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It's been almost nine years since the first Gears of War, and during that time the series has seen a pair of sequels, and, in the case of Gears of War: Judgment, a prequel. Gears of War 4, an all-new sequel, is currently in development for next year, but in the meantime we have the original to play all over again – remade for the current-generation Xbox.
Just how remade becomes apparent the moment Gears of War starts: graphically, the game has been completely overhauled with all-new 1080p visual assets. That means the environments, characters, lighting and cinematics have all been reworked to ensure that Gears of War Ultimate Edition truly is a full HD remaster. Compared directly with the original Xbox 360 version, as we were shown in a preview event a few weeks ago, the difference is dramatic. While the layout of the game and its gameplay seem pretty much identical to the original, the scenery and characters feel very much of today: the detailing is exceptionally good, and there are many new backgrounds, landscape features and deft touches that fill in gaps and essentially make the game's environment far richer, more detailed, and with more impressive vistas. The overall effect is quite stunning – a once-lovely cityscape that's been scorched, bombed to pieces, and left in ruin. It's beautifully dismal.
At this point, I have to admit that the angle I'm taking for this review is of one as a newcomer to the series. While I did play Gears of War for a few hours at the aforementioned preview event, it was the first time I'd encountered the game. Yep, I managed to completely avoid the series the first time around – sequels and all – so this is the first time that I'm playing Gears of War proper.
So taking things from the very top, Gears of War is a third-person, cover-based shooter set on the planet Sera. This colonized planet was a bastion of science, culture and the arts until, to cut a fairly short story even shorter, an indigenous species long hidden underground called the Locust suddenly erupted from their subterranean lair and waged war on the human colonists. Billions died on what became known as "Emergence Day," and the remnants of the population retreated to Jacinto Plateau, whose hard bedrock prevented the Locust from being able to attack them directly.
A counter-offensive was organized, and slowly, but surely the war turned into one of attrition. Gears of War is set some 14 years after Emergence Day, and casts the player as one Marcus Fenix, a "Gear" who starts the game being liberated from a prison cell for reasons that become apparent as you play through the game.
The action begins almost immediately after this with a choice of two routes to escape the prison, one that is essentially a training mode that gets you up to speed with many of the game's mechanics, and a more challenging, direct route for those who don't feel the need to be taught the basics – or are already familiar with them. Once through the prison, Marcus meets up with Delta Squad, a three-man team that he fights through the rest of the game with.
The multiple route option is a mechanic that occurs numerous times during the game, and there's a good reason for this. Gears of War's campaign can be played co-operatively with another player, and this gives each participant the opportunity to take different routes to flank the enemy when necessary – such as attacking a gun emplacement from two angles. When played as a single-player game, you have to rely on half your squad to go one way and take care of business, and they seem to be fairly reliable in that respect.
Indeed, I'm quite impressed at how well the game makes you feel a part of a squad. The team members all behave quite intelligently, and in firefights can largely be relied on to help you move forward. That said, there have been a few instances where squad members ran into walls and temporarily got stuck until I changed position, but those have all happened when a checkpoint was reached and I was moving forward to activate the next section of gameplay. In the heat of battle, I haven't seen any evidence of this sort of buggy behavior. I have had a few loading glitches – stutters that occur when the next section of game starts to load – but again, usually between checkpoints and these didn't affect the gameplay in any way.
The game follows a fairly traditional structure of a series of objective-based events. You're given a goal, and have to work through a section of the landscape that's usually crawling with the enemy. Once you've completed the objective, the next checkpoint is activated – cue the occasional stutter-load – and you move on to the next goal. It's very straightforward, but it works well and keeps the game fairly buttoned down in terms of constantly feeling like you're moving forward and making progress, while also slowly building up the plot line through the game's numerous cutscenes and (often entertaining) between-checkpoint squadmate conversational banter. It's well paced, and even by today's standards, it feels solid – I can see why the game was so praised when it was first released in 2006. Especially considering that one of the few assets that hasn't been changed from the original game is the rather good voice acting.
The cover-based mechanics did take a little getting used to. Even though Ultimate Edition's controls are more refined than the original, I did find using cover to sometimes feel a little "sticky." Not so much using cover and firing – that seems to work just fine – but moving from cover to cover to make progress. What I subsequently discovered is that the positioning is really critical, and until you get used to it, it can feel a little on the fussy side. It's not a major deal-breaker, but it can be a little frustrating initially when you want to do something specific, like roll and then get straight up and move behind another piece of cover, but you end up standing there exposed until you slightly turn and can then find cover again.
Once you do get used to the cadence of the cover mechanics, the game becomes really enjoyable, and there's a definite feeling of tension and urgency as you use cover to advance on the enemy under fire. This makes the gameplay exciting, especially considering that, generally speaking, the enemy AI is fairly smart and will try to do things like flank you given an opportunity. This means you really need to keep an eye on what's going on and make sure you move as the enemy does, so that you don't end up getting caught in crossfire. This definitely helps immerse you in the game, and gives a great impression of being caught up in an intense firefight, or close quarters combat, depending on the situation.
While I found the main campaign entertaining, the multiplayer aspect of the game is something that really works for me – and where Ultimate Edition's long-term appeal lies. Coming in as a Call of Duty fan, it took me some time to get used to the slightly steadier pace of Gears of War multiplayer, but once I did I had an absolute blast playing it. There's something a little more strategic about Gears of War's multiplayer than most shooters. With most games, it's all about running around looking for other players and being the quickest on the trigger when you encounter an enemy. In Gears of War, a lot of the time, you know exactly where your enemy is, and you need to figure out a way to get to them before they get to you. Sure, there are also situations where you do run into other players and need to shoot first to survive, but I found that if you play into the game's strengths, you really do need to use cover and be patient – within limits of course.
I really like Gears of War's multiplayer maps. Generally speaking, they're quite tightly designed, particularly with the placement of the bigger weapons to promote firefights that are thrilling to participate in. Like I said, when you know where your enemy is, a strategic element comes into play that can be quite tense as you attempt to outmaneuver your quarry and get in the fatal shot before they do. Combine that with active moves like rolling between cover points, and you have a multiplayer game that, while steady and strategic, feels exciting and dynamic. It's a great balance of mechanics that come together to make a really fun multiplayer game.
I'm glad I've finally had the chance to catch up and see what the fuss is all about – and I must say I'm impressed that, even with the game being almost a decade old, its multiplayer feels as much fun as it does all this time later. I mean, I'm playing Black Ops III Beta right now, which represents the cutting edge of multiplayer shooters, and Gears of War really doesn't feel that far behind it. Sure, its movement is far slower and more limited, but in terms of what it sets out to do – create a really fun shooting environment with a great feeling of competition – it does that very well indeed.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition features the entire original game, and also includes five additional campaign missions that were featured in the PC release, which help round out the storyline. It also includes a series of collectible comic books, the parts of which are found scattered throughout the game.
The other thing I should mention is that purchasers of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition will be able to download the original Xbox 360 versions of all Gears of War games on Xbox One, and run them through the new backwards compatibility feature. I think that's a pretty sweet deal for the $39.99 price of entry, and a great way to catch up on all the older Gears of War games if you're like me and missed them the first time around.
But obviously, the star of the show is the remastered Gears of War. It's a very nicely executed project that showcases just how good of a game the original is. With very few practical changes in terms of its fundamental design, it remains a thoroughly enjoyable shooter that's challenging, spins a great campaign with plenty of varied set pieces to work through, and ultimately looks and sounds great. Its characters are engaging, I love the whole ultra-beefcake aspect of the characters, and it all comes together to deliver a macho game with plenty of style and substance. Hats off to The Coalition for pulling it all together, and helping set a great standard for future HD remakes.
Lasting AppealThe campaign is plenty challenging to play, and after that there's always the multiplayer. And after that, there's another three Xbox 360 Gears of War games to play, should that take your fancy.
SoundThe sound is one of the few aspects of the game that remains from the original - but that's not a bad thing. The effects, music and voice acting are all top-notch.
VisualsFully made over for Xbox One, Sera looks like a beautiful city gone to ruin, with excellent attention to detail. The characters and new cutscenes are terrific too.
ConclusionA right rollicking blast from the past brought bang up to date with a splendid, full 1080p makeover. Its campaign has a ton of macho meat to sink your teeth into, and once you're done, the multiplayer aspect provides plenty of long-term appeal. The fact that the game comes with three other Xbox 360 Gears of Wars titles makes it a veritable bargain.