When one looks back on Epic Games’ first Gears of War which released in 2006, it isn’t hard to see how the game changed the way we look at third person shooters. Granted, not all of its mechanics were completely original – it’s often been cited by designer Cliff Bleszinski has a mash of Resident Evil 4’s over-the-shoulder aiming and Kill Switch’s cover system – but it was the overall result which paved the way for games with cover mechanics. In terms of visuals, Gears of War was first used as a showcase for the power of Unreal Engine 3 and was the major factor for Microsoft doubling the memory in the Xbox 360 to get the game to run at 720p resolution.
In this respect, along Gears of War serving to herald the first few arrivals in the 720p era, it pushed the boundaries of real-time rendering. The cinematic presentation, alpha effects, detailed crumbling environments and sheer amount of action all made for an unforgettable experience. Heck, its action would serve as the template for nearly an entire decade’s worth of third person shooters while Unreal Engine 3 would become one of the more popular engines during the Xbox 360 and PS3 era.
Xbox 360 version followed by the Xbox One version [left to right]. There are not only visual upgrades but animations and camera angles have been modified as well.
It’s easy to see why The Coalition chose to focus on revamping a single Gears of War title as compared to remastering the entire trilogy plus Judgment. Along with focusing more on a single core experience that helped define the series, it allowed the developer to pour a larger sum of resources into improving every single graphical aspect. The result in Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is excellent. If nothing else, it perfectly encapsulates that “feeling” of war that the original embodied all those years ago. While hardcore fans will be instantly familiar with the mechanics and character animations during gameplay, the sheer number of improvements made to the visuals is a joy to behold.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition runs at native 1920×1080 resolution and given its relative age, it wouldn’t have been remiss for The Coalition and Splash Damage to simply up-res the game. It would certainly be lazy but not out of the ordinary. That’s not the case here though. The lighting engine has been reworked significantly, taking the Ultimate Edition out of the dark and gritty aesthetic of the first Gears of War and resembling Gears of War 3 more in effects.
Ultimate Edition features updated shaders and a color palette for a more smoother and colorful approach, closer to what we saw in Gears of War 3 compared to the darker setting of the original. Also check out the improved draw distance.
Image quality is smooth but there’s a very subtle effect with limited PBR and global illumination in a few places which serve as the biggest change in the lighting. The overall effect gives a more nuanced feel to the visuals even if shadow dithering can still be an issue.
It’s important to clarify the game’s frame rate which runs at 30 frames per second during the campaign mode and 60 frames per second in multiplayer. The campaign’s frame rate is very solid with a few frame drops occurring in cut-scenes. This is somewhat disappointing, even if you take into account the fact that Unreal Engine 3 isn’t completely optimized for the Xbox One. However, given the number of updates it’s received since the first Gears of War in 2006, we did expect a stable frame rate.
While it will be interesting to see how Gears of War 4 will fare in this regard, we are happy to report that multiplayer runs at 60 frames per second most of time. Frame drops are extremely few and far between even with heaps of chaotic action and explosions happening on-screen.
Fenix’s armor is not the only to have a visual upgrade. NPCs feature fully upgraded models. Also observe the better alpha effects such as the burning car.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition’s visuals have been touted for a number of reasons, not the least of which includes the completely reworked cut-scenes. In some places, a few new scenes have been added and if you’re a fan of the original, it’s amazing to note the sheer difference in presentation and quality across both generations. Camera angles have been changed and animations have been improved significantly.
Character models also look much sharper than before thanks to the overhauled texture quality and advanced shader libraries on the Xbox One. You can now make out the finer details of Marcus Fenix’s armour and your entire squad looks more detailed than before. Despite playing Gears of War 3 for hours on end, I was still taken aback by Anya’s appearance and how different she looked. Comparing her appearance to the 2006 release really outlines how much has changed and improved for the better. Sadly, it seems that texture filtering isn’t very good. A blurring effect is noticed whenever the player zooms in.
Despite next to no major change in the artwork – which helps maintain that distinct Gears of War theme – the Ultimate Edition does update the remaining visuals. Draw distance has been increased; volumetric effects like dust, smoke, wind and water just look much better overall; foliage density sees a lot of improvements; and despite its limited implementation, motion blur is also present.
Texture filtering is a tad disappointing at some places. See the wall as an example.
Majority of the art style is intact but has been upgraded with better texture quality. This is how you remaster a decade old game.
When one takes the time to consider that this is effectively The Coalition’s first ever game, let alone its first Gears of War title, the Ultimate Edition is all the more impressive as a whole. As stated before, the overall presentation isn’t perfect – the slight frame rate drops in the campaign mode being the most significant factor – but it’s amazing how the developer has upped the ante on the original’s visuals to this extent. Those looking for a solid multiplayer experience won’t be disappointed by the solid 60 FPS frame rate. Even with some of the other issues, including the below average texture filtering, the campaign is worth exploring more than once just to take in all the rich amount of details.
Overall, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is an excellent remaster and serves as one of the best examples of the trend. While the nostalgic in us will miss Epic Games’ development on the franchise going forward, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition does give us hope for what The Coalition can achieve in Gears of War 4 with Unreal Engine 4 when it releases in Holiday 2016.