In the era of games being “remastered” for the latest console platforms, it’s interesting to see one that might be better described as “rebuild” of an old game and see how it fares. That’s what we appear to have here with Gears of War Ultimate Edition; a game that is effectively a note for note recreation of the original 2006 Xbox 360 game but built for the more powerful Xbox One hardware.
The funny thing is, initially you aren’t going to notice the changes too much unless you’ve recently played the 360 version; everything plays out very closely to that game. It’s only when you dive in further and you get to witness more of the game that you start seeing the impressive amount of detail in character models and some great use of lighting.
As you can see in the before (above) and after (below), new developers The Coalition have avoided taking any liberties with the characters but have done well in boosting their detail to a level that makes the game look comparable to modern titles.
The same work has been done to the environments as well but the impact is lessened somewhat by their need to keep level designs consistent with the original game and its mechanics. This results in levels feeling more like they’re still trapped in the limitations of 2006 and the fluidity of movement suffers for it.
The campaign is lengthy and at the higher difficulty levels, challenging. The world of Sera is in a lengthy state of war as its human inhabitants battle the Locust, a race of subterranean humanoids who launched into a conflicts that the humans were ill prepared for. You play as Marcus Fenix; a prisoner who is given one last chance to prove his worth as everything falls apart around him. Along for the ride is his friend Dominic Santiago, who also doubles as the character used in the co-operative game mode.
This version also benefits from the inclusion of levels that were excusive to the PC version of the original game that involved a showdown with a Brumak; the Locust equivalent of King Kong with a bazooka. It adds up to a substantial amount of game even for those who don’t go online. Considering Epic Games (the original developers) at the time was more known for building shooters with little story, that the games in this franchise had such long campaigns was a welcome addition.
The co-op mode in the game helps make the campaign more enjoyable simply by letting a friend join in on the carnage. An added benefit of playing this way is where your character may normally die when playing solo, there’s a chance in co-op that they will only be knocked down, allowing the other player to come around and perform a revive move (button press) to bring them back. It can reduce a lot of frustrations with the difficult sections of the game knowing that your mate can help out in a pinch.
Whether you play co-op or not, one thing you will have to put up with is some dumb AI from your squad mates. Poor old Dom seems to like being a bullet sponge at the worst of times; if he’s in a situation where he’s down but not out, you can still revive him but if he dies you are forced to restart from the last checkpoint. The Beserker showdown at the end of Act I is a perfect example of how the game can make your job tougher at the worst of times as Dom gets himself squished regularly.
Collectables are still there too. This time finding the COG tags can be a little harder due to the improved lighting often obscuring the crimson omen (the red skull logo) signs but there’s an actual reward this time beyond just an achievement with comic books being unlocked as you progress.
The multiplayer component takes advantage of the new hardware by delivering 1080p/60fps into what amounts to the original Gears of War multiplayer modes. A couple of tweaks have been made to movement as well as allow for spotting of enemies (from Gears of War 3) but apart from those little else has changed mechanically.
It’s a fun and gory experience but can also be extremely punishing online; ranked matches will show you pretty quickly if you have what it takes to beat the pros. Private matches with friends is likely the way to go and revisiting old maps (all the DLC is here) such as Gridlock and Bullet Marsh with their shiny new paint jobs is nice.
Though the game succeeds in being the ultimate edition of the original Gears of War, it has wasted an opportunity to bring in some big features of the subsequent games. The one everyone is most vocal about and missed is Horde mode which débuted in Gears of Wars 2 and tasked players with fighting increasingly difficult waves of AI enemies.
It was such a revelation at the time that even now when people refer to similar modes in other games, they still use the name. Even Bungie tried their own take on it with Firefight in Halo 3: ODST. Including it here would have vastly increased the game’s multiplayer longevity and could have won over new players to the franchise.
As a bonus, those players who get the game this year will be able to download backward compatible versions of the four Xbox 360 titles as well as access to the Gears of War 4 beta. If you want your Horde mode fix, this is the way to go. Of them all Gears of War 3 is perhaps the best value game of the franchise offering a huge amount of both single and multiplayer content. If there’s a game in the series that should be used as a watermark for future titles, that’s the one.
It is impressive what a lick of paint can do to a game and it goes a long way to making Gears of War worth playing through again. I’m enjoying it a lot. But it unfortunately also reminds us that the sequels had taken this game and made it a much better all round experience and you may be left pining for what was left out.
Hopefully Gears of War 4 will give us what we really want. It starts with an H…