The original Gears of War blew me away. It was a quantum leap for third person shooters. 13 years and four entries later, Gears of War is still one of Microsoft’s marquee franchises – but the last two entries seriously underwhelmed.
After playing Gears 5 at E3 2019, it’s clear the much-needed change has finally arrived. The new co-op Escape mode offers a fresh way to experience modernized cover shooting action. If the rest of the package feels as good as Escape, Gears 5 could breathe new life into the aging franchise.
In Escape, three players work together as Hivebusters, clearing out the Swarm and making their way through a labyrinth of rooms to reach the exit. The map I played looked like a winding factory, complete with rooms both small and large. Naturally, each room had walls and ledges to use for cover. The map felt like a traditional Gears campaign level, only much shorter.
While I didn’t come across any puzzles in the map I played, there are rooms where you have to interact with buttons to progress. About midway through our escape, my squad had to enter decontamination pods. That moment and the intro, which showed the Hivebusters coughing up some nasty monster mucous, alludes to a storyline that Microsoft has only teased thus far.
As we made our way through the Hive, my squad squared off against standard Swarm enemies, big brutes with devastating melee weapons, and pesky grunts that ganged up to mangle us.
Shooting baddies feels sublime in Gears 5. Damage numbers pop off of enemies, and they now have health bars. You can turn the damage numbers off, but I appreciated the addition. It’s easy to learn weak points and see the differences in damage between weapons. Shooting also feels a tad more impactful, with more realistic recoil and visible patterns created by bullets. Ducking into cover, downing a Swarm, then vaulting over a wall to kill them with a flashy execution has never felt better.
Though Escape is very much action-focused, not every room has enemies. Safe rooms save your progress and supply rooms hold ammunition and grenades. Ammo shortages usually aren’t a problem in Gears, but it happened to me twice during Escape because I wasn’t taking enough time to search my surroundings.
I needed all the ammo I could get. A slew of enemies stood in between my squad and freedom. Even worse, the new Swarm Flock streaked over our heads, wanting blood. A pack of flying leeches, the Swarm Flock is pretty gross and required a coordinated team effort to bring it down.
Once we fought our way outside, I pulled the lever on the outside of the building, and the door began to close. It wasn’t over yet, however. The door closed slowly, and the Swarm kept coming at us until it completely shut.
Where Escape truly separates itself from previous Gears of War modes is customization. The three playable characters – Mac, Lahni, and Keegan – each have their own active and passive abilities. I played as Mac, who can activate a large portable shield, making him invincible for a brief duration. Lahni can conjure an electric blade to whack enemies with, both stunning and damaging them. And Keegan can create an area that replenishes ammo for teammates. The unique character classes encourage cooperation and make each player’s role in the mission a bit different. Gears 5 ‘s horde mode will also have these character abilities.
All characters (I’m tempted to call them heroes) can be leveled up, which appears to unlock more loadout options. As a level one Mac, I went into Escape with just a pistol and had to assemble an arsenal by picking up weapons from fallen Swarm. But empty weapon slots were shown in the lobby menu. Escape also has skill cards, similar to the ones in Gears of War 4‘s Horde mode, which will undoubtedly influence how you play. For instance, a skill card with a melee boost makes chainsaw combat a pleasure.
If Escape becomes too easy (or too challenging), you can tweak the difficulty with modifiers. Modifiers can add more enemies to the map or increase enemy damage output twofold, among other possibilities. Additional modifiers can be unlocked by successfully escaping with three modifiers activated.
Because it’s a co-op mode, Escape will be best with friends. Some level of coordination is required to be successful even at the default difficulty. Harder missions with multiple modifiers demand tactics to get the job done.
In an unexpected addition, players will be able to create their own Escape maps, which could go a long way towards keeping the mode interesting over time. Even from the ground floor, it’s an enticing cover shooting experience that retains Gears’ strengths and adds onto them in meaningful ways.
Escape will have leaderboards that track the fastest completion times. After escaping, I learned my team was in the top 38 percent. Not exactly top-notch, but hey. I’ll take it.
Gears 5 chainsaws its way onto Xbox One and PC September 10. Let’s hope the campaign, versus modes, and Horde mode are as intriguing as Escape.