The decision to shorten the Gears of War name to simply Gears 5 may be an overdue move to reflect the fanbase, but fans won’t get everything they hope for from the new entry. Not if that includes the chance to play the game’s campaign in 4-player co-op. But more importantly, the studio’s reasons for cutting the mode may mean the days of 4-player Gears are gone for good.
During a panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2019 focused on the expanded universe of the Gears of War brand in comics, novels, and games, The Coalition boss Rod Fergusson was asked about 4-player cooperative play returning for Campaign. Surely knowing that the question was coming sooner or later, Fergusson confirmed that Gears 5 will NOT have 4-player co-op in Campaign. But the reasons behind the decision may not be what fans expect.
The latest controversies surrounding the removal of tobacco products from Gears 5 may seem to distract from the core of the game or its story, so the explanation of the co-op campaign (or lack thereof) couldn’t have come at a better time. For those Gearsheads who may not recall, the role of cooperative campaign evolved along with the franchise: introducing 2-player co-op in Gears of War 2, before increasing that to 4-players for the sequel (and a maximum of 5 in Horde Mode). But the limits will be shrinking with the arrival of Gears 5, and the news is sure to be disappointing. The explanation for the limit is also guaranteed to prove divisive.
Back when the developers decided to cut their co-op story mode to just two players in Gears of War 4, there was support for and against. Some viewed the loss of online group play as a mistake, while others had criticisms of the boosted health and over-sized combat arenas necessitated by four players. Having seen every step of the Gears of War franchise, its story, and its campaign evolve along the way, Fergusson explains that the move away from 4-player co-op was partly influenced by the technical demands. But more than anything, the ability to tell a good story has proven the deciding factor:
So the reason… And you can take from my hesitation, that I’m not quickly just saying yes. The issue with 4-player is–I agree with you. I’m a big co-op gamer, and everything I do is co-op based. The problem with four-player co-op is that it’s chaos. When you played that Halo experience for the first time, I bet you didn’t understand exactly what was going on at all the right times. Because while you’re grabbing ammo, somebody’s triggering the event that causes the thing… you know what I mean?
There’s a technical issue with four-player which is you need much bigger worlds. One of the things you’ll notice from Gears 1, 2, and then 3, is that 3 had much bigger levels because, ‘Now I’ve got to find places for four people to take cover.’ So it’s much more challenging to build. But it’s also much more challenging to tell a story. If you watch Gears 3, and you watch the cinematics… Like that was one thing I had to work with [Writer Karen Traviss] on, is she just started to do this round robin thing where everybody got one line. Because you could never have the characters alone. It always had to be four people in a scene, it always had to be four people in a moment. So all four people expressed an opinion.
So when we went back to Gears 4, the first thing we did was we shrank down to two-player co-op. Part of it was the technology but part of it was storytelling. It was just really hard to tell a really compelling story when nobody can go to the bathroom alone because they gotta bring three friends with them every time, you know what I mean? So you’re not going to have those moments where two people can be like, ‘Hey this is a thing,’ right? So as we look to expand that we look at creating better and bigger offerings. Escape is three-player, Horde is five-player. We have co-op in spades, it’s just the notion of four-player co-op campaign… I feel like as fun as it is, it also dilutes the story quite a bit. It’s walking that line. There’s lots of co-op for you and your friends in Gears 5, there will not be four-player campaign co-op though. Sorry.
How fans feel about Fergusson’s explanation, and the removal of 4-player co-op itself, will likely depend on each player’s investment in the actual story of Gears 5 (and previous games in the series). Being invested in the characters, and being most excited to play through the story-driven Campaign may not be seen as ‘cool’ to some in the community, but there’s really no denying the draw of the plot–having spawned successful novels and comic books. For those players, Fergusson’s explanation will hold water. For those who would scrap the story altogether for the chance to play through it with three friends… well, bad news only gets worse when you realize Fergusson’s explanation extends beyond one game. If hardware isn’t the problem, but storytelling, then that isn’t likely to change for coming entries.
There will be plenty of new game modes for players to tackle, like the new Boot Camp training mode designed to usher fans into Gears 5 Versus. Then there’s the Arcade mode to teach players basic mechanics for Gears 5 multiplayer. And while the Escape mode, new to Gears 5 may not be a homerun from the start, Fergusson is correct that multiplayer and co-op fans still have options. Gears 5 remains one of Xbox’s biggest exclusive franchises, and with console owners taking stock of where to spend their money heading into 2020–bringing both the Xbox Scarlett and PlayStation 5–making sure that the sequel reaches its potential as mone of the most anticipated new games can only help carry momentum to the new platform.
But there’s no question fans looking to buy Gears 5 when it releases on September 10th will need to adjust their multiplayer hopes, and expectations, accordingly.