Gears of War was arguably the first AAA title to popularise HD graphics and kickstart the boom of the last generation. You know, that one mega-hyped up game which everyone will hold out for before they’re willing to cough up the hefty investment fee for ‘next-gen’ hardware. As an early adopter, I spent months anticipating the game as the 360 had little to offer outside a niche selection of solid launch titles. Shooters weren’t such a big thing then either, so, for me, it was something fresh and exciting. Of course, I know now that it wasn’t original in all its ideas, but the way Epic combined over-the-shoulder, cover shooting, and regenerating health was revolutionary; even if the campaign itself was average.
Like with Master Chief Collection last year, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is yet another example of Microsoft showing the industry how remasters should be done. It’s also awesome that if you purchase the game before the end of the year, you’ll receive a digital copy of the 360 collection (available as a separate download once backwards compatibility launches). The Ultimate Edition also includes all the DLC as well as five extra missions from the PC version. So for 50 bucks, it’s not a bad deal. The visual overhaul is honestly very impressive too as it boldly removes the muddy tone of the original. It’s just that graphics weren’t ever the issue with the series, so it’s unlikely to change how you feel about it.
I’ll say it outright: even in 2006, Gears of War did not live up to my expectations. I was so hyped from the controversial Mad World trailer that it left me hoping for a lot more substance that simply wasn’t there. Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for the driving mechanics and the way Gears inspired an entire generation of shooters. It’s just that the main campaign was shallow beyond the strength of the gameplay and visual prowess, and this feels even more apparent in the Ultimate Edition. All the emotion I felt for the characters during my playthrough was coming from my time with the sequels, and it was hard to overlook how the core game is basically one big grind with a few exceptions.
If you liked the first Gears of War campaign, you’re going to like this, and the updated visuals will only help it to live up to your nostalgia. If you’re like me, however, and already had problems, it’s only going to serve as a reminder that style can’t make up for a lack of substance. As the genre has continued to evolve, I have come to expect a lot more, so it was tedious to go back to clearing rooms of bad guys in order to progress. Admittedly, there are some cool set-piece moments in the original game, but they are few and far between. I also dislike that increasing the difficulty transforms enemies into bullet sponges. It turns tedium into boredom as the Locusts show minimal signs of improved intelligence.
If I can provide any major advice going in: bring friends as the AI is not very good on either side. If you don’t, expect to have your comrades constantly getting in the way and frequently dying from stupidity. There is simply no denying that Gears of War is best enjoyed with others, so I think playing most of the campaign solo this time is what’s emphasised all the tired design and shallow character development. Without real people to mix things up and insert personality, it’s just an average action-horror with a lacklustre climax. That’s not to say it’s all bad as the gameplay is both polished and highly satisfying, but we have the multiplayer for that; which holds up surprisingly well even by today’s standards.
Before this Ultimate Edition, I’d never dived too deeply into the Gears of War multiplayer component. I had long been into first-person shooters, so I didn’t have the patience for how it was played and I certainly didn’t enjoy sucking at it. What’s ironic is as I have begun to lose almost all interest in online multiplayer, the qualities I once disliked about Gears actually appeal to me now. I find it demotivating how much of a time commitment is involved with online gaming these days. Where genre evolution made the campaign feel antiqued, the simplicity of the multiplayer is what I liked most. It’s all there ready to go: no unlocks or messing around. Basically, all I had to do was learn the maps and play at my best.
Running at a glorious 60FPS with remastered graphics and so many maps and modes, the competitive side of Gears reminded me what I used to love about multiplayer. I really enjoyed the slower pace it offers as the modern-FPS genre now heavily relies on technological warfare for the fastest gameplay possible. Each of the 19 maps are very distinct, encouraging players to become intimate with their environments while the game pushes you to master its nuances if you’re to have any hope of surviving. It’s not the sort of game where you can run, gun, and respawn as you share your life count with the rest of the team. It’s the type of game where playing as a team matters, and that’s why it’s still great.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is yet another testament to Microsoft and their ability to show the rest of the industry how remasters should be handled. In saying that, though, graphics weren’t ever a problem for this series, so while the updated visuals spruce up the original’s muddy appearance, it’s not going to change anything if you didn’t already like the game. Simply put, if you’re a big fan of Gears, there’s no reason not to pick this up. It’s the complete package, it looks fantastic, and you’ll receive the Xbox 360 collection for free this November. If, on the other hand, you’re new to the franchise or didn’t enjoy the campaign back in 2006, tread carefully and be sure to bring friends. It’s the best way.