We're still a year out from the release of Gears of War 4, so rather than let three whole years pass without a new release in the enormously popular shooter series, Microsoft has pumped out a remastered edition of the original smash.
It's 2006 all over again in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, which brings the early Xbox 360 game back to life on Xbox One in fine fashion. This new-gen port is cleaned up in all the right places and expanded in ways both expected and not, adding in previously PC-exclusive content while also implementing modes that were introduced in later series entries.
All told, it's a fine look back for fans, and a good way to recall the series' glory days in the next year before Gears takes a proper step forward. But let's be clear: this is still a nearly decade-old game released anew today, for better or worse.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition also serves as a changing of the guard for the series, as it's the first entry overseen by The Coalition, Microsoft's internal studio devoted to Gears now that Epic Games has moved onto new things. But you wouldn't know it, given that Ultimate Edition is by and large a prettier version of the original.
That was their main task: making this last-gen game look like a reasonable Xbox One release. Luckily, they pulled it off. No, you're not going to confuse Gears with a new-gen stunner like Batman: Arkham Knight or The Witcher III: Wild Hunt – after all, the in-game models and environments all have the chunky quality of an older game. And there are era-specific quirks still abound, like how some aspects of the world are randomly very shiny. It's weird, but totally familiar circa 2006.
But with every texture given an upgrade and the game running much crisper than recalled from back when, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition makes a great effort to enhance the original package to an admirable degree on the newer hardware.
Gears of War's cover-centric, third-person design might not have been completely new when it debuted, but the aggressive tone and cooperative design set the template for many genre entries thereafter. All these years later, it's still a very fun blast-'em-up, particularly with an online or split-screen partner in tow, as you shoot and/or chainsaw through scads of horrid creatures across five acts.
True, given all the time that's passed, the campaign doesn't feel nearly as fresh or unique today. The areas are samey-looking, the enemy-swarmed bottlenecks get irritating, and the soldier-bro dialogue is notably more tiresome today. But as a return trip through an early last-gen favorite, it's still an entertaining jaunt. If you're not guided through by a nostalgic love for the original, however, I can see it feeling a bit plodding and repetitive.
Luckily, even old fans may find something new to enjoy: five fresh chapters inserted into the final act, which had previously only been found in the late PC port. If you only played Gears on Xbox 360, it'll all be new to you – including the fight against the hulking Brumak monster. It's not vital enough to the core experience to be anyone's sole reason for a return trip, but the extra content is a welcome perk for sure.
Whereas the campaign effectively returns intact (at least for PC players) with a new coat of paint, Ultimate Edition's multiplayer suite seems properly refreshed. For one thing, it's running at 60 frames per second – double that of the campaign – and has a cleaner look to the graphics, making it almost seem like it belongs to another package. Or perhaps that it's a sign more of what's ahead for the series, rather than purely a look at what came before.
The online component includes all of the add-on and PC-only maps, raising the total tally to 19, plus there's a host of improvements: dedicated servers, matchmaking, customisation options, extra unlockable characters, and control tweaks that put the experience more in line with that of Gears of War 3.
Add in the Gears 3-esque King of the Hill, along with Team Deathmatch and the new 2v2 Gnasher Execution mode, and Ultimate Edition really does feel more like a compendium of the series' multiplayer modes and enhancements to date – albeit set on original Gears maps. Still, the team-centric shootouts remain plenty of fun, and it'll surely keep fans entertained until Gears 4 goes bigger in 2016.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition verdict
No, Ultimate Edition isn't a huge step forward for the franchise, but it's not designed to be. Instead, it's a nicely optimised return trip through the series' iconic origins, refreshed and priced well enough to justify the journey. Especially now, in late summer, before the autumn's typical release barrage begins in a matter of weeks.
And it's a ticket to much more, as well. Play Ultimate Edition on Xbox Live before the year's up and you'll get downloadable versions of Gears 1-3 and prequel Judgment on Xbox One this autumn, plus Ultimate Edition is a guaranteed ticket into the Gears of War 4 multiplayer beta next spring. It's not as comprehensive a remastered compendium as last year's Halo: The Master Chief Collection, but Ultimate Edition is still a plenty nice treat for fans eager to refresh their aggro memories.