I've never played a Gears of War game. Any of them. Ever. So going into the updated Gears of War: Ultimate Edition (opens in new tab) with a fresh pair of eyes brings a lot of expectations. For years, other gamers and friends have been telling me how great Gears is; how chainsawing opponents in multiplayer is the best thing ever, how Cole Train has great one-liners, and all the ways Dom is a crybaby. But none of that swayed me into joining the fight, because I really had no interest in what I perceived to be a typical shooter starring burly, dude-bro space marines who are too cool to wear helmets in a war zone. To me, Gears just looked like a whole lot of dumb, violent fun, and it felt like I was getting enough mindless carnage in the other shooters I was playing.
It's been nearly 10 years since the original was released. That means the visuals are no longer cutting-edge, shaky cams are played out, and every third-person shooter and their uncle has a cover system. The hype is gone. Yet even after a decade of progress for stop-and-pop firefights, stepping into Marcus Fenix's makes one thing crystal clear: Gears is good. Really, really good.
What really stands out is the variety the campaign brings with every chapter. Each environment I enter and situation I encounter feels different from the last. Yes, I thought the movement in and out of cover can be a little clunky, and the walking radio calls really mess with the flow. But outside of a few small gripes, the Gears of War experience absolutely holds up to any other modern shooter released today.
The shooters that came after Gears don't have this depth of gameplay variety, and it's surprising to see this level of design coming from a game starring thick-necked, bandana-wearing, juiceheads. There are puzzle elements, tactical gunfights, jump scares, vehicle sequences, all seamlessly integrated into the mission at hand and at a pace that keeps you turning the metaphorical page. Just as I was getting comfortable with the shooting gallery battles and tutorials of the first missions, Gears sticks a giant Berserker monster in a tiny room with me, forcing me to adapt and change my combat tactics early on. Then the game keeps me on my toes with complicating gunfights that challenges me to do things like stay out of the darkness at night - lest I get devoured by the flying piranha bats. Later, familiar enemies change as the game throws explosive, one-hit-kill Wretches at me. I can't tell what to expect, but every new sequence becomes an absolute blast to play through.
Even the basic mechanics of a gunfight stands out above most shooters. Gunfights in other games are simple: aim for the head, hide when you're hurt, and throw a grenade from time to time. I feel like Gears makes me work for my kills. If I sit still behind cover, I'd be outmaneuvered and rapidly obliterated. But it isn't like Gears throws me into the deep end. It teaches me to be a successful Grub killer throughout the game. Gears constantly encourages me to take advantage of flanking maneuvers, whether it's the early levels that direct me down alleyways leading behind enemy positions, or later shootouts where I can make good use of my chainsaw bayonet. Eventually, flanking becomes second nature. I'd just let my AI or co-op partners grab the enemy's attention while I sneak around the side for a clear shot. I've played a lot of shooters over the years, and only a handful make flanking an essential combat strategy. Even modern Call of Duty titles still stick to environmental design that facilitate whack-a-mole battles.
Getting the leg up on your enemies is a thrill, and that's not limited to the superb, weighty shooting you get from Gear's small arsenal of death machines. There are plenty of little things to manage while the bullets fly over my head. Emergence holes force me to abandon my lazy sniper tactics and enemies move around the battlefield to flush me out of cover. There are things to consider that I would never give a second thought to in other games, like reloading. The active reload system makes the action of arming myself with more bullets a conscious thing, keeping me even more engaged in the battle at hand and making scoring a perfect reload just as rewarding as getting a skull-popping headshot. I have no idea why every shooter since hasn't used this mechanic.
In fact, I feel like the shooters that have come after Gears haven't taken enough of its influence and run with it into the future. Subsequent shooters put all their focus on Gears' cover-shooting style and seem to gloss over the other essential designs; but few games strike the balance of the refined shooting mechanics and gameplay variety of Gears of War. Gears isn't just about ducking behind cover, popping up to shoot, repeating until every Locust is dead, then walking into a choreographed set piece moment. It's about giving players a set of tools, putting them into a unique and memorable situation, then allowing them to create a heroic and epic moment they'll remember. That's why everyone over the years liked to talk about their Gears experiences, particularly in co-op: they were able to make their own memories. Those unforgettable near-death revivals and last-clip-in-the-chamber headshots weren't just spoon-fed to them in a cinematic QTE sequence, they did it themselves.
Gears doesn't just have one schtick that it runs into the ground. It's a full, refined shooter with diverse designs that make for one hell of an experience, whether you're going at it alone in single-player or have a dedicated squad buddy in co-op. Playing Gears of War Ultimate Edition 10 years after the original release makes me feel like I've missed out on quite a bit, and now I think might go back and play the rest of the Gears games - even though I'm still not a fan of the character art style; I mean, come on, they can barely fit behind cover with all those huge muscles. But there are still questions I need answered, backstories to learn, and more subterranean monsters that need to meet the toothy end of my Lancer.