Gears of War: Ultimate Edition Review | The Illusion of Peace

In the long-standing battle between Xbox and PlayStation, I had always sided with the latter. In high school, if someone used the initials G.O.W. when talking about games, I would have assumed they were talking about God of War. I have engaged in many mindless arguments about how the PS3 was better than the 360, using mostly subjective points to enforce an objective conclusion. Since then, however, I have been breaking down my predisposed criticisms of Xbox and acknowledging that, while they did start this console generation off on the wrong foot, they have made significant strides in the last few years to not only make great hardware but solid and consistent first-party software as well.

If you've been following my recent reviews, you'll know that I've been trying to make the most of my quarantine free time by clearing out games in my backlog. I recently played through Modern Warfare Remastered and Titanfall 2 on my PlayStation 4 so I wanted to hop on over to Xbox and play some of their exclusives for a change. Although I am loving driving around sunny Austalia in Forza Horizon 3, I wanted to play and write about a game that has been pivotal to the Xbox ecosystem since 2006. A game that has launched a series spanning 5 mainline games, a prequel, a POP figure spinoff, and a tactical strategy game that released earlier this year to praising reviews.

Gears of War tells the story of Marcus Fenix and Delta squad as they travel deep into Locust territory to plant a resonator that will be key to mankind's victory in the long war that has been waging since Emmergance Day. While I liked the game's characters, the real star of Gears of War, for me, was the setting. The planet of Sera and the plethora of alien-like hive-minded creatures, the scope of which no one fully seems to understand, makes for an engaging backdrop to Delta Squad's journey. And seeing new threats coming into play every few missions opens the world up gradually, giving the player enough time to process and accept one problem before the next is introduced. Some of my favorite moments in the game include when we first meet the abomination that is the Berserker and the deadly flying swarm that is the Kryll. Seeing day turn to night in Lethal Dusk followed by Kryll flying around devouring anything that's submerged in darkness was both effective world-building and a segway into a new gameplay mechanic. This tightly paced form of storytelling is a big part of why I enjoyed Gears of War's campaign so much even 14 years after its release.

By now it's well known how important Gears of War was for the third-person shooter genre. It was so crucial in fact that in an interview last year, former Naughty Dog developer, Lucas Pope, mentioned how the release of Gears of War made them change the way Uncharted: Drake's Fortune controlled just six months before release. As Pope says "Gears invented the modern third-person shooter." The snappy cover system and responsive shooting make Gears of War easy to pick up and play even if you don't usually play TPS. And the inclusion of the active reload system makes even the menial task of reloading engaging. To put it simply, there's a reason why, of all the things that have changed in Gears with each new interaction, the gameplay and controls remain mostly the same.

The remaster, which earns the game the "Ultimate Edition" subtitle at the end of its name, may not be as amazing as Raven Software's work on Modern Warfare Remastered, but it is in no way bad. The game is certainly visually updated from the original, with lighting and textures, especially in the cutscenes, taking a huge step up. However, the post-apocalyptic grey with splashes of red that makes up Gears of War's color palette doesn't lend itself well to be visually stunning. This is no doubt a big reason that subsequent Gears games have moved past the desaturation and introduced more vibrant settings and enemy designs. And even in the Ultimate Edition, Coalition has cranked up the saturation and added some splashes of color where there wasn't any originally.

Sound design in the Ultimate Edition is immersive with loud gunshots and subtle music cues mixing well with the game's natural sound. The score for Gears of War, composed by Kevin Riepl, is fantastic. It is full of smaller moments that oddly reminded me of Danny Elfman's score for Batman, as well as having the bombastic and militaristic parts that Gears of War is known for. Then there are the performances. It's widely accepted by now that John DiMaggio (Marcus), Carlos Ferro (Santiago), Lester Speight (Cole), and Fred Tatasciore (Baird) are perfect casting choices. Their delivery feels appropriate for their respective characters and it's because of their performances that some of the cheesier lines aren't jarring to hear.

Although The Coalition's work on Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is commendable overall, some kinks have slipped through from the old game. In my 9 hours of playtime, I ran into several bugs that ranged from mild inconveniences to "crap I can't do anything but reload the checkpoint." An example of the former is when the Junker in Burnt Rubber got randomly stuck on some unseen geometry in the middle of the road and wouldn't budge free until I wiggled my analog sticks for a minute or two. An example of the latter happened in Comedy of Errors when Marcus and Dom split up in a theater. I chose the high ground and Dom continued from the bottom. Once the area was cleared, the character below (Dom) is tasked with moving a platform that allows the player on top (Marcus) to progress to the next checkpoint. However, after the area was cleared, and as I waited by the platform, Dom got stuck on an invisible object and remained in an endless running animation without moving. This only set me back a few minutes but small bugs like that really show Gears of War's age and took me out of the otherwise immersive experience.

This is normally the part of the review where I talk about trophies, so it's only right that I now mention achievements. I'm not as obsessive about achievements as I am trophies, mainly for my own mental sanity, so I played through Gears of War on Normal Difficulty to focus on the story and I used a COG tags guide to cut down the post-game grind. This, along with some of the more miscellaneous achievements, like Clusterluck, netted me 670 of 1250 gamerscore. There are two main things I want to mention regarding my experience with achievements. The first thing being that multiplayer is unsurprisingly dead for Gears of War: Ultimate Edition. Although I tried, I could not find a single active lobby. Which pretty much meant that any and all of the multiplayer achievements were off the table for me. The second thing is that I appreciated the fact that getting COG tags wasn't just a task added on to encourage a bit of level exploration, and that collecting them unlocked comic books that further extended the game's lore. The standalone comics don't take long to read but they build on the game's more extraneous characters like Colonel Hoffman and Marcus' father Adam Fenix, and they give a glimpse at the Pendulum Wars that took place before E-Day. 

Although I went in a bit hesitant, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Gears of War. The game shaped third-person shooters into what they are today and even after all these years the story and gameplay still hold up. Aside from a few bugs, the Ultimate Edition is a solid remaster of the original. Big release season is just around the corner, but I hope to play through the rest of the series in the coming months. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is out now on Xbox One and PC.

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