Pop! Another head explodes after being hit by a round from my pistol, and I feel like this gun and I have never been so close. And to think, I was going to skip Gears 5.
But that would have been a mistake. Gears 5 doesn’t just include one of the best campaigns or multiplayer packages of 2019, but it throws accessibility options at the player, making it possible for just about anyone to play, and play well. Just like the strength of the PC port, Gears 5 offers a master class in how to welcome as big a community as possible into your game.
Why this matters to me
I was a big Gears of War fan back in the day, but the luster rubbed off somewhere between Gears of War 3 and Judgment. And it wasn’t just due to boredom or franchise fatigue. At some point it became harder to see, and understand, what was going on.
Being legally blind — seeing well enough that I can make things out at close distances, but still missing most details — I miss a lot of things in newer games. With retro titles it is easier to focus on shapes and colors, things that stand out as indicators of when to attack or dodge, cues that are noticeable, what buttons need to be hit and when.
With technology advancing we get higher resolutions, more pixels, and smaller bits that look more clear and realistic, but only to those with keen eyesight. In the original Halo I had a fair chance of spotting a sniper in red armor moving across the white and grey background of Sidewinder, but now in any realistic military shooter with camouflage and such a long draw distance, I’m screwed until I can close the distance.
Wow! Extremely proud of this and all the hard work the team did at @CoalitionGears , especially @ottosson to make #Gears5 our most approachable and accessible game to date. Thank you Courtney! https://t.co/DMOx4KvkYx— Rod Fergusson (@GearsViking) September 5, 2019
As video game graphics improve I get worse at spotting targets or seeing incoming fire, so without that extra time to hone my limited skill set, I just lost the desire to thrash Locusts. Meaning the fourth installment passed me by.
However, thanks to Game Pass and the nudge from some incredibly supportive people in the Gears community (thanks, Dastardly), I made myself dive into the newest entry. What did I have to lose other than a little bit of time? But when I saw how much effort The Coalition put in to make the game better for me and others with disabilities, I knew I would stick around for the long haul. The game was working so hard to make me feel at home, the least I could do was pay attention for a bit.
What I saw, and how it helped
And that work was immediately apparent when I went into the options menu to see how much of the experience I could adjust to help me play. The answer was simple: Just about everything I, and many others like me, may need. Normally I look for brightness levels, text options, and if I can alter the reticle (something more games should offer) in any way, but this menu for Gears 5 almost overwhelmed me with options, and I mean that in a very nice way.
The biggest asset might be the Target Lock, which allows the player to pull the left trigger and immediately have their reticle snap to the enemy they’re facing. It won’t magically spin the player around to a hidden threat in the distance — and will leave me high and dry at times, focusing on nothing with three people firing at me — but it is incredibly useful for areas where gray, brown, and red enemies blend into the backgrounds, making it hard for me to pick them out.
I’m not any sort of marksman in real life, but I would like to play one in most games, and something like this saves me a lot of deaths. I can handle most of the challenges the game offers, but long distance-shooting — especially in darkness and fog — presents situations that work specifically against my disability.
Spotting attackers is the big issue and the campaign has me covered with JACK’s Pulse ability which puts a white outline around targets for a moment. I made sure to put all of my initial upgrades into improving the range and duration of the ability to help me out even more, making sure that I was less likely to be caught off guard in a big firefight. In some of the other PvE modes, each hero has their own special ability. I was drawn to Fahz Chutani for his bad attitude and British charm, but I was lucky that his personalized touch was lighting up all enemies on the map in a vibrant purple, even through walls, making them easy prey.
It does, unfortunately, have a cooldown, but when it goes off it feels like heaven. These two sight-enabling gifts are the chef’s kiss, but they are only in the campaign. JACK is great for those who might not be able to physically or visually do much as a regular character but want to help thin the Swarm out, with weapons that require less aiming, perform area of effect attacks, and don’t require the player to worry about taking cover.
Target locking is available in PvE modes like Horde and Escape, but it is only in the campaign on the beginner difficulty level, which is a slight disappointment in an otherwise superb package. I want more of a challenge in many sections, but would like the ability to turn this assistive measure on whenever my eyesight hinders my progress.
There was another nice idea implemented in the Horde mode with the Fabricator Ping, having it make a sound that increases as the player gets closer. The Fabricator is the center of that game type, as it is where players obtain new weapons and defenses, so being able to easily find it is imperative. The audio locator is a big help when I get turned around, but I wonder if there is a way to use this for other items or modes since it’s so effective.
Another staple of Gears that does help no matter where I am is the automatic reload option. Gears normally requires the player to hit the button once to begin the reload, and then once again when a small, moving line inside a status indicator lines up with a small white area, allowing you to reload quickly. But that indicator isn’t always easy to see, especially since its design changes depending on the weapon, and it can be hard for me to change my focus from the game itself to a small area in the top corner of the screen.
The automatic reload option removes that obstacle, without forcing me to jam my gun every time I reload by ignoring the active reload mechanic entirely. I don’t think active reload needs to go away — it’s such a well-known part of the game at this point that fans expect it — but it would have normally kept me from playing well. Being able to toggle it off is the best of both worlds, for everyone involved.
The first advice I got for competitive play was to adjust the brightness, which helped, especially on certain stages. Sometimes the best offense is a good defense, and I have a problem with getting shot, so I will always appreciate any game that puts in bullet tracers to let me know where the gunfire is coming from.
This is a small thing for some, but a little extra color and a trail means that I am not left hiding behind a half-destroyed wall wondering where the bullets are coming from. The camera also gets in my way less now that I can turn off camera shake; no jerky movements to distract me and I can focus more. It’s great that this adjustment to the view can be done in both story and competitive modes, without skewing much when it comes to giving anyone an advantage. Trust me, these options just help me play, it’s not like I’m wiping the floor with the competition due to any unjust advantages.
Text is something that has to be dealt with a lot as well, and Gears 5 made sure there were plenty of options for the size — not just subtitles but general font in menus also. I often miss a lot of text due to colors obscuring the letters, but placing a background plate helps the text stand out, and each speaker, human, machine, or communicator, is identified properly when they speak. A big problem is text scrolling too fast or disappearing before I can get through it all, so seeing that the chat duration can be extended was quite the pleasant surprise. It’s the sort of small but crucial detail that proves the team has done its homework.
A mode I didn’t get much of a chance to try out but was grateful for was that in online play, chat text from teammates can be turned into speech, meaning I’m not squinting to try to keep up with tragedies and accidentally running into exploding enemies. I’ll be glad when we can see both of these incorporated expertly into more games.
The changes made weren’t just for me though, as seeing some of the options inserted for deaf players is incredible. My hearing is good, but years of loud rock music and living in the sweltering heat where the AC has to be blasting constantly beside me makes me appreciate things that make it easier to hear.
Some of the best use of subtitles included details I never would have thought of otherwise, including a note when the music stops, letting anyone familiar with video games know that they now have a moment to breathe, or perhaps that the silence is building tension before a large battle. Either way, it adds information that the player may not have received otherwise.
The subtitles themselves were always expertly written and described, letting me know if someone was speaking through the radio or in person, for example. These things don’t just help players understand what’s going on, but also to feel the emotions being presented in the story. Knowing the music ended and everything is deathly quiet will always make a scene more tense, even if you couldn’t hear the music to begin with.
Controller remapping is always good for so many players and there are other options for those with mobility issues, from making quick time event interactions easier to putting all of the movement functions on one stick instead of two. The Xbox Adaptive Controller is also well supported.
I’m impressed with what the game has done. That doesn’t mean a lot of these capabilities couldn’t use some additional work and there are still plenty of disabilities out there that could use attention with more options. I was hoping to see each character’s text have a different color in the dialogue sections, like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Blair Witch have done recently, but I know it has to be tough to include everything, and Gears 5 already does so much more, so much better than just about any other AAA game out there.
My hope is that players see these changes and show they appreciate them, letting developers see that these are additions we want, and more games strive to keep raising the bar as Gears 5 has. But that’s a larger hope for the future. For now? I’m just ecstatic at how these options help me enjoy the game, and I’m grateful I decided to give Gears 5 a shot. I’m also thankful that The Coalition was ready for my challenges when, or even if, I decided to play the company’s game.
They’re supporting me with the work they put into the accessibility options of Gears 5, and I’m happy to be able to support that effort in return, if only through playing, having a great time, and sharing my experiences with you.