Microsoft’s head of all things Gears of War, Rod Fergusson, says his team is playing it less safe with September’s Gears 5 after feedback that the series’ last instalment didn’t go far enough.
“We felt like we had to prove ourselves,” he said of the team’s previous effort on 2016’s Gears of War 4. It was the first Gears game made by the then-new Microsoft-owned Coalition studio, which included just three people—including Fergusson, he says—who’d made a Gears game before.
“We really went out going, ‘OK, we’re going to stay true to what Gears is, and [not] mess with it too much,’” he said during an interview with Kotaku at E3 in Los Angeles. “We really didn’t want people going, ‘Well they don’t know what they’re doing.’
“And what we got instead was like, ‘There’s not enough innovation here.’ We sort of took that feedback about, ‘We trust you, please go push it.’ And so we really brought that to Gears 5.”
The promise of bold but careful change is common during the promotional cycle for a sequel, but it also fits with where Gears has been and where it seems to be going.
Gears of War 4 was the first main Gears instalment not made by Epic Games, where Fergusson used to work. It did play traditionally. Its campaign offered more of the series’ familiar third-person cover-based shooting, pitting a small team of heavily armoured (but helmetless) heroes and their giant guns in room after room and zone after zone of firefights against beefy enemies.
Its biggest change was its focus on a largely new cast, putting players in control of J.D. Fenix, a soldier for the ostensible good-guy faction COG and the son of the series’ longtime protagonist Marcus Fenix. Backing him up were a COG soldier named Del Walker, an older Marcus, and Kait Diaz, a somewhat mysterious woman hailing from the dissident anti-COG Outsider community.
Gears 5 moves Kait into the lead playable role, though in an interview with Kotaku, Fergusson declined to clarify if we play as her for the whole game. The campaign supports three-player co-op, up from two in the previous game.
And while we’ve seen barely anything of the campaign in the year since Gears 5 was announced, Fergusson says it’s different. “We’re really trying to find new ways to play with the formula, and not just being a hallway shooter,” he said, pointing to a moment involving a skiff from the game’s 2018 debut trailer that he said involves more player choice.
Cover-based shooting is still the focus, but Fergusson promised more options for close-quarters melee combat. He also described tweaked controls, with the series’ signature melee move—the slicing of an enemy with a chainsaw bayonet—migrating from a hold of the Xbox controller’s B button to a hold of the right bumper (tapping is still a reload).
That allows a player to keep their right thumb free to turn the game’s camera while revving the chainsaw with their press of their right pointer finger. This should make it easier to turn to chainsaw enemies, Fergusson explained.
He also said Gears 5 will encourage a greater combat focus on targeting enemy weak points and scoring headshots, noting that the game’s aiming reticle will display as white for body shots, red for headshots, and gold when players have done a perfect reload, super-charging their gun.
Even more radical is the addition of health bars to the series’ enemies, something Fergusson thinks will help players decide when to take risks to down nearly-defeated enemies. He said health bars can be turned off.
At the game’s lowest difficulty players, will even be able to lock onto enemies, a feature the series had previously avoided.
The developers are renaming the Gears difficulty levels from casual/normal/hardcore/insane to beginner/intermediate/experienced/insane. Fergusson credited series’ new director of production, Christi Rae, with changing his thinking on the names.
“At some point, everyone’s a beginner,” she’d written to him on a post-it note in the middle of a meeting. That resonated. Why pigeonhole someone as “casual” if they might simply be new to the series and starting easy?
Fergusson hypes Gears 5 as five games in one. He’s counting the campaign, the series’ signature player-vs-environment co-op Horde mode, and its player-vs-player Versus mode. He’s also counting the new three-player PvE Escape and a map-builder mode that lets users build and share Escape levels using pre-set room tiles and a slew of customisation options.
He said Gears players typically play the campaign (and most of them play solo, despite the series’ long support of campaign co-op) and then either focus on Horde or PvP. Sometimes those modes even cross over. The Gears of War 4 campaign used Horde systems for several encounters in its campaign, but it doesn’t sound like such a thing will happen in the sequel’s story mode. “I think it was an interesting experiment,” Fergusson said, “But I think the crossing the streams is not as important to me this time around.”
Horde is cool as its own thing, but matches can last hours and involve connecting with four other people. Escape is designed for 20- or 30-minute sessions with just three players as they start deep in an enemy base and low on ammo, set a bomb that emits poison gas and then try to rush out ahead of it, past enemies, to get outside and escape.
Escape uses health bars and shows damage numbers sweating off enemies as players shoot them. This is because Escape involves players levelling up their characters for that mode and equipping numerous collectible card-based modifiers that will, say, increase weapon damage by a certain per cent. Fergusson argued that players would want to be sure their upgrades are having their intended impact.
The game’s main Escape levels are being made by The Coalition and will be followed by new ones after the game’s release “at a very frequent interval.” They’re designed to be played at multiple difficulty levels, with special level “mutations” (more enemies, less ammo, etc) turned on as players race for faster times.
“We’ll reward players who are in the top X per cent,” Fergusson said. “They’ll get cosmetic rewards for doing the fastest run and proving their mastery. So I shorten it down to: get good and then get fast for both bragging rights and cosmetic unlocks.”
The powers that be at Xbox are unveiling all these Gears modes slowly and very close to release. Escape was showcased at E3, as was a video for the Escape map-builder.
A multiplayer Versus mode beta test will be made available in mid-July. Horde will be shown at the Gamescom event in August and the campaign seemingly will be held back for the game’s early September launch (the 10th for most people, but the sixth for people who order a special edition or have a top-tier Game Pass Ultimate subscription).
One of the hooks for all players of Gears 5 will be its story, which Fergusson takes a special interest in. Despite now overseeing a team of some 300 people and having obligations as a studio director, he still directs the game’s voiceover sessions and edits the game’s scripts.
He acknowledged his team bungled Gears of War 4’s ending, in which Kait holds a medallion passed down to her from her mother that many players didn’t realise was a symbol of the enemy Locust.
“The ending which was supposed to be this sort of a little bit of a cliffhanger, like ‘Where is this going with Kait’s journey?’ and ‘What does it mean with Kait’s relationship with the enemy?’” Fergusson said, though he admitted many players just didn’t know what it was. “That was something we sort of dropped the ball on.” For more clued-in fans, however, it’s been a hell of a tease, suggesting that the seemingly benevolent Kait might be a descendant of the human Locust queen from earlier games.
The game’s 2018 debut trailer showed Kait pondering the medallion, while J.D. and Del say it’s a Locust symbol (that’s the Gears team learning its lesson about being more explicit, Fergusson said). The game’s E3 2019 trailer shows Kait even more tortured, presumably about her place in the world. Her experience is what made her the new game’s main character.
“The story we were writing for Gear 5 was really Kait’s journey of discovery,” Fergusson said. “If you’re going to have a character who’s going to go through something, you want to be that character when you go through it you don’t want to watch it. I don’t sit and watch Kate go through something traumatic. I want to have it happen to the players so they feel it.”
The Gears games have always been designed to hit harder with their story than you might expect from a game full of gunfire and chainsawed enemies, but the intent with Kait’s story feels distinctly ambitious.
It’s yet another sign that Gears 5 is a distinctly large leap in a series that hasn’t taken one in some time.