COG in the Machine
I recently played Gears of War 1, 2, and 3 for the first time. Here are some thoughts!
I never touched any of the Gears of War games at release. Back in 2006, I didn't own an Xbox 360 and played most, if not all, of my games on PC. When the first Gears of War got a Games for Windows Live release the following year, I pretty much completely ignored it.
Why? To me, Epic Games were the Unreal people, not the Gears people. (Today they're unquestionably the Fornite people, which still feels weird to think about!) At the time, I was more interested in playing new maps, mods, and mutators for Unreal Tournament 2004. That's a game where you run around shooting people in the face with an assortment of crazy weaponry to a high-octane drum and bass soundtrack. The idea of hiding behind a wall before taking a few shots seemed comparatively tame, so whatever faint blip Gears of War had on my radar fell off pretty rapidly.
But I've always known Gears was a landmark game series for those who played it - or at least the original trilogy, developed by Epic Games before Microsoft acquired the franchise and The Coalition took over subsequent titles, was. So I thought I would play through the first three games and see what I made of them in 2021.
The first surprise to me was the tone. I knew these COG guys were angry beefcakes, but I didn't expect it all to be quite so... macho. Pretty much all of the dialogue is quite funny, thanks to the amount of angst loaded into every sentence. It's a cut-yourself-on-the-edge kind of situation, and everyone involved is really hamming it up. It was off-putting at first, but it ended up working for me in a really goofy way.
I also wasn't expecting how light-touch the story would be. These games feel like a few paragraphs of premise, followed by a series of events and levels that connect to each other enough to make gameplay sense, but do very little to dive deeper into the minutiae of the story, or even reflect on its broader themes.
I suppose this could have been a concession to the fact that these levels are meant to be replayed a lot, and specifically played co-operatively (Xbox Live was setting the world on fire at the time). But when I looked back at what I'd learned over the course of three games, I still had a lot of questions about E-Day, the Fenix Family, the Locust, the Locust Queen, and the Lambent. Hell, I wasn't even really sure whether humanity was born on Sera, or whether Earth was a thing and at some point people had travelled there. The game really doesn't spend much time fucking around before handing you a lancer and sending you into battle.
The original game had this pretty iconic marketing trailer where Marcus Fenix is running through a destroyed city to the tune of the Gary Jules rendition of Mad World (y'know, from Donnie Darko). We see Marcus knelt, his face in shadow, mournfully inspecting the head of broken cherub statue before pursuing Locust force him to flee. Night falls, and we get a few more shots of Marcus running, usually from the perspective of blown-out windows and ruined interiors.
It was cleverly done, and had this "war is hell" vibe, and it kind of set me up to expect a bit more rumination on the ideas brought up by the game's premise. But nah, it's pretty much a non-stop slaughterfest. Don't get me wrong, the series does try one or two emotional story beats, with varying success. But it shies away from anyone ever seriously questioning the mission, and certainly never achieves the atmosphere of that trailer.
No one questioning what they're doing starts to feel weird when you consider that, by and large, humanity doesn't understand the Locust. Their enemy's motives for attacking them is almost a complete mystery for most of the trilogy. That would certainly leave some room to question the purpose of the war, and whether COG were actually doing the right thing by chainsawing these guys in half on sight.
We learn in the third game that the imulsion, a slimy subterranean substance humanity uses as an energy source, is actually a parasitic entity that transforms living things into glowing explosive zombies. The Locust live underground, so all the human activity - extracting and processing the imulsion - is destroying their home and threatening their survival. To escape that fate, the Locust emerge and start a war with humanity.
We also learn that Marcus' dad is a beefcake scientist who, before the events of E-Day, was working with the Locust to solve the lambent crisis and therefore prevent the outbreak of war. Evidently, he ran out of time.
All of this is the most interesting wrinkle in the story, but at this late stage the game doesn't really have time to do anything with it, then Marcus' dad dies pretty soon after. It's also hard to try and build in a sympathetic angle for the Locust at the eleventh hour, especially when we have now seen them murder squad mates, turn humans into brain-dead husks, and generally commit all sorts of atrocities.
OK, so it's is mostly set dressing to give you a reason to shoot guys, with a couple of likeable characters and a lot of goof thrown in. Enough about story - how's the shooting?
Honestly, it's fine. There are a small handful of great weapons. The lancer, a hefty machine gun with a chainsaw bayonet, is the obvious choice and a mainstay throughout the trilogy. But there are some other neat weapons, like a sniper rifle, shotgun, and some pistols, too.
As good as some of these options are, what's on offer here feels super tame compared to previous Epic Games outings. Unreal Tournament has some incredible and iconic weaponry, from the brutal flak cannon, which throws out superheated flak that bounces off surfaces, to the bio rifle, which fires green blobs that explode on contact with an enemy but can also be placed as mines. There's also the shock rifle, which fires beams of plasma, but can also release a slow-moving orb that, if shot with a beam, creates an explosion and gravity-well that sucks in everything close by.
I definitely expected more from the weaponry in Gears, considering how much of the game is linearly progressing through a series of combat encounters where you just need to kill everyone to progress. By the end of the third game, I was pretty bored with the formula of shooting dudes with the lancer. While the active reload gives you at least one thing to think about during all this, not enough is done to regularly shake up the gunplay. There are a handful of cool sequences where something in the story changes how the game is played, for example by restricting where you can safely move or which weapons you have access to, and I really started to appreciate those breaks from the moment to moment gameplay.
The squad AI is pretty terrible throughout the trilogy. This isn't usually an issue unless you're gunned down, in which case you enter a downed state for a minute or two. If your squad mates can reach you in time, you'll get a second wind and prevent having to restart from a checkpoint. While this is probably a non-issue during co-op play, the AI sucks at rescuing you, which can feel pretty frustrating.
Speaking of checkpoints and frustration - the checkpoints in these games are often crap. By the third game, this gets much better, but if you do end up dying in the first two games you can expect to have to repeat some not-insignificant chunks of the level. This reared its head most prominently in levels with enemies that shoot mortar shells at you. Usually the right answer in these areas is to sprint toward mortar guys and take them out first, but you can die a couple times trying to figure out where they are. That wasn't fun.
Overall, I'm glad to have played the original trilogy and mostly enjoyed my time with Gears 1, 2, and 3. They show their age more than a little, but there are still occasional flashes of brilliance. I can also see why these games would have been hugely popular back at launch, in a time when Xbox Live was the biggest thing in the world, and console players were soaking up every opportunity to team up for co-operative experiences.
I do plan to play Gears 4 and 5, but right now I'm doing a complete re-play of the Metal Gear Solid series. I've completed 1 and 2, and have started 3. I'm sure I'll post some thoughts about those at some point!