Nine years is a long time. These days, technology has a way of making those sorts of leaps feel even more significant. Things are released and made obsolete faster than ever before. Take, for example, Gears of War. In 2006, Gears of War popularized the idea of cover systems, built to make the simple act of hiding behind something a "system" instead of "I guess I'll stand behind this box and lose most of my peripheral vision in the process." It was also a game that helped make cooperative campaigns feel like they should be standard, rather than occasional treats. On top of that, it ushered in Unreal Engine 3, the engine that more or less defined the previous generation of consoles. It was a fantastic-looking game with exciting, fresh-feeling gameplay. It was influential, too, touching off a healthy round of knock-offs and its specific ways of hiding behind things would seep into plenty of other games.
Gears of War went on to spawn a franchise, with sequels that iterated upon the initial formula in meaningful, additive ways, too. Between its influence upon the games that followed and its own sequels, though, it's surprisingly hard to go back. It's a victim of its own success, in a way. But regardless of the reasons, Epic's UE3 showpiece hasn't aged particularly well. So Microsoft's re-release, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, only seems like it'd be truly interesting to the die-hard fans of Gears of War's competitive multiplayer side.
You could always go read what I wrote about the original release of Gears of War, but in case you want the short version, Gears of War puts players in the shoes of Marcus Fenix, a thick, do-rag-wearing soldier dude who really doesn't like it when his gun jams. Fenix and the canonical members of his posse solidify over the first few chapters and spend five acts trying to do damage to the Locust, a race of hissing snake men who live underneath the surface of the planet. Things go wrong, forcing Fenix and his Delta Squad to take on additional work, which escalates until the game's surprisingly lackluster final confrontation against a hissing snake man who is taller than most of the other hissing snake men.
Nine years later, Gears of War's encounters feel simple-minded and very one-dimensional. Cover shooting and the "roadie run" made big impacts back then, but these days the game feels like it needs something more. There are some attempts to change things up, of course, with a nighttime vehicle sequence where you have to burn enemy bats with a UV beam before they can attack you being the biggest switch-up in the campaign. The rest of the time, you're crouching behind conveniently placed obstacles and popping out to shoot at the Locust foes until a gong sounds, informing you that the encounter has been completed and you may now run forward. The only thing that's changed between now and then is that I've gotten a lot better at aiming grenade tosses, so plugging up the "emergence holes" that spit enemies out into the battle has become much easier.
The AI in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition can be profoundly dumb. Your squadmates have a habit of just, like, stopping in the middle of a path and not bothering to catch up, even if you issue any of the game's rudimentary and ultimately meaningless squad commands. I ran into a couple of cases where the enemy AI failed to activate, too, allowing me to just take my time and shoot them in the back. Also, right before the Brumak fight I looked out the door and saw just a skybox. The level took around 30 seconds to draw in. None of that is especially game-breaking, but for a project that specifically exists to kind of clean up an old game, parts of it still feel a little filthy.
Gears of War on an Xbox One looks like my memory of Gears of War, rather than the reality of Gears of War. Fire up the original game and you'll be surprised that we ever considered such a blurry game to be revolutionary from the technical perspective. But Ultimate Edition doesn't quite look like a modern game, either. It looks like a cleaned-up version of the original game with higher resolution textures on everything, but you'll still see some lighting that should be better and a lot very twitchy animation, particularly from your squadmates, who flit about without regard for things like "enemies" and "getting shot." Lastly, the campaign runs at around 30 frames per second, but even then it still takes some hits during some of the larger encounters. That it can't even maintain a rock-solid frame rate while also not looking especially great for 2015 seems like pure madness. But maybe this leaves room for a Gears of War: No, Really, This Is The Actual Ultimate Edition release in another nine years.
I've spent all this time on how the campaign performs because Gears of War didn't have a Horde mode. This cooperative humans vs. AI mode was an influential part of the Gears sequels. It gave the franchise legs, really. Here, all you get is a competitive multiplayer mode. This, it seems, is where most of the attention went. You'll see 60 frames-per-second here and some of the features that didn't make it into Gears until later iterations--like spotting--appear here anyway. I have made my peace with Gears of War multiplayer. It's fun when played with some like-minded and like-skilled individuals, but after all this time the only people who are likely to stick with it are insanely good at it. So unless you're one of those people, expect to have people rolling up behind you and shotgunning you to death over and over again. This package feels like it's designed to give that crowd something Gears-related on an Xbox One, with the campaign almost thrown in as an afterthought. That's sort of a shame.
I was surprised at how well I remembered some of the individual checkpoints in Gears of War's campaign. Some of those encounters just came rushing back and I knew exactly what I needed to do to succeed. But, also, Gears 1 was a simple game compared to the Gears games that would follow, so the encounters, too, were simple. At this point, the difficulty settings might as well just say "how patient are you?" Because the only big differences there involve how much time you'll need to spend hiding and recovering your health before popping out to take more shots at an enemy that really just soaks up bullets. At some point the campaign just sort of betrayed my nostalgia for the series and felt old, dated, and more than a little pointless. If you haven't played Gears of War before, I have a feeling that playing this will just make you wonder what the fuss was about in the first place.