When it first launched almost 15 years ago, the original Gears of War set the tone not just for the Xbox 360, but also for the generation to come. A tough as nails, edge of your seat and other feature declaration stuffed thrill ride, Gears of War was an immediate hit, with players around the world blown away by the tense set pieces, stunning (for their time) graphics and immensely satisfying gunplay. Flash forward to today, however, and while Gears still has plenty of fans (present company included, we here at TheXboxHub gave Gears 5 our 2019 GOTY award and Gears Tactics was last year’s runner up), the franchise in terms of reception and audience engagement seems to have taken a bit of a decline.
While it is virtually undeniable that the modern Gears games are still quality products, people have started to be a bit burnt out on the Fenix clan. If you go to the XboxEra forums, one of the most active posts of the last week, entitled “What does Gears of War need to do to regain some popularity or mindshare?“, shares a variety of starkly different opinions on the subject. Similar posts can be found across the various main Xbox threads on forums such as ResetEra and even on the Gears of War subreddit. Is there some smoke here, or is Gears fine just as is? If you’re willing to stick around, I’d like to share my 2 cents on the matter.
The way I see it, it boils down to two questions: “Does Gears of War need a reboot?” and “Would Gears of War benefit from a reboot?”. Now, obviously, if the first criterion is met, the second one is met by default, so we will investigate it promptly. Beginning with the last year and a half, Gears of War has had three game releases as well as several bits of spinoff content such as novels and promotional tie-ins. The biggest of this content, obviously, is Gears 5 – the second chapter in the new trilogy and the sixth game in the main series (not counting the Ultimate Edition).
Gears 5 was for the most part a critical success, earning an 84 on Metacritic from critics as well as an 8.2/10 from audience members on the site. In terms of sales, Gears 5 was Xbox’s biggest launch of the generation, beating out juggernauts Sea of Thieves and Halo 5, and served as a major release for the Game Pass platform. Flash forward to today, however, and the numbers for Gears 5 seemed to have slowed considerably. According to Steamcharts, it is estimated a peak of 2,780 players jumped into Gears 5 concurrently on Steam over the last 30 days, which for a month that included the launch of a major expansion, as well as a price drop on the winter sale, isn’t particularly great. Now, compared to titles such as Marvel’s Avengers (1,482 player monthly peak) and Grounded (1,864 player monthly peak), this number is not too bad. However, compared to its Xbox cousins Sea of Thieves (52,916 player monthly peak), Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition (37,635 player monthly peak), Halo: The Master Chief Collection (17,114 player monthly peak) and Microsoft Flight Simulator (12,086 player monthly peak), it leaves a decent bit to be desired.
However, Steam is but one platform for the game. In terms of the greater Xbox ecosystem, within the United States Gears 5 barely makes the list of most played games, squeaking in at 50th place, lower than older titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Skate 3, DayZ and Halo 5: Guardians. In the United Kingdom, Gears 5 fares a little better at 45th place, just behind Fallout 4. Now, the numbers are not all bad: in Mexico where Gears has always performed well, Gears 5 sits at 10th place on the list.
Clearly there is still a market for the series, but it is undeniable that these numbers are a far cry from where the series used to lie. Now, this is likely for a number of reasons. Xbox One adoption was about two thirds that of the 360’s (official numbers are unknown), the multiplayer itself has been somewhat controversial in the greater Gears community due to some early monetization efforts and some balance complaints, and Gears 5’s campaign, while still the largest in the series, is nowhere near the size and scope of something like Red Dead Redemption 2’s, or designed to be as replayable as the likes of Hitman or Dishonored. This means that those who only dabble in Gears multiplayer or simply stick to the campaign probably jumped ship long ago.
Enter Hivebusters, the latest expansion to Gears 5. By all accounts, it is a great time. It truly distills the essence of what makes the franchise great into a short but brisk 4-hour experience. However, despite being included in Game Pass Ultimate, it is currently estimated that only 1.56% of people that played Gears 5 actually took the time to complete Hivebusters (based on achievement data) which, again, I reiterate, is a short experience. Now, granted, the first DLC being released 15 months after the base game is something of an anomaly, and Microsoft could have done more to market the expansion, but these numbers aren’t great. Thankfully, the fidelity of the expansion as well as the overall quality of it is starting to make waves, yet these initial numbers are rather lacklustre.
However, Gears 5 is but one part of the equation, as two other games in the Gears saga have released recently. The first of them, Gears Tactics, is a great game. However, the jury is still out on if the game is actually a hit. Currently, Gears Tactics is not within the top 50 most played games for any markets mentioned (not even Mexico, where even Gears of War 4 charts). In terms of concurrent players on Steam, Gears Tactics hit a peak of 663 players, up from only 228 the month before. The month before, mind you, saw a major update to the game adding new difficulty modes and other features. In terms of an all-time peak, Gears Tactics only reached 6,401 concurrent players. Now, Gears Tactics is an exclusively single-player experience, and only those internal to Microsoft truly knows how the game performed, but especially for a game designed with the PC market in mind, the Steam numbers do not look too hot. None of this should be viewed as a slight against the game at all – if anything, you should all play it pronto, but the numbers are, at least on the surface level, kind of disheartening.
Finally, we come to Gears Pop, a mobile tower defence spinoff based on both Gears and Funko’s popular line of Pop figures. Greeted to mass confusion at E3 2018, Gears Pop was developed by Mediatonic (yes, the Fall Guys guys) and launched in the summer of 2019. Flash forward to today, and Gears Pop is about to shut down for good. The reason: it was no longer sustainable to upkeep. I think this case is pretty cut and dry, Gears Pop was not the brightest moment for this franchise, even if the game itself is rather fun.
So, with these numbers established. Do I think Gears needs, and I must emphasize, NEEDS, a reboot? Ultimately, I think the answer is no. The performance of the spinoffs may not have been the finest, but they were just spinoffs. Meanwhile, while there are some holes in the data (such as the number of installs, the revenue from in-game purchases, etc.), ultimately Gears 5 seems to have had a firework type trajectory. It burned loud and bright but seemingly fizzled out rather quickly in terms of the player base. While the numbers leave something to be desired for a live multiplayer experience, they are far from bad for a single-player one. To put it another way, State of Decay 2 and The Outer Worlds are currently absent from the US top 50 as well, but Microsoft has had enough faith to greenlight a sequel to the former and have heavily implied a sequel to the latter. However, another big game absent from the US top 50 is Forza Motorsport 7. As is public knowledge, this series is being rebooted going into the next generation.
So, the question now becomes “would Gears of War benefit from a reboot”, and this is where my thoughts begin to differ.
I believe, in the short-run, Gears of War would not benefit from a reboot simply because they have a story to tell. Gears 5 ended on something of a cliffhanger, and the stories of the members of Delta Squad, both new and old, have yet to be completed. To radically reinvent the gameplay or tone this late in the game could easily alienate existing fans, but the barrier to entry set by being the sixth game in the series makes it a daunting place for a newcomer to jump in. Now, that is not to say that there isn’t room for experimentation. Gears of War 4 riffed on Judgment’s mini raids and added tons of new weapons and set pieces. 5 was arguably the biggest overhaul of all, adding two open-linear environments, a level of player choice, a deeper narrative and light RPG elements. However, in spite of these additions, I’d argue that the gameplay systems, for better or worse, were still the same ones introduced back in 2006. To truly reboot the series would need a bigger overhaul, and it seems a rather inopportune time to do so. So when it comes to Gears 6, I’d argue it is still within their best interests to stay the course and finish off their story.
It is beyond this point, however, where I believe the options at The Coalition’s disposal become a lot more interesting. With the main story out of the way, the question shifts to how to keep the franchise going, if at all. Based on the numbers for Pop and Tactics, a change of genres doesn’t appear to be the most popular choice, or at least a shift to those more niche genres. So, if the game is to remain a third-person title, the time comes to either stay the course or innovate. This is a position not unlike that of two companies. The first of them is no stranger to shooter fans or Xbox fans: Id Software. Doom 3, while an excellent game, was the last Doom for a good while as they struggled to crack Doom 4. Some of the concepts tested, including a more Call of Duty type approach, drew massive ire from their fans. However, a small team from Uppsala Sweden, MachineGames, managed to breathe new life into Id’s old IP Wolfenstein with Wolfenstein: The New Order. That title reinvented the series as a cinematic shooter with a deep story and moments of stealth. Seeing what their Swedish peers did with their IP, Id naturally did the exact opposite. With Doom 2016, Id put the focus less on stealth, story and conventional shooting mechanics, such as aiming down the sights, and opted to reinvent the series using the original as its basis. The game was fast, frantic, tense and old-school, but was distinctly modern and it launched to great fan and critical success. Its follow-up, Doom Eternal, fared even better, garnering plenty of GOTY nominations. So, a lesson The Coalition could take away is to strip Gears down to its basics, and evolve from there.
However, one studio I’d argue The Coalition aligns with more is Sony Santa Monica, the developers of the God of War series. Now, God of War is not dissimilar from Gears of War. Both franchises hit the market around the same time, both put their platforms on the map as homes for mature content, both are stuffed with gore and both are somewhat misunderstood as “edgy” or “dudebro” from those who view them simply at the surface level. God of War also found itself in a similar position with its sixth game God of War Ascension, which, despite positive reviews (80 on Metacritic) was met with lower sales and gamers increasingly burnt out on the gameplay formula. What Sony Santa Monica opted to do was reinvent the series. They changed the camera from a fixed far-away position to an over-the-shoulder one evocative of Uncharted and Resident Evil 4. They deepened the combat from a hack and slash to something more involved. They introduced RPG elements and opened up the world to a combination of linear areas (on a scale much larger than Gears 5’s). They introduced a host of new characters, a new setting, and made the game easily accessible for someone who had never heard of God of War, so much as picked any of the prior games up. Finally, they put an emphasis on the story as much as on the gameplay, telling a touching tale of age and redemption, and did so through the innovative use of no cuts or loading screens in gameplay (except for upon defeat). The result was a game that reinvigorated the franchise, earning stellar reviews from fans and critics alike, brought in a ton of money and new fans and even managed to beat the juggernaut that is Red Dead Redemption 2 for Game of the Year at The Game Awards. They also rid the series of its unfair image for good, whilst keeping much of what the gore fans had come to expect.
So, the groundwork is there for The Coalition to reboot the series. Whether that means leaving Sera, leaving the Fenix family, leaving both or something else entirely remains to be seen. However, it deserves to be mentioned that Gears of War has something that Doom and God of War never did: an active multiplayer community. The issue, as seen with the response to changes to games like Halo, is that many multiplayer gamers like what they know. They enjoy the system, the balance and the animations, and to deviate from that can cause a wide outcry. One must only look at the response to the addition of sprint to Halo to see how these changes can be received. So, in rebooting, The Coalition risks losing much of the multiplayer community they have built up, and they may need to keep supporting 6 or release a compilation of the older games to keep these fans happy should they decide to deviate from the Gears formula.
The third option is to take a longer break in between releases. Halo has evolved but is still primarily the same game it always was. The same goes for Ratchet and Clank and Uncharted. However, games in these series are still met with significant hype because absence allows the heart to grow fonder. 343i will have taken 6 years by the time Infinite is unleashed. Insomniac released two Spider-Man games between the last Ratchet and Clank and the forthcoming Rift Apart. Naughty Dog created The Last Of Us in between Uncharted 3 and 4. Perhaps the time has come for The Coalition to take on a new IP or resurrect an old one in between their Gears titles so that fans will be all the more excited to come back. Gears 4 and 5 were only 3 years apart, and so their fundamental similarities were made all the more apparent. There doesn’t need to be a reboot if proper time is taken between games.
The final option is just to sunset Gears for good. While I, and many others, would definitely be sad to see the series go, it has had one heck of a run. Sometimes there is something to be said for ending on a high note, instead of keeping a story going longer than it needs to. One must only look to the responses of the Star Wars sequel trilogy to see that many were happy to see the story end at the victory celebration on Endor. Maybe the time has come for Marcus and co. to ride their Silverbacks into the sunset, never to be seen again…
Ultimately, what happens next is the call of Xbox and The Coalition. Personally, I believe that Gears of War does not need a reboot, but it could certainly benefit from one after finishing off this current trilogy. If a reboot is off the table, at the very least a longer break between titles might allow for a new Gears to feel more like a fresh occasion and less like an inevitability. But, enough of what I think, where do you lie on the topic? Let us know in the comments below, on Twitter, or several of the other great places we can be found. And if you want more on Gears, Xbox and more, stick around here at TheXboxHub. Cheers!