The Dreaded Backlog: Gears of War Ultimate Edition

Welcome to THE DREADED BACKLOG! It’s incredibly easy to buy video games, but it takes a lot more time to play through them. All of us have a backlog of good gaming intentions that need to be fulfilled. Together we must overcome the overwhelming threat of THE DREADED BACKLOG!

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I was raised on Unreal Tournament. I remember in 1999 (I was 7/8) when the demo came in my brother’s PC Gamer magazine. As the gore and gun-play hit my eyes and I was inspired like never before. I’d seen Wolfenstein 3D, the Dooms and the Quakes, yet UT felt different. It felt better. Quake III: Arena felt like a joke next to Epic Games’ multiplayer based Unreal spin-off. Over the following decade I continued to have a strong affinity for the series as a whole. In 2005 a new game came out from Epic. It was published solely for the Xbox 360. It was called Gears of War.

Whilst the game was described as a cover-shooter and had an extensive manual (as once was common) I was playing a friend’s copy, thus I was surprised by it being a third person shooter. I was further surprised when I immediately started dying when running and gunning. I then followed the prompts and took cover with the A button. Gears of War wasn’t the first sticky cover-shooter, but it refined the form and inspired many (inferior) copycats. None of these other titles have ever come close to the grace and skill with which Gears of War plays. In the years since there have been two sequels and an underrated prequel made by a different company. Now we have Gears of War Ultimate Edition, a HD update of the original game from 2006, now for the Xbox One.

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To discuss a HD update you have to discuss the core original game from several angles, so I’ll begin with gameplay. Hit A to get into cover. Push forward and hit A again to climb over said cover. Tap A when away from cover to jump into a roll in a direction of your choice. Each of four weapons mapped to a point on the D-pad. RB to active reload, hit RB at the right time for a faster reload. Hold B for the chainsaw… This is a game where even the controls are iconic. A clear set of rules for movement matched to one button and a reloading mechanic that replicates the true fear of doing complex tasks under fire. The visuals perfectly sync with controller vibration to make you feel every hit you give and take. Did I mention the chainsaw gun? Unreal Tournament had joyful gibbing, but Gears of War made it an artistic achievement to perform. Everything in Gears of War is tight. It’s half brutal combat and half dance. The best thing is that you don’t even have to perform this dance alone. Gears of War is designed from the bottom up for a fully integrated story-canonical co-op experience.

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The world design of Gears of War is similarly unique. It’s set in an alternate reality on the planet Sera. A world clearly inspired by steampunk and fantasy folklore (monsters and all) with the logic of a Michael Bay film via the back story of Mad Max. Also every man is built like Dwayne Johnson. The games revel in their over-the-toppedness. The characters treat everything seriously, but the game itself does not. For a grey post-apocalyptic shooter it all feels oddly adventurous and larger-than-life.

Our protagonist, Marcus Fenix, might be easily dismissed by some as a grim and grumbly figure. Over the course of the first game we soon learn he hides a quiet intelligence given to him by a genius scientist father. Fenix is also painfully loyal to his comrades. These traits are hidden behind a gritty exterior that was pummelled into him by years spent in an abandoned prison. He is soon rescued by his best friend Dominic Santiago (or player two). Dom is similarly loyal, but he follows orders. He’s also kind, patient and hides deep cynicism behind a façade of optimism. He handles conflicts very differently to Marcus. Dom has been separated from his wife and thus has cultivated a vast network of contacts in the ‘Stranded’ on Sera. These Stranded are a fascinating bunch who riskily live out in the world that can be struck from underneath by the locust at any time. Your team, ‘Delta Squa’, is rounded out by Baird and Augustus ‘the Cole Train’ Cole. Baird is blonde, sarcastic, geeky and an enjoyable bastard (he is later given much more depth by Gears of War: Judgement that re-frames much of his motivations in the original game). Cole is a bit of a horrendous black soldier stereotype, but his saving grace is being so damn quotable. Plus they occasionally humanise him with large displays of empathy with victims of the Locust.

Whereas the Locust seemingly have no empathy.

Whereas the Locust seemingly have no empathy.

That brings us to the Locust. Whilst we learn more about them in the sequels, the original game shows us enough. The ‘drones’ are sentient but dumb. The phrase ‘drone’ implies they’re like bees. The queen is obviously the English accented female ominously narrating proceedings during the game. Meanwhile the drones command a vast variety of terrifying monsters. In the first game Marcus and Dom fight a Corpser, a huge crab-shark-teeth-demon monster. With the HD update the extra levels from the PC port are included, thus they also duel a Brumak. This particular monster is as though Godzilla mated with an artillery factory. Then there is the Kryll. Batlike creatures that swarm around their victims and shred them apart in under a second. The only defense against them is the light. Monsters with guns that can appear from anywhere underground: that’s a hell of a threat.

The story handles this threat intelligently. Once Marcus is rescued from prison he’s dropped into the middle of a special ops mission deep into enemy territory. The story is simple. Get the special light bomb into the underground. The problem is that said underground is full of Locust. The mood that permeates Gears of War is thick with tension. Whilst the sequels upped the stakes and confrontations whilst you fought alongside and against armies, the first game keeps things small. You’re in a team of four. If the enemy knows what Delta Squad is doing they’ll be squashed. There are few ‘epic’ moments and the game is richer for it. The gameplay is designed so that even a single Drone can kill Marcus and Dom with relative ease if handled badly, so it’s appropriate that this game features so many literal backs against literal walls. Admittedly the game only has two female characters, but at least they’re not sexualised. This is acceptable for 2006. Gears of War 3 addresses this gender imbalance with surprising skill given its handling of men (BEEFCAKE!).

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It’s amazing they don’t heal with protein shakes.

So how does the HD update fare? Well it’s great. The frame rate is slightly punched up. The textures and lighting are all upgraded. Whilst the underlying frame is the same, the improved textures and lighting do make a huge difference. Whilst the game is hardly ‘current gen’ it is certainly better than anything on a Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. The world is still greys and browns, but sunlight and different weather patterns make it seem actually colourful. Plus the character models aren’t so drab in colour. The extra levels and boss fight ported from the PC version help too. The original game was always about an hour too short, now it has perfect pacing and has plugged up a minor plot contrivance. The cut scenes have also been completely reworked and feel very cinematic and certainly give the experience more weight. The rumble triggers in the Xbox One controller are great. Many games forget to implement them, but this one does not. When you shoot with any of the iconic weaponry there is more of a punch. And when you use a chainsaw it feels like your finger is coming off. You’re right in there with Marcus forcing that chainsaw down through Locust muscle and bone. In terms of gameplay Gears of War has not been updated. It still plays the same and that’s fine. Since 2006 no single imitator has come close to the dance of this series. It effectively feels new.

The multiplayer has been touched up as lovingly as the singleplayer, but the framerate has been kicked up to 60FPS. Gears of War multiplayer is still a tense and tricky affair that relies vitally on teamwork. Overall this package is a great game made even greater. The old stuff has been refreshed and updated and there is even some new stuff (for console players). Whenever one buys a HD remake there is a sense of fear that it’ll feel pointless after playing. Thankfully Gears of War Ultimate Edition is a must-buy for Gears noobs and tired veterans.