Despite the fact that I played through the original Gears of War back when it was first released in 2006, I was never a fan. The gameplay felt way too linear and predictable, the story was full of unintentionally hilarious moments that were supposed to be badass (not to mention the smirk inducing, accidental homoeroticism), the visuals – while technically impressive – lacked any variation in colour and the multiplayer all but drove me away from online gaming altogether, given how toxic players were in their attitudes and behaviour. It was the video game equivalent of a Michael Bay film – and not one of the good ones, either.
Yet last year’s acquisition of an Xbox One X and Game Pass gave me an opportunity to revisit the series. I played through the Ultimate Edition of the first game and still struggled, to be honest. I played the second game for the first time and was far more impressed, though it still had its issues. And now I’ve also had the opportunity to play through Gears of War 3. Did it improve even further on the formula, in my opinion?
Gears of War 3 begins at sea – which is a refreshing change – and wastes no time in giving us a massive action set piece featuring a giant aquatic antagonist. It’s soon revealed that lead character Marcus Fenix’s father is alive, and the game propels us through the story at breakneck speed with a quest to rescue Papa Fenix.
There’s a lot of great stuff this time around. It’s by far the most vividly colourful and environmentally varied of the first three games, with some massively open combat zones that feel a lot less enclosed than those found in the prior games. Enemies are hugely varied and some – particularly infected humans – require more than just the usual waist-high cover shooting tactics that feature so heavily throughout the initial trilogy. There’s a much more successful feeling of worldbuilding and of a bigger conflict happening around you, as well as there being much more of a squad-based feel than the lone hero or duo feel we’ve seen previously.
Finally, characters such as Anya get to be a part of the action and are a near permanent presence throughout the game – the dudebro feel is thankfully dialled down a little thanks to the addition of female squadmates. There’s mech-style suits and Aliens-esque power loader type machinery to operate as well, which – in addition to the on-rails vehicle sequences – bring a bit more variety than we’re used to.
At one stage early on, you get to play as ex-Thrashball player Cole Train too, leading his own squad on a mission parallel to the one Marcus is on at the beginning of the game. It’s great – especially as Cole actually has an interesting personality, unlike Marcus – but it’s a shame that it’s over so quickly and the same protagonist switching isn’t pulled again, which seems like a wasted opportunity.
Finally getting a bit of insight into Marcus Fenix’s backstory, especially given that it forms so much of the thrust of the narrative this time around, was refreshing – but it’s quite odd that it took until the third game for any of these details to surface. It does bring an end to the trilogy in a reasonably closed way too.
It’s not all good. A major character’s fate is telegraphed extremely clumsily by a chapter title, and it doesn’t feel particularly earned either. It’s dragged out and we’re beaten over the head by how sad it’s supposed to be – in a heavy handed shortcut, it uses the instrumental, piano-led ‘Mad World’ on the soundtrack to reasonable effect – but there’s little sense beyond a few tiny moments in other cutscenes or dialogue that it has that much impact on our characters. Not to mention the fact that the characters themselves haven’t been the most endearing or likeable over the last few games in any case. The game also commits the cardinal sin of killing characters off – important and incidental ones – in cut scenes of events that look far less dangerous or deadly than most of what you’ll find yourself up against during normal combat throughout.
The Locust Queen is once again wasted; she just seems like a terribly ineffective and stupid antagonist for most of the game, instructing her army to take Fenix out no matter what, yet idly observing him from a distance over and over again. An explanation of who she is, despite our heroes questioning her nature repeatedly, isn’t forthcoming; it was apparently revealed in a hidden collectible in Gears of War 2 – as well as fleshed out elsewhere – but this seems like a major oversight. She’s also finally dispatched in a non-interactive cutscene, in a moment that really doesn’t come across as heroic or badass for Marcus Fenix at all – and it only serves to reinforce my opinion of him as a fairly unengaging and unlikeable character.
The Ice-T voiced, civilian outpost leader Griffin is a cringeworthy ethnic stereotype in a game hardly devoid of stereotypes, leaves the game in another unintentionally funny scene that’s supposed to be a badass standoff. Cole has a similar moment, where we’re supposed to be admiring how badass he is, but it’s just so clichéd that it feels like parody.
Seeing Marcus without a bandana made me laugh at the end too, in a moment that was supposed to perhaps feel poignant or romantic. Either way, it’s clumsily handled and once more feels unearned.
Yet there’s no denying that, despite these narrative issues that aren’t exclusive to the third game – they plague the entire trilogy – I did have fun with the solid, weighty combat. Though some more awkward and not especially fun on-rails sections do feature, they’re lesser in number and much better than those featured in the other games. The story overall moves at a really fast pace and the campaign doesn’t overstay its welcome, as the narrative of Gears of War 2 did.
I still for the life of me can’t work out quite why the Gears series is held in such high esteem; though very impressive from a technical point of view (even now, Gears of War 3 looks remarkably good, especially on an Xbox One X, despite not being ‘officially’ remastered) the story just never grabs me and always feels handled in such a juvenile way. It really is like playing through a Michael Bay film, complete with awkward attempts at humour, terrible ethnic stereotypes, female characters treated as second class citizens for the most part (even when they’re put into powerful positions, they’re still overly sexualised and made into objects of desire or, worse, ‘rewards’ for the dudebros) and clunky, unearned pathos.
Of course, I’ve approached the entire trilogy as a single player experience and haven’t touched the hugely popular multiplayer at all. I’m well aware that many thousands of players swear by the versus and horde modes of Gears, but my bad experience early on was enough for me to keep away from these entirely ever since. So I admit that there is a lot more to Gears of War than just the main campaign and its accompanying story.
I have, however, enjoyed it enough that I’m looking forward to playing the first current gen Gears of War, with Gears of War 4. I will of course be back with my thoughts on the next game as soon as I’ve finished the main campaign.
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