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The Gears of War franchise is one of the most commercially and critically successful new franchises of the current generation of consoles. It helped launch the Xbox 360 as the leading console early on and has continued to be a system seller. Over the top violence, solid online multiplayer, and stunning visuals have all been hallmarks of the series fans have grown to love. Marcus Fenix is one of the most recognized modern day protagonists and the Lancer is already one of the most iconic videogame weapons of all time. With the original trilogy now complete, the series has now decided to go backwards with a prequel entitled Gears of War: Judgment, coming next week, but how has this franchise progressed and managed to maintain it's audience for over six years? Let's take a look back through the history of the franchise and see how this series has become what it is today.
When the first game came out in 2006 it was a behemoth. At the time Microsoft still didn't know whether the Xbox 360 would be a success or not and with Halo 3 still not ready they hedged all their bets on this brand new IP from Epic Games. When it launched, it showed off everything that was great about their new console from its stunning visuals, ground breaking mechanics, and very solid console online multiplayer experience. I remember my first experience with this game when I saw the first trailer with "Mad World" playing in the background and was blown away. Whilst the final game was nothing like this trailer (in tone), I did get one of the best experiences I've played to this day. It was the reason I first got my Xbox 360 and why I've spent a vast majority of my time this generation playing games on it.
The cover based mechanics that were introduced in this game were revolutionary for third person shooters. Being able to snap into cover at the press of a button was intuitive and smooth whilst being easy to pick up but difficult to master. Active reloads were a nice touch, curb stomps were incredibly satisfying, and 'down but not out' could be frustrating or exhilarating depending on the outcome. Then there was the Lancer. The crazy weapon from the mind of Cliff Bleszinski was the perfect mascot for the franchise and no matter where you stand on whether the weapon is overpowered or not you cannot deny how outright awesome it is to chainsaw your enemies, or your friends.
This game marked the first time I had played a truly HD game and also the first online game I got hooked on. I would literally stay up all night for days in a row playing the multiplayer when I first got this game. The simplicity of the multiplayer was what made it so compelling. With only a choice of three game modes, a dozen or so maps and a few different characters to play as the game let the gameplay do the talking. No leveling system or unlocks so all players were equal it was unbelievably addictive to the point I still play it to this day. Even compared to its later additions with way more content, there is still something charming about loading up a game on Gridlock and seeing who has the best shotgun skills.
Overall this game was a trendsetter in every sense of the word. It set the standard for visuals, online multiplayer, and cover based shooting mechanics for the entire generation. How important this game is really can't be overstated enough. It created a whole new world and characters for players to obsess over and arguably became as important to Xbox as Master Chief himself. So how could Epic make a worthy sequel to this huge surprise success?
When Gears of War 2 came out just two years later it was a mixed bag. The game looked even better and the mechanics were even tighter than before. Small added gameplay elements such as being able to pick up a downed opponent to use as a 'meatshield,' crawling to safety whilst downed, and chainsaw duels were all natural progressions for the gameplay. None of them felt intrusive or disrupted the natural flow of the game at all, but rather added to the already awesome experience.
The campaign was quite hit or miss where it struggled to reach the epicness of the first game. It was still a fun mode but failed with some of the emotional beats it tried to hit. Story has never been the strongest point for the franchise and this campaign has to be marked down as a rare misstep. No encounters or enemies really stood out such as Raam from the first game and I never felt compelled to play it multiple times like the others.
The multiplayer was the worst aspect of this game in my opinion which suffered from a terrible launch. The game suffered connectivity problems and by the time it was fixed the initial numbers of players for the game had dwindled so it never really caught on. The original maps that came with the game were also nowhere near as good as the previous game. DLC went a long way to making the multiplayer fun but it was little too late really.
Horde mode is by far the shining light of this game and is arguably as influential as the first game was for third person shooters. Most games these days feature some sort of extra horde mode when you fight endless waves of enemies, but Gears of War 2 was once again the trendsetter. A simple idea now but at the time many wondered what this mode was and why people would play it. Now a staple of the franchise and still unrivaled in its execution in any other game series.
Overall it was a fine game but never excelled in one area. Horde mode was groundbreaking but multiplayer never fulfilled its potential and the campaign was inconsistent. More of an add on to the first game than a fully fledged sequel, it seemed that the magic just couldn't be replicated a second time. Could Epic end the trilogy on a high note and make the best game to date?
After a short delay to add polish and fix any bugs the third game was released and it sure was worth the wait. The campaign contained plenty of action, drama and set pieces which I've enjoyed playing multiple times with friends. It was a good length but did have some pacing issues in the middle. It wasn't as good as the first game, but a huge improvement over Gears of War 2 and a fine conclusion to the story.
The gameplay once again was tighter and better than its ever been. Nothing huge is changed but just a smoother experience all round and the best feeling Gears of War game to date. Really it just adds to an already fantastic formula and the series has stayed true to the original with enough added to not feel boring in the slightest.
The multiplayer was the most comprehensive and deep to date and for the most part was very well executed. It still lacked the simplicity of the first game, but was also way more stable, balanced, and fun to play than the previous game. The maps were all different and challenging without any being way better than the rest. The leveling system worked well and unlocks were a nice reward for hardcore players. DLC seems to have messed the connectivity up slightly but for the many months after release I was hooked.
Horde mode was slightly improved upon an incredible formula and made the mode even better. The new modifications such as a money system that allows you to buy fortifications and weapons added a whole new dynamic to the mode. Do you spend the cash now or save for something epic such as a Silverback. Boss waves made it even tougher to survive and added a level of randomness that always kept you guessing. Overall it is by far the best Horde mode in any game released to date.
This game was never going to top the first after how hugely impressive in every area and how ahead of it's time in 2006 it was, but with a fine campaign, solid multiplayer, an incredible Horde mode, and a nice new addition in Beast Mode, it is the most comprehensive and complete Gears of War experience you could ever want to have.
And now we come to Gears of War: Judgment. Just a mere eighteen months after the last game that took three years to make the signs before playing are not looking great. The fact that it is not a numbered sequel, does not have a unanimous worldwide release, or no special editions available makes it look like, on the surface at least, a cash grab with the Gears of War name on it. Couple this with the fact that many of the leading names at Epic behind the success of the franchise such as Cliff Bleszinski and Rod Fergusson have left the studio and Epic not developing the game entirely themselves, it really doesn't feel like a real Gears of War game.
I have loved all my time with the series so far, but after the trilogy ended satisfyingly, I wanted a break from the franchise for maybe four years and then wait for it to come back with a vengeance on next Xbox. I will be getting the game day one and my review will be up in the coming weeks, but I worry that this fantastic series won't be able to keep to the incredibly high standards it set previously.