Rod Fergusson is only too aware of how important a moment this is. Not only for The Coalition, a studio preparing to launch its third title in five years, but for Microsoft and Gears of War too. The series has long been seen as a staple of the Xbox brand, but never has Gears faced an audience pool as large as this. That's all thanks to Game Pass, the subscription service that’s ensuring Gears 5 has millions of potential players ready and waiting to play come the morning of September 10 (four days earlier, on September 6, if you’re signed up to Game Pass Ultimate).
For the franchise then, this is a moment to be seized. The Coalition recognises that the Gears of War brand is somewhat synonymous with the 'hardcore' Xbox userbase – it is, after all, a series that has traditionally focused its lens on muscle-bound men fighting even musclier monsters with monstrous machine guns. This part isn’t going to change all that much, but the studio behind it is taking steps to make Gears more approachable and accessible than ever. "The idea that millions of people have instant access to your game, and who have potentially never played a Gears game before, really put a focus on approachability for us," says Fergusson.
"The spark of this idea actually came from the director of production here, Christi Rae," the creative director and studio head continues as he begins to reminisce about the genesis of Gears 5. As the story goes, the studio leads were in a meeting, joking about the varying skill proficiencies of various Gears of War players stationed in the Vancouver offices, before Rae had a revelation of sorts. What started as a joke between old colleagues, ended in a total reappraisal of the way that the studio approaches development. "As the meeting continued on, Christie slid this note over to me at the table. It read: 'Every winner was once a beginner.' It really landed home this idea that we shouldn't be labelling gamers as casual or hardcore anymore."
"In previous Gears games, we would sort of bucket you by what kind of gamer you think you are," Fergusson continues, referring to the traditional scaling of 'Casual', 'Normal', 'Hardcore', and 'Insane' modes – the latter difficulty made all the more challenging in Gears of War 4 with the addition of 'Inconceivable' and 'Ironman' through the Rise of the Horde update. "We felt that putting players into certain buckets, and labelling them as such, was kind of the wrong way to approach this."
Instead, in Gears 5, The Coalition is thinking about difficulty in terms of a "proficiency curve"; this isn't about making the game less difficult, but ensuring that each player is receiving a better approximation of challenge and able to adjust as they become more comfortable with the game. The game now comes in three core flavours: 'Beginner', 'Intermediate', and 'Experienced'. "The way we looked at it was that everybody starts somewhere," considers Fergusson. "Even the most elite player in the world, on day one, fired up the game for the first time and didn't know what they were doing."
If you're a lifelong Gears of War player, you’ll want to run the game through on Experienced. It's a challenge, shots will hurt you, but you won't be ripping your hair out – it's the way to play the game if you're familiar with the ebbs and flows to Gears' combat. "That's where we want people to play," says Fergusson. "If you've played Gears of War, I would say start in 'Experienced'; if you really want to experience the game, we find the way that people enjoy Gears of War the most is to make it as hard as possible but to still be successful."
But Gears 5 isn't just taking aim at the hardcore. Fergusson says that, if you're struggling, there's no shame in tuning it down to 'Intermediate' – that's what it's there for, after all! "We want you to find the difficulty that fits you. That's why I suggest starting at 'Experienced' and then turning it down when you need to."
For new players entering the world of Gears for the first time, or if you're playing with a co-op partner that isn't super familiar with the series or games in general, The Coalition has overhauled the entry level entirely. "'Beginner' is actually easier than our old 'Casual' mode. As part of our focus on approachability, we actually wanted the 'Beginner' mode to really be for beginners," says Fergusson, noting that it's at this stage of difficulty where some of the accessibility features begin to kick in automatically.
Accessibility is key
It wasn't enough to make Gears 5 more approachable – easy to understand for a legion of players that may not have any history with the series – it had to be accessible too. This gets to the heart of a wider initiative within the Xbox division, to ensure that its games can be played and enjoyed by as many people as possible. "As part of our push for approachability, we really focused on accessibility," Fergusson explains. "We asked ourselves, 'what are the things that we can do to make our game more accessible across the board?"
This ranges from small things, such as target locking kicking in on 'Beginner', where you can press left trigger to align enemies with your reticule so long as they are in range of your weapon, to much larger options, particularly on the backend, for players to customise the experience. It means you'll see options such as the ability to turn off camera shake, "because some people get nauseated" by the roadie-run animation; there's the ability to control your character with just a single stick if your struggle to work with the two in tandem, as well as staples such as the capacity to tone down the gore and language or activate a variety of colour blind accessibility settings.
One feature in particular caught my attention, and it's focused around work being done in the multiplayer space, specifically The Coalition's attempts to bring players closer together. "Allies is a new feature for us," Fergusson begins. "Basically, the idea is that when you play with people online you build a bond together, this affinity, and if you keep playing with the same people your experience levels will actually go up together."
It's a nice touch, encouraging players to not only come together with their friends, but to look out for new people to bring into the fold too. "When we all play together, we get a 5% Xp bonus, because we’re all allies. What that does is encourage people to go find people to play with and stick with them," he says. "But it will also encourage players to be like, 'Hey, four out of the five of us are allies. Let's go find that fifth person and make them an ally so that they can benefit from this experience too."
Getting new players up to speed
As I noted in my Gears 5 campaign hands-on preview, the game is bigger and more ambitious than Gears of War has ever been – but it's also designed in such a way that new players can quickly get up to speed. Fergusson tells me that there's an intro video that now kicks off the campaign, "like you would have in a big TV series, we kind of catch you up on the big events. A 'here's what happened last season / previously on Game of Thrones' sort of thing." Never played a Gears of War and coming in fresh from Game Pass? Don't worry, The Coalition is eager to get you up to speed. Already versed in your Gears lore? Skip it, and get right in on the action.
Changes have been made to the tutorial too. "Because people were coming in and may have never played this game before, we actually created a dedicated boot camp," Fergusson says, explaining that this mode was born out of a desire to cut basic tutorials out of the main game – it does, after all, create a weird dissonance, where experienced soldiers of war were having to learn how to crouch and pull a trigger for the first time. This way, with boot camp, players eager to learn the ropes will be able to do so at their own speed before leaping into the campaign and multiplayer proper.
There's also elements like Jack, Gears of War's long-standing unsung hero finally taking the spotlight, who’s specifically designed to assist new players in both campaign and multiplayer modes such as Horde. "Jack's attacks are generally area-of-effect focused, so you don't have to be so pixel precise – it's much easier to control and understand," he continues, adding, "we wanted to have a different style for the newer players."
Jack's addition to Horde isn't the only thing coming to multiplayer to assist with approachability and accessibility either. If you're scared off by the idea of Escalation, Gears 5's competitive eSports mode, and Versus, a shotgun party that favours the twitch shooters among us, then there's Arcade mode, an experience "designed explicitly for new players to come in and have fun.”
The idea behind Gears 5 isn't to take anything out to better serve approachability and accessibility, but rather it's about adding more content than ever before to ensure that each and every player that comes to the game has a better chance of enjoying it. Gears 5 is still Gears of War at its heart, a gritty war shooter at its core; only now it is built with the sort of systems in mind that can help bring more gamers into the fold. What was once for the hardcore is now for the many, and that's an awesome position for Gears of War to be in.
To read all of our exclusive Gears 5 coverage, be sure to keep your eyes locked to the GamesRadar+ On The Radar: Gears 5 hub throughout the week.