up the next entry in the best way possible. By the end, stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before: on its own it’s the strongest campaign yet, but it’s also gotten us extremely excited for the eventual sixth game.

If you’re looking for a strong single-player or even co-op experience, this is the absolute best Gears can do. For a title launching on Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s AAA budget still shines high. If anything, Gears 5 proves that not only does The Coalition know how to make a solid game in the series, but they also know how to evolve a long-running franchise.