What is it? A remastering of the third-person shooter that popularized cover systems.
Developer: Epic Games (original), The Coalition (remaster)
Expect to pay: $30
Reviewed on: Windows 10, 8GB RAM, i5-3570k, GeForce GTX Titan
Multiplayer: Co-op and competitive
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
My criticisms of Gears of War haven’t changed much, which is exceptional for an Xbox 360 game from 2006. Well after it first redesigned third-person shooting into a chunky, cover-to-cover alien meatgrinder, Gears is still fun as hell. It’s aged wonderfully, tasting just a bit better, even, because it sticks out among modern shooters as thicker, stronger, and simpler.
But Gears of War has grown some pretty gross mold, too. This new ‘Ultimate Edition’ is one of those fancy DirectX 12 games built as a Universal Windows App, which is supposed to make it more efficient and simpler on us, but in this case has only introduced limitations. It looks great—the stones are grimier, the meatheads are gruffer—but do you want to play at an ultrawide resolution? There’s no ini to edit. Want to record gameplay with ShadowPlay? You can’t, so get used to Xbox DVR (which sucks). And you’d better hope Gears likes your video card, because it doesn’t like my GTX Titan or the GTX 980 Ti we tried it on in the office, and that grudge comes as nasty audio and video stuttering if I have the texture quality above ‘low.’ Microsoft is working on it, but it’s still a pain a week after launch.
That’s all crappy, but Gears softens the frustration of its limitations by being so much fun. The campaign can be a little self-serious—it’s Doom as an ensemble action flick like The Expendables, with a cast of ultimate tough guys flexing their neck-trunks at every problem—but there’s no drawn-out character development or weak attempts at high-concept sci-fi. Yeah, the cast of melancholy soldier archetypes can get boring, and the grimdark stonework becomes a grey paste in places, but I only have to care about that stuff for a minute at a time. Just a little walk and talk exposition, and then I get to spend 20 minutes with Gears’ wonderful shooting in a shower of alien gore.
Gears of War still owns one of the best cover systems ever. The space bar puts in a lot of work: hold it to charge forward, tap it to enter cover, and hit it with a direction key to move between cover points, dive into the open, or hurdle over a concrete barrier. Except when I accidentally magnetize myself to a pillar while trying to transition from cover to close-quarters, the system feels clean and responsive. It does what I want it to do.
The battlefields are like strategy game boards, with cover points arranged at 90 degree angles to each other. There’s a lot of playing it safe, staying behind one comfy concrete cube or rusted out car while playing pop-and-shoot with likewise stationary grunts. But Gears gives you that routine so that it can freak you out when one of its Locusts decides to rush your position, or a new unit of them crawls out of the ground to your side. It feels nice to find a home and let the adrenaline settle into a pool, because a minute later Gears is going to splash me into action. I’ll point my nose at the ground and dash half-blind to a new cover fort where I can settle in again. It’s a bracing game of fight and flight.
And the guns are fierce, imprecise fun. You can spray tracer bullets wildly over cover or more neatly down the sights, flicking gore off the spongey heads of aliens until they pop. Giant mounted guns spit a whirl of projectiles and handle like firehoses, severing alien legs at the knees. Shotguns are hole-punches for headcrab-like rug beasts. There’s even an orbital beam weapon that Mass Effect’s Reapers would applaud, which is guided by a targeting gun—it’s like vacuuming the floor with space fire.
I love that rather than reprimanding the player for shooting squadmates, Marcus (that’s you) yells at them for getting in the way. Gears is here because it wants you to have fun shooting aliens, and little else. It even makes reloading, a shooting staple you’d think needs no change, more fun. The Active Reload system adds golf swing timing to magazine swaps: tap R to reload, then again when a moving bar hits the sweet spot and you’ll reload faster and apply a damage boost to your new bullets. This sounds dumb, but my left index finger tingles when I hit a perfect reload, and my right hand feels more anxious and powerful with a special bullet in the chamber. With a bolt-action sniper rifle especially, it’s invigorating to send power from the R key to the mouse to the head of a brute, like I’m completing a circuit.
Gears is at its best in co-op, and on that front, I managed to find a random player to join up with for some brief shooty friendship. The competitive multiplayer, however, is quieter, and that’s part of the reason I won’t be recommending Ultimate Edition wholeheartedly. Gears has some pretty fun multiplayer—all that cover hugging with unpredictable human enemies—but it can take a while to get into a match. Unless you’re really nostalgic for Gears multiplayer, it’s a hassle when there’s so much else you could be playing outside the walls of the Windows 10 Store.
And I’m fine with Microsoft having its own store, but despite how good Gears of War still is, Ultimate Edition is making a poor case for venturing into that walled garden. The stuttering issue is a big pain, and even if Microsoft fixes it, Ultimate Edition will still be a limited piece of software. You can’t inject shaders, or capture video with the tool you like, or do anything we’ve become accustomed to doing on this wonderfully open platform. Gears of War is a great game, but the spirit of PC gaming does not inhabit this muscly incubus. If it runs properly for you it’s worth playing, but it might gnaw on your soul just a bit.