It’s been a decade since the first Gears of War roadie-ran into our hearts, and like the hulking meat fridges with guns that star in each entry, each game has been a bullet-riddled slaughterhouse with a heart. Gears established the cover-shooter frenzy, and Marcus Fenix gave Master Chief his only real competition as Microsoft’s darling, while also giving the Xbox 360 perhaps its first killer app. And when you’re talking about a game best known for its chainsaw gun, the word “killer” is always a pun.
The fourth (numbered) entry is out next week, and you can expect a review here at Paste right before release. With Dom’s son taking the helm and rusty chainsaw gun, it looks like Gears is lumbering into a new saga. In honor of a new studio and a new protagonist taking the helm, let’s walk down memory lane, by ranking the best and worst that Gears has given us over the last ten years.
5. Gears of War: Judgment (2013)
This was the easy pick for last place. Judgment is the only Gears game in the series to not be a numbered entry, and that indifferent position within the canon shines through every facet of the game. Set as a prequel to the original games, the idea was to flesh out the events of Emergence Day and the battles that preceded Fenix’s adventures in the series proper, through the eyes of squadmate Baird. A focus on Baird was ill-advised at best, and although Cole is still one of the best characters in the series, Judgment seemed intent on doing away with every series tenet for little to no reason, with two weapons instead of four, a lack of any real sense of urgency, few new characters and rote, formulaic action instead of the cover-shooting magic Gears was known for. There’s a reason Judgment often gets left out of Gears of War talks, unless the subject is Events We’d Like Not To Repeat.
4. Gears of War (2006)
The original Gears of War holds up well even today in its co-op campaign, as seen with its recent re-release on Xbox One. As the ex-con Marcus Fenix, you’re bounced from prison by ultra-bro and Predator remake co-star Dom, and soon embark on a quest to annihilate as many Locust as possible. Gears of War was a cover shooter in a time when those were the exception, and it perfected the formula, adding elements like active reload and split-screen co-op that defined a genre. Time and innovation are the original’s worst enemy in the rankings though, as later games only perfected on Gears of War’s concepts and fleshed out its ideas. There’s a lack of any deeper emotional connection to Marcus and Dom compared to its sequels, and while the set pieces are good, they only get one-upped by later games. Special exception goes to the Nightfall section, where you use an ultraviolet light to fend off Kryll in the dark, a concept as new and interesting as the cover mechanics of Gears of War were at the time, and one that still feels fresh today. It’s great fun to tear through the Locust horde in the original, but the latter games do it just a little better.
3. Gears of War 4 (2016)
The latest Gears skips ahead a couple of decades, dropping us in a post-war world that in some ways is bleaker than the one we’ve seen in earlier games. Its doomsday prepper, anti-government facade might reflect the increasingly conspiratorial climate of the day, but as with every Gears game it’s the action that draws you in and not the story. No matter what kind of enemy you’re shooting or gnawing through, the co-op-oriented firefights retain a palpable thrill. The more complex Horde mode might be overthinking the evergreen multiplayer spree, but at its core it’s still a thrilling endurance test with friends. 4 comes in under 2 and 3 not because it’s necessarily any worse, but because it doesn’t quite have the excitement of something new or the dramatic advantage of toying with the lives of characters we’ve already come to know and appreciate.—Garrett Martin
2. Gears of War 3 (2011)
I’ve held an unpopular opinion for a long time, and now that I have a platform, I might as well voice it: Gears of War 3’s campaign was disappointing. It’s hard to keep topping the rising bar for explosions and over-the-top action sequences that define so many AAA series, but Gears of War 3 failed for me. I felt little for Marcus’ search for his dad, or his relationship with Anya (besides listening to him yell “Anya” like Rocky to Adrian), and most of the campaign moment-to-moment is forgettable. So much of Gears 3 is hampered by its lack of compelling impetus, and an insistence on introducing new characters and social media tie-ins rather than wrapping up the series in a natural way. The campaign suffers from this too, as though the combat is as brutal and entertaining as the last games, with many concepts coming up for variety’s sake that just detract from the actual gameplay that makes Gears of War so unique. Submarines were a terrible idea, and the one redeeming narrative beat, Dom’s heroic sacrifice, has an overused interlude of “Mad World” layered over it with careless, reckless abandon. All of that said, Horde mode and multiplayer in general was some of the best yet in the series, and it was still a mechanically solid game. It still features a scene where the Cole Train literally runs a touchdown to detonate a bomb. It’s still incredibly fun to take on a Brumak with friends, and the Lambent make for some nice variety that flesh out campaign and Horde encounters. Gears of War 3 ultimately retains a higher ranking just on the basis of its better modes, features and mechanics, but the campaign holds it far, far back from being the definitive Gears of War.
1. Gears of War 2 (2008)
Gears of War 2 is about a giant worm trying to sink a city. It’s as though Epic looked at the original and said, “let’s improve on everything we did with this, but also take it way over the top, starting with a giant worm that sinks cities.” The Locust Queen has doubled down on taking out humanity, and started by recruiting the worm from Empire Strikes Back to literally send mankind into the ocean. Wacky, but altogether, it works very well. Gears of War 2 introduced many of the major gameplay features that came to define the series: chainsaw-gun dueling, reviving downed teammates, Horde mode and more. Even the general multiplayer of later Gears mirrors 2 more than the original. The campaign builds on the character and personality of each member of the squad, including Marcus’ checkered past and Dom’s search for his wife, and plays the emotional scenes with much better nuance and presentation than most of the series does. You also open the game on Assault Derricks, mowing down hordes of Locust and even travel inside a giant worm, with dozens of other incredible moments spread throughout. Despite being eight years old, Gears of War 2 is easily the best of the original trilogy, and is the game responsible for cementing the series’ presence in the industry. We probably wouldn’t be playing a Gears of War 4 next Tuesday if the second one wasn’t such a huge step forward from the first.
Eric Van Allen is a Texas-based writer. You can follow his e-sports and games rumblings @seamoosi on Twitter.