It's been almost a decade since the first Gears of War came out on Xbox 360. During that time, many games borrowed Gears' best ideas, and the series became one of the most influential of the last generation.
I've spent the last week playing through Gears Of War: Ultimate Edition, an Xbox One remaster of the game that started it all. It's been quite a nostalgia trip. I've missed Marcus and Dom and the rest of my burly tenderbro squad of neckless men; I've missed partaking in the communal grub chainsawing. It's great to experience that once again. In some ways, though, the game feels less like seeing a friend after a long while and more like attending a high school reunion. Some things haven't aged gracefully.
Here is what I've found while playing Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.
It still looks damn good.
The first thing I noticed were the visuals. The Xbox One's increased power keeps the game running at 1080P, and nearly every aspect of the game, from character models to explosions, has been spruced up. Even the cutscenes are slightly different. I wouldn't say the game looks "modern" -- there's a certain blockiness that betrays its age -- but still, it looks damn great. Honestly, though, I was less impressed by the improved lighting effects than I was how the new graphics now let me appreciate just how beautiful Marcus Fenix's eyes are. Have you ever noticed that? Have you ever spent some time gazing into Marcus Fenix's deep blue eyes?
I know, that sounds ridiculous. But Delta Squad has never looked so human, or felt as expressive, as they do in Ultimate Edition.
It plays great, but it's missing a few things.
Gears of War's mechanics have also been refined. On the surface, everything still works in the same way -- you still press A to stick to cover, you can still active reload, and so on -- but there are a few new tweaks to enjoy as well. You can now toggle weapons while roadie running. You can now roll in more directions. The aim assist is better. There are more checkpoints. Most of these changes are small, yes, but they're welcome in the single-player. Multiplayer is a different story. Only some elements from the newer Gears of War games were brought back in, such as the ability to spot enemies. Other big gameplay improvements, such as the ability to vault over cover and kick your enemy, are missing. This makes Ultimate Edition feel less like "Gears of War plus" than it does "Gears of War 3 light." Considering that Gears of War 3 is the apex of the series, mechanically, it's disappointing.
It's a weirder game than I remember.
For a game that essentially boils down to "kill the comically villainous alien threat," Gears of War swings between being silly, irreverent, serious, and strangely earnest. One moment, Marcus Fenix and [insert character here] are exchanging meaningful, pained glances at one another. Another moment, the game gives you an achievement like "Dom Curious." The next, an avalanche will trap you farther down in a dangerous Locust hive, but your teammates will hoot and holler as if you were riding a roller coaster. Then, you'll be in an area that's pretty much rui- porn, andy eerily tragic music will play. This tonal seesaw has dogged the series since that infamous Mad World trailer, but it felt like the games found some sense of footing by Gears of War 3. Gears of War 1, by contrast, feels awkward in its tone.
Co-Op is still a blast.
If you can swing it, I'd highly suggest playing with a buddy. The game is built for it! Here, the game has a couple of new bells and whistles as well, including the ability to join and quit campaign sessions seamlessly, having the ability to set your own difficulty level, and the ability to revive teammates while in cover (it's a literal lifesaver.) And yes: local split-screen is still a thing here, thankfully.
The Xbox One controller makes a big difference.
Gears of War has always been a very satisfying game -- even killing a lowly grub feels like popping bubble wrap -- and the Xbox One heightens pretty much everything that makes Gears of War feel good. It's all thanks to the Xbox One's controller. Even small moments, like swapping a weapon, nailing an active reload, and then landing a headshot, feel terrific. The buttons that you use to execute those moves -- the improved D-Pad, the clickier RB button, the controller's improved rumble -- make moves that were already satisfying feel all the more gratifying.
The Artificial Intelligence can be weird.
Often my squadmates would get stuck on a weird portion of the map, and I'd go back just to find them running in circles. Enemies sometimes behaved in strange ways -- sometimes they would refuse to attack, or would get lost in a corner of the map. The biggest hiccup of all came during the final boss battle, where RAAM got stuck a couple of times on the geometry of other objects. None of this ruined the experience, but I was still surprised to find it in there at all.
The new multiplayer options are good.
The Ultimate Edition's competitive multiplayer comes with all the original DLC maps plus a few maps from the PC version of the game. It also has new game modes, such as TDM and King of the Hill. What I liked best, however, was the ability to play as characters introduced in later games, especially women. Gears of War used to be such a sausage fest, cripes. While I only got to play for a couple of hours -- servers are pretty empty right now, as only reviewers have the game -- I noticed that, overall, the game plays way smoother online thanks to those 60 frames-per-second.
The easier new difficulty setting is a nice inclusion.
The new 'casual' difficulty mode is nice if you just want a good, breezy romp. I played through a chunk of the game on this mode to test it out, and I found it was particularly delightful in co-op, when I just wanted to have a good time shooting some Locusts with a buddy. It's not horde mode or anything, but it will do in a pinch.
The new missions don't add much.
There are a handful of new campaign missions which lengthen the game, and while they are a pleasant inclusion, I don't feel like they significantly added to or altered the experience. It's just more Gears to play. That's not a bad thing by any means, but I would have loved new levels that had the signature feel that defined the original game. I still remember some levels from the first Gears of War fondly. I doubt I'm going to look back on these new levels in the same way, even though there's nothing technically wrong with them.
Playing the first Gears of War after all this time feels similar to pulling out a NES to play a classic, which is funny given that not too long ago, Gears of War was as cutting edge as video games could get. Obviously, Ultimate Edition is still great, but it does feel dated given that industry trends -- driven in part by the evolution of the Gears series itself -- have kind of left the original Gears of War behind. Even with a fresh coat of paint, the first Gears of War is a relic of a different generation. I'm glad it has been preserved and can be played and admired on a modern console, and I'm happy to have some more time with my bros. But as I played, I found myself more interested in where the series might be going next, rather than in revisiting where it has already been.