Video Games Review: Gears of War: Ultimate Edition (Xbox One, 2015)

It’s been nearly ten years since Epic Games unleashed the original Gears of War upon the world. Since then, we’ve seen three more titles set in the same universe, a series of surprisingly good novels by Karen Traviss and a passing of the torch as series development went from Epic to The Coalition. With their current-gen remaster, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is The Coalition’s first real moment in the spotlight. Will they perform or will they falter and get stagefright?

Gears of War was notable upon release for its innovative approach to combat that emphasised the importance of cover, brutal chainsaw melee attacks and precise, tactical reloading. It also set the bar for what could be accomplished graphically on a console, churning out four of the most mind-blowingly pretty games the Xbox 360 had to offer. It’s a serious testament to the high quality of the original that it doesn’t entirely show its age just shy of a decade down the track.

Set in the far future, humanity has spread across the galaxy, colonising worlds as they went. The planet Sera saw years of human conflict before they managed to set aside their differences and move forward in peace. Not long after this noble mindset was adopted, conflict erupted again when a mysterious reptilian race called the Locust burst out of the planet’s crust and laid waste to Sera’s population. Fourteen years after what has come to be called Emergence Day the battle rages on, seemingly without end. Special forces called Gears, heavily armoured, heavily armed men and women who work as co-ordinated strike teams, holding out against the Locust menace wherever it rears its ugly, scaly head. One of the Gears series’ strongest suits has always been the idea that we are, when you get right down to it, essentially the bad guys of the piece. We came to the Locust’s world and we ruined it for them. Of course they want to mess us up.

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There’s a linearity to Gears’ campaign, particularly in the second and third games, that can at times make you feel like you’re murdering your way down a hallway without end. Playing through this remake of the original was a nice reminder of just how many open environments were on offer in that game. Because the basic game loop here is a pretty short one – take cover, shoot, reload, move forward – the level design has to be load bearing in terms of variety, and variety is what you get. Wide open courtyards, subterranean tunnel networks, narrow building hallways and more. There are so many interesting places to shoot Locust and be shot at in return. The campaign also gets five new missions that were not included in the 360 version but appeared in the PC port a few years later. While they don’t add much to the story, they’re fun to play through and, for those who’ve never played them on PC, any new Gears content is good content.

The best work on show here by far is the remastering The Coalition have done on Gears’ visuals. Textures are crisp, animations are much more detailed, skyboxes and distant landmarks are far more realistic and the enemy Locust feel even more otherworldly and gross than they were before. So much attention to detail has been poured into the world by The Coalition’s artists, right down to the individual gun models. Everything finally looks as grimy and war-torn as it felt the first time we played through the original. The only downside is that there still seems to be a moratorium on colour – everything in the Gears world is grey and brown, the hallmark of the 360/PS3 era.

As enemies go, the Locust are still a lot of fun to scrap with, despite their still not being the craftiest enemies in the world – they seem to have only a few modes of attack; charge you, flank you, hang back and chirp at you with gunfire – but they do pack a serious punch if you let them get you pinned down regardless of the difficulty level. Series veterans will want to crank the difficulty up right away to really get the most of their time with this.

Multiplayer, however, is where Gears of War has always shone brightest and Ultimate Edition continues that trend. All of the multiplayer modes from the original are present and accounted for, including the co-operative mode that became an instant fan favourite. There’s a few new modes to try out – Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill are present and accounted for but the big omission is that of Horde Mode, the wave-based co-operative mode found in later releases. It’s sad that it isn’t included here because few games do that particular game type better than Gears and it was the first thing I went looking for. Maybe in a future update? We can only hope. Online multiplayer wasn’t really up and running at the time of review so we weren’t able to fully explore it. We’ll jump back in after launch and update this review accordingly once the servers are populated. For those Xbox One owners craving a good round of Gears multi, your long wait has come at last.

Though it isn’t technically a new entry in the series, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition has everything fans of the series want in a Gears game. It’s the best possible version of the best game in the series and proof beyond doubt that The Coalition are ready to take Gears of War into the future. With Gears of War 4 in their care, the series’ future looks bright indeed.

Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Beautiful remastered visuals; combat still enjoyable as ever
Lowlights: No Horde Mode
Developer: The Coalition
Publisher: Microsoft
Released: August 25, 2015
Platform: Xbox One

Reviewed on Xbox One

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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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