Gears made its reputation as a macho, linear run-and-gun shooter. Gears 5 dabbles with that reputation in the second and third acts of the game, but its failure to actually do anything substantial with the space created is one of the game's bigger failings.
I've spoken about the skiff before, which you unlock immediately after running into Kait's uncle and the firefight that ensues. The skiff, mechanically, is a ton of fun to use. That remains the case throughout the middle acts of the game.
Those two acts, one in the frozen northlands and a second in the burnt sandy wastelands, are the most ambitious for the series. As indicated by the cliffhanger ending from Gears 4, and most of the E3 and preview footage teased before launch, Gears 5 is the story of Kait. It's not until these middle acts that she takes command of the story, coinciding with the most control the series has ever put in the hands of players.
But as appealing as the idea of a Gears world unshackled by the on-rails moment to moment to gameplay is, the reality is that it's still a series of linear set pieces. The only difference is that there's more downtime between the missions, because you're required to do the travelling yourself.
Gears 5 gives you a range of side missions alongside the overarching story, as seen above in a screenshot towards the end of act three. But since the main missions are so tight-knit, there's no room for deviation. None of the missions are broken up into different parts that can be tackled independently, so the user experience is really no different from the previous on-rails Gears games. It's still a linear campaign: there's just more downtime because you're having to skiff from one side of the map to the next.
And because all of those missions are self-contained in their own areas, Gears doesn't take advantage of the extra space in any special way save for one instance (which I'll mention later). As for the side missions, they're generally quite short and mostly an opportunity to rack up components, the Gears currency for upgrading your robotic companion Jack. But each act has far more components than you'll ever need to complete the game, and the main missions have enough components in plain sight, so there's little compulsion to go wandering for more upgrades.
Most of the side missions are generally small areas without much in the way of interesting level design. They're generally like what you see above: smaller areas, sometimes with high ground like this one, sometimes not. They're no different than every other Gears 5 fight and there's little reason to engage in them, because Gears doesn't tie any of its RPG mechanics to actual fighting.
The one instance where Gears' faux open-world offered some promise came late in the third act, where you had to race a train on the skiff through the middle of a storm. It was a great set piece, but it was the only time where the larger Gears world actually played into a mission. Everything else was self-contained, so much so that it's hard to wonder what the value of the larger in-game world was.
Gears 5 has the longest and most ambitious campaign that Gears of War has ever done and, for the most part, that ambition pays off. In a series first, the story focuses on a female character, putting the player in a woman’s shoes for the majority of the game. Gears 5 heroine Kait Diaz’s journey of self-discovery introduces new complexities, both tactical and emotional, to the wider world of Gears.
There is an argument to be made that building those larger maps was a worthwhile technical achievement that will serve The Coalition well when it comes to Gears 6. Gears 5 probably would have been better served being made as a wholly linear experience, given how underused the in-game world is. But games and the technology used to build them are never created in isolation, and as one of Microsoft's oldest first party studios, the developers are almost certainly looking forward to the next generation already.