Ever since its introduction in 2006, the Gears of War franchise has emphasized an in-your-face attitude few other competitive shooters carry with them. Whether you're popping heads with a sniper rifle or literally chainsawing your opponent in half, Gears of War's competitive multiplayer suite has always catered towards the more aggressive playstyles. Because of this, the online versus modes have sometimes been unwelcoming to newcomers. Developer The Coalition wants to change that, but at the same time double down on its hardcore community. I traveled to Atlanta, home of Gears 5's esports partner, Eleague, to get first hands-on with Gears 5's competitive multiplayer suite and talk to the team about how they're walking the tightrope of appealing to both sides of the spectrum.
A Welcoming Invitation To Test The Waters
Encouraging newcomers to jump into the fiery gauntlet of competitive multiplayer can be tough for an established series like Gears of War. However, through the introduction of a new "hero shooter lite" mode, as multiplayer design director Ryan Cleven calls it, The Coalition is giving players a breezy and approachable mode that relies on strategy and ingenuity nearly as much as it does skill. In the spirit of attracting a more casual audience, The Coalition has coined this mode "Arcade."
"We wanted to make sure it was a mode that was familiar to people who had played Gears before, but also opened up a whole new style of play that wasn't just shotgun gameplay," Cleven says. "We wanted something that had a bunch of different playstyles where people could find one that worked for them, and they could recognize which character has what guns and they learn these things. Arcade really is something you could jump in and have a whole variety of experiences, not just get shotgunned in the face like Gears is known for. With Arcade, it really opens it up to a lot of different types of combat, and it's a little bit more lighthearted than the regular Gears of War."
While the loadouts are definitely important to how the match plays out, I noticed the biggest swings occurring when players effectively used their upgrade purchases. In one instance, I was stranded behind enemy lines with three opponents quickly closing in on me. I took shelter behind one of the series' trademark waist-high walls, but they were onto me, and it was only a matter of time before they closed the gap and blew my head off. I equipped my Gnasher shotgun, hoping to just take one of them with me, but I noticed I had a pile of skulls to use, so I quickly pressed the Y button to show the upgrade menu, then with a single press of the d-pad, I acquire and equip a powerful RL-4 Salvo rocket launcher. Without warning, I emerge from cover with the hulking launcher and blow all three enemies to bits. Moments like that, where the very complexion of a situation can be altered with the unique systems, are what make Arcade mode feel distinct and special.
Arcade isn't the only way Gears 5 attempts to make competitive multiplayer a more welcoming place for players. Gears 5 utilizes both a new ranking system, as well as new matchmaking A.I. that learns how to put players together in real time based on ping time, skill, and wait times. This means players will be matched based on which other players are the best fit in that very moment.
"We're going to have better matches for everybody all the way through this," Cleven says. "We'll be able to put people of really similar skill levels together really quickly around the same data centers, and they'll have better matches than they've ever had before. That means they're always going to find an experience that's enjoyable but still challenging. Through that skill system, as they get better, it's going to create matches that are appropriate to where they are now. Then, whenever they jump to a new game mode, it's going to relearn how they play, then craft matches based on how they're performing in that mode as opposed to just a global system."
Explicitly attempting to court a more casual fan base may seem like it will inevitably alienate the most hardcore players, but The Coalition has even more in store for its most skilled competitors. Starting with big changes to its esports-focused Escalation mode, which was introduced in Gears of War 4, and extending to sweeping meta changes that make the Lancer and other rifles more viable, skill-based options in battle, the competitive suite looks to cater to the series' die-hard audience like never before.
The core of Escalation remains largely intact: Two teams of five duke it out for control of three areas on a map over the course of several rounds with standardized loadouts. Now, instead of only the losing team placing the same powerful weapon for the two teams at the end of the round, both teams get to pick a weapon to spawn on the map in the next round. In addition, teams have upgrade trees, which allow for more powerful weapons to appear from round to round.
"This really lets teams express their own strategies instead of the more limited approach we had with [the first version of] Escalation," Cleven says. "With this enriched meta of being able to place the weapons you want, upgrading your own loadout weapons, and being able to deny the other team weapons, it really allows for a much more expressive meta."
In the first iteration of Escalation, players would respawn after death based on a timer. Each round, that timer would increase. However, in Gears 5, that system is turned upside down. Instead of automatically respawning, players are given a limited number of respawns to use during the entire match. That means if a round is close and you die, you can choose to consume one of your respawns to return to action and hopefully secure the round for your team. However, if it's a blowout one way or the other, you can preserve your respawns and either rest on your team's laurels or live to fight another day depending on the situation.
"We wanted lives to matter," Cleven says. "Every life the player is putting on the field, they get to choose if they want to respawn, so they better make it count. It's about momentum; at the beginning you have five respawns, and if you lose them, you can lose momentum, and the other team's going to know it and they're going to force you to play out your lives in ways you don't want to so you'll ultimately end up empty on the field."
As I play through Gears 5's upgraded Escalation mode, it's clear that communication and coordination is critical to success. Playing alongside top-level Gears of War players, I hear constant chatter about which hill to contest and which to concede. It's obvious that with this level of coordination and how fast-paced it is, it's a mode best enjoyed with a team you're familiar and comfortable with.
According to Cleven, Escalation isn't built for players to jump right into, but rather a potential final destination for Gears 5 versus players. "If you imagine a ladder or a pyramid, [Escalation] definitely is the top end for skill in the game," Cleven says. "Going from [tutorial mode] Boot Camp into Arcade, where you can jump in and jump out, learn all the weapons, you can go into our core modes, which are our more classic modes. There you'll see all the deeper, regular mechanic skills that you'll need for Escalation. Then, after you've been playing for a while, you've met some people online or you've brought some friends along, you've started to put together a smaller group of people that you play with regularly, you move into Escalation, and that's where you really demonstrate your mastery of Gears of War. We don't see it as, 'Hey, you're going to jump right into Escalation.' What we want to do is take you on a journey from never having seen Gears of War before, expose you to the basics, build your skillset up, and allow you to express that in Escalation."
Keeping It Together
While Arcade and Escalation were the emphasis on my hands-on time with Gears 5's multiplayer, I also had the chance to play a bit of a Gears mainstay: King of the Hill. While this isn't an all-new mode like Arcade, nor does it feature the game-changing alterations of Escalation, the multiple matches I played reminded me just how much fun the pre-existing multiplayer modes already are. In addition to Arcade, Escalation, and King of the Hill, players can also look forward to other modes like Arms Race, Dodgeball, Execution, Guardian, Team Deathmatch, and Warzone.
To top it all off, The Coalition has changed its approach to post-release content. Gears of War 4 gave every map to players for matchmaking, but if they wanted to have it for private matches on dedicated servers, they needed to purchase it. Gears 5 does away with even that requirement, giving every player the entire collection of maps, whether in matchmaking or on private servers, for free.
"That was one of the most successful things we did in Gears of War 4: making sure everyone had all of the maps for matchmaking," Cleven says. "That's a really healthy thing for keeping the community together. Even in Gears 4, we knew that splintering people to who have which DLC just isn't healthy for an online game. We think that's definitely something that we've seen in community sentiment as well as the data we've seen with the game."
Additionally, the way players earn content is split into three separate categories. The Tour of Duty is a category of free items that are exclusively earnable through completing specific objectives in-game. Supply is another category of free items that are doled out on the basis of time played in Gears 5; while the milestones aren't finalized, players can expect to receive a single piece of customization for every hour or so of time spent playing. The final category, the Store, uses a purchasable, premium currency called iron. This paid content category consists of cosmetic customization content. Content in each category is exclusive, meaning you can't spend money to earn items in Tour of Duty, just as you can't earn items in the Store through in-game objectives.
However, multiplayer hero characters introduced after launch will eschew that notion, meaning they can be either earned or purchased. The reasoning for this is because a new character goes beyond cosmetic elements to deliver gameplay across various competitive and cooperative modes; unlocking or buying a hero character adds them and their new class to Escape, Horde, and Arcade. This process allows players who want to earn the character without spending money the ability to do so through gameplay, but also lets those who may not have the time to go through the requirements to just spend the money to add that character to their roster do so.
"We've gone through the entire RNG pack-based ecosystem inside of Gears 4 into this direct purchase, no lootbox-for-purchase monetization style in Gears 5," Cleven says. "We think that's much closer to what the community is looking for. We think we're actually ahead of the industry there in terms of letting go of some of the things people don't like and really giving people the experience they're looking for."
With such a large collection of competitive modes, some of which feature big changes, it's easy to forget Gears 5 also features the other two pillars the franchise has featured since 2008's Gears of War 2: campaign and Horde. In addition, the team introduced a fourth tentpole mode at E3 2019 in the new PvE Escape mode, as well as new map-building and sharing tools. The map builder will launch with support for Escape, but the team wants to expand it to competitive and Horde soon after launch. Cleven says the team would love to see what kinds of Horde and versus maps the community can come up with.
"We want to learn from the community and how they want the map builder to grow," Cleven says. "You'll always have to use tiles like Escape's map builder, but we can imagine experiences that we as designers that make Gears of War would never think of because of the giant amount of creativity that exists within the community. We want to harness that, so we definitely want to bring map builder to all the multiplayer modes as soon as we can."
Gears 5 represents the largest and most diverse collection of modes in the history of the franchise, something Cleven says was only accomplished through strong teamwork. "Gears 5 is the largest Gears of War to date; it's the largest campaign ever made, the largest PvE ever made, the largest versus ever made," he says. "The team at The Coalition is an extremely talented but focused team that believes in this game. They're extremely passionate about bringing their mark, a high degree of quality, and a legacy that Gears fans will recognize. There is no magic bullet; it's trusting the people around you. [Studio head Rod Fergusson] has this saying he repeats every time we start a new project: 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.' That's something we really believe in at the studio. We believe in trusting each other so we can get efficiency out of that."
We don't have to wait long to see how The Coalition fares with its ambitious endeavors, as Gears 5 launches on Xbox One and PC September 10.