For as many console generations as I can remember, console wars have been waged for sales dominance, with first and second party exclusive games as their soldiers and weapons on the battlefield. There was a time when Mario would go head to head with Sonic, a time when Sega did what Nintendont. Though the players in the conflict have changed hands many times since then, the battle itself has stayed largely the same. Now it’s Sony at bat with Uncharted and Ratchet going up against Microsoft wielding the mighty Halo and the Gears of War. With Uncharted 4 and the new Ratchet already released, Sony has a head start on Microsoft who only just released the formidable though a little underwhelming Halo 5.
Xbox is about to fire its cannons anew come October with the release date set for Gears of War 4. October still being many months away, doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy a little Gears on your Xbox One today. Nearly a year ago, Epic released the Gears of War Ultimate Edition on Xbox One, updating the original game with advanced textures and improved lighting. It’s a similar, if not as impressive, treatment than the one given to Halo 2 in the Master Chief Collection. While the game has been out for quite a time span, many people might only just now be feeling the Gears itch. A review made so late after release must take time to explore how the game has evolved to this point, and whether the multiplayer community still holds up after so long. Is this really the Ultimate Gears of War experience, or should you just wait a season for the next big release?
If you go into the Ultimate Edition expecting a faithful recreation of the first game, you won’t be at all disappointed. Epic Games chose to ignore almost all the improvements to the gameplay found in Gears of War 2 and 3, but decided to keep the recently added mark ability. It felt strange that they would include the ability to mark enemies but not include other welcome additions to the franchise like picking up enemies as a hostage. Still the cover mechanic introduced by this third person shooter franchise continues to feel as simple and fluid as it always has. There is a reason why this series has endured as one of the great shooter franchises, and it’s not just for all the huge testosterone fueled characters and action as those looking from the outside-in might think.
The campaign is mostly untouched, though it’s nice that they included the originally cut chapter against a Brumak later included on the PC version of the original game. Unlike the recent remake of Halo 2 by 343, none of the writing here has been touched at all. It’s still as cheesy and wooden as it ever was, the game taking you from locale to locale simply because that’s where you’re told to go next, with each major set piece moment strung together in implausibly close proximity to each other. Things happen because we’re told that’s the way they have to happen, and we’re expected to buy one coincidence after another. All that said, the campaign doesn’t fail to be entertaining in the moment, with occasionally funny wit from Baird being my personal highlight. Some of the other NPC characters however just seem to be there to push the plot forward. It’s also interesting to note that despite the many improvements to the game, the much derided slow motion walking and talking scenes still play out as clunky and frustratingly slow as they ever were. I can also see where the seed of yelling the story at players while all the action was happening on screen was starting to sprout. With story scenes either moving to slow or hidden in the background during gameplay, it’s no wonder that by the time we get to a cinematic we’re thoroughly lost narratively. Thankfully, perhaps, people don’t come to this game for the story. This is early game writing from the beginning of last generation but, for a game so old, it still manages to hit a lot of satisfying beats before the credits scroll.
The multiplayer community is where perhaps the most concern might be for anyone reading this review today. There’s been a disturbing question coming up lately in regards to the permanence of games as art. There are people with a museum state of mind, who want to honour the past of Video games, and maintain an ability to play those and all games even to this day. The idea that there are games released ten years ago that no one can actually still play today is of concern. That concern is heightened in regards to multiplayer games. As new competitive shooters come out, they take audiences away from old classics and games like Battlefield 1942. It is a game I used to play religiously in High School but now it is a dead zone today compared to the thousands of people it once had. There were less games being released than and more people joining our hobby everyday. It was a golden time of Video Games, but now we’ve left in our wake a minefield of stagnant empty servers and lost gameplay experiences.
So after nearly a year how is this game’s community fairing. The happy thing to note is that there are still people playing, and most playlists fill quickly. There was a Warzone playlist that was my favourite mode back in the original game, but I was disappointed to learn it was a dead playlist that couldn’t find a single match. A week later the playlist was gone completely, making it clear that Epic was keeping an eye on their game and trying very hard not to let things stagnate. Strange was it that the game had Team Deathmatch, a game mode not introduced until Gears of War 3, but no working Warzone playlist. Still it was clear that Epic was only going where their community led them and forums online confirmed that classic Gears of War purists were still populating the far more competitive Execution playlist. So now the multiplayer boils down to a more modern game type like Annex or Team Deathmatch on classic Gears maps, or a classic game type against people who have already prestiged 3 times and jump around the map like Yoda with a shotgun.
Gears of War was always a great looking game, even all the way back in the first one. There’s a reason why the Unreal 3 engine used there was then used to make seemingly millions more after it. There are still games released today that run on the Unreal 3 engine, including the Ultimate edition that looks as amazing as ever. The lighting has been obviously improved, and the textures look very sharp. Even the gore is more visceral this time around, but the graphical upgrade didn’t come without some cons. For instance, it seemed harder sometimes in multiplayer to tell friend or foe. Perhaps it was the high resolution textures not being as color coordinating or something, but I found my girlfriend really struggling with that for a large portion of the multiplayer.
I played most of the game splitscreen with her, and for the most part the game held up. It’s nice being able to play any game mode with a friend or loved one beside you, and you don’t even really notice the loss in quality until you put the full screen and splitscren graphics side by side as I did for the purposes of this review. It also should be noticed that during splitscreen bars are put on either side of the TV to preserve the aspect ratio for each screen. I assume this practice is often done for the sake of preserving the HUD, but it’s a frustrating one when compared to Call of Duty Advanced Warfare that fills the screen, giving players more to see on the sides but at the penalty to seeing up and down. It bothers me a little losing so much screen space to nothing, I’d rather split the screen vertically than that.
Epic understood when they made each and every Gears of War game that the sound was as important as the visuals. The sound expertly accompanies the visuals, shots firing off with urgency and vigor. Explosions rock you with their intensity, and the music, while notable for the menu and victory screens, is mostly subdued and unnoticeable. It’s clearly made important that you pay attention to the sounds around you. Sound cues are important all throughout the campaign. Boomers yelling Boom, for instance, just before shooting makes it only that much easier to dodge their projectiles. My only complaint would be the mix being a little soft on dialogue, a problem cropping up more and more in things lately, and possibly specific to my set up.
The campaign is a great place for people to start if they are new to Gears of War, but the multiplayer is a different thing. It’s populated by mostly elite players. It’s possible to find a game with lower ranked players, but those games are few and far between. It will take a lot of patience and blood/sweat/tears to eventually be able to wall bounce and shotgun battle like the best of them. Upon the launch of Gears of War 4 that might change, and if you’re interest is just in competing in multiplayer it might be better to just wait for the release of that game.
When I got this game, it came with free copies of the other Gears of War games, backwards compatible with the Xbox one. If that offer is still valid now I might be willing to call this a great value. If not, than it might not be recommendable at 40 dollars. A far better Gears of War Ultimate Edition, in my opinion, would have been something closer to Halo Master Chief Collection allowing us to play multiplayer on every released Gears map. Constraining this game to just the first title in the series and all the faults that come inherent with that is perhaps this game’s biggest drawback. Gears of War 4 is offering a similar deal where-in a preorder will also grant you free access to the backwards compatible titles. If you plan to take advantage of that, and play through all the games in order before the new one, it might be worth picking this game up on sale for anywhere between ten to twenty dollars. For all its shortcomings, it is unarguably the definitive (Perhaps so far as “Ultimate”) version of the first Gears of War. Just remember to save time for the superior multiplayer maps of Gears 2, and the improved storytelling of Gears 3. By the end of all that, you should be more than set to tear it up in the newest game release coming October 11.
Photos by: Sabrina Mendez