It’s easy to forget how few games were available when the Xbox 360 first released. There was nothing groundbreaking, nothing you had to keep playing if you were an early adopter, and survived the overblown Xbox 360 red ring of death crisis in 2005, the year the system launched. Originally stated to release on launch day, Gears of War was pushed back to November 2006, a year before Halo 3, and would go on to change cover shooters forever. The original experience has been completely redone to celebrate the game’s ninth anniversary in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.
Calling the title a standard high definition remaster isn’t doing the it justice. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is a completely new experience on Microsoft’s latest console platform, the Xbox One. While the story beats are the same, the way they’re told is the main difference, which makes it a treat to go back to the very beginning when we saw main character Marcus Fenix take on the Locust army.
What made Gears of War shine was its co-op system. It was built from the ground up with the ability to join campaign sessions and the option to set your own difficulty level. Like the original, local split-screen is still a part of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, hopefully making it a franchise standard when the next trilogy begins. On higher difficulties, having a human player by your side is a necessity due to the inconsistent AI team mates. In my playthrough, squad mates got stuck, wouldn’t take cover when fighting, or would be completely useless. This is brutal when you encounter the Berserker boss battle in the first chapter. And even the enemy AI acted comically glitchy at times where it failed to activate, giving me time to run up from behind and chainsaw them apart to my pleasure.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition multiplayer is currently running solidly on all gears, an accomplishment considering the launches of the later installments. The multiplayer suite runs at a steady 60 fps framerate, and includes all of the original DLC maps, and the three maps featured in the PC installment. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition still plays like, well, Gears of War online, and if you’re a returning fan, you know exactly what lies ahead. The Wild West shotgun dance is still prevalent in the arena, with few objective-based ways to win. This space still has a steep learning curve for newcomers making Ultimate Edition more suited towards die-hards of the franchise.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition’s campaign spans five chapters, with new levels added to the experience. Delta Squad, the crew you play as the whole of the game, crams a lot of story-beats in for a third-person shooter, and, at times, can be convoluted, but it features some of the most detailed and diverse environments. From city streets, to a speeding train, a mining cave. The new missions are from the PC version of the original game, which is a surprise, but doesn’t add anything new to the experience. However some of the level design is missing the signature feel that the rest of the game has. Most of the PC levels are small, horde-based skirmishes. Unlike its multiplayer component, the framerate will frequently dip when taking on packs of enemies. While it performs much better than the original, I still would have preferred a locked framerate instead.
Even with all the new bells and whistles, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition still feels similar because of how ahead of its time it was in 2006. By now, you’ve probably mashed the “A” button to stick to cover, held the left trigger to aim, and the right trigger to shoot thousands of times. From games like Mass Effect to Uncharted. Epic Games was ahead of the game so long ago with that mechanic. But it’s not about nostalgia, it’s about acknowledging a piece of brilliant game design that has continued to appear in games for new audiences ever since its introduction in Gears of War.
With that said the original installment still has it problems. The “A” button still has too much responsibility, which causes the game to overthink what you want to happen. From the need to get to cover, to run to an objective, and to barrel roll out of danger, this shared button system is now dated in the current third-person shooter market. It would have been a nice to see a new prototype system featured here to get feedback for the series’ upcoming trilogy.
The decision to only include the original installment is likely a direct response to the technical failure of Halo: The Master Chief Collection. It’s especially puzzling when you consider that the game uses art assets from Gears of War 3, making me assume that the package was intended to include the entire trilogy, which is a shame because the franchise transformed into what it is today from the outstanding later installments. One addition that’s absent is Horde mode, a multiplayer co-op mode where players fight off waves of computer-controlled enemies as they increase in difficulty.
Ultimate Edition is missing an extra element to take it to the next level
With the purchase of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, fans can revisit the entire trilogy through backwards compatibility, which is included with your purchase, but I didn’t have any incentive to do so. Thus, no matter how good the game is, from its stellar multiplayer, to the redone campaign, it’s always missing an extra element to take it to the next level. It also features a new achievement list that kept me motivated to complete all of the five chapters by rewarding everything from firing your weapon, to completing a chapter, to completing multiplayer-based activities. It does a great job of making previously covered material new and rewarding nine years later.
The original Gears of War was a must-have game when it released in 2006, and nine years later Gears of War: Ultimate Edition recaptures its glory, but for its core audience, it would have been best to wait and capitalize on the 10th anniversary. It sums up Microsoft Studios’ decision to make 2015 the year of the Xbox One with several exclusive games like Halo 5: Guardians, Forza 6, Ori and The Blind Forest, Fable Legend, and Tomb Raider, making Gears of War: Ultimate Edition the icing on the cake. I love the trip down memory lane and am grateful that it has been restored for a new audience, but fans of the series have been caught in a mid-season television cliffhanger awaiting more.
A review copy of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition was provided by the publisher. To learn more about our score, read our review policy.