Sunday, November 13, 2011

Brothers To At Least Act Three

In my first post, in what has become a series related to the Gears of War franchise, I mentioned that my first experience of the games was through Horde Mode in Gears 2, and that I had ignored the story for some time even after I purchased it thinking I'd hate it. On the surface, it looked like everything I disliked about testosterone fueled war games turned up to eleven.

Turns out I was wrong, and right, in that order.

Make no mistake, the universe of Gears of War is a truly nightmarish place overpopulated with males who sport enormous muscles and necks that resemble tree-trunks, a thriving steroid manufacturing and distribution industry, and tech level beyond our own, while simultaneously never spotting the vast race of cave dwelling monsters that lived below their feet until they burst to the surface. There is so much wrong with the world of Sera that I find it hard to understand how it got past the design process.

I was right in thinking that I'd dislike that kind of game, I was just wrong in thinking that I already disliked the Gears series because of it.

You see for some reason, in this case, it works. It still has all those things I dislike about war games, but by turning them up to eleven, Epic managed to make them entertaining, poking fun at the absurdity of the tropes on display. It's an over-the-top universe of action and adventure, epic battles and heartbreaking personal moments. It has, in my opinion, some great incidental dialogue that characters shout in the heat of battle, fantastic characterizations, and an awesome array of enemies. 

I ended up playing both the first and second games through with friends, both through the couch-sharing, split-screen mode and the Xbox Live full-screen version. In fact, now that I think about it, I don't think I've ever played any Gears of War story by myself, and I've finished the first game at least three times, and the second game more than that!

Through Horde Mode, my wonderful wife joined me on the world of Sera, at first watching me play through the story, enjoying the story together, before playing the game herself. She never got around to finishing her own run through, but she put in hours of combat training killing Locust in Horde

On the release of Gears 3, I knew I wanted to experience the story together with Claire this time. We sat down and played through the entire campaign together over several nights. Our first run-though was even on Hardcore! The campaign allows for 4-player co-op, so we had two bots running and gunning along with us. In practice, this meant that they raced forward, took a tonne of fire, one went down, the other picked his fallen friend up, rinse, repeat, and Claire and I sat back picking everything off at a safe distance.

With our run-though complete, Claire and I joined Bob and Jp on Arcade Mode and played through it a second time in quick succession.

All in all, I can't say that I didn't enjoy the game. There were some spectacular scenes, loads of genuinely funny moments, fantastic dialogue, nice nods to the earlier games and some great easter eggs scattered throughout. The story moved along at a good pace, and while it clocked in at easily the longest in the series, it never once felt like that. The ending almost came too soon.

Playing it on Insane in the Arcade four-player co-op was tough. Instantly dieing instead of the usual safety net of Down But Not Out was at first frustrating, but once you adjusted to it, it simply made some scenes even more tense and nerve wracking. Adding Mutators, fun game changers such as infinite ammo, or bonus weapon damage, certainly made things more enjoyable, shifting the tone of combat from a defensive stance spending the majority of time behind cover regaining health, to a more proactive offensive ideology. There were still a number of really, really difficult-to-finish areas, but the ones we were dreading the most often proved to be the quickest to complete!

I have to say, I was well proud of our little band of heroes when we nailed the final boss without too much trouble. I want to say that we didn't even wipe out once, but I think we may have had to restart once or twice early on. But it was far less painful that certain earlier levels (I'm looking at you, Formers!). In the end, it was some awesome teamwork, combined with a sprint around the tower a few times while the three dead teammates rejoined the fight, that won the day!

Visually, the game is beautiful. The environments have a massive amount of variety, from battling in dark tunnels to stunning, sun drenched walkways. Even the darker sections of the game are brighter than most apocalyptic games, filled with torches, dynamic lighting effects and clever tricks to avoid having to play through an area with my screen brightness maxed out. The character models are crisp and incredibly detailed, with everything moving realistically, whether it's the faces as they talk and react or the solid plates on the armour.

It's also refreshing to see a game with several strong female characters, and even more refreshing to see them wearing much the same amour as the guys, instead of skimpy chainmail bikinis or a body armour that inexplicably leaves the midrift exposed! The girls are just as bad-ass as the guys here, and everything they do, say and wear reinforces that they are not just onscreen to look pretty and kiss the men on the way to battle, but could easily hold their own in any fight. The only thing I'm upset we never get to see is an all female chapter, where the girls have to defend or attack a key location while the boys are busy elsewhere. Admittedly, the main game only has three named female COG characters, so maybe I can suggest that idea for future DLC!

Story-wise, I was bitterly disappointed in some of the major choices made, especially towards the end. I'm not going to go into it here, as I'm going to leave my thoughts and ideas on that subject for another post, but suffice it to say, I still think Gears of War 2 is the stronger story, or at least the stronger resolution.

Gears of War 3 feels like the appropriate ending in the story for control of an entire planet. Unfortunately, it just seems to push itself over the thin line between "epic action adventure" into the field of "ridiculous nonsense" as it gets towards the end. There were several times I found myself close to screaming "WHY?!?" at the Xbox, and at least once when I did. Despite this, I enjoyed it then and still enjoy it now. I've played it through once on Hardcore and once on Insane in four-player co-op, yet I still enjoy joining friends games and playing through a few chapters when I have the time. There are some amazing climax moments, none better than the start of Act 3 where you have to defend a fort against a tidal wave of seemingly unending enemies. The dialogue and character interactions are funny and enjoyable, and once again the Baird/Cole buddy team-up steals the show for me.

A flawed but enjoyable masterpiece, the story of Gears 3 was enough for me to enjoy playing at least twice. While it won't keep me coming back like Horde mode does, it wasn't something I felt I could put off playing, as I had done in Gears 2. In fact, more than anything, playing the Gears 3 campaign has made me want to go back and play the story in Gears 2 again, and relive how an emotional moment in a game is done properly.

Previous posts in this series:
The Coalitions Finest
User, Why?
Still to come:
How I would have written things if I was in control (But with a much snappier title)

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