The old gang are back together for more grub carnage.
In Gears of War there exists a gun called a lancer, a machine gun with a chainsaw built into its barrel. The chainsaw bayonet's primary use is carving enemy soldiers to pieces. Slicing scaly, subterranean soldiers into bloody chunks with a gun mounted chainsaw is one of the most satisfying experiences in gaming. Gears of War, like its eponymous lancer, is satisfying, gratifying, and ferocious.
It's been nine years since Gears of War's initial release on the Xbox 360 where the game and its sequels enjoyed huge success. The creation of Cliff Bleszinski and Epic Games, Gears as a series, is perhaps best known for its spectacle and set pieces, but the original had more in common with Horror than bombast. When looking at the four games in the series so far, it's this unsettling foundation that sets the first title apart from its siblings, making it the best choice for undergoing a remaster.
What we have here is Gears of War: Ultimate Edition a full HD upgrade of the original game under the direction of The Coalition, the team now in control of the franchise. It's clear Gears really benefits from the resolution bump. The game's architecture -- inlaid with ornate sculpture and detail -- is vivid and crisp as are the game's characters, who retain their ludicrously chunky yet somehow in proportion figures. The chunkiness extends into the world itself: explosions, equipment and enemies all share the same dense design that, thanks to its consistency, make it somehow believable.
It's a violent world that our heroes find themselves in. Humans are in constant conflict with the Locust, an underground species of humanoids. Hell-bent on reclaiming their planet from the surface dwellers, only the gears stand between them and humanities destruction. All that means is you'll be shooting a lot of reptilian nasties. It's good then that Gears of War gets shooting so right. There's not a gun anywhere to be found that doesn't feel powerful; even the lowly snub pistol has a glorious weight to it. Bullets hit locusts like Rocky hitting a cow carcass and they feel it too. Concentrated fire will drop them to their knees, remove limbs and pop heads.
Marcus and his fellow gears aren't invulnerable though. Despite being built like two tanks, if you aren't in cover you won't last long. Thankfully there are barricades all over the place and moving between them is as simple as ever and most importantly, reliable. I could count on one hand the number of times I died because Marcus wouldn't get into cover. The game does a good job of mixing up its arenas as well. For every claustrophobic corridor there's an expansive city square or train station with enough space to outflank your enemy, a tool which is especially deadly when playing with a friend.
It's not just upgrades that The Coalition have added. They've also added some other elements as well. Drop in, drop out co-op makes playing with your friends even easier and in a game so clearly built with cooperative play in mind, it's very welcome. There are five new levels set in an abandoned factory and while they are more of the same the culmination of this extra act -- which I won't spoil -- is the sort of encounter that was sorely missing from the original release.
As good as the campaign itself is, it's the chance to play Gears multiplayer on Xbox One that has fans most excited. It's here the game's once revolutionary mechanics really sing. Active reloading -- where pressing the reload button a second time at the right moment making your next clip more powerful -- is the sort of action that becomes second nature in single player. In the frantic pressure of multiplayer, however, it's easy to mess up, like jamming your weapon for a few precious seconds. Being able to play classic maps again in 60 frames per second makes a huge difference, especially when it comes to aiming and movement. Gears has always controlled smoothly even nine years ago when it struggled to hit 30 frames. Now at a steady 60, movement feels brilliantly precise. There are new maps here as well, one made just for the Ultimate Edition and several from the PC version. These new maps are a welcome addition, but they can't beat classics such as Grid Lock and Tyro Station.
There are areas where Gears of War: Ultimate Edition shows its age, however. Not least with your allies' AI, Dom is your stalwart companion through most of your adventure, but he doesn't like to stay in cover too long, often rushing out to his doom. Thankfully this doesn't mean an automatic fail and he will revive once you've wiped out any enemies in the area, but this doesn't excuse his ill-advised gung-ho attitude, and it's one more reason to play with friends if you can.
Despite some poor AI, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition succeeds in its primary goal of getting the series back in gamers' minds and hands ahead of the release of Gears of War 4 next year. The added gloss of the new graphics and remade cut scenes give it the look of a game built from the ground up for the Xbox One, and the shooting mechanics are as satisfying as ever. What I was reminded of is how successful the game's Horror elements are. Later games lost this focus in lieu of scale and I hope that The Coalition looks to steer the series back to its roots. What's overwhelmingly clear though is that the series is in good hands and despite the fact we had four games in seven years, I am still hungry for more. You should be too.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One with a digital copy provided by Microsoft.
Images courtesy of Microsoft Studios.