Gears of War was an important game for me. I remember being 15 and thinking that the original Epic Games title was an incredible experience. In many ways, I stand by that. The 2006 title was probably the first time I felt like 'the new generation is here', having incredible graphics and simply offering an experience we just hadn't had up until that point.
So here we are at Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. It's been nearly nine years since the first title came out (that is insane!), and there are two very distinct questions I ask myself about this franchise coming into this do over. The first is, is this a great remaster? The second is, does this experience still hold up in 2015?
Well, lets tackle that first question. Allow me answer straight away, yes. This is an incredibly well done remaster, and I think that might surprise people. I feel like Gears of War: Ultimate Edition was some what lowly announced, when compared to say, the Halo: Master Chief Collection. That got a full E3 appearance and was one of the biggest exclusives Microsoft had last year. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition feels like it has been subdued in that regard. That had me fearing that this would just be a simple remaster that we are accustom too, with a 1080p and 60fps up-rez with minor touches here and there. This isn't that. This is a full remaster. The remaster looks completely different to the first Gears of War, and it's for the better. The visual upgrade is beyond what I expected, with this being much more inline with the full remaster Halo 2 we got as part of the Master Chief Collection. The textures, the models, the presentation, all have been touched up to incredible standards. I wouldn't go as far as to say that this looks like a full next generation game, but it certainly could sit comfortably in the tail-end of the last generation. I'm happy saying this is probably the best looking Gears game ever produced.
And lets talk about one of the best things about Gears of War that I think is woefully under appreciated. The environmental and level design are still stellar. One of the real beauties of this franchise that I don't think gets enough credit is the environmental work, which shows much more depth than the tactical shooter might suggest. Serra was once a place. It had a government, a society, a history and that has all fallen. E-Day is the decline of this society and seeing the fallen empire in ruin, especially in an remastered environment, is still saddening. You can literally see the death of normalcy on these massive spires of what once was.
The level design stands out too. Maybe I played the original Gears too much, but every single little battlefield I encountered felt familiar in exciting ways. I realised I could have drawn out each little skirmish on a napkin before playing each level. It was awesome to fall straight back into my old habits and realize I tackle games in the same ways nine years later. I think this is a true testament to the level design of this game. It is memorable, even tangible, years after playing.
Now don't get me wrong. This is still a remake of a nine year old title and it's clearly built upon the same systems of the first game, meaning it still has issues that are equivalent to what you might have experienced in that original title. The presentation is killer though and the new cutscenes that accompany the game are wonderful. They are so much more emotive than the original, and while I think they are a little overly directed, these really do help the context of the narrative. They sell this as one of the most important action titles of the last few decades, with this revamp really selling that value.
…but now we get to the slightly more complex issue of, does this game still hold up in 2015? One of the problems with Gears of War, is the modern age is filled with so many games that took and expanded the innovative third person cover shooter that this series helped pioneer. In that context, the original game feels a little…unrefined. This facelift of the visuals doesn't necessarily help these now somewhat outdated ideals. Perhaps it is just me forgetting the repetition, but I certainly felt a more pronounced 'slog' element playing through the game's campaign, as it is just a lot of close quarters fights, one after the other. The levels are designed very well, but after killing over 700 locust in one play through, that fatigue certainly set in much faster than I remember. The campaign does its best to break things up with new enemy types and gimmcky missions, but it just never feels like quite enough. Shooting Locust no. 751 in the head is just never going to feel as good as Locust no. 1.
Also, this is definitely my 15 year old rose tinted glasses falling away, but in terms of dialogue…it certainly shows its age. The quips and personalisations of each team member are welcome breaks in the brevity of the situation, but in a 2015 context, I'm not sure they work. Each team member feels a little stereotypical, and the breaks don't gel as well now that we have seen them a thousand times over in other games. The narrative worka as a contained action plot, but it has obviously lost that freshness we felt back in 2006. I also think this leads to another pertinent issue of this remaster, that hamstrings this game. We've gotten a serious remaster of what I think is the weakest of the main series games. This feels a little unfair to critcize too much, as The Coalition had to start somewhere. Jumping straight into the better Gears of War 2 or 3 would be jarring, but still. This doesn't help mask my initial grievances with the first Gears of War.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is a trip down memory lane in the best way though. The power of this series still shines through, and the work done on the original title is really stellar. This is the best looking Gears game ever produced and this is riding on the back of a nine year old game. I was consistently pleased with the remaster work done by The Coalition, from straight art design to the wonderful cinematic work. All in all, I'm very happy with what is presented. I certainly have my doubts about whether the original game actually 100% holds up in 2015, but hey. I'd challenge you to pick almost any game from that era that still commands the same power. This has only reestablished my confidence in this series going forward, so Microsoft can tick this as a mission accomplished. This absolutely is one of the best action series still active, and even though this is the weakest game in the mainline continuum, I still wholeheartedly recommend giving it another run through. And if you've never played the game before, I recommend it double. To quote Augustus Cole, and re-purpose it as a metaphor for how much the Xbox One brings to the nine year old game: "Look at all that juice!"
[I'll add to this review once I get significant time with the multiplayer. I'm not expecting to change my opinion drastically, so I am happy to post this fully now]