Gears of War used to feel like a much bigger deal. When Epic Games was publishing the series on the Xbox 360, nobody would shut the hell up about it. And for good reason, honestly. There was something special about the original Gears of War trilogy. It wasn’t the corny, overdramatic storytelling, or the big, chunky characters that all looked like cartoon wrestlers. The way it played, though, felt distinct. No other shooter was like Gears of War at the time. And the effort Epic Games put into creating a mythology for its flagship shooter felt substantial as well. But with Gears of War 4, the series’ clout seemed to drop significantly. As we head into Gears 5 in September 2019, it looks like new developer The Coalition is taking things in a new direction. And that direction may be a little more hardcore, a little more insular, a little more nerdy. That might be a good thing.
Gears of War 4 was a fine game, a game that was totally serviceable and played like one would expect a new Gears of War game. But it played things very safe, sticking to things like familiar setpieces, weapons, enemies, and characters. Despite focusing on a new central cast, The Coalition still dragged Marcus Fenix out of retirement and made him a huge focus in the story. As a result, it was a bit of a struggle to make the new characters serve a purpose other than moving the story forward. Meanwhile, the multiplayer mode was still classic Gears, but was laden with microtransactions, random loot purchases, the whole current gen shebang of nonsense that everyone has had enough of today. Overall, the vibe was that Microsoft and The Coalition were trying to cast a wide net with its new Gears of War, and that seemed to backfire by resulting in a game struggling to stand out.
Gears 5 appears to be changing that by swinging for the fences. But, doing so in a way that is aimed squarely at the series’ fanbase, rather than trying to capture the mass market. Any wider reach seems like an incidental goal, a nice bonus that will hopefully be fueled by positive reception from the target audience. Part of that vibe is captured right in the title, which officially drops the “of War” part. This is Gears, you probably know what that is, and if you don’t you probably shouldn’t bother. That’s what that title says. But it’s also the story, which seemingly is now setting off on its own path, committing fully to the previous game’s cliffhanger ending.
At the end of Gears of War 4, supporting cast member Kait revealed she has a pendant with the Locust insignia on it. Ostensibly, this connects her past to the Locust race, perhaps genetically. While Kait was a supporting character in Gears of War 4, in Gears 5 she’s the primary protagonist. Instead of a group of ragtag soldiers dealing with an invasion, it looks like Gears 5 will be about someone figuring out who they are, and coming to terms with it. It’s an internal conflict more than an external conflict, a totally different approach, one that holds the door wide open from a storytelling perspective. Also, this is a path that will really draw from and add to the Gears of War lore.
And hey, if what you really care about is multiplayer, Gears 5 is bringing that too, but going even bigger. Co-op will be three instead of two-player, season passes and loot boxes are gone (replaced with a Fortnite-style season/reward structure, naturally), and new mode Escape adds a new way to play with friends in addition to the usual fragging and Horde modes. It’s what you’re familiar with, but more!
Gears 5, at the end of the day, is an attempt to kickstart a dragging engine. Gears of War is a huge IP as it has ever been, but the mindshare definitely cooled after the fourth entry. But everything was cool with the Xbox One during that time. Microsoft has been more aggressive and more interested in quality and hardcore appeal lately. Gears 5 looks like it could be the poster game for that shift in mindset. We’ll see how it shakes out in September.