Gears of War: Ultimate Edition Review (Xbox One)
After getting a gritty makeover, the Lancer-revving COGs are back in full force in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. This debut project of The Coalition (formerly Black Tusk Studios) brings Marcus Fenix and his muscle-bound brothers in arms over to the Xbox One after three excellent entries on the Xbox 360 (and Judgment). The Coalition have completely rebuilt the original 2006 Gears of War title from the ground-up in order to hold fans over until the late 2016 (or beyond) release of Gears of War 4.
Gears of War was influenced by the likes of Resident Evil 4, Kill Switch and Band of Brothers. Lead developer Cliff Bleszinski helped integrate Epic Games' own takes on Resident Evil 4's over-the-shoulder camera and Kill Switch's cover system for Gears. With Epic Games handing the reins of the franchise to The Coalition and series producer Rod Ferguson hired to continue overseeing the franchise, the Ultimate Edition of Gears of War is the series' first step with a new team and on a new platform. While they already had excellent source material to work with, The Coalition has given us the definitive Gears experience.
As you would expect, Gears of War's visuals were the priority in upgrading the game from Xbox 360 to Xbox One. As with all the other remakes and HD remasters we have been encountering on current-gen consoles, the magic numbers of 1080p and 60fps are expected. While this expected resolution is true, the single-player campaign mode of Gears of War runs at 30fps. Fortunately, the game's multiplayer, which is a pivotal part of the Gears experience, runs at 1080p and 60fps. With the frame rate cap in play during the game's main campaign, I didn't encounter any visible lag even when playing split-screen and having an army of Locust to kill. Regardless of this difference between the campaign and multiplayer's display, Gears of War looks absolutely gorgeous on the Xbox One.
Every level, model, cutscene and asset featured in Gears of War has been rebuilt using a maxed-out version of Unreal Engine 3. The original version of the game had grey all over the place, given the crumbling concrete environments and the armor style of Delta Squad. This time around, things are looking much more vibrant and authentic. The decrepit, rundown nature of the Fenix Residence in Act 4 is quite different than the Jacinto Prison and Imulsion Factory of the game's previous chapters, whereas they all seemed to blur together in the 2006 version. The biggest upgrade in visuals would have to be the lighting system, which makes a world of difference during Act 2, where you have to stay close to various light sources to avoid the photosensitive swarms of the Kryll. After seeing the glowing lakes of Imulsion in Act 3 and the Nemacyst-filled skies of the final stage, I was genuinely impressed by how great everything looked, as most remakes and HD remasters out there don't look anywhere near as improved.
Gears' story is left relatively unchanged. There are a few missions added to Act 5 that were featured in the PC version of Gears and not the Xbox 360 original, which flushes out the game's last chapter and makes it about as long as the first four Acts (many fans complained of Act 5 being much shorter than 1-4). While Gears of War 2 and 3 took grimmer routes with the franchise's story, the original Gears is filled with machismo with a small side of horror. The series paints a bleak picture of just how one-sided the 14-year-war against the Locust has been, with humanity having to abandon and ruin many of its cities in the process of fighting. Meanwhile, Dominic Santiago, Damon Baird and Augustus "Cole Train" Cole all look and talk like pro wrestlers, often commenting on near-impossible situations with sarcasm or snarling grittiness, despite how many dead COG soldiers they encounter in their travels.
While Gears' one-dimensional story was left unchanged, its gameplay has been revamped for both campaign fans and multiplayer enthusiasts. Combat still consists of hiding from fire using the game's dynamic cover system, which is finely tuned this time around so you can weave in and out of cover with precise controls. The Coalition learned a lot from the game's later entries, and it shows in the Ultimate Edition. While the COGs and Locust are all quite large and heavy, their movement is surprisingly tight and easy to control. As always, the Active Reload system offers a bonus for those with proper timing, offering a small, subconscious level of fun to something that is often a negligible afterthought in gaming.
Shooting the game's nine different firearms is always a blast, given how few there are and how simple they seem. Each gun has its own pros and cons, which are simple in their deployment but still require skills to properly master (especially in multiplayer). Despite having your character on the bottom left side of your screen, he still shoots towards the direct center of it, even when firing from the hip. The subsequent Gears titles had hip firing following the muzzle of your character's gun, but I was surprised in having to readjust to the original format. I would have thought that The Coalition would've modernized the aiming of Ultimate Edition to coincide with Gears 2-3, but this was still a nice surprise.
Gears of War's inspirations from Resident Evil 4 don't just stop at its camera system — the game also mimics its style of progression. In Act 1, you're trying to learn and master the game's unique weapons and covering system. You mainly fight Locust soldiers and Wretches, who can challenge you in number but are still quite manageable. By the time you feel comfortable, the game throws you a curveball in the form of Kryll, where you have to fight the Locust while trying to avoid the dark and stay close to light sources. Wretches charging towards you should be no problem, until irradiated Wretches that explode after dying come into play. Start mixing the forces together and throwing in Boomers and Theron Guards, who have more health and use stronger weapons than regular soldiers, and you'll realize that Gears of War is meant to keep you on edge.
For almost every major step forward that Gears of War did going into the Ultimate Edition, its AI took a step back. The AI of both your comrades and the Locust in the game's story mode is atrocious. While this obviously doesn't factor into the game's stellar and addictive multiplayer, it can be a frustrating, immersion-breaking experience when playing through the main campaign. Gears' clunky AI isn't as bad when it comes to enemies, since you mow them down by the dozen. But it is still noticeable when an enemy gets up from cover, pops a shot in your direction, gets back down, leaves cover, runs towards you and gets killed only to find another enemy from the rear ranks following the same exact pattern, like a Lemming. I should note that enemies occasionally spawn out of thin air (especially Wretches from the ceiling), but there are so many enemies you fight throughout the game's shooting galleries that it's forgivable.
Unfortunately, the worst foes in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition are your allies. Whether Marcus has Dom at his side or all the members of Delta Squad with him, they either do nothing or get in the way. Out of two playthroughs of the main campaign (Normal and Insane difficulties), Delta Squad's other members only made up for a very small percentage of Locust killed. Even when there was only one lone enemy against Marcus, Dom, Baird and Cole, the three other soldiers would remained huddled up in a corner far away from the action, often taking shots in the general direction of the enemy, but rarely connecting and blatantly ignoring obstacles (including walls). The companion AI only seemed to connect hits when baddies were out of cover with nothing between the two. Gears of War has a command system for Delta Squad, where you can order Marcus' teammates to regroup on his position, attack the enemy or stop firing, but it's all useless.
Most of the time, the AI wouldn't respond to my commands, often remaining in the same spot. The cease fire command was pointless due to how infrequent the AI comrades' actual shooting was. If the attack command actually triggered, Delta Squad's members would simply run in a straight line towards enemies, without caring for cover or how many guns were on them (which is a beginner's level no-no). Almost every combat sequence I had with a solo companion would be fought by my lonesome as my partner would often remain in a previous hallway, where they would usually remain until the series' iconic guitar rift would indicate that all the enemies in the area are dead.
The AI would also result in Dom or Baird needlessly following close behind Marcus in non-combat areas, which are usually indoors and consist of small rooms and tight hallways. Many of times, Dom or Baird would block a doorway, and there was no way to move them, even when using squad commands, which only offer regrouping when out of combat. In my playthroughs of campaign mode, I manually reloaded six previous checkpoints due to Dom or Baird blocking a doorway and leaving me stuck (it's particularly bad in the Fenix Mansion). If there's a random Wretch that spawns and is meant to surprise you, does your partner shoot them? Of course not.
While Gears' campaign will offer an entertaining (and sometimes frustrating) 5-7 hours of gameplay, most players will get the most out of this remake from its addictive multiplayer. Ultimate Edition adds the sequels' feature of being able to mark certain enemies for all your team members to see, which can be a godsend in some of these new modes. Gears' tight controls and awesome gunplay is at its best when a group of player-controlled COGs and Locust are fighting for supremacy online. Whether you're playing the shotguns-only Gnasher Execution or trying to hold Objective Rings in King of the Hill and Annex, Gears' multiplayer is where it's at. The amount of fun you'll get from Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's online multiplayer is more than enough to warrant its $40 price tag. Getting access to the sequels via backwards compatibility and the Gears 4 beta add to a stellar deal overall. Regardless of its AI's shortcomings and some erratic enemy spawns, Gears is a must-have for both fans of the series and shooter fans who never played it the first time around. My biggest gripe is that Gears 2-3 aren't getting remakes like this. Everyone is bound to have a few mistakes in Active Reloading, and Gears of War itself is no different. The point is that the Gears are turning to current-gen, and they're here to stay.
This review is based on a download code for Gears of War: Ultimate Edition provided by the publisher for Xbox One.