Gears of War’s 2006 release was a seminal moment in the last generation. Its cooperative cover-based shooting set the standard that AAA games would follow for years, and while many of its innovations have been driven into the ground in the decade that’s followed, Gears’ legacy is still a strong one.
Now, nine years later, Microsoft has released Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for the Xbox One, updating the original’s visuals and bringing its online features to the current generation. But is this a worthwhile revision, or just another in a long line of mediocre remasters?
Gears looks just like you remember it. Which is to say it looks much better than it actually did in 2006. It’s a sharp game, and while it doesn’t match the best looking current-gen titles, it definitely looks like it belongs on the Xbox One. The remake turns down the desaturation knob that, for better or worse, defined the original’s aesthetic. The pallet is still largely made up of browns and greys, but the few instances of color in the environment now really pop, which makes the game much more visually striking.
While the campaign looks great, other aspects have not aged so well. The core gameplay is still fantastic. Characters and weapons have weight, and killing the locust hordes is still visceral and satisfying. But if you remember the original Gears campaign as fondly as I did, let me remind you of a few things. The beserker. The kryll. General RAAM. Oh, and Dom’s AI. These are incredibly frustrating aspects of an otherwise solid campaign, and while they didn’t ruin the game then or now, they’re a lot tougher to forgive compared to modern titles. I loved the campaign back in 2006, but a decade’s worth of improvements in shooter design from other games–and the Gears franchise itself–have really exposed the flaws in how its encounters are built.
Maybe the biggest problem is the difficulty balancing. Hardcore difficulty has always been the best way to play, as it forces you to always stay in cover, quickly consider routes to flank the enemy, and carefully weigh aggression and defense in each encounter. But there are lots of enemies which can kill you in a single hit, forcing you back to the last checkpoint over and over. This is doubly frustrating because those checkpoints tend to be placed before major bits of dialog, forcing you to hear the same 15-second conversation many times over. The newly added normal difficulty is still too easy, and I spent most of the game hopskotching back and forth between it and hardcore, as I swayed from bored to frustrated.
Gears’ versus mode has always been divisive, with some players having fallen in love and others finding it absolutely bewildering. I don’t want to dismiss the active and passionate online community, but I definitely fall into the latter camp. Multiplayer tends to focus on shotgun duels, with players dodging and dancing in and out of range of deadly blasts. It’s been basically impenetrable to me, and I expect that will be the case for most newer players.
If you’re already a fan of the game’s unique multiplayer style, you’ll find this to be the definitive rendition of it, with tons of modes added over the original release, and the online–unlike the campaign–runs at a steady 60FPS. During my time playing I experienced no lag, no network issues, and found it quick and easy to get into and out of matches.
It’s worth noting that early purchasers of the Ultimate Edition will receive the original 360 versions of Gears 1, 2, 3, and Judgement for free when backwards compatibility launches later this year. While they won’t feature the same visual and gameplay updates, they go a long way toward making this a more attractive package, especially considering that 2 and 3 in particular made vast improvements to nearly every aspect of the series.
But that brings me to the question that really brings down this remake. Why Gears 1? Gears of War changed the way games are made, and it will rightly be remembered as an absolute classic for that reason alone. But when its sequels and other games in the genre have made such incredible improvements to this core formula, coming back to the original is just not an appealing prospect. From a historical perspective, this is the definitive package of both a campaign that revolutionized game design and one of the most uniquely flavored online modes in the history of shooters. But if you’re looking for a shooter that’s fun and exciting in 2015, you’ll need to look elsewhere.