Playing Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is a surreal experience for me. Having spent the better part of my college days playing the original game back in 2006, and even more time with its sequels, I’d consider myself something of a Gears aficionado. Since the series debut, I became immersed in the lore, consuming every comic book, novel and piece of information on the games as soon as they released. Participating in our recent ranking of the 360 era games was a wonderful trip down memory lane.
Playing Gears: UE though is as confusing as it is nostalgic. It’s a bit difficult to determine just what Ultimate Edition is going for. While the game is certainly an impressive spectacle of upgraded visuals and smooth as silk competitive gameplay, it nonetheless feels as though its missed the mark in being an “Ultimate” edition of anything. The number of missed opportunities for greatness is just a bit too high.
As my colleague Steve Clist pointed out to me as we tested online for his review, it may be a simple question of semantics. Describing this iteration of Gears of War as Ultimate Edition might have been a mistake, while Anniversary (a la Halo: Anniversary) might have been more accurate. Allow me to explain
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is incredibly faithful to its original and perhaps to a fault. One of the strengths of the Gears of War series is that with each release Epic Games (and People Can Fly for Judgment) improvements are made to the gameplay. Abandoning those improvements for the sake of staying true to the original though feels like a step backwards.
If the purpose of Ultimate Edition is to show how far the series has come then having an option to play with updated Gears 3 controls would have been an excellent method of doing this. In much the way Halo: Master Chief Collection allows players to switch between old and new visuals, allowing Gears fans to bounce back and forth between updated and original controls along with visuals would feel rather “Ultimate”.
Consider also the various character models of Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad throughout the Gears series. Prison Marcus, Thrasher Cole, Pendulum Wars armor… having the choice to play through the campaign with these skins would have been a treat for Gearheads. Expand that level of thought to weapon types. Imagine playing through the campaign with the Retro Lancer, Hammerburst 2.0 or even the Gorgon pistol. It may not have been the intent of the original game, but as this is the “Ultimate Edition” would it not have made sense to give players the option?
Other issues consistently popped up in my playthrough through the campaign. Chainsaw animations looked incredibly dated. As I’d chainsaw through wretches and drones, it was a 50-50 shot that I’d chainsaw the air, while getting credit for the kill. In 2015 while playing the “Ultimate” edition, it’s a bit unnerving to watch blood spurt out of the air next to may lancer.
The lack of stopping power feels particularly strange and the online modes are once again a shotgun-fest, something that is very frustrating considering the painstaking time that must have been put into balancing weapon power levels on Gears of War 3 and Judgment.
Speaking of modes, where is Horde mode? Since Gears of War 2, Horde mode has been a staple of the franchise. Moreover, it was so popular that other games began incorporating it to an extent that it’s now an expectation in multiple franchises. Call of Duty, Halo, Titanfall, and even Killzone have incorporated the wave based combat system. Yet still, it is lacking in this “Ultimate” Edition.
It comes down to a question of timing and semantics. Throughout my playthrough of the campaign I noticed consistent frame rate dips (though our reviewer had no frame rate issues in his time with the game) and became frustrated as my AI partners acted like the meathead stereotypes they embodied. Would it not have been prudent to improve these aspects of the game. In 2015, AI partners should not be running into your line of fire or attacking a group of five enemies with a pistol, only to go down two seconds later. Add to that their complete inability to revive you. The game’s infrastructure simply feels dated.
It’s clear that Microsoft wanted this game out before the holiday and before the huge slate of AAA titles launching this fall. It is likely for that reason that many of these concerns weren’t addressed. It also makes sense that “Ultimate Edition” would sound better than “Gears of War: Almost Anniversary”, but the term “Ultimate” implies significant implications. In a world with Master Chief Collection, Metro Redux, the impending Nathan Drake Collection and so many more remakes, more could have been done.
The above reasoning describes my confusion with the game. It’s a faithful recreation of a game that I love and it certainly is beautiful. Furthermore credit must be given to The Coalition for working to adapt to the Xbox One. It also cannot be ignored that Microsoft is including the entire 360 catalog of Gears titles via backwards compatibility for anyone who plays the game before the new year.
The inclusion of the Gears of War comics is certainly a nice treat. As you collect COG tags the comic books that explore the Gears Expanded Universe become available, providing context to your actions in game. Even with the reduced price, the game hardly qualifies as an “Ultimate Edition” for a Gears fan. Instead it feels very much, as my colleague described, as an “Anniversary Edition” regardless of date. It may seem that this article is damning the game to a place of obscurity, but it has plenty here for Gears fans to be happy with. The core gameplay is still Gears of War, and that is still a very good thing.
Ultimately (ha) it comes down to how much fun you have. I’m certainly enjoyed my time with it. Are you? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter or send us a message on Facebook.