Arriving early in the life of the Xbox 360, Gears of War was a sensation. Although its origins can be seen in games such as Max Payne, Kill Switch, and Resident Evil 4, Gears was the first to pair hard-hitting third-person shooting with co-op play, gamified reloading, and the voice of Bender. It’s an institution, and it truly revolutionised the genre, paving the way for many dismal also-rans, and one surprisingly fun also-ran starring a verbosely profane 50 Cent.
What Gears had in its favour was a killer advert (since retooled), grit, shocking violence, a number of instantly-iconic weapons and enemies, and a gravelly-voiced protagonist who yelled “Nice!” after particularly ruthless kills. It was dumb and hilarious, but most importantly, it was unbelievably satisfying to play. Nothing beat arriving home after a tough day at work, parking up on the couch with a mate, and sawing some subterranean lizard bastards in half.
Nine years later, Gears is still a great on 360, and that’s fine provided you enjoy playing games through a layer of grey Vaseline. For everyone else, the studio formerly known as Black Tusk (led by Gears producer Rod Fergusson) has spent the past 18 months rebuilding practically every aspect of the game for Ultimate Edition.
The effort shows. Running in 1080p (but only at 30 frames per second during the campaign, sadly), Gears of War Remastered looks like a game designed for current-gen, because it is. It’s a much more colourful and detailed title that’s not nearly as drab as its inspiration. Here, Epic Games’ goal of “destroyed beauty” has been properly realised – with an emphasis on the beauty. This is especially true in Acts II and IV, which are positively resplendent in the face of the end times.
It’s hard to pick standouts, but the slightly reworked Gears armour, the facial animations, and the overall lighting are all fantastic. The cinematics are all ground-up affairs as well, with pieces added or cut here and there. Baird is the most visually-different character, but all are much more expressive and realistic-looking. If you’re wondering why it’s a 45GB download – that’s why. That, and the Dolby 7.1 surround.
It plays beautifully, too. The cover mechanics are based on the more evolved systems from Gears 3, and that same dare-I-say-it visceral tactical gunplay returns, chainsaw bayonet revving. Popping up from behind a conveniently-placed rock wall to headshot a distant sniper, blind firing under duress to shred a charging enemy, and charging a reloading enemy to saw their face off are still delectable treats. The game’s 36 chapters are generally well-paced too, with quieter times standing in stark contrast to the hissing and dismemberment.
The biggest problems with Remastered are inextricably part of the original game. Whenever it deviates from its tasty cover-shooting core – think: vehicle, turret, or quote-unquote puzzle sequence – Gears suffers. The intention to break up the core combat is a noble one, but all these sections feel inferior and mechanically incomplete, so boredom threatens far more frequently than death.
The boss battles smartly retain the game’s core mechanics, but they’re a mixed bag. The Bezerker sections are enjoyable, but a mid-game clash with a giant spider-like Corpser is extremely underwhelming, and final boss General Raam is frustratingly hard or far too easy depending on how observant you are.
Gears sags horribly in the middle too. The whole of Act III's factory section is not just a combination of dull, overlong, and too easy – it’s also far too frequently interrupted by unskippable tac-com chatter that slows you to a walk. The latter is a criticism that could be levelled at the whole game, in fact.
There are no character arcs. Protagonist Marcus Fenix is a gruff, humourless jerk; Baird is needlessly combative; Cole Train is the guy who says “Wooo!”; and Dom is a wallflower despite his prominent billing. The plot reveals little about the world beyond ‘locust bad, humans good’.
I did strike some problems seemingly native to the remaster, too. Twice I had to restart sections I had cleared after the following sequences failed to be triggered, and another time an incoming next wave of Locust were rooted helplessly to their spawn points. There was also a very small amount of middle-distance pop-in in one particularly texture-heavy section of the fourth act, but overall, Ultimate Edition runs extremely well.
Subsequent Gears games have obviously sullied my memory of the tone too, which overall is surprisingly well-struck. It’s not too overwrought and gloomy or too cheesy the way subsequent Gears games are at times. There’s a desperation amid the croaked-up gung-ho dialogue.
New for those who played the original on Xbox 360 is an extra hour or so of content from the 2007 PC version, which slots in at the start of the game’s final act. These chapters deliver welcome environmental variation and some well-designed and memorable setpieces, including a multi-tiered battle in a theatre and a showdown with a colossal Brumak.
Whether these additions and the extensive overhauls make Ultimate Edition worthy of a purchase for those who played the first time around is moot. I personally enjoyed carving my way through the campaign again much more than I imagined I would. It does hold up remarkably well despite the aforementioned flaws, and the work that's gone into the rebuild is truly impressive.
Certainly, those who enjoy replaying titles on higher difficulties or in co-op (something I wasn’t able to try due to a lack of a second controller) will get their NZ$70 worth, and for a limited time, those who buy the game will get the Xbox 360 versions of all four Gears titles on their Xbox One for free when backwards compatibility arrives in November.
For many, though, the purchase decision will hinge on the strength of the game’s multiplayer, which has also been thoroughly modernised. That means 60 frames per second play, dedicated servers, skill-based matchmaking, retuned controls, and Gears of War 3 features like enemy spotting, tac-com item and friendly location, and more.
There are a total of 19 maps including all original DLC and PC-only maps, 17 unlockable characters, and even a new two-on-two Gnasher Execution mode. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a game pre-release, so I cannot comment on any of it. Instead, I’ll update this review and give the game a score once I’ve played online.
Needless to say, for those who haven't played Gears of War, I can recommend this version on the strength of its campaign alone. It’s a hoot revisiting Delta Squad in its embryonic state as it attempts to end the Locust onslaught with the deployment of the Lightmass bomb, and replaying it it's easy to see why the original sold almost six million units and scooped many Game of the Year accolades. It's a great game that holds up well. For those still on the fence: watch this space for our report from the multiplayer battlegrounds.
I'm now happy to conclude that Ultimate Edition's overhauled multiplayer is excellent. With the aforementioned feature set it feels thoroughly modern, and its relatively slow pace sets it apart from other shooters. Strategy and map placement is arguably just as important as shooting prowess, and the large number of maps on offer lend the mode great variety to proceedings.
The shotgun is generally the weapon of choice in all but the largest maps like War Machine, although the Lancer is useful for chipping away at an approaching enemy's health. The maps aren't too complicated either, and by the second half of a match you usually have a decent grasp of where enemies are likely to approach from.
You can choose the region you're looking for a match in, and finding a game at peak times is easy. The only mode with reliable games 24/7 on the Australian servers is Team Deathmatch though, so if you want to play anything else, you usually need to play in the evening.
Couple this with the sterling campaign – which to my shock I've already revisited – and you have a handsome package that's great value. To be fair, I'm something of a Gears fanboy – the series has given me some of my fondest gaming memories – but even so I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying Ultimate Edition. So, if you're even slightly interested I suggest you pick it up. If nothing else it's a sterling stopgap that will satiate your hunger until Gears 4 drops at the end of next year.