Gears of War—or rather now, just Gears—is one of the prodigal sons of Xbox, up there with the likes of Halo. The chainsaw-wielding, testosterone-oozing, co-op cover shooter got its fifth installment, Gears 5, this Friday, with some spicy twists. And it’s likely that you’ve noticed something new, something fresh, something exciting about Gears (of War)’s new look. Out is the glumness of the old days; in is a vibrant, colorful world that feels immediately more energetic and lush. Maybe you find it refreshing, maybe you find it appalling. Either way your gamer attitude sways, it’s clear Gears‘ visual style had to change.
In entertainment and gaming as a whole, we’ve recently seen a remarkable stylistic shift. All that was old, gritty, and monochromatic is being updated in bright, retro vibes. Think back to games like Far Cry, Rage, and Gears of War in the Playstation 3/Xbox 360 era. Everything was dark. The color palette for a new game was nearly indiscernible from the 300 other dark-as-hell (literally) shooters released that same month. Beyond gaming, take the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s evolution. While they were by no means the grittiest movies you’d ever seen, you can’t argue that Thor 1 and 2 vs. Thor Ragnarok were night and day, both visually and tonally.
Similarly, recent releases Far Cry New Dawn, Rage 2, and the pièce de résistance, Gears 5, have completely ditched the monochromatic grit for an energetic color scheme that in turn energizes the gamer. Gears has always been strong stylistically, especially with the modeling. The characters show off angled, chiseled faces and stocky bodies, covered with that rustic, battle-torn Coalition armor. Previous Gears installments favored a very washed-out, texture-driven look, with the exception of vivid reds for blood and yeah, a few banners too. With this new release, stark changes are apparent from the start.
“Starting with Gears of War 4 and continuing through Gears 5, we felt that we needed to break away from the traditional ‘Greys of War’ look,” says Aryan Hanbeck, art director for Gears 5 (and previously associate art director on Gears of War 4). “At the time, that look was very prevalent in cinematic war movies and gave the game a certain feel that made a lasting impression. When the Gears franchise came to Microsoft [in 2014], the time was right for a fresh perspective on color in relation to the Gears universe. I certainly don’t think the war, creepy, horror vibe and color are mutually exclusive.”
You can see that as you open onto a boot camp in Gears 5, where players don bright blue armor in a stunningly colored city—all without losing that same old Gears feel.
“From a purely art direction perspective, Gear 5 is an extension of Gears of War 4 but with some adjustments,” says Hanbeck. “For example, I really wanted battles to leave a lasting impression on the gameplay spaces they happen in. To this end, there are a handful of places in the game where you will notice a distinct difference in the environment from the time Kait walks into the space and the time the battle is over. Atmosphere builds up with every bullet fired and every pillar destroyed. More objects than ever are destructible and the environment effects the player like never before.”
It’s a breath of fresh air that really gives this universe a sense of life we haven’t seen from it yet. This Gears world feels stimulated compared to previous titles.
But why? Why did Gears and the others make this change? Of course, visual trends come and go in the entertainment and video game industries, but there’s always some catalysts for change. For one, so many color technologies (ie. HDR, True Tone) are becoming mainstays in TVs, gaming monitors, what have you. They make it easier to create stunning detail while interjecting vibrancy, when back in the day there was a thin line between detail and color, and crossing it took you from realistic to cartoony. This gives game designers the tools needed to make that extra artistic leap. Besides, in the mid-aughts, everything was grunge on purpose. My Chemical Romance was still kissing us with sweet despair as we tore it up on an Xbox 360.
Beyond just the tech, both the film and gaming realms have seen a remarkable influence from the indie community, with studios like Yacht Club, Owlchemy Labs, Devolver, and so many more injecting extreme stylistic flair into titles such as Heave Ho, Vacation Simulator, and The Messenger. On top of all this, society as a whole is mesmerized with throwback culture. The ’80s and ’90s are radical again, what with ten thousand remakes and remasters, and borrowed color schemes from past decades in shows like Stranger Things and video games like Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled and Link’s Awakening.
Gears 5 shows us exactly why this was a necessary change. Opening the door to more creative and meaningful artistic direction helps titles restore energy to games. Gears 5 feels like one of the most fast-paced, exciting titles in the series, and it’s absolutely not due to all the new (albeit great) mechanics. It’s because there’s greenery and bright lights. Gears 5 wastes no time from bootcamp, to the first mission, to the first story-heavy cutscene to make the change clear, and the result is absolutely gorgeous.
“One of my main goals was to give each location a look that would make a mark and leave a lasting impression,” says Hanbeck. “This is really hard to do if your whole game is desaturated and grey, so color played a huge part in that.”
For me, the new style not only gave a sense of what I should be focused on, but it also kept me engaged. While the game is a tried-and-true Gears title and would still be well worth your cash without the style change, the new visuals add so much more depth, taking it from a good game to a great one.
Gears of War shows how hefty design shifts can help revitalize a series, even five games in, and pull it off with grace and confidence, setting a waypoint for other series like Call of Duty and Battlefield to try their hand. (It also doesn’t hurt that the game has a fantastic amount of depth, both online and local play, and the Terminator, Sarah Connor, and Dave Bautista). Gears 5 is a killer example of a series evolving with the times.