The new Gears of War: Ultimate Edition from Microsoft and The Coalition is an interesting game for me to review. Firstly, I am more or less covering a game that came out nearly nine years ago, which in videogame terms feels like an eternity. Secondly, this new version of Gears of War blurs the lines between a traditional remake or remaster and in actuality, The Ultimate Edition manages to be both at the same time.
It's pretty much the exact same game again making it a remaster, but The Coalition have also went back and redone a lot of the graphics and sound effects to help make Gears of War look like other games coming in 2015. This approach is much appreciated given how many half-arsed "Definitive Editions" we have seen within the last two years.
Whether or not the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is worth getting will really boil down to each individual person. For me though, I still think the original Gears of War holds up well. The controls and cover mechanics that the game helped popularize still work fine here and there are plenty of memorable set-pieces throughout the campaign to keep the single-player game feel entertaining throughout. Playing Gears of War again is also a stark reminder that third-person shooters haven't changed much in the last nine years.
Story-wise, the first Gears of War is amazingly paper-thin, in retrospect. It's pretty much your standard man versus aliens affair and the game's main protagonists are four meat headed 'roid monsters who just snarl and growl from one shootout to the next. You never learn much about any them, you never learn much about the planet you're fighting on and you never learn much about the seemingly endless Locust hordes that you are continually battling against.
All of this stuff was fleshed out somewhat in the later entries in the franchise, but you know what? Who cares? There's almost a charm to the first Gears' unapologetically stupid characters and its disinterest in storytelling, so when the later games in the series tried to pull the heartstrings, it felt forced and unnecessary. This franchise should have gotten even more stupid from this point, but I guess Epic Games and People Can Fly put their "stupid" energy into Bulletstorm.
I'll quickly mention that The Coalition did an excellent job of remaking all of the cutscenes for this new release. Don't expect anything truly spectacular like the new cutscenes that were remade for Halo 2 but still, they still did a fine job.
Gameplay-wise, there's not much to say because I am sure you've played Gears of War in one form or another. Even if you have never owned a Xbox 360 or Xbox One, you have bound to have played a third-person shooter released within the last decade that took cues from Gears of War. Everything from 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand to Vanquish have borrowed gameplay ideas from Gears and it is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most influential games released within the last console generation.
So going back to the first Gears of War could have been a strange experience. There have been a decent number of tweaks and changes to the standard cover-based shooter blueprint over the years and going back to the first Gears might have felt like a relic from a previous time. But no, that's not really the case. The core controls still work well, the guns are fun to use and the copious amount of blood and gore on offer here is always fun to look at. The stuff that was always good about Gears of War is still good.
However, there were parts of the game that sucked, even back then and they are even worse now. All of the boss fights are pretty bad, even though I respect Epic Games for designing boss fights that all feel unique. The final battle against General RAAM is especially annoying so it is fortunate that he has a tendency to get stuck and make that boss fight a bit easier to deal with.
There's also a horrendous vehicle section that happens in Act 2, where you have to drive a truck through a linear course while having to blast away the Kryll, which are like bats, with your UV light. Problem is, you can't drive and have the AI shoot away the Kryll for whatever reason, so you have to switch back and forth between driving and shooting. It's just a bad part of the game. Good thing it doesn't last that long. While it is respectable that The Coalition have made sure that the campaign featured here is extremely faithful to the original, it would have been appreciated if they went back and actually altered parts of the game that are just not much fun to play.
Aside from the obvious graphics and audio improvements, the campaign has seen no real changes from the original game. The only thing is that the additional levels that were featured on the PC version of Gears of War have been inserted into the Ultimate Edition, which for most people is going to feel like new content but I've already played the PC version and on top of that, those additional levels aren't anything special. Even the Brumak boss fight is underwhelming the same way the other boss fights in the game are underwhelming. There's a new Normal difficulty mode now, which is nice because there was such a massive jump between Casual and Hardcore before. Finally, finding hidden COG tags now unlocks in-game digital Gears of War comics for you to read, which is nice because in the original, they did absolutely nothing.
The multiplayer is where most of the new improvements and changes have taken place. Immediately, you'll notice that the multiplayer matches run at 60 frames per second, which does a good job making the game feel more smooth and responsive. It's a shame that the single-player still runs at 30 frames per second though. All of the old modes from the original game are back alongside some that appeared later on the series like... Team Deathmatch! It would have been nice if The Coalition used Gears of War: Judgment's own variants of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Domination into the mix, but I understand why they didn't do that, considering I am the only person on planet Earth who likes Gears of War: Judgment.
On paper, Gears of War multiplayer should be a lot of fun. You get to use all of the great weapons from the campaign and use them against real players, what could be wrong with that? Well, I have just never really got on with Gears of War's unique take on multiplayer, which focuses more on rolling around with shotguns than anything else. The later games in the series did a better of job balancing out the weapons in such a way where all of them had their own uses but even then, the most fun I've had in Gears of War multiplayer was either in co-op, which is back and available for both online and split-screen play, or the Horde Mode, which was actually introduced in Gears of War 2. It would have been really great if The Coalition went back and managed to make a Horde Mode for the first Gears of War, but yet, it just wasn't to be. Just keep in mind though, just because I don't like Gears of War competitive multiplayer doesn't mean it is bad per se, but I am bad at it and it is designed in such a way that I have absolutely no desire to ever get better at it.
Some folks have been talking down the effort that The Coalition have put in as far as upgrading the graphics but I think they did a really good job. The lighting is far better, the character models are very detailed and generally the textures are pretty good but you'll see some bunk ones here and there. Maybe I am an idiot or something but I think this one good looking game and it really does look so much better than the original. Sure, it doesn't hold its own against games like Batman: Arkham Knight, but anyone who think it would should get their expectations checked. I also appreciated the revamped sounded effects as well, which made a great sounding game sound even better. The voice overs and soundtrack are just the same before though, which is fine by me.
While I understand why people are disappointed that we only got a new version of the first Gears game instead of a collection, similar to last year's Master Chief Collection, Gears of War is still a very good game. The core action is satisfying, the campaign is very well-paced and there's a good amount of multiplayer modes if you are into that sort of thing. I also appreciate that the folks at The Coalition have actually went back to remake a lot of the graphics and sound effects to help make the muddy, ugly nine year old game actually look pretty good! Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is definitely one of the better remasters of recent times and is worth revisiting, particularly if you are a big fan of the franchise.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)