Gears of War: Ultimate Edition Review
When I sit down to play a game that I enjoyed a while ago, say almost a decade later, it's always with some trepidation. Nostalgia does funny warm and fuzzy things to memories over time, and sometimes the best thing to rip fond memories to shreds is a dose of how things really were as opposed to how you remember them to be. Which brings us to Gears of War, a game I enjoyed in its original Xbox 360 incarnation midway through the previous decade, and that has now been remastered into an Ultimate Edition in anticipation of the upcoming 2016 release of Gears of War 4. Has this one stood the test of time? Does it bring fond memories flooding back to those who have played it before? Will it be enjoyable for someone who has never played the game before? Let's take a look...
I should probably start off with a brief story recap for those new to the game or those whose memories are a little dusty. You play as Marcus Fenix, a former COG (Coalition of Organized Governments) soldier who begins the game locked in a prison cell. Fenix is released because the war against the alien invaders, the Locust, is going poorly, and the COG forces need Fenix's help more than they need to keep him locked away. The Locust travel underground and come streaming up through holes that they open up in the surface with no warning, so they prove to be a difficult opponent to eradicate. That and they have a number of giant monsters on their side. They kind of made me think of orcs and trolls, actually, although armed with guns instead of swords.
As for gameplay, Gears of War holds a special place in the evolution of the shooter as it basically invented the modern cover mechanic. Run to an obstacle and hit a button and you'll effortlessly move into a cover position, keeping your head down and safely avoiding enemy fire. From there you'll need to pop-up for only a few seconds at a time, firing off a few rounds and then ducking back down until another firing opportunity presents itself. When you need to move on, the game makes it easy to move to your next cover position, as a press of the button and flick of the stick will have you vaulting over one obstacle to reach the next or rolling between them. None of this is really new these days, but it really was something novel when the game was first released.
Because of the intervening years and the evolution of the shooter since, Gears of War's cover system does show its age. When the game first came out, we were having too much fun to notice that the game spends a lot of time shuffling you along from one carefully constructed battle arena to the next. You'll turn a corner and see neatly arranged rows of concrete dividers, and you'll know that a wave of Locust will arrive momentarily, just as you'll know that you've slaughtered them all once the background music changes. And then you'll do it again. The game's not entirely like this, there are some interesting boss battles and other sequences, but a lot of it is like this and it's hard not to notice that in 2015.
The game's AI hasn't aged particularly well, either. I have to admit that I don't really remember the AI in the original game being particularly memorable in one way or the other, so I have to believe that it was always this way and that AI in games has progressed to the point where the AI is now noticeable in Gears of War. On the enemy side it's not particularly difficult to outshoot and outflank Locust warriors and they're relatively easy pickings, and the challenging moments come more from their numbers than their tactics. The game has you fighting alongside a fellow soldier or small squad for most of the game, and it's the AI controlling these friendlies that's particularly noticeably troubled. Sometimes they wander to odd spots or get themselves stuck, they have an annoying tendency to block your progress or wander into your line of fire, and they sometimes neglect to perform actions that they need to complete to move a level forward. A lot of this can be alleviated by playing the game in co-op mode, which allows a friend to drop in or drop out at any point in a mission, but barring that you just have to roll with it.
One thing that has aged perfectly well, though, is the chainsaw weapon built into the front of your assault rifle. Sneaking up on a Locust and cleaving it in two never seems to get old. In fact, the weapons still stand-up fairly well for a game with a limited arsenal by today's standards. They feel powerful, like they pack a real punch, and are satisfying to use.
As an added bonus, the Ultimate Edition extends the original game's campaign with a new chapter taken from the PC release of the game, so you get even more gameplay than you did in the Xbox 360 version of the game. And if you pick up the game by the end of 2015, Microsoft will throw in the Xbox 360 emulated versions of Gears of War 2 and 3, as well as Gears of War Judgment, for free, and give you an automatic pass into the Gears 4 beta. That's a lot of gameplay for your gaming dollar, even if some of it may be a little dated.
Now you might think that we've reached the part where I'll point out how poorly the game's graphics have fared one console generation and nearly ten years later, but that's not at all the case with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. The game has been given a ground-up overhaul, and the cutscenes have all been completely redone for the Xbox One. These updated cutscenes were not done as rush jobs, either; they look as good as any you'll find on the Xbox One these days. The in-game graphics have been redone with higher-resolution textures with really good results as well. The one thing that is a bit noticeable, though, is the character faces. They're not as detailed as the world around them, and in today's mo-cap gaming world they do not have as realistic expressions and facial movements as you see in today's top-tier games.
The game's multiplayer mode, although as old as the rest of the game, feels strangely fresh. In a day and age where multiplayer shooters are getting faster and faster and are taking vertical movement to new extremes, a multiplayer mode that features ground-pounding cover-based battles is rather unique. This is a multiplayer game that wants to force you to maneuver to get up close and personal rather than crossing a map quickly with boosted jumps and wall runs to deliver a lightning fast kill. Even the game's version of running is more of a hunched over jog, although I could do without all of the screen shake that goes along with it. Why is the camera shaking all over the place for a third person viewpoint anyway?
Multiplayer play is supported over Xbox Live and locally on a LAN, but matches are still capped at a relatively small four-on-four. However, you get 19 different maps, all built/rebuilt for the Ultimate Edition, which is a lot more than the original had on offer, and 60 fps gameplay. Game modes include team deathmatch, king of the hill, and a 2v2 execution mode (no respawns). Not a lot of variety, but there are not really a ton of modes that would work with the game style here. You earn experience from matches and can level up, but progression is limited to unlocking more multiplayer skins.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition has a lot going for it, but there are certainly parts of it that have not aged too well. If you want to experience Gears of War again, or for the first time, it's worth picking up. However, if you are more interested in playing games the way they are now instead of the way they were then, hang tight until Gears of War 4 comes out next year, and use Halo 5 to kill time while you're waiting.
Final Rating: 78% - Good, but not as good now as it was good then.