At the beginning of 2014, Microsoft purchased the Gears of War franchise from Epic Games. Future titles in the series such as the upcoming Gears 4 would be developed by Microsoft's Vancouver-based studio The Coalition (formerly Black Tusk Studios) rather than Epic. But how would the new team ensure that Gears 4 felt like a true successor rather than the slightly disappointing Gears of War Judgment?
As it turns out, The Coalition would first cut its teeth on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for Xbox One (and soon Windows 10). A remaster of 2006's original Gears of War, Ultimate Edition packs the same revolutionary third-person shooting gameplay that made the first game such a killer app on Xbox 360. It also boasts new single-player and multiplayer content, vastly improved graphics, and several welcome improvements – all for the low price of $39.99.
Check out our comprehensive review with video to learn how Ultimate Edition makes Gears of War just as relevant in 2015 as it was in 2006.
Sera and its inhabitants
Gears of War takes place on the planet Sera, where humanity has endured a 14-year war with an inhuman race known as the Locusts. On the fateful day known as Emergence Day, the Locusts erupted from beneath the ground and wiped out the majority of Sera's human population. In the first Gears, nobody knows why the Locusts hate humanity so much. They're just jerks.
Sera's remaining population is governed by the militarized Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG). As the game begins, muscle-bound protagonist Marcus Fenix is rescued from imprisonment by his totally-not-doomed best friend, Dom Santiago. Marcus will join Delta Squad, a small team of soldiers who must attempt to map out the Locusts' subterranean tunnel network and then detonate a bomb that could defeat the monsters once and for all.
Gears sometimes catches flack for its "dudebro" story and characters. Our heroes Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole are impossibly huge and muscular, gruff in demeanor, and foul-mouthed to boot. Yet, each possesses an endearing personality. These guys might argue and tease, but they also care about their squad-mates. We learn precious little of the overall narrative in the first Gears. The story works because the characters work.
Run and gun, duck and cover
Gears of War is a third-person shooter. While modern shooters tend to play similarly, the first Gears introduced several gameplay mechanics that differentiate it even to this day. Nothing feels quite like Gears, even though a few games like Sony's The Order 1886 have certainly tried.
The most standout mechanics here are: the active reload system, the cover system, roady runs, and brutal melee kills.
Reloading is a mundane task in nearly every shooter under the sun. Not so in Gears, thanks to active reloads. Whenever gamers need to reload a weapon, they can simply press the Right Bumper and wait a few seconds to reload. However, they also have the option to press the button again at precisely the right moment (indicated by a meter at the top of the screen) to perform an active reload. Not only does this complete the reload faster, but it also makes the reloaded bullets deal extra damage.
Mess up your timing and you'll fail the active reload, incurring a slight penalty on your reload time. The risk doesn't outweigh the reward. Active reloads adds a whole new layer to firefights and help make the moment-to-moment gameplay consistently engaging.
Gears didn't invent the concept of taking cover to avoid enemy fire, but it did create the most intuitive cover system in gaming. Players can tap the A button when standing next to nearly any wall or object to take cover behind it. From there you can aim and fire (popping out slightly) or blind fire without raising your head.
Enemies can still cover-bound targets, but they'll have a much harder time of it. Tap the button again to hop out of cover. On the whole, the cover system just works, with very few instances of missing, taking, or leaving cover unintentionally.
Holding the A button performs an entirely different maneuver: the roadie run. Engaging a roadie run makes players crouch low and sprint forward at high speed. It shifts the camera angle to a dramatically low viewpoint, creating a sense of urgency to the dash. Commendably, the roadie run mechanic is polished enough that it won't make gamers stick to cover by mistake.
Finally, Gears features exceptionally brutal melee attacks and kills. The most obvious of these involves the Lancer weapon. A Lancer is a bulky rifle with a built-in chainsaw. Holding the B button revs up the Lancer. Catch a nearby enemy with it and you'll chainsaw them in half, splattering blood on the screen.
Pulling off a chainsaw kill is risky because any hit you take while revved up will stun your character. You're also vulnerable as the chainsaw animation ends. However, the ability to swoop in to saw an enemy in twain with the Lancer is so satisfying; I seldom pass up the opportunity.
Gears' campaign can be played in single-player, 2-player split-screen co-op, or 2-player online co-op. Split-screen, unfortunately, doesn't use the full horizontal resolution of the screen, but it's still perfectly playable.
The campaign consists of five acts, each with several chapters. In the original Xbox 360 release, the fifth Act was much shorter than the others. The game ran up against a deadline, and some of the content there had to be cut. The five missing chapters appeared in the little-known PC port that followed in 2007, and now they're included in the Ultimate Edition as well.
The new chapters take place immediately before the original Act V chapters. Delta Squad has just escaped from the East Barricade Academy, chased by a gigantic monster called a Brumak. In the 360 game, you'd never know what became of the Brumak. Here, the team is tasked with avoiding the beast as they attempt to restore power to an opened bridge and proceed on their way to the train station.
Delta Squad's new chapters fit right in with the rest of the game, making a previously anemic Act robust. One particularly tense sequence takes place in an abandoned theater. Marcus and Dom must split up to deal with a Seeder monster – without the benefit of the Hammer of Dawn normally required to defeat such beasts.
One soldier heads to the balcony while the other fights from below, which means neither can revive the other. My partner and I found the theater segment to be the most challenging part of the game when playing on Insane difficulty. The guy who stays on ground level just has way too many threats to deal with and not enough cover. It would have been nice if developers had dialed back that sequence a bit, but we eventually beat it.
The new campaign content culminates with Dom and Marcus being forced to fight the Brumak on foot in an enclosed arena. The monster slowly chases our heroes down, firing rockets from its back and chainguns from each arm. Although not particularly cinematic, the Brumak fight is probably the most enjoyable boss battle in the game – far better than Act III's Corpser fight.
Once it ends, players will find themselves at the train station where Act V began on Xbox 360. Just a few chapters to go until the final boss battle! If the General Raam battle gives you trouble, don't despair. We'll publish a guide to the Raam fight very soon.
The Gears series is beloved for not just its campaigns, but also its cooperative Horde and competitive multiplayer modes. Don't expect Horde Mode here. The feature debuted in Gears of War 2, not the first game. But we do get a robust 8-player competitive mode here. It can be played online or via system link. Two split-screen players can join online games, thankfully.
Ultimate Edition includes all of the original multiplayer maps (six of which came as DLC) plus three new ones, for a total of 19 maps. The extra maps originated in the PC version: Sanctuary, Courtyard, and Gold Rush. All three originally made it to Gears of War 2 on Xbox 360 as DLC. Think of them as a little taste of Gears 2 to complement your upgraded first game.
The original Gears brought four multiplayer game types to the table: Warzone, Assassination, Execution, and Annex. Ultimate Edition tosses Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Blitz, and Gnasher Execution (2-on-2 shotguns) into the mix. Gears of War: UE gives us a total of eight game types – two more than Microsoft promised at E3.
On top of eight player slots for online games, Ultimate Edition introduces two slots for spectators. These slots can be used to broadcast games to streaming services like Twitch or simply to monitor game progression during tournaments.
Ultimate Edition also adds a multiplayer progression system. Gamers will now gain experience and level up as they complete social and ranked games. Leveling up unlocks characters, including some from Gears of War 3. The leveling system should encourage players to stick around for multiplayer until Gears 4 launches in 2016 – maybe even past that.
Another improvement: Players can now spot enemies in multiplayer or campaign. It allows you to mark the position of hostiles for your teammates to see.
There haven't been many people playing online prior to the game's release on August 25. But I did manage to complete a few matches. My early impressions are that multiplayer feels as great as ever. Gears feels much different than Halo and other popular shooters thanks to its slower pace and the inability to jump. Most game types don't offer respawns either, adding real tension to matches. I look forward to playing with the community once the game releases.
Besides vastly improved graphics and new campaign and multiplayer content, Ultimate Edition includes a few bonus features:
- Collect all 33 COG tags (the new chapters add three tags to the original 30) to unlock five digital Gears of War comics from DC comics. Reading comics on a TV screen feels unintuitive, but they're still a cool bonus.
- Completing each Act will unlock concept art for that Act's environments. Shame they didn't include character artwork as well; environmental art is a bit drab.
- The Cinematics viewer lets you watch any story scenes you've previously encountered. Thanks to the occasional split paths, you'll have to replay a few chapters a second time to see them all. Also, note the ending is ever so slightly different in this version (for the better).
- Buy and play the game before the end of 2015 to get the Xbox 360 versions of Gears of War 1-3 and Judgment as digital downloads on Xbox One. As of this writing, only the first 360 Gears has appeared in my library.
A few flaws
Ultimate Edition adds a lot of polish and improvements to a classic game, but it still has a few issues…
The most annoying to me is the friendly AI in campaign mode. While the first Gears' campaign only supports two players, the remaining members of the four-man Delta Squad team are controlled by the computer. They rarely provide any real help during battle, and often lag behind in the area when players confront foes.
Worse, AI squadmates won't revive a downed player. If you get knocked down in single-player, you'll just have to restart from a checkpoint rather than receiving any help from your bros. Gears of War 2 gave computer teammates the ability to revive human players, and I wish The Coalition had worked that improvement into Ultimate Edition.
Ultimate Edition is a beautiful game. The character models and environments have all gotten revamped, and the textures are stunning in high resolution. One little aspect of the graphics looks dated, though: rain. When it starts raining in Act III, you'll notice the rain falls on the environment but not the characters. For the rain to look convincing, it must land on everything in the environment, including people. Still, it's not like rain appears anywhere else in the game.
Finally, the newly remastered cinematics mostly look quite good. The developers reused the original voice acting, which works for the most part. Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole all sound great. Some of the minor character voices, though – namely those of the Stranded civilians – sound hokey.
It's hard not to notice when John DiMaggio, the voice of Marcus Fenix and also a white guy – turns in a hammy voice for a black Stranded dude. The elderly guy from the gas station doesn't sound any better. Luckily, Stranded don't play a large role in the story as a whole.
Ultimate Edition offers 56 Achievements worth a total of 1,250 Gamerscore. You'll unlock most of them by playing through the campaign and finding all of the collectible COG tags. The hardest campaign Achievements involve beating the game on Insane difficulty and beating General Raam without getting downed.
Multiplayer mode gets several Achievements as well, most of which you'll earn naturally with enough playtime. The Seriously Achievement requires players to kill 10,000 enemies in multiplayer ONLY, which is a huge grind. I've always hated the Seriously Achievements in this series!
Welcome back, Gears
It's not uncommon for publishers to re-release older games on modern consoles. Sometimes the games get "remastered" with improved graphics and other features; Sometimes they don't.
Gears of War Ultimate Edition is a true remaster, with everything that made the first Gears special, new content, and much-improved visuals. Other than the clunky teammate AI and a few goofy voices, it doesn't feel dated at all.
Gears of War is one of the best third-person shooters of all time, with a distinct personality and world and plenty of innovative and refined gameplay mechanics. Everybody who enjoys shooters should play it. And if you've missed the Gears series since Judgment arguably misfired in 2013, Ultimate Edition is the perfect way to get back into it. We all have new games to play, but some games are worth experiencing more than once.