Gears 5 is now officially out in the wild and, apart from some issues regarding multiplayer servers at launch, the latest addition in the third-person shooter has gone down well with fans.
We sat down down with Gears 5's campaign design director, Matt Searcy, at the Gears Ink London event to discuss the latest game's new elements, catering to a loyal fan base and the next-generation future of the franchise.
- Check out our full Gears 5 review
Taking up the mantle
The Coalition took up the mantle of the Gears of War franchise in 2014, when Microsoft acquired the rights from Epic Games. By this point four core Gears of War games had already been released, creating a standard that fans had come to expect from Gears titles - and giving The Coalition a lot to live up to as it developed Gears of War 4.
"With Gears 4 we really wanted to prove to the fanbase that we could make a gears game," Searcy tells TechRadar. "So in some ways we played it safe because for us it was a massive amount of work just to make sure we felt that we fully understood how to make enemies in Gears, in a way that would make them feel like Gears enemies, and how to make combat spaces that feel right."
"We wanted to really understand not just technically, but design-wise and visually, what it means to tell a Gears story."
Gears of War 4 released in 2016 to critical acclaim, following the typical Gears formula and re-introducing fan-favorite features from its successors. The Coalition nailed it and it was time for the next - more cautious - step.
"With Gears 5 we had the benefit of starting with all that knowledge instead of spending half the dev cycle figuring that out," Searcy explains. "We talk about it a lot that, if we do the wrong thing, it'll feel like a new game - and it might feel awesome - but it'll just be a new Gears with 'Gears' stuck on it as a title.
"I think Epic did an amazing job with taking the magic they created with Gears of War and evolving it. So around the time of Gears 4, we talked about the art - it needs to look and feel like gears but feel more modern - we talked about the new characters - they're not quite as bombastic and over the top because we had all the old guys to carry that weight - and we wanted a little bit more believability in our characters. Rod [Fergusson] talks a lot about 'it's not about realism, it's about believability'. We're a fantasy game, we're a sci-fi game, it's not about being realistic but we do want to be believable."
Changing of the guard
With Gears 5, following the success of Gears of War 4, The Coalition chose to be more experimental in its approach. The studio knew it had the basic look and feel of the franchise down, but it was time to put its own mark on the series.
"We wanted to put on own stamp on what Gears of War could be," Searcy tells us. "We want to keep evolving gears. We want it to feel like a Gears game but the best Gears game you've ever played."
The most noticeable features that Gears 5 has introduced is open-world and player-choice elements. Typically the series has been an entirely linear experience, tunnelling players from one mission to the next intense firefight seamlessly. However in Gears 5, while this type of gameplay is definitely the crux of the game, there are also open-world areas that you can explore - if you choose to.
For example, without spoiling any key story plots, Act 2 features a large, snow-clad area that players can explore on a handy windsurfing-type vehicle called the Skiff. The area is huge and has several side missions dotted around it, alongside the main mission, allowing players to take time to soak up the beautiful frost-kissed world around them before heading off to shoot up some more Locust.
"We wanted to embrace player choice as much as possible," Searcy explains when asked why the studio took the leap to inject open-world elements. "The exploration areas of the game came out of us exploring palette cleansers in the past, something else to do outside of the core Gears gameplay experience. For the first time ever you get to control your pace for this game."
Gears 5 is by no means an open-world game, only providing pockets of areas that this exploration is available in. In our Gears 5 review, we wished we had more areas like it but found the "palette cleanser" - as Searcy called it - a welcome new feature.
"I've seen some people comparing us to other open world experiences," Searcy continues. "That's where I've seen some people say 'maybe I'm not too sure about this' but we weren't necessarily trying to go toe-to-toe with those big games, we were trying to inject this new player choice experience to Gears and this pacing change. I think we were really successful doing that."
The deemed success of these experimental new elements means that it's likely we'll be seeing their appearance again in future Gears titles, perhaps in a more prominent way than we seen in Gears 5.
"In terms of adding player choice to the franchise, that was our huge effort this time and I think we're definitely going to keep exploring that as we go forward," Searcy tells us.
Gears 5 has released for Xbox One and PC during a peculiar time. The Xbox One is reaching the end of its life-cycle and we now officially know that the next-generation Xbox Project Scarlett will hit shelves in Holiday 2020. So where does that leave a game whose studio is promising post-launch support for the foreseeable future? Will Gears 5 be a cross-generation title?
"We'll always have aspirations to be on the next big thing, especially as a core Microsoft studio - a first party - studio," Searcy explains. "And for us, personally at The Coalition, we are constantly wanting to push what Xbox can do. We're constantly pushing how good we can make the game look, how well we can make it run.
"Scarlett is a natural evolution. We're excited to go 'here's a bunch of new boundaries we can push on' but we can also see how good we can make Gears 5 look and how good we can make it run."
Gears 5 is available now on PC and Xbox One.
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Vic is TechRadar Gaming's Associate Editor. An award-winning games journalist, Vic brings experience from IGN, Eurogamer and more to the TechRadar table. You may have even heard her on the radio or speaking on a panel. Not only is Vic passionate about games, but she's also an avid mental health advocate who has appeared on both panels and podcasts to discuss mental health awareness. Make sure to follow her on Twitter for more.