Gears 5 'Versus' multiplayer test shows piles of potential

I've been a Gears of War fan for a long time. Campaign, multiplayer, Horde, I love it all. So when Gears 5 was first revealed, I was ecstatic. Everything The Coalition has talked about since seems fantastic: a bigger campaign with Kait as the protagonist, big changes coming to multiplayer, and more. Naturally, when the Versus Tech Test opened up, I dove in headfirst.

Boots on, soldier

Before being allowed into any of the multiplayer modes, I was thrown into Bootcamp, a tutorial designed to introduce new players to how things work. As I made my way through the Bootcamp, I was immediately impressed. For starters, this game is gorgeous. It's 4K 60 frames per second (FPS) on Xbox One X, so every detail looks immaculate and it feels wonderfully smooth. On top of that, the HDR used here isn't just good, it's downright sublime. Gears of War 4 was no slouch but The Coalition has completely blown their prior work out of the water. Highlights on the characters' armor, reflections, explosions, it all looks stunning.

The controls are also fantastic. Gears of War pioneered and defined third-person cover-based shooting, and I've often referred to Gears of War 4 (a game I really like and have spent hundreds of hours in) as "mechanical perfection."

Here, it feels like The Coalition has taken that rough-hewn, well-functioning machine and refined it. The controls are (mostly) the same but they feel and look so much better. Animations are smoother, more realistic and gameplay as a whole feels slightly faster.

On top of that, the Bootcamp is to be praised. Not only is it a well-done tutorial, it's one of the few in recent years that doesn't ever feel pedantic or insulting to the player. There's even a fairly valid in-game reason for an experienced soldier like Del to be going through such basic training. Every time you finish a section of Bootcamp, it asks if you want to repeat it, so if someone new to the series doesn't quite have a hang of everything, practice makes perfect. Even having gone through every single prior game multiple times, this didn't feel like it was insulting but should still be incredibly easy for newcomers to understand and learn from.

Welcome to the Arcade

In Arcade, getting any kills or major assists will earn you Skulls. You can earn extra Skulls for special feats, like performing an execution or taking out multiple opponents in a very short amount of time. Earning those Skulls lets you purchase different weapons. As you bank the Skulls, you're faced with a choice: Do you want to get a weapon now, or save up for something bigger? A couple of Skulls might earn you a pair of Incendiary grenades; several skulls might let you call in a Mulcher portable turret or other types of heavy weapons.

At the end of the day, however, Arcade is still Gears multiplayer. Players can still take cover, they can still revive or execute downed fellows and foes and you can still rev up your Lancers to chainsaw through an unfortunate enemy. In order to make it more friendly, other things had to change, specifically the balance of the Lancer and Gnasher.

So how do you keep that identity and still move things forward in a meaningful way?

Something old, something new

What The Coalition had to manage here was an extremely difficult situation. On the one hand, wallbouncing with Gnashers is every bit a part of iconic Gears multiplayer and has been from the very beginning. On the other hand, if you haven't been bouncing with everyone since the start, it can be extremely difficult to pick up and understand.

The Gnasher is still very strong; in fact, it might even be slightly more powerful on a per-shot basis than it was in Gears of War 4. It can't be spammed the same way, however, as the shell capacity has been slightly reduced from eight shots to six shots. Additionally, it no longer gains any damage boost from an Active Reload. Instead, a partially successful reload will reload the gun halfway, while a perfect reload completely refills it.

The effect this has on the balance is fantastic. In Arcade, where the Gnasher has to be earned and starts with low ammo, this essentially makes it a power weapon, capable of cutting someone's streak short in the hands of a capable player but not able to be spammed to rack up easy kills. In other multiplayer modes like Escalation, where everyone spawns with a Gnasher, it can be reliably used without fear of running out of ammo, even "spammed" in close quarters, but if you attempt to charge another player or two with their rifles up, you'll be punished for it.

All of the different automatic weapons and rifles are far stronger here. The Lancer has definite stopping power, easily capable of shutting down a player out in the open for too long. The Hammerburst can remove heads with precision and power like never before. As a result of these changes paired with the rebalancing of the Gnasher, it means a lot has been altered to the flow of the gameplay, and I'd say it's for the better.

This stuff is awesome

I should mention, it's not just Arcade that has benefited from these changes. The Coalition is using universal tuning, meaning that all multiplayer modes share the same balance. As a result, while modes like Escalation are as brutal as ever, they should be a touch more approachable for players who put in a fair amount of time in Arcade. Personally, I'm going to bounce back and forth between modes but I'm definitely going to be spending a lot of time in Arcade. I like the feel of just about everything, and The Coalition has captured the appropriate balance of challenging gameplay with a friendly atmosphere.

If the effort here that was put into improving the multiplayer has also been put into the other four modes, Gears 5 could very well be one of the standout titles of the year. Gears 5 promises to be a complete package, with five distinct modes: Campaign, Horde, Versus, Escape and Builder. With that said, classifying the multiplayer portion as just "Versus" seems to truly underplay just what is going to be available, including modes like King of the Hill and Escalation. Throw Arcade into the mix and we could honestly have my favorite Gears multiplayer ever.

Gears 5 should be released on September 10, 2019 (September 6 for the Ultimate Edition). As with all games from Xbox Game Studios, Gears 5 will be available in Xbox Game Pass, while the Ultimate Edition is available in Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.



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Samuel Tolbert
Freelance Writer

Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on Xbox and PC gaming on Windows Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert.