The original Gears of War was the best exclusive the Xbox 360 had back in 2006. Seeing it on Xbox One in 2015 is like reuniting with a long lost friend. It’s easy to remember all the good times you’ve together, but you may find you’ve grown apart in some ways, too.
This generation has been heavy on remakes, especially last-gen remakes. That said, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is no slouch—it’s absolutely gorgeous. Character and enemy models are more detailed than ever, and the game runs (mostly) at 60 frames per second.
Marcus and his band of bros are so impressively remastered in fact, that I wouldn’t be surprised if new models were used. Of course the Cogs and Locust weren’t the only things getting a round of upgrades; environments also have received a fresh coat of paint. Overall, Ultimate Edition sports a brighter palette than the 2006 original, likely to show off the fancy new textures and geometry on display. The mist and fog populating much of the environments is gone as well, which works both for and against the game. Every now and then you’ll find some seriously muddy textures that look like they probably were missed during the update. In a world that’s otherwise so pretty these stick out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, they’re very few and far between and you won’t see many of them if you don’t stray from the beaten path.
Ultimate Edition looks so good it’s hard to forget that it’s a remake of a game that predates the first iPhone. Every now and then you get glimpses of its roots, through odd textures or animations that look strange by today’s standards, but it’s still an impressively pretty game.
My favorite memories of Gears of War are playing through the campaign with my brother on my then state-of-the-art 32-inch 1080p (wow!) TV. After all, Gears was pretty much designed for more than one player. As a single player, the campaign can be quite frustrating. Have a battle buddy is exceptionally helpful on higher difficulties where enemies place shots better than seems fair and often drop you with a single hit. Ultimate Edition doesn’t really make any improvements over the original in this regard. Both split-screen and online co-op return from the original. It’s still worth mentioning how much co-op adds to Gears, as it’d be much more frustrating otherwise.
One area in which Ultimate Edition improved upon its predecessor is in its PVP multiplayer mode. Though I was never much of one for it, it’s clear that I’m in the minority of Gears fans on this one. The Coalition has done a great job expanding on Gears’s PVP offering, bringing it more in line with the series’ later entries.
There are loads of custom lancer and shotgun skins, as well as a great selection of selectable characters. Having women like Anja to select from are especially welcome, considering Marcus and his unreasonably buff bros get too much screen time as-is.
Ultimate Edition gets Gears of War 3’s eight-way rolling, which makes those close quarters shotgun blasting sessions a little easier to manage, but it still feels a bit dated when set next to the later sequels. I would have loved for The Coalition to add horde mode to the original Gears, but the offerings are far from paltry.
If you only ever played Gears of War on your Xbox 360, you’re in for some new chapters in Ultimate Edition’s campaign. All of this content was present in the 2007 PC version, but it’s still nice to see it here. None of the new chapters are bad, but none are quite that great, either. There’s a fight with a Brumak, which is pretty fun, but ultimately a tad too easy. The rest of the chapters serve to further show the sad state of affairs the planet has fallen into. It’s good stuff, but Gears doesn’t fare any better for having it.
Man, in multiplayer that 60 frames-per-second is sure delivered on. It feels smooth and solid. That’s why it’s such a shame that campaign mode can at times get pretty janky. For starters, as one eagle-eyed commenter pointed out, it’s locked at 30 frames per second, as opposed to multiplayer’s silky smooth 60. For the most part, campaign still ran smoothly, but at times of heavy action (most notably toward the latter half of the game) you would see the game chug a bit, dropping down into what felt like the low twenties at times.
There were also issues with textures loading at times. Sometimes my gun would look extremely fuzzy, most often it’d be random doors or barricades not being properly skinned yet. Once it was even Baird, which just looked really strange. Most of these resolved in a few seconds and none ever affected gameplay negatively.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition feels exactly as it did in 2006. That’s not the best thing ever. By 2006 standards, Gears of War felt great. But we’ve had nine years of ever-improving gameplay in the third-person shooter genre. Compared to the offerings of 2015, Gears feels outdated. The Coalition realized that the default movement scheme didn’t work for multiplayer and updated it, but didn’t see fit to do the same for the game’s single player elements.
Gears of War was arguably the standout new franchise for fans of Microsoft’s last-gen box. After nine years, Gears may have grown a bit long in the tooth, but a new coat of paint and some control refinements where it really counts are enough to remember why you fell in love with it in the first place. In the end, this reunion was sweet.
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