Screenshot: Gears 5

Unlike Gears of War 4, Gears 5 technically doesn’t have loot boxes. But don’t have a party just yet. It has a convoluted system for unlocking cosmetic rewards that can be used to outfit the characters in Gears 5’s many multiplayer modes. It’s not intuitive, partially involves microtransactions and will definitely test people’s patience. For those of you playing the game who want to understand how it works, we’re breaking it down.

Cosmetics in Gears 5 are represented as Cards which are described, for some reason, as Supply. You can get Supply Drops by playing the game’s Versus, Horde and Escape multiplayer modes.

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Supply Drops contain character emotes, weapon skins, and even customized blood sprays. If you attach one of these sprays to a gun in the customization menu, the enemies you kill with that gun will leave behind a blood splatter shaped like a specific image. There are some pretty silly blood sprays available, like a blood spray shaped like the Forza 7 logo, or one shaped like a winking smiley face. These and other Supply Drop cosmetic rewards are potentially available to any player who boots up a multiplayer match in Gears 5.

You don’t have to play super well in Gears 5 to win a cosmetic in a Supply Drop, because Supply accrual is based on time, not experience points or player performance or difficulty settings. Playing a match on a harder difficulty won’t result in better Supply Drops, although it will help you get more XP and unlock more character skills, which is a whole other set of card-based unlocks. What you get from a Supply Drop is always a random dice roll.

The longer you play any multiplayer mode, the more Supply you can accrue. If you get a duplicate piece of Supply, the game will automatically turn that duplicate into Scrap currency, which you can save up to trade in for Supply items that haven’t yet dropped for you. This is a big change from Gears of War 4, in which players had to purchase loot boxes full of potential items, then delete duplicates themselves to create Scrap. That whole convoluted system has been, uh, scrapped.

No major modern game with a complex unlocking scheme can have just one currency, right? Gears 5 has Iron, which can be earned in very small amounts by playing but also purchased with real money; 500 Iron costs $4.99 in the digital store.

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Iron can be used to buy items in the store, such as character emotes, weapon skins, customized blood sprays, and character costumes. Except, according to this summary of the game’s microtransactions on the Gears 5 website, the cosmetic items you can buy with Iron are not the same as the ones that can be received in Supply Drops or with Scrap. The items in the store are “exclusive customization content” that “can be bought with a premium in-game currency… Content found in the store is direct purchase, meaning what you see is what you get. No Gear Packs, no randomness.” That’s different from the Supply Drop cosmetic items, which “cannot be purchased with real-world money” and can only be earned through playing multiplayer matches.

There’s one exception to all of this, which is the new battle pass-like “Tour of Duty” mode in Gears 5. Unlike most other games’ battle passes, this mode is free and its rewards are available to all players with the skills to unlock them. It’s a season-based system that will offer “exclusive earnable content” to anyone who can surpass certain sets of challenges, such as killing a certain number of an enemy type, or surviving a certain number of Horde waves, and so on. You perform three of these challenges, and then you advance up a ranking, for which you get an exclusive reward. Sometimes it’s a cosmetic item. Every now and then, the reward is a little bit of Iron.

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You have to climb up 24 rankings in the Tour of Duty, all the way to the level called “Officer III,” before you finally get Iron as a reward. At that level, your reward is 100 Iron. That’s about a dollar in real-world money. Not exactly a pro gamer salary, plus it can only be spent in the Gears 5 store, but still. Then you have to climb dozens more rankings again before getting a buck fifty. The other rewards along the way, which are cosmetic items exclusive to Tour of Duty, are much cooler. Kait’s desert armor from the third act of the campaign mode, complete with those bad-ass red goggles, is exclusive to Tour of Duty. That’s available at the Major General II level, which is just a couple levels down from the highest accolade in the whole tour: General.

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If you want to get every single cosmetic item available, you can’t just earn them all through playing Gears 5 and never spend any money. There is a costume in the shop right now that costs 1000 Iron. You can’t earn enough Iron from playing Tour of Duty to buy anything that good, basically, because it’ll take you weeks to even earn one dollar. However, playing Tour of Duty challenges will give you costumes that aren’t available in the shop, or in Supply Drops. Also, getting regular Supply Drops will provide you with a lot of other cool stuff.

You can also buy a Boost pack in the store (admittedly, for real money) that will double both your XP rewards and also double the speed at which Supply Drops come your way. The Gears 5 store doesn’t say that Boosts give a Supply Drop boost in addition to an XP boost, but it’s stated in this post on the Gears 5 website.

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One interesting exception to all of this is the Pride banners, the item in Gears 5 that I happen to be most excited about. These banners are only available to be purchased with Scrap currency; they aren’t categorized as “Supply” like the other items that can appear in Supply Drops. These banners are also not available to be purchased with real money. So you can only get them if you save up Scrap currency. They cost 100 Scrap apiece, and I’ve earned 5 Scrap after playing two and a half hours of multiplayer matches.

I get why Gears 5 wouldn’t include the Pride banners in randomized Supply Drops for all players, because there are plenty of players who wouldn’t care about these banners and might even be annoyed that they’re taking up space in the randomized drop system. I also get why these banners don’t cost any money to buy, because that would seem unfair, like Gears 5 is only allowing the rich queers to express themselves in-game and the poor ones have to just deal. That said, the results are still kind of sad to me, because now I have to grind for 100 Scrap just to get the flag I want, and I don’t yet have a sense of how long that’s going to take me. I expect the accrual of Scrap will be exponential, though, since the longer I play the game, the more likely it is that I’ll get a duplicate of an item I already have.

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Anyway, that’s it, right? All of Gears 5’s confusing unlocking systems have been explained, you’ve got them sorted out and we’re good, right?

Nope.

In addition to all of the aforementioned cosmetic unlocks, there are cards players can earn through playing that can give them special skill abilities in multiplayer. As far as we can tell, you can’t buy these. Instead, you earn each skill in a predictable fashion and then upgrade them in a more confusing one.

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As you play multiplayer, you earn overall experience points that raise your player ranking. You also earn experience points specifically for the character you just played (in the image above, you’ll see that Kait is Level 2). As those characters level up, they unlock new equippable skills, each presented as a card. The whole XP and skill card system is, understandably, based on skill. Each of the skill cards has some stats associated with them. As you play more multiplayer, you will earn random duplicates of these cards. You can fuse duplicates to make better versions of a card-based skill or rush those upgrades by spending Scrap currency to level up the cards. Cards have rarity, and you’re more likely to receive rarer Skill Cards if you play matches on harder difficulties. There’s no money involved in this whole process.

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Anyway, I love that Gears 5 doesn’t have loot boxes. However, I don’t love that certain items can only be bought with real money, while others can only be earned through multiplayer. I don’t get how the team decided which items would go in which bucket. Plus, there are also the cosmetic items that are only available to players with the talent to plow through tons of Tour of Duty challenges.

The result of all of this is that almost every cosmetic reward in the game is exclusive, on some level. Some rewards (in Supply Drops) are “exclusive” to players with enough time on their hands to play the game for hours and hours and hours. Some rewards (in the store) are “exclusive” to players who can afford to shell out real money. And some rewards (in the Tour of Duty) are “exclusive” to players who have the skill to unlock them. To some, that’ll seem fair. To others, it’ll seem confusing. Personally, I just want to unlock that Pride flag. I guess I better get cracking.