Gears Of War: Ultimate Edition - Technical Review
As we shift slowly out of the summer months it means a few things, temperatures start to drop, weather gets worse, we all start spending more time indoors and most importantly, big games start hitting our machines to entertain us during these longer, colder nights...lots of games!
As we take an in-depth look at Microsoft's first big Autumn launch from its own in-house studio The Coalition a little later than planned but a completed game allows a more thorough analysis and that includes some meaty online play. Like last year it is another remaster of a previous classic ( and it's not like either side is shy at raiding the retro cupboard ) but this time an older and more poignant release as we have a game that defined a generation when launched on the Xbox360 back in 2006 with its gobsmacking visuals and big production budgets. Cliffy B and the team from Epic had a deal with the big M to make an exclusive title for the machine and up until last year Epic still owned the franchise until Microsoft bought it off them for an undisclosed but , I am sure, not to insignificant sum. It also saw the debut of the Unreal 3 engine, one that has seen many battles across platforms and companies during its long life as it tore up the generation!. While other engines have been "re-written" and other such dramatic statements UE3 has evolved with developers having access to the source code like as per its younger iteration in version 4 allowing them to tailor, tweak and generally improve it as they go to best suit the developers needs.
This has seen some big changes to it over the years with it never shipping with any PBR shaders or Global Illumination options for one, both and more that have been included since across other games. It received its swan song in the latest and final entry from Rocksteady games in the Arkham Knight, here the team not only delivered a superb game but also rung the engine to within an inch of its life and was a fitting and stunning end to both. Check out my detailed breakdown of the game and final verdict on all versions if you are so inclined.
But it does not end here for the engine, the team not only wanted to remaster the game but they also wanted to remake it, polish it so to speak. This meant that using the same engine was a given or more so the scripting side which includes core functions like animation systems, AI, triggered set-pieces and such like , the work needed to recreate the game in a new one would have been much bigger and far more expensive. Being devised by a much smaller team within the company ( the majority are hard at work on Gears 4 ) and assisted by some outsourced work in asset creation ( very common ) has enabled the team to concentrate on areas and styling a far more modern game than before. Which is a controversial choice whenever it is done and no less so here, in fact on the contrary with such a stylised and generation defining game it maybe even more divisive than normal.
First we hit the all important metrics and performance targets, now the first rule of a remaster involves a simple equation 1080 divided by 60 should return the magic number and of course sales but here that number has not been fully calculated. Although the multi-player hits this solid metric with grace the single player does not. Both run a fully native 1080 display but the campaign runs this at a 30fps target rather than the MP's 60. Which is a shame for such a fast paced shooter like this but is by no means a show stopper as a solid 30 with a good object motion blur still feels and looks good. Both game modes have received improvements in model and object geometry, textures and lighting along with some more intrusive and technical improvements. It plays the same as it always has, you run, you gun, you rub against waist high walls ( it did not invent this combat orientated cover system contrary to popular belief but it did popularise it, that honour goes to N64 release Winback ) but many games have used it since and after. But here it worked brilliantly and along with the roady run was mapped to the same button for fast context action, that worked most of the time including the infamous wall bounce technique used to great effect in multi-player matches but more so in its sequel.
The campaign is the exact same plot as before with Marcus Fenix freed from prison to help lead the Cogs against the locusts hordes that felt compelled to stay true to there monicker of consumption and destruction and are trying to eradicate all human life from the planet, while also destroying the place, typical!. And this all plays out just as you would expect and have probably played before but it does have some changes, Both visually and mechanically. The game is based on its original engine and structure for sure, Dom is still as useful as a chocolate fireguard and as robust in combat....oh Dom, for the love of...
Enemies are of an identical level of intelligence, following a more rigid 2 mode action plan, hide or shoot and again clearly demonstrates the same engine traits from the original. Animation is also handled with the same key frame process from the original and although clear jumps from within sets are evident even to this day highlights how far ahead gears was with it still not looking that dated, the slide into position from cover is still commonly used now to activate key points within animation and always paved the way for multiplayer wall bouncing speedy action.
But the cutscenes show probably the single biggest and drastic change from the original, where as the 360 release all ran realtime bar some minor exceptions this version fully adopts a Pre-rendered approach and although a great shame but one that within the time constraints, budget and team size is an understandable decision. I do not doubt that with more of both all these could have been realtime on the XboxOne, and the changes made are worthy of the remake stamp. Entire camera angles, poses, animation (motion capped in most of these like the original game) can be night and day between the original, some of this due to the 360's quite popular shaky/flash grunge style of the time, now adopting a more standard pan and centre structure. If you compare this chopper sequence you can see the original went for a fist person observation style with no cuts and the conversation unfolding in one single shot with the Ultimate Edition having much tighter film editing with a far more grand landing sequence now added to show of its updated visual pallette. These are all still on-engine managed through the unreal Engine matinee scripter so although the fade to black and fixed asset is still present the jump to these is not too jarring aside the obvious improvement in rig bone animation points and mo-cap and overall they are a large improvement from the original.
Level structure is also treated to this same update and construct, from pillar, characters, vehicles and enemies have all seen a tangible increase in polygon budget of reasonable but not ground breaking level. Some of this may be due to the constraints on the team and original engine use, although they have implemented some areas from later engine releases, a physically based shader pass has been added and although not a fully realised one still adds the biggest leap over the original, although signs are evident of its adopting of later games construction and visual style. The lighting and more importantly it's presentation is far less bleak and more orange/yellow bright tone is a stark and IMOP too large a change from the first games core oppressive style and aim. It shares much with the 3rd games again early PBR shading style and much more tropical colour tone. Even more you can see the last game Judgement does show many model similarities with the new game along with its colour tone being similar, which if was an influence and used is an intelligent process to adopt. The looks are very, very similar more so between these games than the original but at times it can look stunning, with great gothic style and ruin mixed with a far more natural lighting tone with heavy diffuse materials creating a more convincing world that sadly loses much of its subdued almost futile tone due to this.
This is front and centre in the 4th act where a dark and stormy night is the stage for your encounter, what was once a standout level in the game creating just the right level of foreboding dread, now looks almost like a light drizzle in a supermarket loading bay. Technically the new version is leagues ahead, now using far more light sources, accurate lighting model, far more varied and much higher quality textures with GPU driven particle rain allowing individual drops to fall and be depth calculated within the Z-buffer but in overall presentation it fails to achieve its aim anywhere near as well as the originals multiple alpha-transparent textured rain and shows that technology has to complement art style and design rather than be present for presents sake. But in every other aspect this level looks so much better than the original it is a small trade off, with rain like we have in Arkham Knight from the same engine shows ultimately it can be done within the engine. But this is the worse case of changes IMOP from the original, alpha fire effects are much better now and explosions/smoke all look more impressive and the changes to level design with things like we railings added to areas or extra objects in battle along with far more immersive lighting like the cathedral stain glass colour bleed now added, although as all lighting is baked into the textures it still looks good aside some point light placement issues. Elsewhere a camera based motion blur not far from the original just much better sampled is in play along with bloom touches and as mentioned some nice alpha based effects and particles. Sadly the per object blur present in later games is missing here in gameplay but is present in the pre rendered scenes so the work within the engine shows it was present.
Multiplayer takes most of its queues also from 3 but the same models and maps as the first. Ranking has now changed from its original army rank to the 3rd games number system. Lobby and matchmaking are also identical from that game but this is clear from the original MP structure being very outdated now although as you can see still up and running. What has changed here though by the largest improvement is framerate, like SP it also sports the near 2.5 time resolution improvement along with twice the framerate which adds a great deal to the online portion and was the right choice for the team to make. Side by side you can see the big improvements to visuals along with its performance. The Crisp IQ is very welcome and makes long sniper shots for head popping even easier and that satisfying water melon sound is delivered along with its dropping of other post effects but it looks very similar to the single player game. The 360 release multi-player was also 30 and overall ran better than the single player, being an unreal engine game it had to suffer from tearing and it does,something the first game really suffers from as they all do, but here in on XboxOne we see 60fps pretty much locked no matter the action, alpha effects or particles bouncing and tearing is kept to the top section/3rd and is very,very rare. Only around 20 drops of single frames Are collected from over 10 minutes of tested multiplayer action. It is a rock solid performance and is a huge leap over the original in every way and never hampers your enjoyment or skill.
Single player is not so solid though, being a later analysis for me has allowed me to complete the game and test much later sections of the game with the lowest recorded dip in single player as low as the original of 22, but this is rare and many of the dips in the game (if not all) seem to come from the loading and CPU side over the visual GPU. Here just throwing a grenade that will spark the Emersion hole close animation and multiple physics based deaths causes dips before and after with no real GPU strain happening, also here just bouncing off a wall but in the background you can hear the sound of AI fighting causes a longer stall of 80ms again nothing to do with GPU, much of this may stem from the use of the older engine not as suited to modern hardware and API along with it not being very multi-threaded so we may be seeing more of a limit on the single player framerate more so due to the engine constraints than any actual hardware ones directly. It paints a good picture of how an engine designed for a spec can drastically outperform on both a visual and performant stance over an engine shoe-horned to work within constraints, but nothing revolutionary in that statement more of a good example here. This is not to say the game disappoints and it does not, even with the huge increase in resolution and styling, geometry etc it still performs better than the older game. Tearing still crops up and like the original can be all over the screen when it does but these occurrence are far fewer and maintain the rate better when they do, but this is by no means an issue isolated to the game as the engine has always had this issue across multiple games and platforms to even mention. But with a long run of over 10 minutes across the game including the heavier sections still see's an average of near 29fps with the older game hitting nearer 26, a decent but not rock solid performance. Even the welcome and new to console as only previously playable on the old PC release shows a solid performance while battling with a brumark.
Sound is another section that has been upgraded, although original dialogue and voice recordings are still used additional processing is performed on them, now drifting away from Dom enables voice to come through the radio rather than within earshot no matter how far as per the first game, explosions are far more explosive and the sound delivered across more channels better appreciated with a decent sound system, in multiplayer this allows you to pinpoint where an enemy is coming from which is not only an audio benefit but a gameplay one.
In the end the game shows a huge shift and lesson learned I feel from last years very ambitious and faulty master chief collection. With the aim of 1080/60 not hit upon launch or across all games, a segmented development across studios delivered a commendable collection that had many failings until later patches fixed most of these. Here Microsoft allowed it to be co-developed alongside Gears 4 and mostly within the same studio, delivering a very polished and beautifully presented game with no issues and a multiplayer that is solid, fast and above all else just as fun and enjoyable if not more so than the original. It has made some artistic changes that some may not appreciate but it's upgrades and clean IQ helped with a decent texture filtering used across the much better and higher quality ones used and recreated here all help deliver a game that hides its last gen roots very well and better than most other remasters!.