Your eyes are not deceiving you, and yes, it really is 2015. That is Gears of War at the top of the all-formats UK sales chart, right now. The same Gears of War that came out in 2006 and immediately made the Xbox 360 a pretty bloody desirable piece of kit. Nine years ago.
Okay, it's not quite the same Gears – the version currently retailing is an improved "Ultimate Edition" exclusive to the Xbox One (for now), using the current-gen console's increased power to generate 60 frames-per-second, super-glossy (but still pretty grey, like that could ever change) visuals, displayed in crisp 1080p. The bad guys, the Locust, scowl and growl meaner than they ever have, and the chunky, chiselled heroes of Delta Squad, led (eventually) by poster-boy meathead Marcus Fenix, are wonderfully realised models of cartoon machismo that now look less like processed meat in armour and more like WWE superstars with licenses to kill. The controls have been tightened, and the game's difficulty feels slightly tweaked – my memory's foggy but I don't remember Marcus dying quite so easily in the 360 original. But maybe I was just better at it, back then.
'Gears of War: Ultimate Edition', Mad World launch trailer
But the story remains the same, the game unchanged at its core. And back then, Gears really spoke to me. Mike, it said; Mike, I'm brilliant, definitely better than Too Human will ever be, and you should play the shit out of me. So I did, eventually, and it was. I'd not long had an Xbox 360, and was just feeling my way into what this new generation of video games had to offer. Third-person cover shooters weren't exactly a new thing in 2006, nor games starring burly dudes with guns battling against crusty alien sorts (well, they're not in this instance, really, but you know what I mean), but Gears both perfected and solidified, laying down blueprints for, a number of now-common gameplay features.
The epic, Hollywood-riffing entirely-linear-but-that's-OK campaign of incredible odds being overcome by a tiny team of thick-skulled action figures with impossible jawlines: tick. The sticking-to-cover mechanic where characters cling to waist-high walls, moving only to pop their rifle sights over the concrete block separating blessed life from bloody death and stick one between enemy eyes: crystallised it. A surprising emotional element that emerges when the gunfire's cooled and fallen opposition troops have disappeared from the battlefield, leaving only kill-marker bloodstains behind like an imprint of their shattered soul: gamers' sensitive bits, successfully tickled. Gears of War nailed these things and more, elevating them to something like terrifically violent poetry in motion.
And the unique addition of the active reload feature was the grubby icing on a cake baked with broken teeth and gunpowder. In theory, simple: reload by clicking a shoulder button once, and then again when a small marker moved over a highlighted area beneath your weapon's status. Get it right and you get a damage bonus. Get it wrong and your gun jams, Fenix cursing it, hitting it, slapping it back into operation. Ten times out of ten, outside of a firefight, you'd hit the sweet spot. But in the heat of crackling combat? Even a pro can balls up their timing under a constant barrage of bullets, most of which have your name on them.
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I started playing the Ultimate Edition the other night, and its hooks have already dug themselves in deep. This is rollicking entertainment, deafeningly bombastic from the beginning and rarely relenting, insatiable in its appetite for on-screen destruction. Buildings bend and collapse around you; the enemy burst forth from holes in the ground, which could appear anywhere in theory (although, obviously, they're entirely scripted). Gigantic beasts lend heavyweight support to the Locust offense: Brumaks entirely fill the screen, Tyrannosaurus-proportioned nightmares carrying rocket launchers, while Corpsers are gigantic spider-like terrors that dig under human cities, surfacing to slaughter their prey alongside swarms of small arms-bearing, bullet-sponge drones. This is survival horror powered by black-market energy drinks brewed with not-so-legal highs and an arsenal to rival that of a medium-sized death-to-the-West nation. It's the most adrenaline-dripping action adventure game of its era, dunked in the sort of unsettling imagery that spills from the pages of a Clive Barker novel. It is disgusting, impossible to look away from, fantastic.
And it's all running on the same engine, Unreal 3, that the original Gears was built with, albeit a substantially updated version of it. Which is why it doesn't quite pop before the retinas as the newest games of its kind can. But this isn't an ugly game, the famously muddy palette aside – what gleamed amid the dirt before now shines so brightly that it can be spied from space. It features thousands of remastered assets, with the entire project taking its developers at The Coalition some 18 months. It looks good in stills, and it's even better when you're roadie-running through bottlenecks, Locust artillery showering down around you, your squad following behind, barking blunt dialogue that's not aged all that brilliantly but, y'know, when Marcus pops the skull of a grub, strikes a perfect reload and then turns his Lancer's chainsaw on another scab amongst the Locust horde as he was about to take him down – as I do all of those things – the repeated brodude outbursts and declarations of "sweet" don't really become a drag. It's all part of the game's sumptuous soundtrack of gloriously grotesque hyper-violence, beats amongst the bigger arrangement.
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But it might well be that you know all of this already. Gears of War, first time around, sold in the several millions and was for a while the most popular online multiplayer game on Xbox Live. (Side note: I've not played the Ultimate Edition online, yet.) It might be that you don't feel any great desire to go back to what you knew, given what we've been treated to since. Games have moved on. They tell better stories now, with more affecting nuances; the combat isn't always so, let's be honest, basic – in Gears all you usually do is shoot bullets enough into something, whatever, to make it fall over, and that would become tiresome if everything wasn't so bloody amazing around it; and even the Gears series itself has moved on tonally, from an extra-terrestrial tug of all-out-war to something that looks a lot more sinister, judging by the gameplay reveal of Gears of War 4 earlier this year. And yet, this relic, this slightly rusty old reminder of blockbuster gaming as it once was, still lights up a room.
You mightn't want to pick up Gears again, but you should, as it both illustrates how far this form of entertainment has come in a relatively short time, across the span of a single console generation, and also how the classics never go out of style – not when they effectively founded a pervading fashion in the first place. And when you do, it hits you, rushes you like it did the first time. Don't blink or you'll be cut to pieces. Keep moving, or the creeps and ghouls and weird combustive bug things of this fracturing world will surround you and eclipse all hope. And turn up the volume, because this thing is like a symphony for the gaming ages.
And if, for some reason, you're playing Gears for the very first time in 2015, welcome to Delta, soldier. A couple of tips: never get too close to a Carmine, and take cover or die. Now get out there and chew through a Boomer before it turns you into person paste. Sweet.
Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is out now on Xbox One, with a PC version released soon.
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