(Image credit: The Coalition)
“Jack, rip that door!” It’s a bark that has almost become as iconic as the Crimson Omen itself; an order for Marcus Phoenix’s faithful robot companion that’s been primarily used to hold Delta squad at bay throughout each Gears of War campaign as and when the story may warrant it. As it so happens, the time it takes Jack to chew through a magnetic seal just so happens to be the exact amount of time that it takes to fend off a few waves of enemies. Funny that.
After surviving the Locust War, emerging a victor of the Lambent Pandemic, and floating headlamps first into the Swarm War, Jack is about to be transformed from Gears of War’s biggest unsung hero (sorry Carmine) into a critical part of the squad itself – hell, you can even take him for a spin in co-op if you want to. “Jack is a character that harkens back to the Gears of War one, two, and three days,” says Rod Fergusson, studio head at The Coalition and creative director on Gears 5. “What we wanted to do with Jack this time was to make him more than a companion that you order to ‘rip that door’ and use as a way to get through different levels.”
So many of the changes coming to Gears 5 are reflected in the more prominent position that Jack plays this time around. Jack is at the heart of the three-player co-op support in the campaign, it has helped guide The Coalition as it overhauled its approach to level design, and to the flexibility you now have over any given combat scenario that the COG may slide into.
Explaining Jack’s role in Gears 5
“With the campaign in Gears 5, we have really thought about all of the ways that we could challenge expectations through player choice,” Fergusson continues, explaining that while Jack is one of many ways in which The Coalition is exploring this concept, it might just be the most integral. “We wanted to provide a way to change up combat beyond just working with what happens at the end of a gun.”
What Fergusson is talking about there is how so much of Gears of War’s action and storytelling is channelled through the barrel of a weapon. It wants to change that this time around, and a lot of that is coming through Jack’s more prominent position in the squad. The support bot is still focused around support and utility, only now it’s integral to survival. This is particularly noticeable throughout Act 2 of the campaign, as Kait and Del find themselves traversing an icy wasteland – separated from the rest of their squad as they hunt for answers across parts of Sera that we’ve never seen before.
As we reported last week, Gears 5 is influenced by BioShock Infinite in several ways that might surprise you, including how enemies now exist in the expanded spaces. “In every Gears game, you open a door to a room and immediately slide in the cover because the bullets are coming. And now in Gears 5, we have this idea of ‘player-initiated combat’ where, in certain circumstances and certain battles, you can go into them, and you can actually see the Swarm occupying the space, but they’re not aware of you yet,” says Fergusson, before explaining how Jack comes into play.
On The Radar
(Image credit: The Coalition)
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“We wanted Jack to be able to provide you with the ability to go invisible, so he can cloak you. He can give you over-health, he can put down proximity mines, he can use a pulse to show you where all of the enemies are in the area, and more,” continues Fergusson, eager to impress upon you that this is all about complementing and enhancing your play style.
The reason that these abilities are equipped with Jack, as opposed to any of the human characters, is because The Coalition was keen to ground all of these abilities in the world, making them feel like a natural addition rather than something completely removed from that world. “Rather than try to put these abilities on Kait – giving her like some magical ability – it made a lot more sense to put it as science inside of Jack.”
If you really think about it, Baird does hook Jack up with a stun gun in the closing hours of Gears of War 3, a helpful tool during the Battle of Azura, so it makes sense that this expansion would only continue in the future. “Jack really changes how you play because now it’s not just about deciding ‘what gun do I use, which enemies do I want to target, and in what order?’ Now you have this support bot with you, and you can decide how to approach situations.”
“You can take in the environment, begin to take in the threat, and begin to make decisions about what you want to do. You can say ‘Oh, I see a Boomshot up against the wall, Jack could clock me so I can go invisible and go and grab it, or he could retrieve it for me while I sit in cover,” Fergusson says, though this is just one example of many.
Gears has a light flirtation with the RPG
Jack can also be upgraded throughout the Gears 5 campaign, letting you focus on unlocking abilities that you think will help support future combat scenarios, and your individual approach to each one. Need an excuse to search through the open-ended levels in Act 2 and Act 3 of the Gears 5 campaign? That’s where you’re going to find the tools you need to upgrade your helpful new companion.
“Jack not only has these abilities that you earn over time in the campaign,” Fergusson begins, giving one such example as the ability to briefly take control of enemies, which you’ll get early into Act 3, “but you can actually upgrade them as you go. So as you’re going through the campaign, you’ll find these things we call components. And those components can be used to change how the abilities work.”
These components can be found all over Gears 5, out in the open areas and hidden across all of its missions, and you’ll use these to upgrade Jack and his 11 different core abilities. These are split into assault, defensive, and support trees, alongside a suite of passive powers too – such as the ability to increase Jack’s health or the duration that you can be cloaked. Each of these can be upgraded, too, and it’s up to you how you want to invest your acquired components into Jack.
“We didn’t want it to be the case where everybody picks the same thing, so we didn’t make it a tree,” says Fergusson, explaining how much freedom you’ll have to invest in what interests you the most. You don’t need to spend components on abilities just to inch further down a skill tree to get to the one you actually want, instead you can store your components and invest them where and you think they can be best used.
There’s one last piece to this RPG-lite puzzle, and it comes in the form of ultimate abilities. These don’t need to be unlocked with components, and Fergusson says there’s a good reason for that. “The ultimate abilities for Jack are actually discovered. It’s usually through the completion of a side-quest, a multi-step mission about discovering some truth underlying the narrative. Once you follow that to its conclusion, the reward for completing that side mission is an ultimate ability. So for each of the abilities, Jack has an ultimate ability you can explore and discover and unlock for yourself in the game.”
We’ve completed one such side mission in the Gears 5 campaign for ourselves, but I wouldn’t like to spoil the surprise here. Suffice to say, these optional missions aren’t typical of anything you’ve done in Gears of War before, and the unlocked abilities that come from completing them provide a wealth of new opportunities to explore while battling back the Swarm. It’s for that very reason that The Coalition is eager to ensure that you can switch up your component investments if you should so choose to, changing Jack as you settle into your preferred playstyle across the game.
“What’s nice is that you can re-spec Jack.” says Fergusson, “So if you want to try different abilities, you can; if you want to change the upgrades, you can. It’s a small point, but it was important for us to include.”
Ease of use was important
“The campaign supports three-player co-op, and one of those three is Jack. If you want to play single-player, you can give order to Jack, and he will go and do those things,” Fergusson confirms, explaining that The Coalition has had to walk a fine line between utility and usability. All that is to say that Jack is incredibly easy to use, regardless of whether you’re taking command of him yourself in co-op or simply ordering him around in single-player.
In co-op, Jack is designed to be an excellent gateway into the action if you aren’t super familiar with Gears of War. He’s been purposefully designed to be easy to control, giving players who aren’t ultra confident playing games like this an ideal access point to enjoy Gears 5 with their friends – hugely important, given the audience that’s about to be introduced to the game through Game Pass. If you’re in single-player, ordering Jack around couldn’t be simpler; it took me about 20 minutes to get my head around how the support-bot functioned, which is surprising, given that The Coalition skipped over the tutorial in Act 1 to jump us straight into the chaos of Act 2 and Act 3.
Want to know what the biggest Gears of War ever made plays like? Then you really should give our Gears 5 campaign hands-on preview a read.
It’s all surprisingly intuitive. As Fergusson says, “the way we think about it is that we made the ‘Y’ button the Jack button. Anything you want to do with Jack, you do on ‘Y’, and then that combines with the triggers. ‘Y’ activates whatever ability Jack has equipped, such as Pulse or Cloak, while ordering the bot to attack an enemy with shock traps or with his zapper is as easy as hitting the Y button while your reticule is focused over an enemy or an area.” In short, it doesn’t take long before commanding Jack feels like second nature – as natural as revving the chainsaw on your Lancer.
In Gears 5, Jack finally gets his time in the spotlight. The support-bot is becoming an integral member of the team, a friend that you will come to rely on heavily as Kait and co attempt to stop another war from enveloping Sera. Jack is at the heart of what The Coalition is trying to do here, in its efforts to broaden the scope of combat, give players more opportunities to play the way they want, and to create an entry point for the series that is as approachable as it is accessible.