Platform: Xbox One, PC
Despite its aggressive themes, visuals, and weapons, the Gears of War franchise has been defined by its defense. Whether you’re talking the cover-based style of gameplay that makes you methodically navigate a battleground, or the pioneering Horde mode, the series often brings the enemies to you while you and your squadmates do your best to dig in and weather the storm. While many of those elements are present in Gears 5 through the campaign, Horde, and competitive multiplayer, developer The Coalition hopes to bring something unique to the franchise with a new co-op mode called Escape.
Escape puts you in control of one of three new characters to the Gears games. Lahni, Keegan, and Mac are Hivebusters – characters who willingly get captured by the Swarm in order to infiltrate and destroy the hive. Lahni is the assault-type character, Keegan is a support, and Mac is a tank. Each character has their own ultimate ability that charges as you play; Lahni’s blade is charged with electricity, Keegan deploys an area-of-effect ammo replenishment field, and Mac opens up a shield other characters can huddle behind. These three make it a habit of infiltrating the hive, but it turns out that’s the easy part.
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After cutting free from the Snatcher that brought them into the depths, the team plants a venom bomb and the rush to get out commences. With a poison gas cloud working its way through the hive, the three hivebusters don’t want to waste any time making it to the surface. Unfortunately, that means blasting through the hive’s inhabitants. In my hands-on session, I quickly learn that ammo is a precious resource. After just a few enemies, my pistol lets out an alarming clank as it reaches my last few bullets. As I run out of ammo, I need to get up close and personal with a few grunts before Keegan activates his ultimate and I can replenish my ammo. Soon after that, I grab a Hammerburst rifle and things start picking up.
Pushing the envelope
Gears 5 represents the third game in the franchise developed by The Coalition. According to studio head Rod Fergusson, Gears 5 is where the team really gets to flex its creative muscles with the formula. “When we first took over the Gears of War at The Coalition, we were thinking, ‘Okay, we’re a new studio where only three of us have ever made a Gears of War game before,'” he says. “We felt like if we tried to do something new and drastic, people would have said, ‘That’s not innovative. You just don’t understand how to make a Gears of War game.’ For 4, we wanted to focus on making a good Gears of War game. We wanted to prove ourselves. Now that we’ve done that, my commander’s intent was to challenge expectations. How can we push this in a different way for a Gears game?”
The gas cloud is hot on our tails, as we took a bit too long clearing the first couple of rooms. We sprint ahead, wasting no time. After gaining some ground on the cloud, we stumble upon a room of grunts. As Lahni, I try and flank the first couple, but I’m spotted. Thankfully, Mac charges in with his shield ultimate to give me some moving cover. After a tense firefight we get a grasp on the situation and move on to the next area.
Progressing through the hive, we stumble upon safe rooms. These rooms don’t spawn any enemies and often offer ammo and grenades. These safe rooms also act as checkpoints, saving your progress as you work through the hive. And chances are, you’ll need it.
Escape mode requires coordination and strong chaos-management skills in order to succeed. When we reached the final room, various more difficult enemy types emerged, including a giant dual-knife-wielding monster with one weakpoint: his head. Unfortunately, he uses his knives to block his head as you shoot, and maintains constant forward pressure to get within slashing range. While I dealt with that difficult task, Keegan was swarmed by a bunch of Swarm, and Mac was abducted and subsequently decapitated by a Sire. If your teammates are killed, you can revive them, but with how fast our situation went downhill, we didn’t have the chance and we were met with a bloody “Game Over” screen.
According to head of The Coalition Rod Fergusson, the idea for this mode came from trying to make a defensive, cover-based game like Gears of War into a faster, more offensive experience. “If you’re familiar with Horde, it’s that idea that you need five players, it can take a couple hours to play, and it’s all defensive,” he says. “We wanted to have a much faster mode on a shorter timeline, fewer players so you didn’t have to get as many players in matchmaking, and it’s about a 20- to 30-minute experience each time you go through the hive. It’s all aggression; you go in, you plant a poison bomb, it chases you as you try to get out as you try to get out through the monsters. You’re actually moving forward through them, as opposed to them coming to you.”
Each hive is designed to be like a maze, bringing different challenges, layouts, and available difficulty mutators. The Coalition plans on releasing a regular stream of hives for players to explore and destroy, but even beyond that, players can use the new creation tools to design their own labyrinthine hives with a simple tile system. As the community creates hives, The Coalition may begin featuring those hives as the weekly challenges or in other capacities.
There’s going to be an exciting amount of content coming out for people to really demonstrate their mastery. – Rod Fergusson, Studio Head at The Coalition
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Gears of War game with the myriad mainstays of the franchise. While the E3 focus for Gears 5 is the new Escape mode, we do know that character abilities will play a role in Horde mode, and we have some clues about the story mode. Since the campaign is focused so heavily on Kait uncovering secrets surrounding her family, the role of protagonist shifts to her, meaning player one controls her throughout the story.
Gears of War 4 ended with the revelation that Kait’s family has some history with the locusts, and Gears 5 picks up that thread. “It’s really Kait’s journey to understand her origins and what her family is doing with this knowledge about the locusts,” Fergusson says. “At The Coalition, we believe it’s not as fun to watch someone go through something, so if you’re going to have something happen to a character, why not be that character when it happens? In continuing to tell Kait’s story, we realized it would be most impactful if you were Kait.”
Multiple Gears Turning
Studio head Rod Fergusson is optimistic about the overall state of the franchise moving forward, citing multiple new releases and several advancements since The Coalition took the franchise over in 2014 with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. “Now we’re doing Tactics on PC, we’re doing Pop on mobile… we’re on our second comic-book series, we’ve restarted our novels… the movie continues to progress. So as a franchise and an IP, even our licensing with great merch… I feel it’s a great time. It’s the year of Gears because we’re going to have three games land probably within 12 months of each other, and we have all this stuff going on in the transmedia world as well. That’s why you see us pushing the envelope and trying to change the gunplay mechanics and change some of the ways you play: to stay relevant and contemporary.”
The Coalition plans on rolling out information on the remaining gameplay modes; July will feature deep dives on competitive multiplayer, August will give players a look at Horde, and September will offer glimpses at what to expect in the next chapter of JD, Kait, and Del’s campaign. Thankfully, after that, fans won’t have to wait much longer to see how it all pans out, as Gears 5 launches on Xbox One and PC on September 10.