I’m frozen to the ground, unable to run, unable to move at all. A big hulking alien is lurching towards me. It was the icy blast of his frosty cannon has immobilised me. I would have shot him to death to avoid this, but I ran out of bullets a while ago, and I tried to make up for this by charging headfirst into the cold spray of his blizzard gun. I think the plan was to stab him. It doesn’t matter. He has just cracked me in the face. I’m dead, and my poor teammates will soon follow. This is Gears of War 5’s co-op multiplayer Escape mode. And it is all about hearing your gun go “click”.
At least, sometimes it is. I only played the mode for 20 minutes or so, at an Xbox event at this week’s E3. I was tasked with escaping from a Locust Hive with two teammates. It was barely enough time to understand that ammo is precious and often secreted away in certain rooms off the grisly path of waist-high walls. We also didn’t get the time to see how our three characters should best work together. They all have different powers you see, so you’ve got to do some chatting to co-ordinate. Unfortunately, my teammates were French, which reduced communication to me saying “merci” as one of them revived my character after I launched a rocket too close to my own face.
We’ve all got our own “ultimate” powers, which tick up steadily. My character, Lahni, is able to use an electrified shiv, and storm at enemies for some sparkplug knife shanking. The game advises you to get up close and personal if you pick this character in the pre-match screen, hence my suicidal charging. One of the other characters, Keegan, can put down ammo packs as his ultimate ability. This is good, because bullets feel otherwise scarce, and there is pressure on the trio to work together and divvy out the good stuff wherever they find it, so that nobody is left with an empty magazine. A third character, Mac, could pull up a big energy shield in front of him, keeping him and all others behind him safe from gunfire.
The whole mode is basically about getting out of the Hive with your lives, trying to stay ahead of a vaprous cloud of gas, and using your ultimate abilities to fight creeps along the way, as well as larger, more ferocious muscle-insects. It’s in the short moments of peril that it feels strongest. One metal-plated corridor saw a massive lad covered in bulletproof armour wandering towards us, swinging a big spikey club. I am not au fait with the alien species of the Gearsverse, because I haven’t played one of these post-people manshoots in years. So I will hereafter refer to this creature as Clubswald Bicepsberg.
So, Clubswald comes up to us in the corridor, right? Whoofing his big murderpiece around. I dive out of the way and he starts chasing my teammates instead. Our bullets ping off his armour, releasing tiny single-digit numbers into the air, like a pathetic shower of maths (yes, numbers pour out of your enemies as you shoot them, a la Destiny). Eventually, my pals bullet-pestered Clubsy enough to dislodge his helmet. And I threw an electrical grenade to finish him off. I had discovered that grenade a couple of rooms ago, and I was saving it for such an occasion as the appearance of Mr Bicepsberg. Anyway, he soon died. He also dropped his big club, which one of my teammates went on to use.
We only played on beginner difficulty, so the later challenges felt a little breezy and fast-paced. We fought a swirling cloud of fleshy leeches that I fear and do not understand. We defended a landing pad as a hangar door closed and speedy creeps ran through. Later I learned the proper tactic to use against our old friend Clubswald Bicepsberg is to hose him down with the freeze cannon used by that shivering class of enemy that murdered me before. Much of it felt like familiar co-op shooter fare, but there was a novelty to playing a big, expensive bang-shoot in splitscreen co-op, something a lot of blast ‘em ups don’t bother offering any more.
I can’t lie, through it all I did feel a sense of tiredness. Partly because the adventures of the gruff guys and gals of Gears have never really been my cup of muddy rain water. But also because I played a lot of The Division 2 fairly recently, a cover shooter with weight and heft but also excellent AI jostling and flanking. By contrast this never felt quite as comfortable in my hands, that Gearsy lumberspint and the stickiness of the walls felt unwieldy to me. Thick and chunky, a little clumsy. Although it might be much more palatable and instinctive to long-term fans.
In any case, this multiplayer mode is probably not the reason most people will be interested in the latest Locust smasher. That would be the massive action set pieces and ridiculously fashionable shoulder pads, of course. But it did give me a feel for the characteristic clunk-o-jogging and gunswapping that will probably make up the story campaign. It hasn’t converted me, not even a bit. But it’s more Gears for the Gearheads. And if you are the kind of person who likes to argue over who gets the next box of bullets, you might find something to like here. Even if you have to argue in French.
See our E3 2019 tag for more news, previews, opinions, and increasingly surreal liveblogs.