When people think of Xbox, two franchises instantly come to mind: “Halo” and “Gears of War.” The former will see its much anticipated fifth installment in late October. For the latter, “Gears of War 4” won’t be ready until 2016. However, Microsoft has accommodated eager fans of the third-person shooter with an impressive remastering of the original game for the Xbox One. A remastering that should be more common in the video game industry, but sadly isn’t.
“Gears of War: Ultimate Edition” not only serves as an appetizer for the main dish that is “Gears of War 4,” but it serves as a demonstration of competence by The Coalition, the series’ new developers after Microsoft bought the franchise from Epic Games in 2014. As one would expect from a remastering, “Ultimate Edition” has significantly updated the graphics of the first game. The 2006 release of “Gears of War” is nothing to scoff at, as it pushed the 360’s hardware to new limits, but the Xbox One version has it easily beat.
The unbelievably bulked physiques of military soldier Marcus Fenix and friends are heavily detailed. The environments are crude and beautiful, in its depiction of a fully ravaged planet. However, the biggest visual difference in “Ultimate Edition” is the use of colors. Where the first game was dominated by a grey color scheme, “Ultimate Edition” embraces the vivid array of warm and cold color pallets at its disposal. It not only makes the Xbox One version extra gorgeous to look at, but makes it easier to visually read environments and enemies.
In terms of story… well, try as the developers might, the “Gears of War” series has never been remembered for its narrative. The gist of game one is that Sera, or “I can’t believe it’s not Earth,” has been conquered by an alien bug race called the Locust. You, the player, take control of Fenix: a former military soldier called back to action, after spending a few years in a horrific jail cell for reasons. It’s slightly reminiscent of the 1997 “Starship Troopers” film, only without the satire.
Characters are forgettable, despite their uniquely thick builds. Augustus Cole, or the “Cole Train” as he’s nicknamed, is the most memorable character for his “CHOO! CHOO!” catchphrase alone. Fenix, voiced by John DiMaggio, is remembered only for sounding like a scruffier version of Bender from “Futurama.” The game does try to inject some man talk similar to the 1987 “Predator” film, but often falls flat.
While the story in “Ultimate Edition” lacks originality, it never intrudes on the player’s desire to headshot grunts. It’s serviceable; rationalizing the outrageous action scenes waiting ahead. Whether it’s bypassing a gruesome juggernaut monster capable of demolishing you with a single touch; escaping a flock of flesh-eating birds during a bleak night; or riding a Disney-ish teacup ride from hell, as enemies await to open fire. The game know how to frame these action pieces for the player; shaking things enough to keep the always present formula of “hug wall, then shoot” from getting stale.
The scenario regarding the birds, for example, involves the player finding lighted areas to run to, as the birds occupy the heavily dark environment. The solution is so video games: Shoot the propane tank so it catches on fire, giving you a lighted area to run to. However, the straightforward approach is enough to make players think differently on how to encounter a fight and traverse through the level. Other joyous moments, such as taking out a Locust at an automatic turret post, then using that weapon to take out the oncoming waves, build on the game’s fundamental shooting gameplay. The final level is almost a trip to memory lane, as it reintroduces you to all the escalated threats you encountered on your mission, along with the fun arsenals used to wipe them out.
“Ultimate Edition” features various improvements on the original game, includes everything that came with the 360 and PC release and new goodies for Xbox One. Perhaps the best improvement the Xbox One version makes over the 360 game is additional control schemes. Using the “X” button to run and dodge enemies is far more comforting to use, than using the “A” button to perform that action and other moves in the original.
Not everything is perfect in the “Gears of War” remaster. Technical flaws get the better of the game, with brief moments of environments losing their graphical details or frame rate becoming unstable. Hugging a wall for safety early on caused Fenix to float above the ground, with the only solution being to restart from the last checkpoint. These moments are never present enough to make the game feel uncompleted, nor are they impossible to fix with a simple update, but they are there.
A.I. is where “Ultimate Edition” suffers the most, as teammates and enemies come down with a case of the brain fart every now and then. For example, the second to the last boss features an incredible creature equipped with rapid-fire guns and a canon. Naturally, this boss was never going to be a cakewalk. Unfortunately, the A.I. partner will offer little help in the match, besides being a one-minute distraction. With that said, your huge comrades are generally helpful enough to get you through enemy waves.
“Gears of War” is an experience designed with multiplayer in mind. Computer-controlled teammates not pulling their weight? Log on to Xbox Live, or plug in a Xbox One controller, and play cooperatively with a friend. Online play runs stable and features plenty of modes to keep the game’s replay value high. Fortunate, considering the single-player campaign lasts as long as a three-day weekend.
In spite of a few technical faults, “Gears of War: Ultimate Edition” is an entertaining shooting experience for Xbox One owners. The remaster will please longtime fans with the improvements made to the original, while being the perfect starting point for newcomers to get in on the action. With “Gears of War 4” on the horizon, now’s the perfect time to lock and load.
“Gears of War: Ultimate Edition” is now available on Xbox One. This review is based on a digital review copy provided by the publisher.