The Gears of War franchise has been around for some 13 years now and a new entry is on the way. So, before Gears 5 drops let’s see how the previous games stack up.

Since the franchise first launched in 2006, Gears of War has been one of Microsoft’s biggest heavy-hitters for Xbox. The franchise has given us testosterone-fueled action in spades, interspersed with surprisingly emotional cutscenes and innovative multiplayer experiences that have cemented the franchise as one of the world’s best.

With Gears 5 due to come out this September, I want to take a look back at the franchise as a whole. Where did the franchise peak? What was the best one? Where can Gears 5 eventually slot in this list?

As a longtime Gears of War player, I’m offering you my opinion. Please don’t chainsaw me for it.

5

Gears of War: Judgment

Following up on the original Gears of War trilogy was never going to be an easy task, but it’s something that developers People Can Fly and Epic Games combined forces to do. Given that you’re reading this at the top of the list, it’s fair to say that not everything went exactly to plan for Gears of War: Judgment, though that isn’t to say that it was a bad game—that’s not the case at all.

When you take all the Gears of War games at face value, it’s just that Judgment ends up being the odd duck out.

The series took a break from the likes of its usual gravel-voiced protagonist, Marcus Fenix (who Dave Bautista is hoping to play in the upcoming movie), and installed Daimon Baird as the frontman. The likeable wiseguy did a pretty good job in the role, but the game’s campaign never quite reached the emotional depths that some of the other Gears titles managed to do. At the end of the day, the campaign came and went without any standout, iconic moments.

For a franchise first, this campaign was broken into smaller segments that featured a star-based score system. Gamers who got more headshots, completed the levels faster and spent less time in a down-but-not-out state would get more stars. Modifiers were put in place to encourage replayability, but sometimes it made the levels feel more like a speedrun challenge than an experience gamers could really soak in, despite the polish and impressiveness of the game’s environments.

While Judgment should be commended for trying something new with multiplayer game modes like OverRun and Survival (both of which changed the formula of the franchise’s traditional down-but-not-out mechanic), the absence of the wildly popular horde more will go down in Gears history as a swing-and-a-miss. The same can be said for the game’s big baddie, General Karn: compared to the likes of General RAAM, the Locust Queen or even the Riftworm, he’s probably the least memorable antagonist of the franchise.

Make no mistake, Gears Of War: Judgment is still a great game. At the end of the day, it just didn’t carry the same gravitas as the other titles from the series.

Cover art from Gears of War Judgement video game

4

Gears Of War 3

Gears of War 3 is perhaps the most-polished game from the entire franchise. Epic Games knew fans liked what they saw in its predecessor, and so the developers aimed to up the scale regarding just about everything it had previously delivered. The strategy made sense, and it worked.

Much like its predecessor, Gears of War 3 knew how to tug on the heartstrings: the campaign has some absolutely gut-wrenching moments mixed in with its testosterone-fueled action, which presented itself on a larger scale than ever before. I’ll stand by it: this was one of the finest Gears campaigns of all time.

So, after all the praise, why isn’t it my top choice? While the game introduced a few new items like the now-iconic Digger Launcher, Epic Games took almost no chances in straying from the formula that Gears of War 2 established: the game was great, but it offered few surprises.

To be fair, Gears of War 3 did make some careful adjustments to its multiplayer modes, adding in smart team-focused features, like the ability to tag enemies and the ability to swap weapons. This made a great thing even better, and to this day I believe Gears of War 3 has been home to some of the best multiplayer ever seen on the Xbox 360.

Much like the original Mass Effect trilogy, the game struggled to find an ending that would be satisfying to trilogy veterans. While it certainly didn’t botch things on a scale that BioWare did, the campaign ended with gamers utilizing a mightily-handy “miracle weapon” of sorts, and it all felt a little too convenient.

We know now that it didn’t ultimately end things, but still—that probably wasn’t the ending we imagined. That’s the problem with trilogies that have impressed on a scale like Gears of War did. The ending was more Game of Thrones than Breaking Bad.

Cover art from Gears of War 3 video game

3

Gears Of War

Let me take you back for a moment: the year is 2006. You turn on your CRT television, and the high-frequency noise of the TV starting up gives way to the melancholy piano notes of Mad World, which echo through the living room. The TV picture clears up, and it’s playing a now-iconic Gears of War commercial that is beckoning you to look into the broken world of Sera as Marcus runs along through the ashes.

I went out and bought an Xbox 360 the day after seeing this commercial. It didn’t let me down.

The original Gears Of War shocked the console gaming world with its near-flawless execution of a cover-based shooter, offering gamers an action-packed campaign, intense split-screen co-op and neat gameplay innovations like active reloads. It was a winning formula, and it immediately cemented Gears of War as a top-tier console title.

When I dove into the game, I knew that Epic Games potentially had the next Halo on its hands.

While the game has stood the test of time fairly well, its successors were able to expand on the game’s wildly successful gameplay formula and introduce a level of depth and emotion to their respective campaigns that the original Gears of War simply couldn’t have matched at the time, which is why it isn’t higher on the list—it’s not all based on nostalgia, folks.

Still, the game was so good that it was remastered some nine years after it released, allowing us all to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane via Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.

Screenshot from Gears of War video game

2

Gears Of War 4

Gears of War 4 was a fantastic blend of recognizable and familiar gameplay elements combined with new and exciting features. The Coalition was taking chances with the franchise’s first foray on the Xbox One, and it paid off in dividends.

To mark this step into the next generation, we found ourselves in the boots of JD Fenix, the son of the trilogy’s protagonist. He embarked on a memorable, narrative-driven campaign that brought us to a variety of places that never felt stale, and always provided a great variety of gameplay. This was the next-generation blockbuster experience that fans like me had hoped it would be.

While traditional Locust Horde enemies still arrived in abundance, the addition of new adversaries in the form of the robotic DeeBees made us change tactics from what we were used to. As well, the introduction of things like a new class system in Horde mode provided a breath of fresh air into a polished and highly replayable experience.

With a stellar campaign, oodles of visual prowess and a wonderful blend of innovation and nostalgia, Gears of War 4 successfully expanded on the franchise formula and made it bigger, badder and almost certainly more badass.

Plus, any game that has Marcus Fenix shout out “my tomatoes!” is good with me.

Screenshot from Gears of War 4 video game

1

Gears of War 2

Gears of War 2 was a defining moment for the series: it built itself up with over-the-top action, and was marketed by Epic Games as being “bigger, badder, more badass” than its predecessor. Still, that line of thinking doesn’t do Gears of War 2 justice: while it had its Michael Bay-style action moments, it delivered some heavy-hitting emotional scenes, gave us near-infinite replayability in multiplayer, and so much more.

Gears of War 2 also established a gameplay identity that has been continued throughout the franchise to this day: it introduced chainsaw duels, the down-but-not-out mechanic, and even Horde mode to the franchise. It was up there with the best multiplayer experiences on the Xbox 360, bar none.

Whether you lived for the adrenaline rush of being swallowed by a Riftworm or riding a Brumak, or perhaps the emotional side of things like the actions of Tai Kaliso or Dom finding his long-lost wife, Gears of War 2 had it all. Everything the developers set out to do was executed perfectly. It was hit after hit after hit.

For me, Gears of War 2 represents a huge step forward from the original game. Epic Games expanded on what it knew already worked, introduced new gameplay elements and had the financial backing to craft a long, challenging and gripping campaign. They fleshed out the world of Sera and the horrors that lied underneath its surface. To me, Gears of War 2 is the best Gears of War game of all time.

Cover art from Gears of War 2 video game

The Gears of War franchise has become one of the largest console exclusives for Xbox, and it’s no surprise: ever since the the first game released in 2006, the third-person-shooter franchise has provided us with high-quality, action-packed, testerone-fueled combat, with an intriguing storyline to boot.

With Gears 5 poised to take the series in a new direction⁠—it looks like it will have larger, explorable environments, for instance—it’ll be interesting to see how franchise evolves. The game looks like it will retain elements of the original gameplay formula that made the franchise so popular in the first place, but only time will tell what surprises The Coalition has been cooking up for us over the last few years. It’ll be interesting to see where Gears 5 will eventually slot into the above list.

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John's Take

Author

Gears Of War 2 will always hold a special place in my heart. I remember being completely riveted by the action-packed campaign, and I almost certainly played more multiplayer in Gears of War 2 on my Xbox 360 than any other game. Everything that game did, it did it with gusto and it did it right.

The franchise has become an absolute staple for Xbox gamers and I’m excited to see how the origins of the Locust Horde get fleshed out in Gears 5. The developers are taking a new direction with the upcoming title, and while changing the formula didn’t quite work out for Judgment for me, I’m hopeful that it’s simply a lesson learned for Gears 5.