The Backlog: Gears of War 3

The falls is fast approaching and with it comes not only new games but new consoles. Barbecue of this we must bit adieu to The Backlog. And so it's only fitting that just like Gears of War 3 ended a trilogy, it also ends the Backlog. IF you missed last week's look at To the Moon, check it our here.

I finally got around to buying an Xbox 360 a couple of months ago because I wanted to play through five or six of the platform's exclusives.  You may have read my first backlog entry, Halo 3.  This week The Chronicles of my Late Adoption of the XBox 360 continues with Gears of War 3.

A few months ago, my brother asked me, “What did you think of Gears of War”?  My answer was, “I think that Gears of War fucking sucks.”  I played the first game when it arrived on the PC back in 2007, and I was thoroughly underwhelmed by its mediocrity.  I hated the “one button for everything control”, I found the level design to be repetitive and boring, and the weapon design was such that it made no sense to use anything but the Lancer for almost the entire game.  I still figured that I would give Gears of War 2 a try though, despite how little I enjoyed the first one.  To my surprise, I found it to be a great action game that improved upon the original in every possible aspect.  The level design was better, with tons of variety and great pacing.  It introduced a few interesting weapons and it even got a surprising amount of mileage out of its story.  Best of all, it really went out with a bang with its great ending.

Right after playing Gears of War 2, I plunged into the third campaign of the trilogy.  Immediately, a problem struck me – one that has become one of my pet peeves this generation – it is a campaign that was clearly designed with co-op as the dominant feature, and single player as more of an afterthought.

And thus, Gears of War 3 joins the large list of games from the past few years that tries to have its cake and eat it too.  Nowadays, multiplayer features are being shoehorned into every genre of game, regardless of how well they fit or whether the fans are even interested in it.  Yet, it seems as if nobody wants to acknowledge that adding new gameplay modes actually increases development costs.  One way that developers have tried to get around this problem is by turning single player campaigns into co-op campaigns by designing all of the levels around having two or more characters (Resident Evil 5, the recent Star Trek game, etc. etc).  Gears of War1 and 2 actually pulled this off pretty well – they at least kept the co-op part transparent to the single player.  When you have four characters instead of two, however, then the design gets a lot harder.  By tripling the AI characters, the designers have to make all the fights bigger, and find an excuse to have each character in cutscenes.  The integrity of the single player game gets sacrificed so that the game can list four-player co-op as a bullet point on the box.  In Gears of War 3, co-op makes the game too easy.  Your three AI buddies can do 90% of the work for you if you let them.  You can complete many of the game’s encounters simply by hiding in a corner and letting your AI teammates kill everyone on the screen.  I am about two thirds of the way through the game, and so far I am finding it to be much easier than the previous two games.  Hearing the famous "all enemies are dead" guitar riff while you are scavenging for ammo makes for an unsatisfying experience.

I wish that the game could have found a way to offset this problem by giving you squad controls and letting you deploy them in an interesting way.  It would have kept the game fun and challenging.  Instead, it is just Gears of War 2 with more bodies.  I still like the action enough to stay engaged in it, but it isn't as satisfying as it has been in other games.  I don't actively dislike the game, but I am also not going out of my way to play it.  To me, the ultimate measure of a great game is whether it allows another game to come along and take away my attention. Gears of War2 didn't.   Gears of War 3, on the other hand, lost my affections temporarily to some other recent titles.

I will say though, I have become surprisingly fond of the story and setting in this series.  The meathead space marine has become somewhat of a cliché this generation, but Gears of War makes it work.  The series is an almost perfect blend of satire and seriousness.  It feels like a video game version of Starship Troopers with its tongue-in-cheek bravado and extreme graphic violence.  It is little touches, like the way that an enemy freezes in place for a second after you blow his head to bits, or the way that Marcus grumbles out a complaint when you screw up an active reload.  He sounds like an old man who just got the Blue Screen of Death on his computer.  The section of the game where Cole has a flashback to his glory days as a Thrashball player was an unexpected delight that had me laughing out loud.

The pacing and the level design are still good, just like Gears of War 2.  I find that I am still having some fun with the game, despite what I think is a serious issue with its multiplayer-focused single player campaign.  One thing that the game accomplishes is that it constantly makes you feel as if you are making progress on the story.  Some titles drag out objectives by padding levels, or putting so many levels between objectives that you forget what you were doing in the first place.  Lots of games are guilty of this problem.  In Bioshock Infinite, for example, I would frequently forget what my next story-related goal was after shooting enemies and collecting potato chips out of garbage cans for a half hour.  There is only so much that you can do with gray cover-based shooting, however.  You stick to cover, you aim, you shoot, and then you let go of the aim button when the screen turns red.  No matter how many times the action changes up with a boss battle or a rail shooting sequence, I can't shake the feeling that I have seen it all before.

Gears of War 3 is the type of game that to me is a B-, a 7 out of 10 experience.  I am sure that I will finish it within the next month or two, but if I fall into another addictive experience soon, this game will probably get pushed to the backburner.  Gears of War and its cover-based shooting are somewhat symbolic of this generation as a whole.  It has been okay, but it has gone on way too long and it has run its course.  That is why even though I haven't touched Gears of War: Judgement, I'm not surprised by the lukewarm reception that the game received.  The first few acts of Gears of War 3 have led me to think that this is probably the last Gears of War game that I am going to play.

And so ends not just this Backlog, or our 2013 season but also this console generation. Do you have any thoughts on Gears of War or its correlation to this generation? Thanks for reading as, as always, leave your comments below.