Gears of War, with the exception of Halo, is the most synonymous gaming franchise with Xbox. Almost a decade ago, it proved to be the perfect partner for the budding Xbox 360. Epic Games produced a brutal world torn apart by conflict, starring grizzly characters, badass weapons and outlandish enemies.
By today’s standards, it isn’t the most visually stunning game. However, back in 2006 it received mass acclaim and, over the next five years, yielded two equally successful games – both of which produced the wave-based bread-and-butter multiplayer modes of today. Considering the success of the trilogy, it’s best if we completely forget about GoW: Judgement.
Earlier this year, some screenshots appeared of a Locust soldier roaming around a high-definition Sera. The Gears of War community, me included, were abuzz with two words: “Gears. Remake”. A new console, new game, with the potential of a trilogy overhaul, was an outcome of epic proportions.
The only event that could put this to bed was E3. It was here that Microsoft waited until the end of their conference to confirm all suspicions: the Gears of War Ultimate Edition was now ‘a thing’. However, amidst the excitement, what came next left a bitter taste for me, in particular.
Despite a raft of map packs and some 1080p/60FPS magic, as well as other bell and whistles, the Ultimate Edition will only feature the original Gears of War only. Why? When you think ‘Ultimate Edition’ you think ‘trilogy’ and a revamped GoW1 isn’t sufficient without incorporating its sequels. It’s understandable Microsoft doesn’t want a repeat of The Master Chief Collection; another highly sought after franchise given a face-lift, but hampered by bugs and server issues. With backwards compatibility now on the horizon, it’s a fair assumption that Gears of War 1, 2 and 3 will be added to the raft of 360 games playable on the Xbox One in the future. It begs the question whether the Ultimate Edition is even a viable option now with backwards compatibility in play, as a Gears of War 1 standalone re-release will most likely not be enough to reinvigorate an already simmering enthusiasm for the series.
Gears of War was one of my first 360 games. Though GoW2’s single player was lacking and its online multiplayer picked up the slack, the third instalment was the perfectly rounded Gears game for me. I want to make a case for these two titles being included in the Ultimate Edition because, unless the publishers are motivated only by sales, there’s no reason why you’d sell the beginning of a story without the middle and the end.
Despite Gears of War 2’s lull in plot during the middle acts, as well as a ridiculously easy end game compared to ruthlessness of General RAAM in the original, it went all-out in the action stakes. The premise, where the Locust threaten the human stronghold of Jacinto, set the tone perfectly for the amount of intense gameplay to follow; there are lots of really great gunfights and combat sequences.
A swathe of new weapons entered the franchise in Gears of War 2. A flamethrower (later labelled the Scorcher), Mulcher, Mortar Cannon, Ink Grenade, as well as the Gorgon Pistol (a favourite of the Kantus guards) joined the already epic Gears arsenal. The Gorgon and Scorcher dealt with baddies in close-quarters with supreme efficiency, whilst the Mortar and Mulcher kept Locust hunkered down and suppressed. This game rebalanced the power of existing weapons, like the Boomshot and Lancer, while introducing new ones to complement the combat of Gears even further.
These guns were very helpful when it came to eliminating the new Locust on the block. The Ticker, a small bug-like infantry unit with an explosive strapped to its back, kept players on their toes in dark corridors and could also be exploited among other Locust enemies. The Mauler, a hulking Locust unit with a retractable shield and explosive flail, lacked mobility but made up for it in sheer strength; it’s a troublesome unit to dispatch as its shield covers most of its weak spots.
However, the most worrisome of all the new Gears of War 2 enemies was the Bloodmount. These bulky creatures are very quick and, on top of possessing brutal melee attacks, have a Locust soldier mounted on their backs. This carries a layer of strategy, as players can take out the Locust first and concentrate fire on the Bloodmount, or vice-versa.
There were also some incredibly useful gameplay changes to Gears of War 2. It was the first in the series introduce proximity mines through the ability to place grenades on surfaces, which was an invaluable mechanic during Horde Mode in particular. In addition, players could now use enemies as meat shields during combat. Choosing between an epic execution or a more tactical bit of temporary ‘body armor’ was difficult. Although, more often than not, a gory execution usually won.
Finally, Epic Games added something truly epic. Though these quick-time events were sparse during the campaign and online multiplayer, Chainsaw Duels were now a reality. Like a virtual wrestling match, with chainsaws, players would spam the B button upon contact with another Lancer-wielding player/NPC in hope of the most satisfying kill in the game, followed by some in-your-face sledging.
Despite all these positives, Gears of War 3 proved to be the most entertaining package of Gears gaming ever. It delivered on all fronts: an action-packed and engrossing storyline; spectacular graphics and lighting effects; more imaginative enemies and weapons; a re-worked Horde Mode; more importantly, four-player co-operative play in the campaign.
Not only did the last addition have an Arcade mode, for a more casual approach to gameplay, but trawling through Gears of War 3 with three other friends proved to be the game’s greatest draw. It encouraged players to take on a harder difficulty setting because, with three others by your side, Hardcore had essentially become the new Normal. Some much-needed female characters, Sam and Anya (on field duty), were also injected into the game’s plot to balance-out the heavy masculine tone Gears had developed through its previous outings. Not only that, we finally met a Carmine brother worthy of Delta Squad, one with a sense of humour to complement Baird’s and a vulgar vocabulary to complement Marcus’.
The staples of the franchise such as the Hammer of Dawn, Hammerburst, Gnasher, and Boomshot remained. The Gears arsenal expanded further and was joined by the Locust DIY weapon, the Retro Lancer, the insanely powerful Oneshot, the up-close-and-personal Sawed-Off Shotgun, Digger, Incendiary Grenade, and the two-man Vulcan Cannon. They were all highly effective in their own way, but there was nothing like sprinting towards an enemy with your Retro Lancer and flipping them over with the Retro’s bayonet; along with all the new execution animations, it was unparalleled satisfaction. In addition to the mech-like Silverback, Epic Games went all-out to provide players weapons with maximum firepower to tackle the series’ toughest enemy; the Lambent. This new threat, coupled with the frenetic pace and ear-wrenching chatter of four-player co-op, creates an extremely fun game; there are explosions everywhere and it’s great.
Beyond combustible enemies, a combination of more agile Locust were brought into Gears of War 3. The Shrieker, a rapid-fire drone-like critter; the Gunker, a giant mass of imulsion-firing muscle; as well the deadly Serapede and duel-wielding Armored Kantus, proved to be some of the toughest enemies in the game. Engagement from a distance was usually preferable, especially from the Kantus’ Sonic-like charge attack.
Despite how busy and enthralling the campaign was, the face-lift given to Gears of War 3’s Horde Mode, on top of a wave-based role-reversal feature in Beast Mode, commanded player attention. Joined by King of the Hill, it was where I spent most of my time with friends. Though it was hard to find a group players willing to stick it out to Wave 50, reaching the end game proved to be as enthralling as completing the game in four-player co-op on Insane difficulty.
There is no doubt that these third-person shooters were a hallmark of the Xbox 360’s era. So, with all that’s great about these two games, why is the Gears “Ultimate” Edition a standalone title? We can only guess. Perhaps they don’t want to be the follow-up to The Master Chief Collection, repeating those bugs and connection issues that plagued the recent re-imagining of the classic Xbox series. Perhaps The Coalition is testing the waters and will release subsequent Ultimate Editions based on the success of this latest HD re-release.
If the latter is the case, here’s one Gears fan they won’t fool. There is no doubt Gears of War 1, 2 and 3 should be sold as a one-stop shop for Gears content. It’s very disappointing that this “Ultimate” edition is missing two thirds of the collection.
The E3 showcase of Gears 4 was pretty lacklustre, too. Despite the initial euphoria, a mish-mash of non-combative gameplay and scripted cutscenes puts my high hopes for the game on the back burner. Given this, it’s difficult to feel optimistic about the future of the franchise. Still, hopefully it will remind us why Gears 2 and 3 were so damn good, even if they’re absent from the Ultimate Edition for dumbfounded marketing or merely profiting motivations.