Gears of War Ultimate Edition Review

TL; DR(eview) - While probably more enjoyable as a co-op experience, my introductory single-player foray into the Gears of War universe was an enjoyable, albeit almost comically violent, adventure through a focused story with enough variety to keep from ever feeling stale.

As someone who missed the Xbox 360 generation, Gears of War - like Halo - has been mostly a hole in the annals of my gaming experience. This is why, as with the Halo: Master Chief Collection before it, I greatly appreciated Microsoft giving me an all-in-one option to experience the series: capitalizing on their Xbox One backwards compatibility functionality last year and including the Xbox 360 versions of the Gears of War games with the Gears of War Ultimate Edition. To date, I’ve only experienced the remastered version of the original game, but with Gears of War 4 launching today, I hope to run through the rest of the series in order to fully appreciate the latest entry before the year is out.

So how does this nearly ten-year-old game hold up?

Well the new coat of paint certainly doesn’t hurt but at its core, this game retains the aesthetic of existing as a product from an era where pretty much all shooters were filled with greys and browns. Thinking back on the campaign, the most notable visual pops were probably limited to the red blood or the orange beam from the Hammer of Dawn satellite laser weapon. That’s not to say the game looks bad. In fact, the interiors of locations like Marcus Fenix’s house late in the game are greatly detailed and add to the general vibe of a world with enough history to feel lived in before it was eventually abandoned.

As I started to think about enemy design, my initial takeaway was that everything felt same-y. But as I reflected more, I actually appreciated that while most of the game’s enemies are just killed by varying degrees of “shoot it a lot,” the creatures themselves are actually pretty diverse. The most common cannon fodder are the Drones, but even among them you’ll face off against specialized units like heavy gunners, grenadiers, and snipers. Then there are the pseudo-boss battles against Berserkers and Seeders which might require the aforementioned satellite laser beam or some other strategy aside from the norm.

As for the gameplay, Gears of War feels very heavy - probably too much so for my taste. Likely due to every character being cartoonishly large and wearing even heavier armor, walking around feels sluggish. Running on the other hand feels like an out-of-control freight train where the tradeoff for speed is maneuverability. The cover mechanic feels fine for the most part but, as with most games like this (I’m looking at you Uncharted), I occasionally wound up frustrated when characters would snap to a wall other than I one I intended, leaving me exposed and bullet-riddled.

As someone who has often heard the term “bro-shooter” over the last few years without really experiencing such a game first-hand, this game immediately jumped out as fitting what I visualize in my head upon hearing that term: a game where masculinity and testosterone is almost oozing off the disc. Marcus Fenix and his buddy Dom, as well as eventual squadmates Cole and Baird all share a physique that puts Gaston from Beauty and the Beast to shame. In addition, the way a shotgun blast might just cleave an enemy in two or a close-up kill with the chainsaw part of a Lancer all showcase a hyper-realized violence that seems to tie-in with the stereotypical frat-boy/dude-bro/”let’s wreck everything and make it look as fucked up as possible” mentality.

I suppose I felt a bit of this with Doom earlier this year, but as that was a single-player experience with more of a blank slate player-character, I chalked that up to just being super-violent rather than seeing the Doom Guy as a “bro” of sorts. Now this isn’t meant to take away from the performances at all. The banter among the squad is lively and fun and John DiMaggio does a great job conveying Marcus Fenix’s attitude as a disgraced soldier forced back into action and kind of pissed off about it. I simply mention it here because I know that it’s not for everybody.

I will also admit that I played the entire campaign solo, as I do nearly every other game. I imagine playing with a group of friends and working together to flank enemies would make for a far more compelling experience than I had with the adequate AI characters serving as my squad instead. This also probably provides more enjoyment when the game occasionally splits the team up and directs you toward one of two routes. Playing as a single-player experience, I found these moments didn’t really add anything to my experience. Without somebody else on headset telling me what they were experiencing because they went down the other path, I was mostly left to just progress through my few waves of enemies until we teamed back up again as a full unit.

Overall, I’m glad I finally got to experience one of the marquee franchises of the last decade. I appreciated the game’s focused five-act structure all taking place over the course of a day or so. Entering the fight years into the war between the COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) and the Locust gives the game plenty of ground to cover as it slowly introduces the player to this world’s history and lore. I wasn’t immediately compelled to load up the next installment, but I did make sure to download Gears of War 2 to my Xbox One so it would be installed and ready to go when I come back.