Available on Xbox One, Windows version coming late 2015
While it’s not quite time for its 10 year anniversary, Gears of War is a game that deserves to be updated, remastered and, most of all, replayed. Often unfairly derided as the biggest and dumbest of big, dumb action blockbusters, it's actually a smarter game than you might think.
Sure, its leads have more muscle on their necks than brains in their heads, while the action is so linear and heavily orchestrated that it’s practically on rails, but Gears knows how to make aggressive pacing, some clever mechanics and some inspired set pieced go an awfully long way.
This wasn't the first cover-based shooter, by any means, but it was the first to really get things absolutely right, with controls that made moving in and out of cover and between points of cover absolutely natural and intuitive.
While too slow and heavy in its handling to be described as a twitch shooter, something about Gears’ approach to combat just works. On the one hand, rushing the enemy is suicide. On the other, cowering behind fallen masonry leaves you open to flanking manoeuvres and rush attacks from an enemy that's just clever and brutal enough to pose a serious threat.
And what an enemy that is. Gears takes place on a far-off world where mankind is at war with a subterranean alien race, the locust. Hulking, mean and often heavily armoured, they're as charismatic a foe as you could wish for, with well-defined types that you’ll come to know, love and dread as the game goes on. It seems like obvious stuff, but you’d be surprised how few games realise that having clear, identifiable and – if you’re lucky – iconic enemies makes fighting them so much more enjoyable and satisfying. Halo knows it, Resident Evil knows it, Bioshock knows it and Destiny knows it. Doom and Quake knew it in their day. So does Gears. Think Boomer, think Wretch, think Drone, think Theron Guard. If you’ve played Gears, you know who these guys are and what they do.
Luckily, you’re tooled up for the battle. Like Halo or Doom, Gears gives you access to a formidable arsenal of weaponry, including chainsaw-enhanced assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns and pistols. In fact, it has two, adding the Locusts’ own weaponry to the COG’s human weapons, and throwing bows, grenade launchers and grenades into the mix. Gears even has a brilliant signature uber-weapon: the Hammer of Dawn, which you can only get your hands on at specific times for specific needs.
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The net result of all this is that the basic, minute-to-minute combat of Gears is very good. The speed of movement and the feel of aiming takes some getting used to, but once it clicks it’s just as gritty, gory and fun as it was in 2006. Dashing for cover, squeezing off some shots or using the old roadie run under withering Locust fire hasn’t tired at all. This remains a hugely exciting action game.
And when you’re not involved in the basic, minute-to-minute combat, Gears is even better. It’s impressive how many of its big set pieces stick in your mind even years later, the memories kicking into place as you replay them in this version. From the fight against the blind but seemingly unbeatable Bezerker through using spotlights and blasting gas canisters to keep the bat-like Kryll off your back, to the creepy infiltration through the mining facility and the Brumak’s first appearance, Gears is full of brilliant, unnerving, exciting moments. The series didn’t build a following for just its big-necked, dudebro brawn, after all.
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Throughout, you can see Cliffy B working to bring styles and themes from other games into the mix. Here he’s riffing on Resident Evil or going old-school with Doom-style thrills. There he’s taking a good look at Full Spectrum Warrior or Call of Duty and working out how ideas from a military shooter can work in a sci-fi game. Gears of War might not be all that original, but when it steals it steals from the best. What’s more, this version acts like an extended edition, throwing in the five chapters excised from the 360 version to get it out on time, but added back in the PC's Gears of War for Windows.
Gears also set the standard for co-op gameplay in an all-action shooter, and in this respect it’s rarely – if ever – been bettered. The squad-based nature of the action and the inclusion of different routes through the levels makes co-op feel as natural a way to enjoy the game as playing solo, if not more so. What other shooters can you say the same about?
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Of course, this Gears remaster has one problem Halo The Master Chief Collection never had: the original Gears of War looked pretty astonishing when it launched nine years ago and it still looks pretty astonishing today. Does the new version really add anything? From a quick glance, you might say little beyond a 1080p resolution and a rock-solid 30fps frame rate, but look longer and it soon becomes apparent how new high-resolution textures, blur effects, more complex scenery and vegetation and more dynamic lighting effects transform the game. Some of the high-contrast and bleach bypass beauty of the original has gone, but it’s been replaced by something gorgeous, cinematic and very much of this generation. While the odd burnt-out car or clunky creature might remind you that this is, at heart, a game that’s nearly ten years old, it looks and mostly feels surprisingly modern.
It falls down, sadly, in two areas. Occasionally Gears of War: Ultimate Edition shows telltale signs that it’s all really smoke and mirrors. When the Kryll attack, for example, there’s an odd moment where they disappear slightly before they should shrink out of view; it reminds you that you’re in a scene, and that there’s no bigger world outside. The same thing happens when an AI ally suddenly appears behind you, or you realise that while you can heal a comrade near certain death, your CPU-controlled squad-mates can’t do the same for you.
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More seriously, the AI can be pretty shoddy. Squad-mates run into danger or stand-up shooting feet away from a Locust position, making them an easy target for enemy fire. After a while I stopped bothering to rescue and heal them, because it was easier to tackle the Locusts and run for the next checkpoint, at which point they magically respawn. Said squad-mates are similarly stupid enough to sleepwalk into dark areas while the voracious Kryll are still abroad, or stand in front of a doorway, narrow walkway or ladder when you’re desperately trying to escape an incoming horde of savage wretches. This doesn’t just break the illusion but also costs you your life, leaving you glad that this is a game where checkpoints are frequent and death never seems to set you back that far.
These faults mar Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and leave you wondering a) if they were there before and, if so, why didn’t you notice them and b) why the team at The Coalition didn’t take the time to fix them up. All the same, they can’t break it. It’s just too big, bold and beautiful to be broken as easily as that.
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On the multiplayer side, it’s slightly disappointing that there’s been no attempt to add the later games’ Horde or Beast modes to the original Gears, but the four original modes cross over, along with King of the Hill, Team Deathmatch and a 2 vs 2 shotgun variation. We haven’t played much multiplayer and feel it’s impossible to give any sensible verdict on it pre-launch, so expect an update covering this in the near-future. And while we’re a little sorry that this isn’t some Master Chief Collection-style compilation bundle, the promise of the remaining games free through Xbox 360 emulation takes much of the pain away. Again, we’ll wait to see how this plays out in practice.
Some folks will be telling you that Gears isn’t as good as you remember, but this Ultimate Edition proves that they’re talking nonsense. Don’t blame Epic’s blockbuster for the dumb, dudebro sci-fi action games that followed; it’s a lean, superbly-paced action game with slick mechanics, stunning aesthetics and some fantastic set-pieces, all of which work as well now as they did back in 2006. The AI has its dodgy moments, but the game is still phenomenal.