Just a quick word of warning – if you're a big fan of the Gears of War series, it's very likely that this preview won't tell you much you don't already know – other than a few tidbits about the upcoming Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.
That's because it's written by someone who just played the game for the very first time. Yep. Somehow, I've managed to avoid playing all four installments of the game – I've always got my shoot 'em up kicks from the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises, and never made time for Gears… until I was invited to a recent preview event where I finally sat down in front of the game and played it.
Of course, I'm not completely unfamiliar with the series. Originally the production of Epic Games, and now under the auspices of Rod Fergusson and The Coalition (previously known as Black Tusk Studios) in Vancouver, Canada, the billion-dollar-selling franchise's fifth game, Gears of War 4 is currently in production and will launch sometime at the end of 2016. If that sounds just a tad confusing, that's because Gears of War 4 is the sequel to the 2011 release, Gears of War 3, and has nothing to do with Gears of War: Judgment, the prequel to the overall series that was released in 2013.
To fill the gap between now and late 2016, a remastered version of the original Gears of War is being released, although by the looks of things, it's not so much a "remaster," and more like a remake of the game. Rod Fergusson mentioned in the event preamble that the game has been stripped down to the basics and rebuilt specifically for Xbox One with all-new assets. The objective is for the single-player campaign to run at 30 FPS (to enable maximum visual appeal), while the multiplayer mode will run at 60 FPS (to enable maximum potential performance).
As a reminder of what the original game was like, we played a few rounds of the Xbox 360 multiplayer version at the event. What immediately struck me was the slow and steady cadence of the action. Having poured hundreds upon hundreds of hours into the likes of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Gears of War seems comparatively slow. That's not necessarily a bad thing – it's a cover-based shooter, so there's a lot more strategic movement and planning involved in playing the game, rather than the more run-and-gun nature of CoD. It took me a few minutes to get used to it, but once I got into the action I enjoyed it. I also like the fact that you can be saved by your teammates – something that adds an additional dimension to the cover-based shooting.
Session over, we moved over to the Xbox One version of the same map – Gridlock – and played the new, remastered version. It was here that we really got to see the difference in terms of looks. Obviously, a big improvement is to be expected, but it's clear that The Coalition hasn't just given the old textures an up-rez. While the general layout of the game is the same, there's far more detail to the environments. New objects and building features are present where before there were none, many backgrounds have been completely changed to give more depth to the vistas, and the landscapes look far more battle-scarred. The lighting has also been similarly overhauled, and the addition of new particle effects brings what is a nine-year-old game bang up to date. The overall difference is quite remarkable, and the sheer effort that's gone into remaking this game is apparent.
After playing through a few more multiplayer matches, we then played co-op campaign, and it's here that I really experienced Gears of War proper. What I was quite surprised to find was just how challenging the game is – something that will be addressed in Ultimate Edition. The original game had three difficulty levels – Casual, Hardcore and Insane. A new fourth easier setting is going to be added, replacing the original Casual mode, which will now become "Normal."
It did take me a little while to get used to the cover mechanics – they felt a little too "sticky" for me initially, but once I got used to the way the game works, finding and using cover, and strategically moving from safe spot to safe spot became second nature. It's definitely a lot different to the likes of Battlefield, and I'm certainly looking forward to playing the full release when it's launched in August.
What I particularly like about the co-op mode is that the design of the game really supports team play. It's not just a case of doubling the firepower and having the two players shooting down the same lanes – to move forward you really need to work together, flank the enemy and take down different targets. Fortunately, I was playing with someone who knew the game well, and we were sitting side by side, which helped us communicate and pick out targets. It was intense, and I had a tremendous amount of fun playing the game. It made me wonder why the hell I missed it the first time around. One thing's for sure – I'm not going to miss Gears of War this time.
As well as featuring the full, original game, as way of an additional bonus, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition will include the five additional chapters of content that were released for the PC version that never saw the light of day on consoles. This content includes additional story and exposition, and will help make Ultimate Edition a more complete experience.
But wait! There's more! Purchasers of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition will be able to download the original Xbox 360 versions of all Gears of War games on Xbox One, and run them through the new backwards compatibility feature. That's a pretty neat bonus that'll let people like me who missed them the first time around play them and catch up. At $39.99 for all that and the remaster, that's seems like a pretty good deal.