Popzara’s head honcho loves to go off on rants about remasters. “It’s the Year of The Rehash!” he cries, his face turning purple while steam pours out of his ears. Personally, I don’t really mind it all that much; if I liked a game once, chances are I’ll like it again. What’s more, if there’s a classic I haven’t tried yet, a remaster offers a great chance to pick that classic up for the first time. There are much bigger problems with the industry than the odd remaster here and there…but I digress.
The latest rehash to cross my desk is Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, a remastered version of the original Gears of War that aims to remind players of what innovation – and next-gen pizzazz – felt like back in 2006.
Gears of War, on the off chance you hadn’t played it, is basically the prototype for the cover-shooter subgenre that typified the seventh generation of consoles. If you haven’t played Gear of War, you’ve absolutely played something similar. The gameplay focuses on hiding behind chest-high cover, popping up to blast away and getting back down to reload or recover health. Cover as a central mechanic means that particular emphasis is placed on flanking tactics, which come up multiple times during the campaign and are a key strategy in multiplayer.
The plot revolves around the struggles of the humans of planet Sera against the native Locust, ogrish humanoids that emerge from underground to dish out pain. Years of this conflict have left much of Sera in ruins, with humanity being driven to near extinction. The main character, disgraced infantryman Marcus Fenix, and his team Delta Squad battle the Locust in search of a powerful weapon that could turn the tide of the war.
The plot doesn’t change at all in the Ultimate Edition, so unless you have a pressing urge to replay the campaign then there’s really no need, especially since it’s got a decent runtime and outstays its welcome a bit. It’s even longer, in fact, thanks to the inclusion of several non-essential campaign chapters that were formerly PC-exclusive. Aside from that, the biggest changes come in the form of digital comics you unlock by finding collectibles, as well as more Achievements to go for if you’re into those. Back in the day Gears’ campaign was revolutionary in bringing the cinematic experience to a console game, but these days, well…everyone is doing it.
My criticism of the campaign rings doubly true because the transition to Xbox One hasn’t done a huge amount for the game. The graphics are better, but only just, and the characters’ animations are a dead giveaway that this is an older title that was ported. For every improved texture there’s another jerky vault over cover. For every awe-inspiring vista there’s a framerate drop during combat. If you’re looking into buying this one for the graphical upgrade alone, you might as well skip it.
As for the nitty-gritty, it’s also largely unchanged from the original. You’ve got a selection of automatic and single-shot weapons as well as grenades and a pistol. The guns on offer are largely standard fare, with the highlights being the Lancer assault rifle and its underslung chainsaw as well as the Hammer of Dawn orbital laser designator. Your choice of weapon will dictate your tactics to some degree, particularly since you can only carry two primary guns and a sidearm at once; more precise options allow you to fight from a longer distance, which can keep you safe combined with cover, while more damaging options encourage a rushing playstyle to keep you from being slowly ground down by enemy fire. You’ve also got AI companions which remain as dumb as they were a decade ago; at least they serve as bullet sponges, I suppose.
There’s a nod or two to later entries in the series as well, including a key nerf to the iconic chainsaw bayonet that prevents players from chainsawing their way through everyone unopposed. It plays exceptionally well, but it’s also a fairly standard shooter experience in 2015. In fact, gamers who are primarily used to modern shooters might be disappointed in the lack of shiny gimmicks here…because their favorite games ripped off all their core mechanics from Gears!
Your real value here comes from Gears’ online multiplayer. This continues to be one of the best cooperative shooters out there for the money and is further enhanced by the addition of a drop-in, drop-out feature. Competitive multiplayer, meanwhile, includes an impressive 19 maps running in silky-smooth 60FPS; this is both great and a bit sad, as the campaign itself remains locked at 30FPS for some reason.
Gears’ meaty squad-based multiplayer combat remains the high point of the series as a whole; it’s got a feel all its own, foregoing the split-second deaths of Call of Duty and the massive scale of Battlefield. Instead, what we’ve got is a war of attrition between small teams jockeying for advantageous positions. It’s a great time, especially when you’ve got two well-coordinated teams playing a match. There’s a new 2v2 mode that focuses on the legendary Gnasher shotgun, which I didn’t find to be as engrossing as the main 4v4, but it’s nice to see any changes and new features in a remaster like this.
There are a few other value propositions for purchasing this remaster, one of which really sells it in my view. First, you’ll be able to get into the Gears 4 beta when that’s available; if marketing betas are your thing, then there you go. More importantly, if you purchase before the end of this year you’re given backwards-compatible Xbox 360 versions of the other Gears of War games as well. That’s Gears of War 2, Gears 3 and Judgment, all yours along with the Ultimate Edition of Gears for $40. This is a pretty solid chunk of content, meaning that this is an ideal purchase for anyone new to the series.
Microsoft’s been hitting the ball out of the park when it comes to value-packed purchases lately. Rare Replay remains the king of bundles; now, offering the entire Gears of War series along with this remastered first title makes Gears of War: Ultimate Edition an easy recommendation. While Gears might lack the shine of more modern shooters, that’s because most are built on the foundation it helped create. If you’ve got an urge to go back to your roots, well, here’s where you do it. Your roots are behind a chest-high wall, by the way. Take cover.