It's been over a year since Gears 5 launched on Xbox One and PC with it also leading the charge as Microsoft's most noteworthy smarty-delivery-enabled first-party title. With Operation 6 upon us, it's time to re-examine the franchise, listing each entry from worst to best.
Note: The list won't include Gears Tactics.
Gears of War 4
This entry falls into the trap of resting on the franchise's laurels. As The Coalition's first effort, it shows flashes of something greater, but it's always reeling itself back in. Horde 3.0 was as satisfying as horde had been to that point, eschewing Horde 2.0's more restrictive nature characterized by its predefined defensive locations. However, its multiplayer took too long to roll out content with egregious RNG for nearly any unlockable. Directly unlocking desired content in Gears of War 4 requires spending cash or grinding even more than Gears 5 at launch. The campaign was its biggest offender, though. Weather hazards could have been a major element of combat, but they're only used two or three times in scripted scenarios. Many swarm enemies were just re-skins of classic locust archetypes. Add in nearly two full acts utilizing robots as the primary threat and forced horde sections and Gears of War 4's single player missed the mark. Its new cast, which lacked the same chemistry as Delta and even Kilo squad, didn't help matters. It feels like a polished prototype—a return on Microsoft's investment to prove they could make Gears games at all.
Gears of War
The original Gears of War was a major turning point in the industry for better or worse with nearly every third-person shooter since incorporating a cover system. Despite its influence, it's aged worse than any Xbox 360 entry. The basic campaign may pepper atmospheric moments throughout, but its combat scenarios are among the franchise's worst with tons of boxy, uninteresting levels. The scale of these encounters, usually only showcasing a max of five or six active locust AI on-screen, makes revisiting it feel like stepping back and playing a conversion made for weaker hardware that could only handle so many polygons. Its shooting mechanics and cover system would also continue to be refined as the series progressed. The Ultimate Edition is the only version worth revisiting as it instates many of the later entries' cover refinements, though snappier cover can't fix a by-the-numbers campaign. With how much more intense and dynamic future installments became, it's a difficult pill to swallow.
Gears of War: Judgment
People Can Fly understood their one shot at the franchise better than The Coalition's first attempt. For starters, it's much more daring, altering the traditional control scheme to reinforce its design principles. Every other entry uses the D-pad for switching between two primary weapons, a handgun, and grenade. Judgment uses the Y button to let players swap between their two-weapon arsenal along with assigning the left bumper as the dedicated grenade button. The loss of a handgun slot is felt, but the other changes make sense for its more off-the-wall encounters. Whereas previous entries juggled between small skirmishes, large engagements, and massive set-pieces, People Can Fly retains the same intensity through each encounter. Its control scheme affords this change to combat, giving players more control in reactionary moments. Throwing grenades has always felt like a chore in Gears of War, but Judgment makes them as integral as your lancer or gnasher. Judgment also lays claim as the only entry to allow wielding a primary weapon while using a meat shield.
It's lacking major set-pieces, but its combat scenarios are so carefully crafted, you won't notice. The optional declassified missions add an extra layer, making combat more exciting. These test players' abilities to push through under pressure and work within constraints against stacked odds. Gears of War: Judgment is a bunch of dumb fun that distills Gears' best element: combat.
Gears of War 2
Gears of War 2 is one of the best examples of going bigger without losing sight of its predecessor's core. Its grander scale made engagements feel more noteworthy. The conflict between Cog and locust didn't feel like a war until the second game. Regular encounters throw more enemies than the first game ever had on-screen, with set-pieces showcasing up to hundreds of mindless drones set to beautiful backdrops. The new enemy types like bloodmounts, maulers, and butcher made for more exciting combat in a game already pushing the envelope.
Despite criticisms over much of the campaign taking place in samey underground areas, its campaign is more varied than the original. You'll ride alongside the back of giant tank-like vehicles while mowing enemies, cut through a gigantic worm's multiple hearts from the inside, and even hijack a brumack. This is the entry that began to understand how to balance normal encounters with larger set-pieces and more restrained moments. Gears of War 2 is the most lauded entry, but replaying its campaign highlights how much it had yet to learn about set-pieces. The huge-scale affairs with hundreds of locust milling about and the on-rails sections are largely inconsequential. The entire tank-riding section only requires killing specific enemies to prevent from being killed. Otherwise, the hundreds of locust on the battlefield below and and the corpsers and brumaks serve no threat. This scripting also limits boss fights. Looking at you, Kraken.
If Gears of War 4 was The Coalition saying they could make a game look and play like its forefathers, Gears 5 is them saying they can make it FEEL like Gears. This feeling comes from subtle innovation. The Gears of War trilogy looks identical and that's because they share the same fundamental gameplay. However, the under-the-hood changes and content additions allowed each game to carve an identity. Gears of War 2 introduced meat shields, increased the scale, fleshed out the previously basic multiplayer, and added horde mode. Gears of War 3 designed an entire, bombastic campaign around four players along with introducing a controversial Horde 2.0, radically altering multiplayer balancing, and fleshing out the execution system. Gears of War 4 was just a Gears of War game, down to recreating the multiplayer meta pre-Gears 3 with the gnasher being the only weapon worth a damn.
Gears 5 takes a hybrid approach with its campaign. The first and fourth acts resemble the series' linear roots while the middle acts are semi-open worlds with side quests. The middle acts also fed into Jack's new role as an integral support character. Completing the harder difficulties without finding the components to upgrade Jack through side quests and exploration is possible, but more difficult. It's built with some degree of synergy in mind. The semi-open sections and light RPG progression injected some life into a waning franchise. The multiplayer launched in a sordid state, but it's in a good place now with its much alleviated grind. Escape wasn't successful, but the new take on Horde mode is addictive. The added variable of class-specific upgrades per match taps into the same facet of players' obsessive compulsion that sees them itching to reach that next level or get that next skin. The 60 FPS standard beginning with Xbox One X and tweaks to bullet spread also go a long way toward enhancing player feedback.
Gears of War 3
Gears of War 3 is a remarkable achievement in balancing narrative, level design, and scope within a fully four-player co-operative campaign. It learned from Gears of War 2's missteps with set-pieces that offer players more control save for the underwater on-rails section. Three- to four-player co-op games are generally more reserved, lacking many dynamic elements and playing it safe with constrained environments and basic objectives. This is because designing a competent story around more than two players is extremely daunting, but Gears of War 3 manages to create a compelling single-player experience that works just as well with a four-person squad.
Epic Games also crafted the most artistically interesting installment here with extremely varied locations and the most color the series had seen to that point. Gears of War 4 and 5 may be more colorful, but their environmental design lacks the same weight. Gears of War 3 threads the line between color and decrepit, war-torn environments more successfully than any game before or since. Its multiplayer was the most shocking revelation, eschewing the gnasher-driven meta in favor of more standard balancing. Considering how good shooting feels in Gears of War, it's a shame that much of the franchise and its community has rallied behind the shotgun as the end-all-be-all. Because of this, Gears of War 3 remains the best PvP experience bar none. Throw in the series' best story, and Gears of War 3 is the most diverse and complete experience of the bunch. The moment Microsoft uses its FPS Boost tech on this game, the delta between it and Gears 5 will expand significantly as its 30-FPS cap is the only thing holding it back.