Let’s take a meander down the ruined street of memories to a console generation where grey and brown were the predominant colours. The Xbox 360 had been out for a year and was doing well for itself, with several games managing to shift over a million copies. As for me, I was finally looking to move on from my ageing Playstation 2 and join the new generation of consoles with their shiny graphics. As a PS2 owner, the PS3 was naturally tempting – I was familiar with the games already, after all, but the price tag was pretty hefty. The Xbox 360 looked great, but nothing on it stood out to me. And then Epic Games and Microsoft revealed their new game, Gears of War, and suddenly the choice was obvious. It turned out to be a good choice because the Xbox 360 era was glorious.
Revisiting the first game in the series offers a reminder of how differently the tone started out. Gears of War still has some bombastic moments, but it also treats the Locust Horde more like horror movie monsters and loves the darkness. Gears of War 2 went bigger and more badass and ditched the horror vibes because to both the players and the characters the Locust no longer scary monsters hiding under the bed. We’d killed too many of them by that point. Plus, it’s hard to be scared of something when you’re playing as the equivalent of a human tank wielding a chainsaw gun.
A good example of this horror styling is a section where you make your way through streets at night, surrounded by flying Kryll. Step out of the safety of the light and these flying beasts eat you alive. It’s a section designed to be tense and to lean into the horrific nature of your adversary. Or there’s the time where you meet the Berserker for the first time and have to battle the blind beast.
Occasionally the later games tried to bring back the horror flavour but they never stuck with it for very long. It’s fun to imagine what kind of series we might have gotten if Gears of War 2 retained the original’s tone and had tried to keep the Locust feeling like something taken out of a creature feature. I’d love to see a spin-off featuring civilians who don’t have the armour and military training of the Gears, and instead have to be stealthy and smart to evade the monsters hunting them.
The classic cover-based shooting holds up very well indeed. You might very well disagree, but I still think nobody else has managed to match or surpass the Gears of War cover system. That slickness combined with a sense of weight as you slam into walls….it’s just bloody perfect, and only got better across the original trilogy. Of course, cover-based shooting became a horribly overused mechanic, but when Gears of War launched it wasn’t that widely used. Gears may not have invented it, but it did help popularise it because of how well executed it was. You can’t forget the signature Lancer either, a brutal weapon that let you chainsaw through Locusts if you could get close enough.
Behind the excellent shooting and horror is a bromance tale between the gruff Marcus Fenix, his best buddy Dom, the snarky Bair and THE COLE TRAIN, BABY! WOOOOOO!. Some people hated the dude-bro attitude, but I personally revel in the silly nature of it all. These characters are slabs of meat wearing massive armour and ripping foes in half with chainsaws, and the bombastic, kind of cheesy action vibe hides some genuinely smart writing, solid character work and even a few emotional beats. I swear if you didn’t cry in Gears of War 2 and 3, you must not be human. Is it among the greatest work created by man? Nah, but it’s entertaining as shit.
The Ultimate Edition on Game Pass means you get the original game with some graphical upgrades that make it sharper to look at. Although it’s a fair age now, Gears of War is no slouch and when it first launched in 2006 it was phenomenal to look at. The upgrades don’t make it look like a modern game, certainly, but it’s still got some great visual moments and solid art design.
Once the original trilogy wrapped up Gears of War lost a lot of its stature. The franchise languished for a bit before it was reborn under the control of The Coalition, who revived the series with a fourth game back in XXXX. Gears of War needed to come back swinging hard, but alas Gears of War 4 was just okay. Certainly not bad, yet not great, either. Gears 5 (having now ditched the “Of War part, for some reason) did a lot better and is a bloody brilliant game in its own right. There’s a sense of rebuilding, though, and the series doesn’t feel as grand and as important as it once did.
Maybe that’s unfair of me, though. Gears of War was the biggest reason behind my choice to pick the Xbox 360 over the PS3 back in the day. The next two games were huge events for me, and when Gears of War 3 wrapped up the story I had to take a moment and contemplate the same thing we all do when we finish an epic series of TV or books; now what? What do I do now? What is life without this? The newer Gears games haven’t managed to hit the same note, but is that because they just aren’t as good or is it just because of my own nostalgia? Probably the second one.
Regardless, Gears of War is well worth a revisit whether you’re an existing fan or somebody looking to jump into the series. Sure, you could start off with Gears of War 4 and go from there, but do yourself a favour and at least venture through the first game. It’s well worth it.