Friday, 7 October 2011

"Gears Of War 3" Review

by Alex Hill


The original Gears of War was as juvenile as it was artless. It stretched itself thin on gimmicks. It was barely coherent and largely stupid. Its' attempt at characterization resulted mostly in loud and obnoxious stereotypes. Its world was the result of an ugly obsession with polygons, and macho muscle-headed bullshit. The games industry has "borrowed" a lot from this series since E-Day. That childishness is the only thing they've managed to do better than Epic Games. Not even when their CEO openly mocks independent developers at conventions.

And then something curious happened: Every other game wanted to be like it(and to be fair, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto). It was warmly-received by critics and the public. Men and women, despite it's "NO GIRLZ ALLOWED" tone. It even landed the highest honour the Game Developer's Choice Awards can bestow. It was like watching the Best Picture Oscar go to Bad Boyz II. So not only was it successful, this turd was critically acclaimed(by people who I thought knew better). Something about this series turns reasonable men into sluts.

By now the copycats had come out of the woodworks. Every other game developer looked at the two things it tried to do differently(its' cover mechanic, and making the weapon-reloading animation into a mini-game)... And then they all aped the cover mechanic as hard and as fast as they could, without taking the time to consider how or why that would make their products better or more successful. They learned all of the wrong lessons, and now this hobby is worse for it.

Was it at this point that the project's figurehead (Cliff Blezinski) decided to actually make a man out of this franchise? Was it becoming a mark of shame to know he'd started a negative trend in his field, a total rejection of imagination? Did he feel bad about his part in unleashing the flood of brown, ultra-violent shooters? He has since asked people to stop calling him "Cliffy B". That's a start.

Gears of War 2 wanted to be more. That much was obvious. But their attempt at legitimate drama was hardly believable, considering this was still the game more suited to fans of professional wrestling. But playing it, I was overcome with the sensation that it was made by people who were getting the gittiness out of their system, and were ready to take things more seriously. They couldn't just release it in a sea of clones. They had to be better than their imitators. The focus on a co-operative campaign runs deeper here than in other titles of the same era, which are often obligatory afterthoughts. And their Horde mode has continued the tradition of competitors swiping things from them, but somehow always worse(Halo's "Firefight" and Left 4 Dead's "Survival" pale in comparison).

And here we are. Gears of War 3. For this capstone they seem to be doing whatever they can to make this less of an embarrassment. Epic hired a woman who knows how to write a heart and soul into impenetrable robots in a ridiculous setting. There are characters who don't look like rejected Rescue Heroes. The cast is no longer a sausage-fest. There are actually colours this time. Honest-to-goodness colours(and no, I'm not referring to muzzle-flashes). There's daylight, and plants, and emotional insight, and depth in this game about chainsawing dudes. And it works.

Holy shit, GREEN!

...But I can't help but feel it doesn't go far enough. There are a great many characters, few of them outright unlikable. Marcus and Dom just aren't interesting, but Jace and Sam don't have enough of a presence in the cutscenes to leave a bigger impact. And for all of the hype leading up to whether the third Carmine brother would survive, I was pretty disappointed to find out he only appears twice. He seems like an alright guy, but he only shows up at the very beginning, and then at the very end. Almost as if, during a hectic development schedule they forgot(or didn't have time) to include him in the events. Certainly not in the way his two unlucky brothers were in previous games.

There is also a concerning disconnect between the tone it wants to achieve and the results of the COG's mission. Gears 3 sets the stage of humanity thoroughly conquered, on its last legs, desperate and starving. Resources are supposed to be thin.

But they've still got plenty of steroids to go around.

And yet no matter the bind they find themselves in, these vaguely human-shaped meat-slabs somehow avoid defeat, or even mild setbacks. The excitement is gone the 12th time they just barely avoid a collapsing roof or something. More than 75% of the main cast survives to hear Ice T's song over the ending credits.

I hate it when stories do this. It makes the supposedly ferocious Locust and Lambent threats seem pathetic. Having almost every character magically survive doesn't raise the stakes, it makes their toil look superficial and easy. Although it's not as bad about this as say, FMA Brotherhood, it did peter out at the end.

I blame the 4-player co-op for this. The previous games were a two-player experience, something a little more intimate. Sometimes it was just you, a bud, and hordes of monsters. That way they could kill off a character on the side if they wanted. But with 4 players, it wouldn't be fair to kill a character and make one person sit out, while his friends continue to have fun. So nobody is really allowed to die, except for side-characters no one really expected or wanted to live anyway. Perhaps "3" would have been the magic number here?

And I am able to let all of this go, because it's FUN! Do you remember "Fun"? I never thought I would see it again. Apparently enjoyment as a concept isn't marketable in video games anymore. It's usually the first thing to get left on the cutting room floor. Oh that's not to say this game's fanbase isn't riddled with cheaters(you wouldn't believe how many times I've been shot through walls). But unlike a certain other bloated, infantile franchise, this one doesn't feel the need to break its own rules just to make you lose. Hiccups happen at the rare consistency they did during the NES days. When I lose(and more importantly, when I WIN), it's because I created the circumstances that led to it. It's because I deserved it.

Horde mode is fun. The Campaign is fun(even if it did feel like they ran out of ideas after the underwater section). Beast mode is REALLY fun, and I imagine that will be the next concept this industry swipes from Epic Games. And in the few games where people aren't shooting me with the Torque Bow while facing the opposite direction, at the other side of the map, through several houses, even the online multiplayer can be a blast. The story-mode isn't perfect, but it's so rare for a developer to be able to juggle these two halves and make something closer to whole. They didn't just make a half-assed online equivalent and focus mostly on the single-player setting. They didn't just include a story as faint lip-service, with the real meat being in the multiplayer.

Gears of War 3 manages to have its cake and chainsaw it too. I am left to ponder: did this series get better? Did every other game just get worse? After the experiences I've had in the last few years, this franchise looks more harmless by the day. I even found myself rooting for the "Cole-Train". Karen Traviss took the poster-boy for every horrible, stupid stereotype of black portrayals in video games and made him a big, lovable teddy bear.

I guess it's still big. It's the pictures that got small.



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