A Well-Oiled Machine
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost nine years since we were first graced with Gears of War . Ahead of next year’s release of the newest installment with Gears of War 4 , newly appointed series developer The Coalition has dedicated the past eighteen months to painstakingly recreating the original. A few added chapters and the full gamut of multiplayer modes comprise the majority of new features. Thus, you could attempt to dismiss Gears of War: Ultimate Edition as a mere facelift, but it would easily rank as one of the best graphical makeovers to date. And that’s saying a lot considering the original was arguably one of the best looking games of its time, one that could still stand up to the scrutiny of today’s technical standards.
Our introduction to humanity’s last-ditch effort against the hostile subterranean race called the Locust Horde still exemplifies one of the greatest against-all-odds struggles found in gaming. Yet my seven-hour jaunt through the game’s five acts brought to bear the harsh expectations we seem to place on plot depth in today’s games. Gears of War keeps the story simple, focusing on the Hail Mary play tossed to Marcus Fenix and his squad to eradicate the heart of the Locust’s underground tunnel network. The story glosses over Fenix and his prologue incarceration, as well as the background between him and his father. There are mere hints of Cole’s celebrity as a former professional Thrashball player, and Dom’s and Baird’s back stories are virtually non-existent. For all intents and purposes it’s four beefcakes cutting through waves of enemies. But oh how fun the cutting is.
Gears of War revolutionized the cover-based system back in 2006, and remains the high bar that every third-person shooter since has attempted to replicate, though few have succeeded. In Ultimate Edition everything is refined, from the smoother frame rate to tighter controls and the return of that oh so satisfying feeling when you nail the rhythm of the active reload. Though the controls have been fine-tuned, you’ll find other parts of the gameplay retain their rather generic roots. Weapons, for example, are limited for the most part to the standard archetypes: pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, etc. The exception, of course, is the Lancer assault rifle with its chainsaw bayonet, a staple throughout the entire campaign. Once I had that paired with the explosive tipped Torque Bow and magnum style Boltok pistol, my weapon arsenal was set for the game. Each of the few Locust types maintained rigid combat tactics that were easy to memorize. However, that didn’t make the firefights any less intense. Even on Casual difficulty the AI was aggressive, and launching yourself thoughtlessly into the fray will quickly find you on the wrong end of a chainsaw.
Making use of the environment is key to survival. The game meticulously places cover points around the map. Perfectly angled sandbag walls and concrete slabs are readily available to exploit. The tight controls make for quick transitions between these defensive points, allowing you to advance or retreat while keeping your focus on enemy location, a necessary component since there is no mini-map pacifier shoved into your HUD. On the more challenging difficulties, skilled use of cover is vital, as a shot or two could easily drop Marcus, preserving Gears of War as one of the toughest shooters on the market.
Scouring the campaign for COG tags not only awards achievements, but unlocks pages to a collection a four comics. These skillfully drawn strips provide a heart-wrenching backstory on the characters and history of the war, rewarding you with some exposition not found in campaign itself.
After the campaign, heading over to the multiplayer could easily fill up your hours all the way to the release of Gears of War 4 . Ultimate Edition is loaded with nineteen maps and a full spread of modes including the intense Annex and skillful Warzone. Team Death Match and King of the Kill are newly added modes, both of which I had satisfying (albeit disastrous) matches with. The pre-release community was sparsely populated, though patience did reward me with a full roster of ten (not eight like in the original) players to test out the maps and modes, with an impressive list of characters from the entire series to play with. The quality of the environments made both the multiplayer and solo campaign a more immersive experience.
Straight up, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is gorgeous, despite the dilapidated and industrial backdrop. Every frame tells a story of the magnitude of the war against the Locust, and the casualties from their overwhelming attack that began fourteen years prior to the events of the game, not to mention humanity’s resource war preceding the emergence of the Locust. Though every chapter is saturated with a grayscale wash, the detailing is remarkable. The overall design remains from the original, but each piece has been completely remodeled, making it hard not to stand idle and pan the camera after clearing an area of enemies. However, this makes the juxtaposition between the environments and the character models all the more obvious. Don’t get me wrong, the characters all look great, but their designs are somewhat more stylized than the realistic ruins they travel through. Dom’s face always looks freshly washed, Baird’s hair remains perfectly groomed, and Cole’s exposed biceps gleam like an oiled baby’s bottom. Exposing the wear of their continued struggle would have helped provide authenticity to their journey.
The music follows a similar criticism. The fully orchestrated symphony is well composed, but oftentimes feels overly cinematic during some of the game’s morose moments. The subtle and disheartening melody of the title screen is enough to wipe the smile off of any face, and many scenes in the game would benefit from this subtlety, rather than dozens of strings and brass instruments blaring through the speakers. The sound effects, on the other hand, are pitch perfect. Weapons fire with impact, the Lancer tears through flesh, and even ambient effects like dripping water and bubbling lava-like Imulsion radiate through the speakers. John DiMaggio and the rest of the vocal cast give a stellar performance and nail their respective characters’ personalities.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition does little to pervert the gameplay formula of the original, as it is held fervently close to the heart by many a fan of the series. Instead, The Coalition takes the template and heightens its controls and visuals to a level that puts other games fresh off the press to shame. It’s the same great game you loved nearly a decade ago, it just looks and feels a whole lot better.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.8 Graphics
The most stunning war-torn backdrop I’ve even seen. Every piece of rubble paints a picture of what the world of Sera has suffered. The characters could have also used that kind of attention to detail, but overall the game is a visual masterpiece. 4.8 Control
Gears of War redefined the cover-based shooter, and Ultimate Edition refines it even further. Silky smooth animations and a solid frame rate bolster the engagement. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
A bit overzealous with the orchestra, but otherwise the audio is superb. 4.3 Play Value
The story is brief and simple, but the gameplay wholly satisfying, with plenty of multiplayer modes to keep you engaged well after the campaign is finished. 4.6 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best