This Chainsaw Needs a Little More Gas.
Nine years ago, Microsoft and Epic Games teamed up to give gamers a heart pounding game of hide and seek, providing them with a chainsaw machine gun as a means to “tag” each other out. Vancouver-based developer The Coalition was handed the reins in 2014, and decided the best way to stay true to this beloved franchise was to remaster the game that started it all. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition serves as a time machine, allowing you to take a glimpse back when competitive multiplayer was just beginning to flourish on consoles.
The main campaign of Gears of War follows a cartoonishly massive, du-rag wearing soldier named Marcus Fenix. Fans of 80’s action films will be immediately attracted to the aesthetic and tone, complete with an ambitious post apocalyptic world that has been invaded by a subterranean species known as the Locust. Fenix is a former soldier of the Coalition of Organized Governments, or COG for short. Convicted for treason and thrown into prison, he is busted out at the beginning of the game by close friend Dominic Santiago, to help in the battle against the Locust horde. After a brief tutorial section, where you and Dom make your way through the crumbling prison, the two soldiers are rescued by a Raven Helicopter and united with the other members of Delta Squad. Reluctantly, Marcus and Dom are tasked with the mission of finding the surviving members of Alpha Squad, who are in possession of the Sonic Resonator. A device capable of emitting a powerful pulse of sound, which will map the underground tunnels of the Locust home base.
The main story isn’t very deep, rather it serves as a vessel to lead the player through increasingly difficult waves of varying enemies. The lack of exposition is a missed opportunity to make the universe and its inhabitants more compelling. There are sections of the game that look built to address some flashback sequences, but mechanically the gameplay is so precise that I never really cared that it wasn’t more fleshed out.
Gears offers a huge variety of enemy types. Most of the Locust are comparable to their human counterparts with visual distinctions between Grenadiers, Theron Guards and standard troops. Early on in the game you’ll encounter massive enemies that spew out Reavers, a flying creature that the Locust utilize as an armed vehicle with two passengers. Boomers are blubbering, rocket launcher toting behemoths that can take a large amount of damage. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, Wretches are extremely agile, attack in swarms and can be put down with a perfectly timed Gnasher blast. They all use varying tactics, but the same rules apply: Get into cover and wait for the weak spot to become exposed. The enemy AI responds to your actions surprisingly well, flanking and taking cover as needed. At times you’ll feel overrun and need to drop back into cover to ensure your survival. The health meter comes in the form of a gear and Locust skull, which appears onscreen and becomes more opaque as you take damage. Avoiding bullets and finding cover for a few seconds, the gear will fade away and the player will be restored to full health. The recharge is much faster than the energy shield in Halo, and helps reinforce a cautious play-style.
Friendly AI, on the other hand, is a different story. Eventually, Marcus meets up with the surviving members of Alpha Squad, professional Thrashball player Augustus Cole and a cynical smart-mouth named Damon Baird. While they are more compelling characters than Marcus, they seem to serve the purpose of a distraction as you flank around groups of Locust. They tend to bounce out of cover at the most inopportune times and while you can revive them, it’s much easier to just finish the fight yourself.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition offers four difficulty settings, compared to the originals three. Insane is available right away, for anyone feeling up to the frustrating challenge of constantly loading a previous checkpoint. The Coalition has also tweaked the originals Casual difficulty, and added a Normal setting that feels much the way Casual use to be. I found Hardcore to be the perfect balance of difficulty, sending more powerful bullets my way and making me think twice before I moved out of cover.
While the main story is fun to play through alone, it’s even better when you have a co-op partner. You can still do so via split-screen, but I prefer to play over Xbox Live. As was before, you can continue the campaign where you last left off, or hop into a random players progress to offer some help along the way. The second player takes over the role of Dom, and the game becomes easier and more entertaining knowing you have an actual person picking up the slack. The downside is there isn’t a vote to skip a cut-scene option. On multiple occasions I saw the beginning of a scene, only to have it quickly load us into game play because the other player pressed a button.
The biggest part of any shooter, is obviously the design of the weapons and Gears of War doesn’t disappoint. The main machine gun you’ll be equipped with through most of the game is the Lancer, a moderately powerful automatic rifle with its iconic melee attack, the chainsaw bayonet. Slicing through enemies never gets old and Ultimate Edition has ramped up the gore by covering your hero with chunks of meat and splatters of blood that will leave you stained through the duration of a level. The other weapons are just as satisfying, I’ll be it not quite as flashy. There’s a standard sniper rifle called the Longshot, which makes the sound of a watermelon exploding when a successful head shot has landed. The Gnasher shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle used by the Locust called the Hammerburst and the Boomshot, a rocket launcher that send pieces of your enemy drizzling down onto nearby troops. You’re also equipped with a smoke grenade and can find frags, which can be stuck to an enemy via the melee attack, but if you can’t scurry away fast enough you to will suffer the damage of a self inflicted suicide bomber. At times, you’ll also be forced to use an orbital satellite weapon called the Hammer of Dawn, it beams down a fiery laser from space when you have successfully painted your target. You can carry four different weapons, but you’ll always have slots reserved for grenades and a pistol, so you’ll have to decide which two main weapons best fit your play style. One of the most memorable facets of the game play is the active reload. By default, reloads take a set amount of time and can leave you vulnerable to attack, but if you look below the weapon indicator on screen, you’ll notice a meter sweeping from left to right. A perfectly timed button press stops the meter in a highlighted section that offers more damage for a short duration. If you miss and hit it anywhere outside of the highlight, the weapon will jam and takes you even longer to reload. It’s the ultimate risk-versus-reward scenario causing you to make life and death decisions by the seat of your pants.
In addition to the single-player and cooperative campaign, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition offers a team-based multiplayer mode for up to eight players. Developer The Coalition has added all of the DLC maps and even included characters that were not in the games original release. Improved movement, with minor inclusions like some traversal elements that appeared in later games and eight-way rolling – a feature that was not included when the first game came out. They’ve also brought over three extra game modes, King of the Hill, Team Deathmatch and a new 2v2 Gnasher Execution. All of which have been very well balanced on dedicated servers, offering a decent spectator mode, and support for LAN play, the first Xbox One title to do so. The developer has made it clear that they know Gears fans love battling against each other online. The attention to detail is more than apparent with even minor tweaks to some maps which ensure a symmetric level layouts.
The four-on-four multiplayer is round based, with most modes offering no re-spawns, though like in the co-op campaign, you can revive a fallen ally. To ensure the enemy will not return to battle, you can run up to a downed body and press the X-button, which delivers a curb stomp to the back of your foes head. The key to playing online is to stick together and communicate, so that you will always have someone at your side to offer up cover fire, or a much needed revive. The games 20 maps and five modes offer up a good variety, and you can still mix up the action with more match customization including actives, respawn times, self-revives and weapon respawns. The Coalition seems to be offering up Gears of War to the E-sports community by ensuring the online play is always action packed and extremely well balanced.
Even though the game is packed with all of the original DLC and five extra chapters, previously only accessible in the PC version, calling this an Ultimate Edition is a bit of an overstatement. I can see why Microsoft would be hesitant to remaster the rest of the sequels in the series, after the backlash that occurred from the Master Chief Collection, but Gears of War deserves better than this. While I am glad that they are offering up the sequels and Judgment to players who purchase the game and play before December 31st of this year. I can’t help but think what The Coalition could have improved on by remastering the rest of the games in the series. Gears of War was one of the games that defined the previous generation of consoles. It raised the bar and all of our expectations for the future of gaming.
Final Verdict: 3.5 / 5
Available on: Xbox One (reviewed) ; Publisher: Microsoft Studios ; Developer: The Coalition; Players: 1-8 (online); Released: August 25, 2015 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $39.99
This review is based on a retail copy of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition purchased by Hey Poor Player.