One game series synonymous with the words "game changer" is Microsoft's Gears of War-franchise. The first entry revamped Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder gameplay style and added the arguably greatest cover system do date. Two years later, the sequel finetuned everything to perfection while simultaneously inventing the ever-so-popular Horde mode. With a firm role established as the next flagship IP for Xbox, the expectations for another sequel grew substantially. Yet, after the first sequel, all the genre-defining inventions came to a halt and all subsequent entries failed to continue the legacy of Gears 1 and 2.
Paying attention to the rise and fall of Gears of War is especially interesting when speaking of the newest addition to the storied Xbox franchise. Announced at last year's press conference, Gears 5 looked to introduce a heightened focus on meaningful narrative and more colourful surroundings. This coupled with an interesting female protagonist and keen attention given to gritty melee combat, and it looked as if The Coalition was finally going do the Gears name justice.
Despite showing an abundance of CGI trailers at their press conference - Gears 5 included - the game was present at their showcase following the event, which meant we finally got to put the fifth chapter to the test. To our great disappointment, however, the ambitious single-player campaign was not included, and the show demo instead had the new Escape mode as its focal point. For the uninitiated, Escape is a co-op experience akin to the classic Horde battles. As with the latter, Escape pits three players against a swarm of enemies with only option: survival. The difference lies in your collective approach to survival. Whereas the traditional Horde mode sends wave after wave against the players, ultimately ending with their demise, Escape concerns itself with fleeing from enemies and eventually completing the level.
As a concept it's intriguing and a faithful continuation of the Gears multiplayer legacy. The execution, however, is a different matter entirely. During our 30 minutes with the game, one level was made available - and boy it left a lot to be desired. Due to having watched all the amazing scenery and beautiful environments found in previous trailers, it was confusing why The Coalition chose a generic factory with a dull colour palette as their hands-on experience. Every single area we moved through looked almost exactly the same as those that came before it. Furthermore, compared to the trailer from last year, we're unsure whether the game has been the subject of a graphical downgrade since it certainly looks that way.
It wasn't specified whether this was the only Escape map or if others were also available. Either way, playing their ambitious new mode in such a bland environment was a shame.
The map we tried might have been a mishap, however, as playing Gears 5 still feels as solid as ever. Moving from cover-to-cover, whilst pressing the A button is still satisfying, and brutally killing enemies with the series' iconic weapons still delivers all the thrills you'd expect.
Gears 5 also has a wonderfully stable framerate, which makes the firefights smooth and fast-paced. The different animations didn't look great, but that might well be due to this being an early build. Still, even though Gears 5 is a joy to play in terms of core mechanics and gameplay, it seems to lacks innovation - just as the prior three instalments did. The Coalition has tried to spice up the formula by adding emphasis to the melee combat, with a special chargeable lightning dagger and more animations. In the end, however, it does little to alter the experience or set it apart from other entries in the series.
We want to wrap things up by pointing out that it's impossible to judge Gears 5 just by playing this small hands-on demo. With an emotional story campaign and many other multiplayer modes, the talented developers at The Coalition could still have a potential hit-exclusive in the making. Playing Escape at E3 2019 did little to show why Gears 5 is worthy of the Xbox 360 glory days. We hope it will turn out to be better than our first impression suggests, and with the game landing on PC and Xbox One on September 10, we don't have too long to wait before we find out.