↵A Cog By Any Other Name…
Last year, Microsoft went big with the incredible Master Chief Collection, which included remakes of the first two Halo games, 1080p versions of Halo 3, and Halo 4 as well as a bevy of extras. In a few months, Sony will do a similar hat trick with the Uncharted series: all three Nathan Drake PS3 adventures will receive a 1080p upgrade. Right smack in the middle is a new version of the classic Xbox 360 title Gears of War. But it’s only the original Gears of War. Parts 2 and 3 are notably absent, which makes this “ultimate edition” feel somewhat incomplete, despite the enormous amount of extras which include levels for the campaign that was only released on PC.
This became a source of controversy among fans. With only 18 months to deliver the Ultimate Edition, developer The Coalition could hardly be tasked with doing the entire trilogy. Still, others didn’t care and wanted their Marcus Fenix Collection. Recently, Microsoft announced a compromise of sorts. Anyone who purchases UE will be able to play the other Gears games when backwards compatibility becomes available this November. This would include Gears 1-3 and the non-Fenix spin-off Judgment. They won’t be in 1080p, but that’s something, I suppose.
When the first Halo from the Xbox era was re-released on Xbox 360, it received a huge graphical upgrade. (Even a 3D mode was added.) Playing Gears UE on Xbox One is a similar experience. Many of the levels have had drastic visual overhauls. The level design is the same, but this Gears has a wider feel, more open spaces. The sepia tone look is gone in favor of a more balanced—but still grim—color palate. As expected, the visuals are 1080p, running at 60fps. Everything looks crisper. Gears already looked amazing back in 2006, so it’s not as drastic a change that Halo experienced, but it’s an improvement.
Looking back at the original Gears of War, it was like no other game. The “pop and stop” gameplay gave a sense of urgency in the war-torn environments. Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad had distinguishable faces not hidden behind helmets. Everything from Fenix’s scowl to Baird’s platinum hair made them unique. An assault rifle with a buzzsaw cutting a Locust fiend in half is an image players could never unsee (and they wanted more). Even the mini-game to properly reload was fun. Failure to do it correctly would result in Fenix complaining “Aw, come on!” in the way that only voice actor John DiMaggio could. (He was also the voice of Bender on Futurama which made him saying “don’t mind if I do” in the remake hilarious.)
For those who don't know already, the story of Gears is, essentially, following our Delta Squad as they fight an alien race that lives underground. The humans have a plans to use a weapon known as the Resonator to end the conflict once and for all. It’s up to Fenix and co. to get it done.
One of the best additions at the time was co-op gameplay. Players could be Marcus or Dom, and later with the sequels, that number would get higher so that up to four could play together online. The characters in the Gears universe were never subtle, but the co-op mode was a ray of light as awesome as the Hammer of Dawn. Deathmatches and other such multiplayer modes became a staple for anyone who had an Xbox Live account. While replaying Gears, though, I found myself frustrated that Dom didn’t have the sense to revive me when I fell, as he would in the sequels. And Dom and Marcus’s bond as soldiers wasn’t quite there yet.
Still, the new art direction is top-notch—I like the juxtaposition of the Locust’s dirty, angry way of life with the fascist paintings and architecture that once housed the more humans Delta Squad are protecting. There’s a disturbing feeling of “what are we fighting for” at play that never goes away.
As with any revisits, some aspects have aged better than others. On the plus side, the Locust horde, Theron guards, wretches, and more make for a wide variety of creatures to take down. The first time you battle a Bezerker is still hella fun. What’s not is wandering around aimlessly after each battle. Hitting the L1 button tells you what to do, but there’s not much by way of a beacon. That said, a good improvement in this version is that checkpoints have been placed better, and best of all, there’s finally a Casual mode. As for the game’s notorious sticking-to-the-walls-too-much issue, that has not been tweaked. As Fenix would say, "Aw, come on!" Also, loading would occasionally stutter the game whenever I would backtrack.
New to the console version are the levels that were only on the PC version before. Without spoiling too much (though it's been available for years now), it happens near the end at a place called Timgad Station with Delta Squad up against a mammoth Burmak, a creature fans of the series have seen in the Gears sequels. Unfortunately, the play mechanics are in opposition with the level design. The one thing that Marcus or Dom don’t do well is go left or right well while rushing forward, so sections that involve a lot of running and dodging can result in frustrating deaths over and over. Having to do this near the end when I’m wanting to wrap things up is annoying. I also wish that once you’ve completed the campaign, there was an option to choose either the original or extended campaign so I never have to play these levels again.
Beyond the campaign itself, there are many extras: cinematics, concept art, and my favorite—the ability to unlock five original DC Comics Gears of War issues. Panels in each issue can be zoomed in just as you would on a tablet. The campaign can still be played with co-op online or split screen. Hopping in and out is super easy, as you can now join/quit seamlessly, as well as set your own difficulty level. Players will also get early access to the Gears of War multiplayer beta once it goes live. All if this rocks.
As for multiplayer, all the matches run at 60 FPS, and includes all original DLC maps plus three multiplayer maps from the PC, not to mention new modes like Team Deathmatch and King of the Kill. Players can now revive teammates while in cover and can toggle weapons while running/evading as they could in Gears 3. I was only able to play MP for a short time, but everything felt right so no complaints.
Make no mistake—regardless of my feelings about not getting the full trilogy, and my mild disappointment with how Gears of War plays in 2015, The Coalition has made a triple-A package worth picking up for any fan of the series.