Monday, September 19, 2011

Gears of War: In Retrospect

Tonight at midnight, I will be on my way to pick up my copy of Gears of War 3. The Gears of War series is probably my second favorite franchise in video games today. I love its larger than life characters, its desperate atmosphere, its gothic art style, etc. It was most definitely one of the more unique shooters out there, and has proven to be one of the most innovative games of its generation.

The first Gears of War game was one of, if not the first games to feature a cooperative campaign that actually made player 2 relevant not just to the gameplay, but to the story. As a younger brother, I can instantly appreciate any co-op game that actually allows me to play alongside my brother. Gears of War happened to be, by chance, an awesome frigging game as well.

I loved Gears of War when it came out. Its multiplayer was loads of fun, if a bit competitive (I’m kind of a wuss) but the campaign is what sold me. The story was pretty straightforward, but not without interesting twists. The characters made up for the simplicity of the story. Marcus Fenix, the stoic and insubordinate soldier accused of treason. Dom Santiago, the family man on a quest to find his wife. Augustus Cole, the exuberant ex-sports star. Damon Baird, the genius with a bad attitude. Even the bit characters like the uber-hardass Colonel Hoffman, the by-the-book Lt. Kim, and the cavalier, laid back Anthony Carmine all were cool ass characters. It’s rare to find any story where you love every one of the characters, and yet, Gears pulled it off. The combat was fun, engaging and intense. The levels were massive, decrepit, and filled with enemies. It was just a flat out good game. The only problem I had with GoW was that the game designers created such a massive, beautiful, and expansive universe to tell incredible stories, but did very little with it.

Gears of War 2 came down the pipeline introducing new characters, new enemies and further expanded on the universe. The story was much grander this time, focusing on the war with the Locust Horde. A massive assault was under way. Every surviving character from Gears 1 returned, each with expanded roles. Hoffman even took up arms in the fight against the Horde in this one. Sweet! We were also introduced to the religious and unkillable Tai Kaliso, the na├»ve rookie Ben Carmine, brother of Anthony Carmine, and everyone’s favorite potty-mouthed hillbilly, Dizzy Wallin. The stakes were higher and the story was vastly superior to the originals. In the midst of the awesome war taking place, there was a deeper side to the story. Dom’s quest to find his wife Mariah took center stage, and the story focused largely on the bond between Marcus and Dom. The story added lots of emotion and had parallels to WWII. The gameplay was improved and smoothed out around the edges, and multiplayer additions like the infinitely entertaining Horde mode ensured that the best days of Gears of War didn’t end with the first game.

Gears of War 2 was not without flaws. Although the story was grander and more epic, the combat took place almost exclusively on vehicles or mounts, and the game seemed bogged down by its impressive set pieces. The level design was more or less a simple curvy line from one area to the next, leaving little room for tactics and flanking maneuvers. And am I the only one who thought the Lancer was a total piece of shit in Gears 2?

Strangely, the story made up for the shortcomings in level design and combat narrative, which was the exact opposite of the Gears 1. Obviously spending more time with Delta squad was a huge boon as well. Steve Jablonksy’s score was also quite magnificent. But, the story was much improved. I had the chance to meet Josh Ortega at C2E2 two years ago. We talked game design and the artistic merits of Gears of War. He was a great guy and I feel that he helped the franchise out a lot with his work on Gears 2.

Now we come to Gears of War 3, and I am psyched to see how it ends. Karen Traviss will be taking over the writer duties, which is fantastic because her books are amazing and capture the characters and the world perfectly. I hope the story is just as grand and epic as GoW2, but I also hope that they improve on the flaws, and make the levels larger and incorporate a better sense of tactical play. Obviously the four player co-op will rock and the new Beast mode and Horde mode 2.0 look stellar. But most of all, I want to see some of the more neglected characters, like Baird and Cole, get some character development. They have been graduated to player characters now, so hopefully that will push them more into the limelight. I’m also excited to Anya in her new role as a member of Delta Squad and not just the operator. Jace Stratton has been expanded form his comic book roots, and brief cameo in Gears 2 to a full character now, and other new guys like Sam Byrne and Clayton Carmine (yeah, another one) will add some freshness to the campaign.

But with this sense of excitement comes a hint of sorrow. This may very well be the last time we see Delta Squad grace our gaming consoles. We’ve done a lot together. We’ve activated the resonator, killed Brumaks, Berserkers, Corpsers, and General RAAM. We’ve retaken the city of Landdown, stormed the Hollows, confronted the Locust Queen Myraah, sunk the city of Jacinto and killed Dom’s wife. Well that last one may not be the happiest of memories, but at least he caught a big ass fish in the process, right?

This is it. The end of an era. Later tonight (or tomorrow morning if you’re anal) the last journey of Delta Squad will begin, and I will be their ferryman. We’ll fight (and maybe die) on the battlefield together as brothers. Brothers to the end. The end.

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