Next week, one of the biggest franchises of the previous generation is coming back, with the release of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for Xbox One, the maiden release from Microsoft’s Vancouver-based team The Coalition.
First announced back at E3 in June, news of the upcoming release put to bed months of rumours that we’d be getting remasters of the entire series, along the lines of the Master Chief Collection. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition brings Delta Squad’s first adventure to Xbox One, with some extra bells and whistles and visuals rebuilt from the ground up.
Now nine years old, Gears of War was a graphical powerhouse when it burst onto Xbox 360 in 2006, but in the cold, harsh light of 2015, it’s surprising how rough around the edges the game now looks. For most people, though, that’s not how the game lives in their memories, and that’s the problem The Coalition had to tackle with Ultimate Edition. To that end, the team decided to keep the base geometry, AI scripting and source code – ensuring the game plays exactly as we remember it – while rebuilding absolutely everything else. Every single model and asset – over 3,000 of them – were rebuilt from the ground up for the Xbox One. That includes cutscenes, which have been re-framed, re-shot and re-mo-capped in their entirety, while five previously PC-exclusive chapters of the game – comprising roughly two hours of gameplay – that had to be excised from the original Xbox 360 release have been reinstated here. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is not so much a remaster as it is a remake.
It’s not just in the visual department that the new team want to make their mark, though. Back when Epic were first building Gears of War, they had no idea whether it would become a franchise, with sequels, merchandise, companion novels and the like. As the series evolved, so did the games, with Gears 3 in particular digging deep into the backstory and characters from the extended universe material. The Coalition wanted to draw some of those interconnecting lines back into the very birth of the series, though to preserve the game mostly as we remember it, they chose to go about it in fairly subtle ways; in a panel at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, the team talked about some of their efforts to tie the original game more deeply into the wider world of Sera, mentioning a message scrawled in blood – “Welcome to the Slab” – in the opening prison level as an example of this: that prison wasn’t actually named until Karen Traviss’ 2008 novel Aspho Fields. Other touches are more overt, yet still hidden to a degree; collectible CoG tags now unlock pages from the series’ canon of comic books, that you can later read in the game’s menus.
Just as they did on the 360, Microsoft are looking to push Gears in a big way for the Xbox One. The difference this time is that they now own the IP, having acquired it last January from original developer Epic Games. It’s not often we hear of IP changing hands in this way, but Microsoft had to move to secure the exclusivity of one of their biggest franchises from the previous gen; Epic’s ex-president Mike Capps had previously indicated that he’d like to see the series hit PlayStation platforms, and not long after the acquisition, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed to Polygon that the developer had no plans for a continuation: “Because we weren’t planning on building any more Gears games,” Sweeney said, “we were just going to let that sit on the shelf for a decade or more, in case it had any future value to us.”
Clearly, Microsoft had to do something to secure the future of Gears, a franchise that Xbox head honcho Phil Spencer has called “part of the soul of Xbox.” It’s worth remembering what an enormous impact Gears of War had last gen: for many, it was the first truly ‘next-gen’ moment of the 360/PS3 cycle, influencing future projects like Uncharted, before going on to sell more than 22 million units and break the billion-dollar mark in franchise sales. So while we don’t know how much the acquisition cost Microsoft, and we’re unlikely to ever find out, its value to the Xbox brand is clear.
We do know that it effectively cost Microsoft a studio, though, or at least that studio’s name and potential (read: non-Gears) output. The IP acquisition led to Black Tusk (itself formerly Microsoft Vancouver) changing their name to The Coalition (a reference to the in-universe Coalition of Ordered Governments) and taking on Gears of War exclusively; much like fellow first party teams 343 Industries (Halo) and Turn 10 (Forza), The Coalition will now become ‘The Gears Studio’. This has unfortunately led to the shelving of Black Tusk’s previous project, known only as Shangheist (and of which only a vague concept trailer was ever shown), which has given some cause to decry Microsoft’s strategy of tying their small number of first party teams to a single franchise. However, Microsoft’s strategy for new IP appears to be geared more towards creating and curating new franchises with third party partners (see Platinum with Scalebound, Remedy’s Quantum Break, and ReCore with Comcept and Armature, for instance), while building up top-tier teams to handle their most valuable assets. With Microsoft retaining those IPs, this could be a smart way to do business and increase the brand’s pool of properties, but we shall have to wait and see how such a strategy pans out over the coming years.
One thing’s for sure, though: with veteran series producer Rod Fergusson at the helm, Gears of War looks to be in good hands indeed, and the team at The Coalition is using their experience rebuilding the first game as a learning experience for the future. Upon Fergusson’s arrival at Black Tusk – as it was still known then – he tasked the team with a week or two of nothing but playing Gears games, the idea being to bring everyone up to speed quickly and furnish the entire team with an intimate understanding of what makes the games tick. The Ultimate Edition of Gears of War thus serves a handful of different functions: not only does it fill a slot in Microsoft’s end-of-year blockbuster blitzkrieg, but it also gets a Gears game on Xbox One to let people know that the series will continue. Most importantly for the future of the franchise, it serves as, in Fergusson’s words, “the perfect on-ramp” for the team to take the franchise forward with Gears of War 4.
And what of Gears 4? That game was also fully unveiled back at E3, with Fergusson rather surprisingly demoing a six-minute playable slice that introduced the characters of JD and Kait, and the beautifully rendered, dark and creepy world they inhabit. Not much is known about the setting for the game – we’re assuming it’ll still take place on Sera, but there’s no indication what time period it’s set in, who these two new leads are, or even what it is they’re doing.
One thing we can discern is, perhaps, the tone of the game. Gears has never been anything other than a big summer blockbuster action game, but the first instalment definitely had some horror stylings to it – it was massively influenced by Resident Evil 4, after all. For all its pale, snarling monsters, impossibly-proportioned soldiers and Cole Train’s “Whoos!”, it was, at times, a darkly atmospheric experience, as anyone who remembers the foreboding, rain-soaked Lethia Imulsion Facility can attest, and while the later games didn’t necessarily lose that atmosphere, they definitely leant more towards the all-out-war side of the Gears experience. Gears 4 seems to be heading back to that tone, with the demo showcasing two lone Gears tracking some elusive, deadly prey through a deserted town in the midst of a deafening storm, only to discover that some hideous organic growth has taken up residence in the absence of people.
Just what is going on in Gears 4 will be the subject of much speculation for fans of the series as we head towards its late 2016 release, but right now, all eyes are on The Coalition’s shiny rebuild of the game that started it all. It’s time to start flexing that active reload finger.