12 months ago, I’d never played a Gears of War game, but now I’m in love with the series. On the surface it’s a franchise of preposterously-proportioned soldiers and constant brutal violence, and yeah, that is Gears of War. But it’s also more than that. It’s an epic narrative, told over generations, of war and survival set on a beautiful world with intricate lore. The characters soon transcend your assumptions and, as the series progressed, I found myself caring about them, and the world they inhabit, more than any game series I’ve played recently. It’s a charming franchise, filled with unexpectedly subtle moments. But yeah, you do also chainsaw the heart of a giant worm and drive a motorbike packed with explosives into a monster’s mouth. The best of both worlds really.
Now, clearly, being a new fan of the series will likely mean that I have different opinions of the games than gamers who’ve been playing the series for 13 years now. I don’t have nostalgia for the older games, or insight into how revolutionary they were upon release. I also have no interest in the multiplayer modes and I’ve only ever played the campaigns of each game, so with that in mind here is my ranking of all six currently-released Gears of War games.
6 – Gears of War: Judgement (2013) [Read my full thoughts here]
Judgement is the black sheep of the franchise, and with good reason. It’s the only spin-off produced, not belonging to either trilogy, and its identity crisis shows. A prequel set some time before the events of the first game, Judgement follows Baird and Cole’s previous squad as they battle the Locust in Halvo Bay, flashing back-and-forth between their court martial hearing and the actions that led them there. The game suffers from a severe case of prequel-itis by choosing known characters to focus on but not being able to do much with them without contradicting the canon of the previous games. The backstory to Baird is unnecessary and turning him from the witty side character into the serious lead protagonist was a bad call. Setting Judgement before the previous games also meant that no new enemy types could be introduced and combat soon became stale and tiresome, especially so because there were no vehicle sections or large set pieces to break up the monotony. The structure of the game is also hugely problematic; the continuous missions from every other game are replaced by short levels with a focus on combat modifiers, making it feel more like a series of challenge maps rather than a story-driven campaign. And at the end of the day, Judgement is simply the only Gears game that I didn’t enjoy playing, so there’s nowhere else for it to go other than in last place.
5 – Gears of War (2006) [Read my full thoughts here]
The first Gears game is a strong, solid foundation for the series but little else. The characters at this stage are fairly uninteresting, their personalities teased but never fully breaching the surface of their tough exteriors. Themes? What themes? And the plot is incredibly slight: good guys vs bad guys locked in war on an alien world. All of the things that made me fall in love with the series would go on to be developed in the sequel, but what the first Gears game nails from the very start is the gameplay. There’s an addictive quality to how strong you feel in the game and how perfectly weighty everything feels, from running into cover to chainsaw-ing enemies into chunks. 13 years after it was released, it still feels fantastic to play and the innovative cover system holds up. It’s never boring – although maybe that’s because it’s fairly short – and each campaign act has a great set piece or unique feature to mix everything up. The fourth act of the game remains one of my favourites of the series because it swaps the huge epic cityscapes for claustrophobic, close quarters action inside a house, using easily-destructible arm chairs for cover instead of collapsed buildings, showing the variety the series could offer early into its existence. While the plot and characters leave something to be desired, Gears of War has the beginnings of something special and, while dwarfed by its sequels, is still enjoyable to this day.
4 – Gears of War 4 (2016) [Read my full thoughts here]
My enjoyment of Gears 4 is incredibly front-loaded. As the start of a new trilogy by a new studio, set decades after the previous games, I was most anticipating the worldbuilding and lore of the game, to see how things have changed, and I wasn’t disappointed. I love the setting of this new trilogy, and while the previous trilogy kept things a little bit basic with good guys vs bad guys (although there was more to it) I like that the conflict is now more complex. The humans have splinted off into two questionable groups making the conflict with the Swarm all the more fascinating. The story itself gets off to a good start, introducing the new characters, some of the old and the villains. I don’t care for the origin of the Swarm and feel it undoes the finality of Gears 3 but I’ve soon come to accept it. The combat feels great, the locations varied and a joy to explore, and the encounters with the huge storms known as ‘Windflares’ are some of the most memorable sections of the game. It’s a good start to the trilogy but feels at times like the new development studio, The Coalition, are easing themselves into the franchise a little too slowly. Around the middle of Act 3, the game becomes dull and drawn out, as if everything new had been introduced and what was left was a very basic Gears experience, before a very abrupt – yet fun – ending. Gears of War 4 has its problems but, overall, it’s a fairly strong sequel that beckons in this new era of the franchise, just maybe a little too tentatively.
3 – Gears of War 3 (2011) [Read my full thoughts here]
If there’s a problem with Gears of War 3 then it’s that the plot is too simplistic. The original trilogy ends with a Macguffin hunt, and while that’s a bit disappointing it’s everything that happens on that hunt that makes the game as fantastic as it is. Gears 3 has some of my favourite locations of the series, but what makes them better is that this is the game that embraces a higher form of storytelling and begins to tap into themes and character like never before. The game focuses on the cost of war and human greed, both in plot points but also in the locations and characters you come across during the game’s twisted odyssey. The destroyed city of Char, filled with petrified bodies of dead civilians, is quite simply a cool looking location to fight bad guys in but it also comes at the perfect time in the story to highlight the cost of war, and my favourite part of the game might be Cole returning to hometown and dealing with being a local celebrity while fighting through the places of his life. The gameplay is as great as ever and I think Gears 3 has the best variety of enemies to dispatch in the whole franchise, with the Lambent forces being a welcome breath of fresh air. While the plot may leave something to be desired, I think it comes together in the final act and the game offers an epic and satisfactory end to the trilogy.
2 – Gears of War 2 (2008) [Read my full thoughts here]
Gears 2 is the true introduction of the series. Sure, the first game debuted the great gameplay but this is the start of everything else. Within the first few minutes, the characters, motivations, story and world are introduced and explored more than the entire first game, which feels like a mere demo in comparison. This is the game that made a Gears of War fan. The world feels real and lived in, the locations a pleasure to explore and the combat meaty and addictive. The emotional centre of the game is Dom’s search for his missing wife and this begins the humanisation of these macho characters, and by the end of the game you care for all of Delta Squad deeply, although I do think Dom should have been the playable protagonist. As the personal stories develop, as does the overarching narrative surrounding the Locust conflict with the introduction of the Queen and their origins in the New Hope research centre. Gears 2 is an incredibly atmospheric game and I love when it drops the epic action for an effective horror sequence. And for a game released over 10 years ago, the set pieces are still a sight to behold. Taking out air and ground enemies while driving across frozen lakes in an APC, fighting through collapsing cityscapes while dodging falling building and working your way through the interior of giant worm to chainsaw its three hearts into pieces has never felt so good. Gears of War 2 is a bigger and better game than the first in almost every way. It feels like the true start of the franchise and, until recently, it was the best of the series.
1 – Gears 5 (2019) [Read my full thoughts here]
Gears 5 offers a truly evolved and modern version of Gears of War. It’s a game that takes pleasure in feeling simultaneously familiar and different. It still offers the great missions, story, characters and weighty brutal testosterone-injected gameplay you expect from the series, but it changes just enough that it feels like a totally fresh experience. The first and fourth acts play out in a standard Gears fashion, and are great, but the second and third acts change up the formula by offering huge open worlds to explore. This alteration to a more open world is very much an addition rather than a replacement or a subtraction. Despite the massive changes it brings, the game always feels like Gears and is a welcome evolution of the series. The locations are wonderful and the most diverse in the franchise, and the combat is the best yet with the large variety of enemy types, including new classes like Flocks and Wardens, never becoming boring. The game reveals huge previously unknown pieces of lore surrounding the Locust but also is the most introspective game yet, doubling down on this new trilogy’s themes, and Kait’s journey and struggle is the best of the series. While the new characters felt a little bland in Gears 4, here they come into their own and become just as charming, if not more so, than those in the original trilogy, although those old timers still make fun appearances in the game. So, while the odd character beat feels a little rushed and I have a few issues with the ending, Gears 5 is a terrific modern update of the franchise and my very favourite of the series.
So, there you have it. The most recently released instalment of the long-running series is my favourite of the bunch, showing that the series is still capable of improvement. I’m dying to see where the franchise will go next but the great thing about being a new fan of the series is that I’m not yet tired of replaying the previous games, and I sense many playthroughs before the inevitable release of Gears 6. But what’s your personal ranking of all six games in the series? Are you shocked Gears 5 tops my list? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.