In addition to its gripping, creatively risky campaign, Gears 5 also has a huge suite of multiplayer modes that also deliver. There are updates to old classics like Horde, as well as the new additions Escape and Arcade. Once again, widening the world of Gears pays off.
This co-operative multiplayer mode has been a staple of Gears of War’s multiplayer modes since its first appearance in 2008’s Gears of War 2. Back then, it was pretty simple: you and up to four other players would play as the human Gears characters and defend a room from wave after wave of Locust enemies. Between waves, you and your human allies could build additional fortifications, like walls and turrets. Every 10 waves, you fight a boss. If you survive 50 waves, you’ve won.
All of that is still the case in Gears 5, plus an expansion of a class system introduced in Gears of War 4. In that game, only characters demarcated as an “Engineer” class could repair fortifications, for example.
In Gears 5’s Horde mode, characters’ classes matter even more. The Engineer and Offense class types are now the only ones that can build fortifications. There’s no longer a Sniper class, but there’s a Tank that’s good for getting out in front and absorbing a lot of fire, a Scout designed with sneaking in mind, an Offense class that’s a good all-around combination of Tank and Engineer, and a new class called Support. That last one is Jack the robot, who can fly around the level.
Similar to support characters in, say, Overwatch, playing as Jack is all about positioning, speed, and awareness—not headshots. Most of Jack’s abilities revolve around team maintenance, from reviving allies to carting guns and ammo around to repairing fortifications (he can’t build them, but he can fix them). Jack’s only offensive skills come from his electric zapper, as well as his Ultimate ability, which lets him take over the mind of an enemy for a few seconds. I don’t often play as Support characters in team shooters, but I enjoyed Jack’s blend of abilities. By the time I got tired of repairing walls or carrying ammos, I’d have my Ultimate charged and could head right into a firefight and pull off some big moves. Plus, Jack’s extreme speed compared to other characters allows him to have a big picture view of every battle going on. He can get himself in and out of tight spots, quickly reviving an ally or just tossing them extra guns as needed.
Each character class has an Ultimate ability, just like Overwatch. Del Walker, an Engineer, has the special ability to send out a couple of offensive drones to fight alongside him. Kait Diaz, who is a Scout, gets the ability to use Camouflage which hides her from enemies. Terminator-themed guest character Sarah Connor, who is available to Xbox Game Pass subscribers, is a Tank. Her Ultimate ability, which adds a stun effect to anyone hit by her ballistic weapons, packs a satisfying punch that can turn a firefight around.
One potential source of heartbreak with Gears 5’s Horde mode is that you can’t always choose the character that you want. The game doesn’t force you to choose a balanced team according to the class system, but it does not allow for duplicate characters. If one or the other player with a duplicate selected doesn’t switch out their character before the match starts, Gears 5 will force one of them to play as a character of another class that isn’t as well-represented in the lineup.
Outside of Horde mode, players need to pay special attention to the Customization menu, which allows them to select Skill Cards that apply to the different fighters they select in Horde mode and Escape mode. The more you play as each character, the more of these cards you get. You could still beat Horde mode on Insane difficulty with no Skill Cards equipped, of course, because who doesn’t love a challenge? There are some pretty fun perks in the mix, though, and you’ll have to be sure to select them in the Customization menu if you want them to be in effect as you play.
Escape mode is totally new to Gears 5 and hasn’t changed much since I demoed it at E3 this past year. It’s a three-player cooperative mode that starts with you waking up inside a gross Locust egg sac after having been (intentionally) kidnapped and taken to the center of a hive. You and your two buddies proceed to fight your way out, leaving poison gas in your wake to kill off any Locusts you don’t get and eventually making it to a helipad for your daring escape.
At first, it may sound a bit like Horde mode or even just a typical Campaign mode mission: it’s cooperative and you fight Locust after Locust until you get to an ending. In practice, it’s totally different and requires a new mindset. Escape mode doesn’t need you to defeat every single enemy to win. You can methodically clear every room if you wish and still defeat it that way, but it’s not the most effective way to win.
This becomes much more obvious if you play Escape on increasingly harder difficulties. Ammo will be sparse, so you’ll need to be more strategic, leaving some Locust behind to perish in the green gas that fills the tunnels behind you. In many situations, the best strategy is to keep running after you’ve killed off the worst of the enemies. This can allow you to force enemies into a more convenient bottleneck behind you, or just allow you to get to the end of the level so that you can close the door on any remaining enemies who haven’t died from poison gas. It does not feel right to run away from enemies in Gears, because the campaigns and its various modes nearly always revolve around methodically clearing area after area and wave after wave. Escape mode twists that.
I’ve been playing Escape mode (and all of these other modes) with strangers. Players don’t yet seem to understand the mindset that Escape mode needs them to have. I’ve played with many teams that loitered far too long in rooms of enemies, even as the poison gas caught up to us and we needed to keep on moving. I’ve also played a few rounds with very good teammates who understood the importance of sticking together, moving along as soon as we got to a stopping point, and sharing the sparse ammo fairly. This is still a new mode, but it has promise, and it should become more exciting to play once more players get the hang of its core loop.
Like in Horde mode, Escape mode also allows players to select certain Skill Cards that are attached to different characters. Also like Horde mode, you can’t choose duplicate characters. Each character still gets a special ability that can be charged up. My favorite is Lahni’s electro-charged knife, which serves as a super-powered melee. It’s very helpful in Escape, given the rarity of bullets, so it’s best to rely on melee attacks whenever possible.
Gears 5 includes four Versus modes in its Ranked play section: Team Deathmatch (the classic five-on-five), King of the Hill (capturing objectives), Escalation (also capturing objectives, but you start without weapons and have to go to certain locations to find them), and Guardian (kill a designated team leader). All of these modes have appeared in prior Gears games. So have the modes in Classic Quickplay, which include an unranked version of Team Deathmatch, as well as Dodgeball (you only respawn if someone on your team gets a kill) and Arms Race (teams race to be the first to get three kills with a particular weapon).
There may be huge changes to each of these modes in Gears 5, but I have yet to discover them, because I’ve mainly been playing the newest addition to Versus mode. It’s a five-on-five mode called Arcade, and it’s yet another twist on the hero shooter genre.
The whole Skill Card system doesn’t apply in Arcade mode. Also, there are no special Ultimate attacks. Instead, each character has a different set of passive skills that can’t be changed or upgraded; for example, on the Locust side, the Swarm Hunter has increased movement speed, whereas the Swarm Imago is tougher against explosive damage.
Although these passive skills make a difference, Arcade plays out more like Counter-Strike than Overwatch. As you get kills, you earn Skulls, which you can use to get better weapons; you don’t have your pick of any weapon, just the specific upgrades available to your character type. Similar to how shop at the spawn point of Counter-Strike matches works, you can improve your loadout based on how well you’ve done in prior rounds. The difference is that in Gears 5 Arcade, there’s no shop area. You just get the option to trade up weapons on the fly as you accrue Skulls.
It’s fun, but it’s not that deep. The class-based aspects of the mode aren’t center stage. I mostly based my character selections in this mode around which guns I wanted to be able to eventually get, not the passive abilities. Like so many other Gears Versus modes, this is yet another twist on the five-on-five Team Deathmatch formula. It’s yet another a solid twist on that formula, although it’s got plenty of competition in the stacked Versus mode lineup.
Overall, there’s a lot to do in Gears 5, and I haven’t even got into the map-builder yet for Escape mode. I’m not sure how many people out there will get into all the different parts of the game, but whether you just come for the campaign or want a multiplayer mode to get hooked on, there are a lot of good options available.