Gears of War: Ultimate Edition review: the road home

Game Info
Platform Xbox One
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Developer The Coalition
Release Date Aug 25, 2015

No medium is as beholden to the passage of time as video games. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition demonstrates this eloquently.

When Vancouver-based developer The Coalition (formerly Black Tusk Studios) was entrusted with the Gears of War franchise in 2014, the team decided that the best way to learn Gears would be to revisit original developer Epic's work on the game that started the series. The result is Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. Ultimate offers a completely intact, gameplay-identical version of Gears' campaign, albeit one with a complete visual overhaul, and a revamped vision of the original game's multiplayer mode with tweaks both big and small, the most drastic being a locked 60 fps frame rate.

The result is a conflicted, but accurate statement: Gears of War is both better and worse than you remember. Thankfully, it's much more the former than the latter.

Gears of War remains a very good shooter

Originally released in 2006, Gears of War popularized a then-new kind of action game, taking the over the shoulder camera of Resident Evil 4 and a cover mechanic inspired by the 2003 game Kill Switch, mixing it into something unique. In a period full of first person shooters borrowing from the likes of Halo and a pre-modern-day Call of Duty, Gears of War went for something more intimate, and more brutal, all from third person.

If you haven't played Gears of War, I'll be succinct: It remains a very good shooter, one better than many modern releases that had the benefit to come out after a console generation's worth of lessons and mistakes.

Gears' shooting remains distinctive, and remarkably so, given its success. Bodies take a enormous amount of punishment, and battles aren't about quick, surgical shots. Gun battles feel more like fist fights, where you're beating the crap out of things with bullets, where any distance more than a few feet feels like it might be too far away. It helps that the chainsaw-equipped Lancer rifle remains one of the most viscerally satisfying melee tools I've ever used in a game, and that the Gnasher shotgun still feels like a flak cannon.

Mechanics like active reload underline a successful effort to layer optional sophistication and skill-based gameplay between taking down enemies in Gears of War. It still works, and speaks to how well the series has always managed downtime and combat without ruining its sense of pacing. Gears of War knows where to breathe, and how to ratchet up the tension. It manages this in ways that feel almost quaint now, but the slow introduction of new weapons and new enemy types that are then woven into the game's various encounters works just as well now as it did then.

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Those encounters form the backbone of Gears of War, and remain its strongest aspect. Through a campaign whose length looks almost elephantine in comparison to modern shooters, Epic successfully iterated on the basic cover-based concept and made fights that even nine years later I still remember playing through the first time — like Embry Square, or the first appearance of the terrifying Theron Guard. For a team that had done little in the way of ambitious single-player experiences, Epic built a game that still sits confidently atop the superlatives it received nine years ago.

It helps that Gears of War was so explicitly designed to be played with a friend. Co-op makes even the most boring games more fun, as misery usually loves company (usually). But Gears' levels feel designed for tactical consideration with a partner, with places to flank and achieve superior positioning and overwatch, and its limited boss encounters beg for two-pronged approaches and controlling fields of fire.

That said, nine years is a long time, a practical epoch in game development terms, and that shows in various ways. From a level design perspective, the sections where Gears of War intentionally splits you and your partner up mark some of the more egregiously punishing tendencies of the game, especially on higher difficulties.

Speaking to difficulty, the later Gears of War games found a sweet spot between "egregiously punishing" and a strong but mostly fair sense of challenge. The original game, and thus Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, doesn't navigate this quite as well. The Coalition has retooled the casual difficulty in the original release, adding a normal setting and making casual much less intimidating. Most players will find a decent challenge on normal. I prefer the second-highest difficulty, hardcore, which generally provides a good sense of back-and-forth in firefights, where I feel like I have to work for kills and earn progress. But Hardcore difficulty in Gears of War features plenty of moments — too many, honestly — where cheap, one-shot kills come from out of nowhere, particularly against enemies with explosive weapons.

Companion AI in Gears of War can be equally murderous. I had "friendly" AI jump in front of my Boomshot fire just as I pulled the trigger more than once, leading to a quick, splattery death. I also felt blocked in often enough to be enraging, and there's no good way to push an AI teammate out of the way of a door. Later in the game, when cover is deliberately more sparse, I was hit by surgical Torque Bow shots from Theron Guard as my AI companion sat against the only chest-high wall available.

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In hindsight it's also easier to see places where Gears of War received less care or passes than other sections. Act two feels somewhat disjointed and features one of the most reviled sections of the game involving a car, a light and shadow-hungry monsters that flock like birds. It's less of a hassle than I remembered, but it's still not fun. Gears of War stumbles the most in these moments when it gets farthest away from its exceptionally tight core gameplay loop.

Other flaws feel like a casualty to a less-developed understanding of presentation and game design in 2006. Checkpoints are frequently too far apart, and often take place before an in-game bit of cutscene storytelling, though, thankfully, these can almost always be immediately skipped. Broadly speaking, cutscenes are often bookended by black screens or even full level loads, something more experience developers have gotten much better about in the intervening decade.

The latter presentation kinks are only so noticeable set against the complete visual overhaul Gears of War: Ultimate Edition brings to the table. The Coalition has banged the drum of zero original assets from 2006 as a marketing point since the game was announced, but it's not all talk: Gears Ultimate looks like a modern game, and a very pretty one at that. As importantly, every cutscene in the game has been completely reshot using modern tools, often with cuts and minor additions for pacing and clarity. The story isn't different, but it does feel slightly more intelligible, and easier to follow.

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's campaign also benefits from a subtle but significant improvement in controls. It doesn't change the basic gameplay in campaign, but everything feels smoother, in part because the original release's performance could veer so wildly away from its 30 fps target.

But this improvement is even more pronounced in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's multiplayer component, where The Coalition has bumped the frame rate up to 60 fps. Gears of War has never controlled poorly, exactly, but it's always been a heavy game where positioning and strategy matter more than twitch target acquisition. With the Ultimate release, it's now one of the smoothest-controlling shooters I've ever played. It also makes certain timing based weapons, like the Longshot sniper rifle and Torque Bow just easier much easier to use, in my experience.

Gears Ultimate is one of the smoothest-controlling games I've ever played

The Coalition has held the multiplayer experience less sacrosanct than the campaign, choosing to make minor inclusions like eight-way rolling — the original game only allowed for forward, back, left and right — and some traversal elements that appeared in later games. In this way, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition's multiplayer feels more aware of modern multiplayer expectations than its single-player element. This includes dedicated servers for all modes, a decent if somewhat limited set of spectator options, minor tweaks to some maps to ensure symmetric level layouts — and an even competitive playfield — and various nods to the hardcore competitive contingent of Gears of War fans, like a special mode and support for LAN play, the first Xbox One game to do so.

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is, largely, the same multiplayer game with the same philosophies as its original release, which makes it my least favorite of the main trilogy. I've always preferred the Lancer to the Gnasher, and felt like the shotgun's prevalence in multiplayer spoke counter to the more unique elements of the series.

Wrap Up:

Ultimate is the best possible demonstration of Gears of War's classic shooter bonafides

That describes Ultimate Edition just as well. But that decision doesn't feel like a remnant or an old mistake. It feels like an intentional inclusion. The result is something that doesn't feel new, exactly, but it does feel surprisingly relevant. Gears of War's campaign has some small particulars that could derail a worse game, and its flaws are more clear now than they were nine years ago. But Gears of War's bona fides as a shooter classic feel less in dispute than ever — and Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is easily the best way to understand why that is.

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition was reviewed using a pre-release, retail download token provided by Microsoft. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics statement here.

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