Back in 2006, the original Gears of War was one of the first games to really showcase what the Xbox 360 was capable of, both in terms of technical prowess and cinematic delivery. With an engrossing campaign – which could be played locally with a friend – and a thrilling online multiplayer offering, Gears almost instantaneously became a flagship franchise for Microsoft and Epic Games. Now, nearly ten years later, that gritty, intense experience that spawned three sequels has been retooled for the Xbox One, creating an opportunity for fans to get their active reload fix before Gears of War 4 drops late next year. Despite a couple gameplay elements that haven't aged very well, it turns out that Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is a great way to revisit a modern classic.
For those of you who don't know, Gears of War is a third-person shooter about a small group of soldiers on a mission to save their devastated planet from the chokehold of an alien race called the Locust. To eradicate the enemy presence, which dwells in a network of tunnels below the planet's surface, these soldiers are seeking a device that will reveal the enemy's base of operations so they can bomb the hell out of it. It's a fairly straightforward tale that succeeds largely thanks to a palpable and ominous tone, blockbuster presentation, and a sense of mystery that instills curiosity until, and after, the closing credits. The meathead dialog uttered by the macho squad of soldiers can range from comical to cringe-worthy, but it's a very faint stain on the big picture.
Cover shooting can be hit or miss in video games, but Gears of Wars has made it a staple of the series, and it's a lot of fun. Even though a few mechanical changes have been made to bring it up to speed with its successors, the gameplay in Ultimate Edition mainly feels the same as it did in the original, which is both great and a tad disappointing. The problem is with the A button and the cover system. Serving multiple functions, the A button is used to take cover, transfer between cover, lunge over cover, dodge, and run. As you might expect, getting the characters to do precisely what you want them to do can sometimes be a clumsy affair. Mix that with AI teammates that run around like buffoons and often obstruct your sightline, and it can't be denied that there are headaches, albeit minor, to deal with throughout the campaign.
But since this is still the same Gears of War that we loved the first time around, instead of getting too in depth about aspects of the game that have already been dissected thoroughly in reviews, let's dig into what makes Ultimate Edition stand out. Most importantly, the entire experience has been rebuilt and, in a lot of ways, reinforced, helping it to blend in amongst its contemporaries. Not only that, but there's new content, more options, and all previously-released DLC, as well as campaign levels and multiplayer modes that were once exclusive to the PC version of the game. Add all of it up and you have a pretty meaty package that offers enough to earn its Ultimate Edition label.
Visually, the presentation still has that desaturated, arid vibe permeating each stop on the campaign, but there's occasionally a broader range of color in certain settings than there was the first time around. The architecture in Act I is a fine example of this, as the once beige and gray buildings now glow with more of a yellow-ish hue, while other sparsely used colors and lighting flourishes bring it all together. It might not be as apparent to the folks who haven't set eyes on the original in a while, but there's definitely a difference. Speaking of lighting effects, improvements have clearly been made to take advantage of modern hardware capabilities. This added visual depth helps to inject vitality in scenes that may otherwise be too sterile in appearance due to their war-torn and desolate condition.
Gears of War was a great-looking game on the Xbox 360, and it still is, but Ultimate Edition is a big improvement. With 1080p resolution, 60fps online multiplayer modes, much more detailed environments, better character models, and all the aforementioned changes, it's a smoother, more modern experience overall, and that amount of effort will be greatly appreciated by returning players. It's somewhat disappointing that the framerate of the campaign hasn't been increased to match that of multiplayer, but other than the rare sight of slowdown in local co-op, the solo missions perform steadily, so there's no reason to get too worked up over it.
While the action-packed campaigns are what we connect with the most in a Gears of War experience, it's the multiplayer components that keep the franchise relevant between each release. Ultimate Edition does a great job preserving the beloved multiplayer of the original game while strengthening and reinvigorating it in minor ways. The most notable enhancements would have to be the rock-solid 60fps framerate and the dedicated servers. Not only does everything run super-duper smooth visually, but we haven't encountered a single server error or connection issue since the launch of the game, which is pretty impressive.
The number of competitive multiplayer modes is also impressive, with no shortage of ways to play. This is one of those rare cases where it would be hard for us to pick a favorite because we had so much fun with each mode. Warzone is a highlight, for sure, limiting all players to a single life per round, while 2v2 Gnasher Execution is a shotgun-exclusive mode that takes place in small arenas, and it's as tense and cutthroat and it sounds. Of course there's also Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and a few other modes that feel like slight variations of everything we've previously mentioned. Even with so many selections available, we haven't struggled to find the necessary amount of players to initiate a match.
Despite the number of changes that have been made, Ultimate Edition can't entirely gloss over the fact that the original Gears released at a time when online gaming was still figuring out how to mature in a new console generation. There's a leveling system to denote your rank and level of commitment, but there aren't any in-depth loadouts, character customization options, or perks to be found. It's very rudimentary by today's standards and, you know what, that's actually a key factor in its appeal. While better unlock rewards might've been a nice touch, this is a multiplayer offering that is driven by pure, raw gameplay. The objectives are straightforward and teams aren't too big, creating a battlefield where everyone feels more connected and focused on the same goal. We would like to see the countdowns that lead in and out of matches shortened in a patch, but other than that, we have no substantial complaints.
But there is a hurdle to overcome if you're new to Gears of War multiplayer, and it has to do with the extremely high barrier of entry. There has never been a game that has put us through the meat grinder in the way that Ultimate Edition has during our multiplayer sessions. This is because majority of the people playing online clearly have invested hours upon hours with the series throughout the years, and they're good... damn good. Even in Social mode, which is suggested for the casual audience, it was rare that we ran into players that hadn't yet learned how to dominate with a shotgun while franticly dodging. This isn't something that we're holding against the game at this point, but it is something that needs to be known by the casuals looking to jump online. Hopefully matchmaking will be able to sort this out once the rank of the veterans begins to skyrocket.
When you combine a great campaign with multiplayer options that are just as worthwhile, you have a package with a solid value, one that's hard to ignore. Gears shows its age in a number of ways, but none of those ways are major enough to damage its enduring reputation. No change or addition feels unwanted or unnecessary, and even though a majority of alterations are small, they add up in a big way and the game greatly benefits as a whole. You may want to exercise caution if you're seeking a newcomer-friendly online experience, but to everyone else that's interested, don't hesitate to gear up and roll out.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is anything but a lazy remaster. With a bunch of new content, a massive visual overhaul, mechanical improvements, and other subtle modernizations, Ultimate Edition has earned the right to be referred to as the definitive version of Gears of War. There are some aspects of the core design that will occasionally remind you that there's an almost 10-year-old game underneath that attractive new coat of paint, but what's more noticeable is how well the bulk of the experience holds up. Whether you have history with the series or not, you should consider heading back to the place where it all started. Trust us when we say that kicking Locust butt is as satisfying as it ever was.