Gears 5 Preview: All Jacked Up and Ready to Go
My feelings regarding Gears 5, the latest and upcoming iteration of Xbox’s flagship franchise, can be summed up by the last five minutes of my time visiting The Coalition earlier this week. After steamrolling through over 30 rounds of Horde mode with four other newfound media friends, we all looked at each other and agreed – we needed to exchange Gamertags because this new Gears of War experience was so awesome.
That’s the magic about Gears of War, and in particular: Horde mode. It’s almost so consistently good that players might begin to ignore it over the years. How much better can it get? Gears of Wars’ Horde mode inspired a brand new sub-genre back in the late 2000’s. Think about it, anytime a squad of players defends waves of enemies in any game, we think of it as a Horde-like mode. So it’s a known quantity, right? Well, to a certain extent. Yes, you’re still fighting waves of progressively more challenging enemies. Yes, you’re still dragging the Fabricator around and yes, you’re playing with a five-person squad.
This iteration of Horde mode feels familiar, but fresh and addicting. That’s probably because Jack, the floating, cloaking robot is back from the original trilogy and is a playable character – both in Horde and in the three-player (!) co-op campaign mode. For our squad, Jack acted as a quarterback and support character. Our team collected Power from defeated enemies to fund our economy of leveling up Player Abilities and fortifying our base with the familiar assets such as turrets and traps. However, let’s not skip too quickly over that first part – Player Abilities.
In Gears 5, if I collect the Power resource, my entire team can access it via their Carrying Balance. From there, they can deposit it into the Fabricator for defensive fortifications – or they can fund their own Player Abilities. Jack became much faster on the battlefield by spending Power to level up his speed. For our squad in particular, this was incredible because Jack would scavenge the map for our favorite weapons and drop them in a central location for us. We always knew to head back to the Fabricator to find a slew of awesome new armaments.
Playing as Marcus Fenix, I fulfilled the tank role for our team. Feeling supported by Jack, in particular, I freely roamed around the map and blasted countless baddies with my Overkill. This often put me in dangerous situations so I countered this risky and dangerous approach by leveling my maximum health and regenerating ammo. By the end, I felt like I had a more direct impact on the team’s success than with previous versions of Horde because my character became more powerful. I chose Marcus for his Tank class characteristics, I chose how to enhance his abilities, and chose how to leverage those enhancements for the betterment of the squad. As a player who typically leaves the base building to my squad, this was a new, empowering feeling for me. I felt in charge of becoming more capable of handling the increasingly difficult waves.
We collected even more power by capturing Power Taps, which are mining devices scattered across the map that can be built by standing in a highlighted area for a short time. In Gears 4, I was guilty of finding the best spot for the Fabricator and staying put for 50 waves. In Gears 5, we were encouraged to move around the map to maximize our Power mining. As Power Taps appeared across the map, our squad quickly captured them, and after each wave, I raced back to the Power Tap to collect the mined Power and upgrade it to mine more power next time. These are the types of changes and additions that will never make it to the bullet-point list of new features but they change the game well enough to make it feel like a new and exciting Horde.
Gears 5 pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a Gears of War game with a clear emphasis on gameplay variety and player choice. Keep in mind, the boundaries for reinvention aren’t quite as expansive as the other GOW – God of War. We don’t see a reinvention of Marcus or Kait in the way gamers experienced with Kratos. Rather, the way we interact with the Gears franchise is now much more than the formulaic “enter the room, kill enemies, clear room, move on to the next” pattern we’ve come to know.
If Gears 4 was the undergrad to the grade school that was the original trilogy, Gears 5 feels like the Masters class on its way to the doctorate. This feels like a smarter Gears game than I’ve played in the past, with additions that feel natural to the world and the story. The conflict, the war feels bigger because the world is actually bigger.
The Coalition told us that some areas are fifty times larger than anything in the previous games. And for the first time in the series, the game has a map to help the player navigate the open space. However, it’s not fully open-world and feels more similar to what we saw in Rise of the Tomb Raider, an experience with secondary objectives and hidden areas that are able to be completed.
Smaller, new additions push Gears 5 into new territory without abandoning its DNA. With Jack, you can deploy power ups that would have felt unnatural if added to Kait’s abilities. Hijack allows Jack to take control of any enemy – be it a Boomer or Drone – to tip the scales in your favor. Additionally, Jack ages like a fine wine thanks to some RPG-lite elements, including an actual skill tree, which drastically changed my experience from the player next to me since I chose to acquire Jack’s ability that fetches big weapons. Jack was an enormous and floating toy claw machine but instead of cutesy toys, he delivered gruesome weapons into my hands.
Gears is about war on a giant scale, and everything is over the top. In the past, weapons, characters, and swarms of enemies were shoehorned into narrow corridors and room-to-room environments. In the franchise’s latest iteration, all of this changes – to the point where I was actually struck by how open the environments were and how they added to the game’s sense of scale. The conflict felt larger and foreboding, and more importantly, fun. There’s a variety in Gears 5’s gameplay that kept surprising me and wanting to move on to the next space and push the story forward. The series has escaped its on-the-rails roots in a totally natural fashion, and it’s better for it.
In my time with the campaign, I experienced a story moment that took my breath away, a combat encounter that tested my skill and imagination, and – more specifically – shot giant bus-sized icicles down to crash onto a hulking Carrier after lobbing an incendiary grenade into its fleetingly open chest. One of the game’s developers tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That grenade was clutch.” I knew he was right, yet there were a number of other ways I could have approached that encounter. I could see a Tri-Shot just out of reach and simply forgot that Jack could’ve snagged it for me to lay down the heavy. Moments like these made me evaluate my play-style and think to myself, “I’ll do that differently next time.” That’s the magic of Gears 5: looking forward to the next encounter to try something new.
Aside from the gameplay, the two areas we played through demonstrated a concerted effort by The Coalition to escape the dark, dingy caves of the original trilogy and explore more visually diverse and more appealing landscapes. We rode atop a gorgeous winter world by way of the Skiff, a giant vehicle reminiscent of both a sailboat and snowboard that feels oddly at home in the Gears universe. In the desert, sand vaporized as lightning bolts struck the surface, creating an eruption of red crystallized glass that was a sight to behold.
In Gears of War 4, players dodged lightning bolts and other weather effects during bigger encounters, which felt more like a technical display than anything else. In Gears 5, the weather more accurately matches the world it’s established on and seems to occur naturally, rather than simply showing up during an intense plot or action point.
Playing Gears 5 at The Coalition was a true honor. I had an amazing time with the Campaign, playing through two wildly different acts, one focused on story and world exploration, as the other explored various combat scenarios. Now, I anxiously await the beefy 20-hour campaign that’s teeming with new RPG and open-world elements in addition to a three–player couch co-op mode. I’m so excited to sink more hours into Gears 5’s overhauled Horde mode, which caused the room to erupt in chatter and laughter multiple times over; as well as the game’s other modes, like tried-and-true Versus, the brand new Escape mode which comes with a map builder, and a Tour of Duty to tie it all together with compelling progression.
One thing became clear to me after my time at The Coalition earlier this week: the team respects the history of the series and its fan-base, and is equipped with a deep understanding of how to move the Gears of War franchise forward. Gears 5 seems like a great step down a new, very exciting path.
Special thanks to Xbox for inviting Sean to the special preview event. Travel expenses were covered.