This is the start of a new editorial series lingering within the deep, lurid, dark recesses of my mind. I will take a close look at video game franchises that have had at least three entries and examine the history of that series’ beginning steps and examine the improvements or possibly even downgrades made as the series inches its way closer to the confines of its existence. This installment will be taking a look at the Gears of War series. Gears of War: Judgement will not be launching until March 19, 2013, however the series as it is thus far is one of the few I can undoubtedly feel comfortable saying has become gradually better.
The original Gears of War was heaped with praise upon its initial release on November 7, 2006. It was met with a metacritic average of 94/100 based on eighty eight reviews and every single one of those was positive. I find that arduous to fathom such a contemptible idea. I am no jerk with little regard for other peoples’ thoughts and ideological viewpoints.
I, however, can not understand how no critic took enough issue with the game to rate it lower than a 7/10 or 3.5/5. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, however it is my opinion that the original Gears of War is one of the most over rated video games of this generation. I believe it to be average at best. I’ll later describe in detail why I find the game so over rated, but for now I want to go over the development history 0f the first game.
Gears of War began as Unreal Warfare, another entry into the Unreal series after Unreal Tournament. It was intended as a gigantic multiplayer game, however issues throughout the development process lead to delays and its eventual demise. Development on the Unreal Engine 3 began after Unreal Tournament 2003 shipped. The development team had the desire to move the project over to the new engine, so Unreal Tournament 2004 would be made with the Unreal 2 Engine.
At this point, Epic Games made the conscious decision to split Unreal Warfare from the Unreal universe because of how far removed it was from the established universe. Gears of War came to become a third person cover based shooter after taking inspiration from Resident Evil 4 and Kill.Switch. It was originally a traditional first person shooter with no cover. It was switched to a third person view once Cliff Bleszinski was shown Kill.Switch.
Epic attained the cover system from Kill.Switch and borrowed its over the shoulder camera from Resident Evil 4. Both cover systems and over the shoulder cameras are common place in the midst of contemporary games. Gears of War may not have been the first(It was actually the third), but it was the one that seemed to popularize the cover system. Another interesting tidbit of information was that geists were the names of the enemies until the switch to locust because of one of Nintendo’s published games also sharing the title of Geist.
Gears of War
The plot of Gears of War begins with Marcus Fenix, the protagonist, being bailed out of his antediluvian jail. This is fourteen years after emergence day, the day the locust hoard invaded planet Sera. Gears of War has never been a series I would call very engaging when it comes to characters, story, and lore. Some people are completely enthralled by the Gears mythos, lore, and characters.
Gears of War does not have a compelling story in the slightest. It is complete malarky. Games with terrible stories aren’t necessarily a problem. For as much as I adore and exalt video games with competent narratives, I realize not every games needs that. Gears of War never needed a deep or compelling story. The dialogue is cheesy and I couldn’t care less about any of the characters.
Why is this so detrimental to the experience of the game when so many other excellent games have the exact same narrative problems yet are great or excellent experiences? Other games are self aware. Developers must understand how to effectively utilize cutscenes. Epic Games is not one of those developers. The first and most important rule of games with dreadful stories is to have as little dialogue and as few cutscenes as possible.
For such a game in which story seems to be the least important thing, Gears of War certainly has far more useless exposition and dialogue than I would have bargained for. Thankfully the game only lasts for approximately five hours, so you won’t have to endure the torture too long. Something worth noting is each game follows a five act structure and each act is composed of several chapters.
I suppose my biggest issue with the game is the fact that it feels too much like a tech demo for the Unreal 3 Engine stretched into a full fledged retail product. This was the first console game to use the Unreal Engine 3 and it shows. Clear inspiration from the art and environmental assets of the 2004 tech demo as well as character models was taken. It’s as if assets from the tech demo were taken, put into a basic framework, and then the team hastily put together a product.
This feeling only applies to the first game though. The visuals may have been outstanding when it initially released, but nowadays it is unimpressive and just downright ugly. The pixel shaders, displacement mapping, high dynamic range lighting, and frame buffer distortion may have been impressive back in 2006. Today in 2012, the engine is outdated. Not only does it look ugly, but it also has framerate issues.
The framerate occasionally drops during in game fire fights, however the majority of these frame drops occur in cutscenes. This leads me to believe the engine isn’t optimized as well as other people would have you believe. A well optimized engine should not have frame rate drops during cutscenes. This is actually one of the few issues Epic Games never fixes as the series progresses. Even up to Gears of War 3, it will drop well below 20 frames per second in cutscenes.
From inauguration to end, Gears of War is extremely dull to look at it. It has some of the worst art design any current generation games has. Practically the entire game is grey. The only shimmer in this world of bleak, dull, drivel is red and blue. The red comes from your own and your enemies’ blood. The blue comes from ammo boxes which glow a faint blue color around the edges of the boxes.
Once a gamer takes their attention off the dull art and level design and focuses their attention on the gameplay, they find a game that’s not total farce. The shooting mechanics are superb. Emptying every shell from a weapon as you observe the blood soaking from a locust’s body until they drop dead serves to assuage my thirst for violence. The lancer, the signature Gears weapon, is one of my favorite weapons in video game history.
I revel in its simplicity. A standard issue assault rifle with a chainsaw bayonet is such a great idea. Unfortunately you rarely get an opportunity to use it. Gears of War sticks firmly to its mantra of being a true cover based shooter. unlike some other cover based shooter, cover is essential on the normal setting. Remaining out in the open for a handful of seconds on the normal difficulty setting, entitled hardcore, will lead to your demise.
It could have the largest arsenal in the world, yet that wouldn’t matter because I would stick solely to the lancer for the entirety of the game. I only use the sniper and gnasher shotgun when it is necessary. Every other weapon is in essence unused. The game incorporates a mechanic known as the active reload system. You may choose to press the reload button once to reload the weapon, however you can reload faster if you press it again at the right time.
A white bar under the weapon will indicate the correct window of opportunity for reloading. With perfect timing, the reloaded clip will do more damage and/or shoot at a faster rate. It is much more engaging than people give it credit for. Further consequence is added if you time the reload incorrectly. It will jam the weapon and take longer even longer to reload than if you had just pressed the reload button once.
I am surprised more games haven’t stolen the active reload system. That is one mechanic Gears of War as a series does better than any other game. The human character models are uninspired. The limitations of the engine combined with the awful art design make almost every human in the first game game look the same. They all have a very similar facial structure. It is so dull and lifeless.
Thankfully, the enemies are the complete opposite. I like the design of the locusts. The standard drones are well designed enough and there is a nice variety in the enemy types. In stark contrast to most third person shooters, each enemy type requires a different strategy to take down. The drones, the wretches, the boomers, the berserkers, the kryll; each of them are wildly different.
The cover system put in place works well enough to prevent from being a nuisance, though at times it won’t work the way you want it to. I’ve also never understood Epic Games feeling the need to have icons on the bottom showing what action your character would take if you were to press A then. If the cover button is A, unless a tutorial indicates otherwise, it is logical to assume pressing up and A would vault over cover and pressing to the side of A would roll out of or transition to cover. My intelligence feels insulted by Epic Games assuming gamers are too moronic to figure stuff out for themselves. It seems like a very minor complaint, but it irks me to no end. Holding the cover button performs a “roadie run”, which I hardly ever use because attempting to steer sharp corners during this run is useless.
Enemy variety is an issue many shooters struggle with, but that’s not the case with Gears of War. The plot is about Marcus and his squad trying to acquire a light mass bomb to eliminate the entire locust race. There is nothing more to it than that. As previously mentioned, it is not worth paying attention to. There is co-op throughout the entire game and it certainly feels like the campaign was built for cooperative play.
Playing the game with a buddy certainly adds much more to the overall experience and helps keep your mind off of the monotony. The competitive multiplayer is a mess. Gears of War hands down along with Gears of War 2 have the worst competitive multiplayer of the current generation. It takes very little skill. The balancing is all screwed up.
Maps are dull to look at because this being so extremely focused on the cover, every single map has to be completely symmetrical on each side with a center. This makes both sides even, but it also makes all the maps boring. Regardless of the map designs, the multiplayer is still horrendously unbalanced. I love high multiplayer health, but in Gears of War, the high level of health leads to players only using shotguns and explosive power weapons. Gears of War and Gears of War 2 are infested with gamers of this ilk and it ruins the whole multiplayer experience.
A PC port came one full year later, adding five extra chapters to the fifth act, three new multiplayer maps, new game modes, and a game editor. Overall, Gears of War is a game with so much more potential. It could have been a truly special game, but it is just a mediocre experience overall. It’s a very dull start to a franchise that will eventually reach excellence. The original game was heaped with praise. Do I think it deserves that praise? No. It’s not a bad game though. It is merely average.
Gears of War 2
Gears of War 2 picks up six months after the ending of the first game. Cities start mysteriously disappearing and Jacinto is the final “safe haven” for humans. The COGS launch a counterattack against the locust horde to save Jacinto. Gears of War 2 is the starting point of the series’ greatness. This is where the series elevated from mediocrity to greatness.
This is one of the best sequels of the current generation along with Assassin’s Creed 2 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It fixed many issues with the first game and added new mechanics to make it a worthy successor. This game is superior to the original in nearly every way. A much greater emphasis is placed on story and it is executed with mixed results.
I can appreciate the greater emphasis, however much like with the first game, it is horrendous. One major sub plot added to the story relates to Dom trying to find his wife. The developers clearly put in a lot of exertion to get some sort of emotional impact from this sub plot. It doesn’t work. The characters are still as dull and uninteresting as watching grass grow. The dialogue isn’t much better.
The cheese factor remains intact with full force. One excellent example is towards the start of the game. After fending off a locust attack, the locust retreat. Dom retorts with “Hey! Running away won’t help. I’ll just shoot you in your asses!” then he shoots sporadically at nothing. The line itself is awful, but the delivery is even worse. Whoever voices Dom is not cut out for emotional or angry scenes. When Dom repeatedly yells “Dammit” after losing the lead on his wife’s whereabouts, I couldn’t help but laugh uncontrollably. It’s so cute how the writers actually believe they are doing their job well.
The campaign which can still be played fully cooperatively is much longer than its predecessor. It is about twice the length of the first game. The first thing you may notice is the much improved visuals. I know I affronted the original’s visuals despite the age, but even then I thought the engine was overrated if Gears of War was anything to go by.
The improvements made to the Unreal 3 Engine are very noticeable. Whereas the first game is plain ugly, this game can actually be considered pretty. Higher resolution textures, larger environments, better lighting, better particle effects, and higher polygon counts make Gears of War 2 a decent looking game to this day. The art and level design changed for the better.
Gears of War 2 has something its predecessor never had. Color. Gears of War 2 is not the most colorful game you’ll ever see, but after the dullness of the first game, you won’t mind the color palette of this game. There is also a greater variety in environments than there were before. Most of the environments in the first game looked very similar. Most of the environments on display here are very different. One standout section for me is a level taking place inside a gigantic worm.
The level designers must have learned from their attempts in the first game. You’ll still come across areas with such perfectly placed cover that it is obvious enemies will magically spawn the second you move forward or take cover. For the most part though, the level designers have learned to make more natural looking environments. A neat touch adding to the immersion is destructible cover. It isn’t in the same vein as Battlefield and the Frostbite engine. Shooting and throwing grenades at a pillar, for example, will expose the metal innards underneath all the concrete, but you cannot collapse the pillar. I’m a sucker for particle effects.
The gameplay is still largely the same with minor changes that make it a better experience. Combat is more fast paced.Transition animations to and from cover are quicker to aid the quicker pace. Enemies same to take less bullets to kill than before, but the trade off is several more enemies on screen at once. In Gears of War, you would never fight more than a handful of enemies at once.
In Gears of War 2, encounters with nearly a dozen to a dozen enemies are routine. The roadie run speed was decreased to allow for easier maneuvering around sharp corners. Combat is exponentially more exciting. In spite of the satisfying gunplay, the first game became repetitive very quickly. This game hardly ever does. It is more set piece driven. The set pieces are a nice break from the normal action, but Epic Games didn’t space them apart very well as the pacing could have been better.
Another welcome addition to combat is an expanded arsenal which I actually use. *GASP* I know right. The Lancer assault rifle was the only weapon I used in the first game, but Gears of War 2 does a nice job at making me want to use other weapons more. The two newest additions to the arsenal, the Gorgon pistol and the Hammerburst were great. In certain situations, I even used the hammerburst and gorgon pistol exclusively without a lancer. In the original game, that would have been blasphemy. I also grew fonder of the sniper rifle because of the larger scale battles.
Other additions include the ability to engage in a chainsaw duel and being able use an enemy as a meat shield. Gears of War only had one boss fight and that was General Raam at the very last playable point of the campaign. Gears of War 2has three boss fights with the final one being a total pushover. Campaign wise, it still follows the five act structure established in the first entry.
The Game comes off as unpolished. I notice the occasional clipping issues, pop in, frame rate issues, and the AI glitches out on me randomly. I recorded these instances with my phone, so please excuse the quality.
Competitive multiplayer is still just as much of a joke as it was before. It is still primarily shotgun spamming with the occasional power weapon hoarding. It’s a waste and don’t suggest serious people bother with it. There isn’t real skill involved. Thankfully, horde mode was added. This is a five player survival mode which has since become exorbitantly popular in online games. Horde consists of fifty waves with every ten waves increasing in difficulty. It easily surpasses the competitive multiplayer.
Gears of War 2 is a great game. It learned from the mistakes of its predecessor and expanded with new mechanics and a survival mode which alone saves the multiplayer. I still take issue with the awful story, pacing, and competitive multiplayer, but it is still very much worthy of owning. Hopefully Gears of War 3 rectifies these problems. Cliff Bleszinsky successfully backed his claim of Gears of War 2 being “bigger, better, and more badass” than the first.
Gears of War 3
Gears of War 3, the conclusion to the trilogy, was thought to be the last game up until its release. It was perceptible to deduce Epic Games or Microsoft would try to go the Call of Duty or Halo route and milk the living liquid out of the series. At this point in the franchise, Gears of War has hit its highest point, but also its lowest low. The milking already began far before Gears of War: Judgement was officially announced.
I despise whenever there is a large, overarching plot that spans multiple mediums. The Gears of War series is rubbish overall with its story so having a trilogy that ties together a crap story is already frightening enough. Gears of War 3‘s story is a double edged sword. For the first time in half a decade, I actually start to begin caring for the characters. Some of the writing is actually quite good.
The interplay between certain characters such as Baird and Sam is excellent. It begins to evoke the tiniest bit of a human element. Witty responses abound abound and I am quite shocked. Never once in my life would I have expected to see good writing in a Gears of War game. The story is more important here than it ever has been. Epic Games is beginning to learn. That’s not to say it comes close to the level of Uncharted, Bioshock, Catherine, or even Lollipop Chainsaw for well written silliness.
The glimmer of hope begins depleting at Mach speed as you are introduced to characters that seemingly have a history with the main characters of the first two games. Females appear out of thin air. Exposition is thrown about. Wait? Why do you hate him? When did Prescott leave? This is when I realized that the only way to get the full story is to read the Gears of War novels, which I had no idea existed until I had my grasp on the game.
The novels fill in all the gaps between the games, but why must a gamer be punished by needing to read entire novels as a requisite for understanding what is going on in Gears of War 3. There is nothing wrong with reading. I adore literature, however stories should stick to one medium. If a series wants to extend beyond the reaches of its own medium, merely retell the same story, using the strengths and weaknesses of the other medium to present it in a new and interesting way rather than making them necessary to fully understand what is happening.
After overcoming the idiocy of Epic Games’ handling of the franchise, I can focus on what makes Gears of War 3 a fantastic game. That isn’t the story. It is the gameplay. This is an amalgamation of all the negative and positive feedback on its predecessors. Epic Games knows how to listen to complaints and mostly avoid implementing new ideas that clutter a sturdy foundation.
Level design, a paramount area of game design, is the best its ever been. Gears of War felt like you were slogging through basic video game levels. Gears of War 2 improved on that and attempted using a color palette. Gears of War 3‘s level variety is a sight to behold. Rarely are you stuck in similar areas. Gears of War 2 received a huge amount of backlash because a large percentage of it was in underground areas. I never understood complaints against that when the first game had less diversity, but that’s what happens when people are blinded by the visuals of a new game engine at the start of a console generation.
Gears of War 3 is beautiful. It is easily the second most visually impressive console game to date. The only game it can’t compete with is Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, but then Naughty Dog is filled with technical wizards. The god ray lighting and gore in particular are exceedingly pretty. I consistently enjoyed looking at each new environment. The combination of art design, level design, and technical graphics.
The campaign itself is much longer than Gears of War and longer than Gears of War 2. It doesn’t suffer the same pacing as the first two games, which is a godsend because a campaign as long as Gears of War 3 with bad pacing would ruin the whole experience.
My favorite new addition is four player co-op throughout the entire campaign. It isn’t an afterthought. Every scenario in the game feels as if it was designed with the four player count in mind. It usually means larger environments with more opportunities for diverse encounters. Considering how well the co-op was implemented here, I wish more games would allow for four player co-op throughout the main campaign. Trailing behind that is the expansion of executions. When enemies are bleeding out, you have more options for executions. Almost all of the weapons have unique executions and some even have multiple executions. Some of them are weak while others are viscerally satisfying. One of my favorites is the scorcher execution in which you stick the scorcher through a locust body and hit the trigger to burn it from the inside out, fumes of fire bursting out of its mouth and limbs.
New weapons are introduced such as the one-shot, a one shot one kill heavy sniper rifle, and the digger, a weapon that seethes into the ground underneath then pops out for an explosion. New locust enemy types are also introduced, making firefights more interesting than before. Gears of War 3 is one of the few shooters that doesn’t have an abundance of similar enemy types requiring similar techniques and strategies to take down.
The multiplayer is a completely new beast compared to the last games. Horde mode has been upgraded to horde mode 2.0. The structure of enemies spawning has changed and a bigger defensive, team work driven focus makes it better than the prior horde mode thanks to the inclusion of being able to use money to buy offensive turrets or fences to fend off enemies. Things like that make horde mode all the more engaging.
The competitive side of multiplayer is difficult to describe. For the first time ever, Gears of War has serviceable competitive multiplayer. I know. I was shocked as well. The maps are much more well designed and i’m not sure what Epic Games did to the balancing, health, weapon damage, etc……, but it worked. That’s not to say it still isn’t a shotgun fest. It is, but killing other players carrying a shotgun while you have a non power weapon is actually possible if you’re skilled enough. Epic Games could have worked more on the balancing to completely eliminate shotgun whoring, but as it stands, I am very content with multiplayer that isn’t useless trash.
Gears of War 3 is a fantastic video game. It is the purest expression of Gears of War‘s potential thus far. It may have more potential to squeeze out with its storytelling prowess(it’s getting there) and the balancing of the multiplayer, but hopefully Gears of War: Judgement continues the trend of the series and fixes the few complaints I have left for this franchise.
I’m royally proud of Epic Games. They have gained my respect. I hope I won’t have to deal with any more ubiquitous generic crap from the company. They have my respect and admiration after the third game, but they can lose it at any moment. In all the Gears of War series is great, but the mediocre first game is difficult to get over. The potential was so great. It was squandered and yet it was heaped with praise, no doubt due to the then impressive visuals that blinded people. It’s a very dull game all around.