In Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, the past and present collide with a loud boom, the rev of a chainsaw, and a splash of Locust blood.
I played the first Gears of War twice recently -- once on Xbox 360, and then on Xbox One, the remastered version -- and the differences range form subtle to obvious. The juxtaposition also reminded me how easily we can misremember the things we used to know, and Rod Fergusson, head of developer The Coalition and co-creator of the seminal shooter series, can relate.
"It's awesome to go back, and sort of revisit old friends, and get to work on stuff I wanted to fix back at the time," Fergusson said. "I think everyone has rose-colored glasses on when you think of the original. But this time around, we could adjust for certain things that new technology allows for. It was a balancing act between modernization and nostalgia."
At the outset of a multiplayer match in the original, untouched Xbox 360 version, I immediately returned to 2006. Memories of last-minute comebacks, close-quarter shotgun battles, and meticulous Boomshot kills came flooding back.
But a few seconds later, those fond memories disappeared. Something felt off. Baird -- my preferred multiplayer character -- felt sluggish. Every time I entered or exited cover, or turned my reticle to focus on an enemy player, there was a slight stutter I didn't remember. My team won the match, but only by a little, and I contributed only one kill to the communal effort.
Then we switched to Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, and Fergusson might as well have slipped those rose-colored glasses right back over my eyes.
At 60fps, the Xbox One remaster feels faster, smoother and more responsive, and my muscle memory acclimates more quickly. I'm more comfortable darting between cover. I swivel my aim with more precision. The Boomshot's arc feels familiar again. Although Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is an HD reboot of an existing game, it feels updated and more palatable for modern audiences.
The map environments also benefitted during the jump to an upgraded Unreal Engine 3. Textures are grittier, character animations are more fluid, and the lighting presents a stark dichotomy between the sun-drenched streets of Gridlock and the darker, more shadowy confines of Fuel Depot.
"The technology of the two games changes quite a bit," Fergusson said. "Being able to adjust certain things was great. Not just in gameplay, but also storytelling. Now we have the textures to get up really close on faces during cinematics. We also added in environmental storytelling that wasn't there before."
After several (successful) multiplayer matches, I switched over to campaign. The cinematics of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, as Fergusson mentioned, are definitely a marked improvement since 2006. The skin on Marcus Fenix's face is much less shiny, and the light doesn't strike his outdated soul patch in the same odd way it used to.
As for the campaign gameplay itself, the same smooth controls carry over here as well. Of the several chapters we played, one was taken from late-game content never before seen on consoles. It was part of the PC-exclusive pack Epic Games released in 2007, and like the rest of the original Gears of War campaign, it has a much darker and horror-driven tone than the sequels.
Fergusson said this return to the franchise's core was a huge driving force for not only the remaster, but also Gears of War 4, the next game The Coalition has on its resume.
"It was really our way of deconstructing nostalgia, and going back to our roots," he said. "It allowed us to talk about philosophical things, like 'What makes Gears, Gears?' That notion of cover distances, spawning in waves, the idea of intimate violence."
In essence, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is as much about the future as it is about the past. It's become a boot camp, or training ground, for the developer's main focus going forward.
"The Coalition is a diverse group of people lined up for a single purpose," Fergusson said. "I mean, they come from all kinds of different games. We have level designers from Assassin's Creed, and Crysis, and Space Marine, and all these different types of games. So them getting to reverse-engineer Gears of War One has allowed them to see what makes a Gears level a Gears level. It's especially helpful as we develop Gears of War 4."
From what I've played, Fergusson's team has already recaptured that elusive "Gears" factor I remember so fondly. Somehow, the upcoming Gears of War: Ultimate Edition agrees with my nostalgia more than the original game itself.