The Gears of War series is one of improbables: Improbably large men with biceps and calves thicker than one of my thighs, improbably insane weapons (the chainsaw bayonet, anyone?) and improbably overwhelming odds but from the moment I played the original GOW way, way back in the mid-2000s on my Xbox 360, I was hooked.
Yes, it was a game oozing with bromance between muscle-bound soldiers Marcus Fenix, Baird, Dom Santiago and Augustus “Cole Train” Cole as they took on ugly, ground-dwelling foes known as the Locust on the planet Sera, but it was loud and proud and embraced that bromancing and machismo wholeheartedly. Also, you can chainsaw enemies in half.
Gears of War came out at a time when most action games were first-person shooters but Epic Games eschewed that for third-person and it worked incredibly well. You could almost feel the thud as Marcus and his pals slammed into cover. Frankly, GOW wouldn’t have worked as a FPS.
Developer The Coalition (which is made up of many of the staff who worked on the original Gears of War) has given Gears of War more than just a touch up with a palette knife: This is a game that has received a major graphical overhaul, including completely redone cinematics, and while the remake of such an influential last-generation game may have lost some of the impactful lighting that the original had, GOW is a stunning looking game that properly realises the vision that Epic games had back in 2006.
The original game had an almost blurry look to it [compare the screenshots of the Xbox One vs the Xbox 360 images] and never has Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta squad looked so human and so emotional [Baird, especially, looks much, much better].
This new-look Gears of War is the exact same game as it was almost 10 years ago: a cover-based shooter where walls and knee-high barricades are your friend, although there is the addition of some content that only appeared on the PC version.
It’s the same story line, the same characters, the same game code, the same kill the right number of Locust so you can progress, the same thrill you get when you nail an active reload. It just looks much, much nicer thanks to the gruntier (I’m sure I just made that word up) Xbox One – and I don’t have a problem with that. This is a game that isn’t afraid to embrace its strengths.
There are some game play tweaks, which are nice additions: It now has drop-in, drop-out co-op play so a player can join in mid-mission when you need some help taking on the Locust hordes and you can now change weapons while you roadie run, which is helpful.
That said, you also get the same quirks that the original had. Gears of War was made at a time in video game development when quick saving wasn’t common so GOW Ultimate Edition has the same uneven checkpoint system the original had meaning if you die before you trigger the next one, you’ll be chewing through those same Locust again.
The “You take one path, we’ll take the other” game mechanic also feels a little old, and yes, squad AI is still whacked at times where squad mates will get in your way as your fire your weapon or take a while to catch up when you race ahead. I had to replay the first encounter with a Beserker several times (almost to the point of giving up) because Dom wouldn’t get out of its way, killing him, or the Beserker itself didn’t respond to the noise I was making. That was frustrating to say the least.
As far as re-masters go, Gears of War Ultimate Edition is a mighty fine one that holds up tremendously well despite being nine years old, and it’s testimony to how good a console shooter the original was. It was also a game that tried to mix up the shooter formula of the time – and it worked. I still remember the first time I encountered the terrifying Beserker or came face-to-face with Theron guards in the original. Playing GOW Ultimate Edition bought back those memories for me.
Look, for fans of the original here’s the chance to play the game again on your fancy new Xbox One console. For gamers new to the series, it’s a chance to finally play a game that would go onto to establish itself as a foundation franchise for Microsoft.
*Thanks to Xbox NZ for a downloadable copy of Gears of War Ultimate Edition. Multiplayer servers aren’t online for the public yet so I didn’t test the multiplayer which, to be fair, is probably just as well: I sucked at MP when the original Gears of War came out, I doubt I’ve got much better since then.