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'Gears of War 3': A Triumphant Past, a Familiar Present, and an Uncertain Future

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Thursday, Oct 6, 2011
Like its protagonist Marcus Fenix, the Gears of War series has accomplished its mission and is now faced with an identity crisis.

Marcus Fenix doesn’t come across as a particularly complex character.  His bombastic attitude and beefy proportions complement the type of game he inhabits.  He is, however, an imposing character and the Gears of War series stands as one of the giants of this console generation.  The games symbolizes important trends of the last few years, offering a look at conventions that shaped the medium as well as glimpses of what the future might hold.  Certainly, Gears‘s successes are impressive and their characters have become iconic, but Gears of War 3 has revealed a deeper metaphorical layer underneath its characters’ bravado.  As important as Marcus and the rest of his crew were, their uncertain future acts as an allegory of the Gears series and its uncertain future.
  
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s give credit where credit is due: Gears largely defined a generation.  In 2006, when the Xbox 360 was still finding its feet, Marcus and company helped it roadie-run ahead of the PS3 and never look back.  At the time, many considered it the first “next gen” game.  In a market full of high resolution iterations of familiar games, Gears of War distinguished itself visually and mechanically—a phenomenon noted by both players and developers: “Every now and then you have to stop and remind yourself that there was once a time when you could only imagine games looking this good” (Kristan Reed, Gears of War - Review”, Eurogamer, 7 November 2006).  The ensuing years would see Epic’s Unreal Engine utilized by a host of other premier titles ranging from Batman to Mass Effect.  We joke about bulky models and texture pop-in now, but it is difficult to overstate this tool’s visual and mechanical versatility.


Gears did more than change how games looked; it changed how they felt.  When the first game was released, reviewers were obligated to spend a few sentences simply describing how the cover system functioned.  While it was not without precedent, the implementation of a one-button-stick-to-cover system made a complex action feel like second nature.  The idea spread through video games like a virus, quickly transforming the exceptional mechanic into a standard one.  Today, saying a cover system is “Gears-like” is basically self explanatory and could be used to describe everything from Red Dead Redemption to Deus Ex: Human Revolution


Gears carved out a unique position in between run-and-gun shooters like Quake and melee intensive experiences like Halo.  True, the preponderance of conveniently chest high walls in the Gears games is a contrivance, but that contrivance is one that is easily forgetten during the heat of battle.  Gears provided various new approaches to the classic risk vs. reward dilemma. Do you stay safe in cover and risk getting flanked or take your chances by moving?  Do you expose yourself for a slow, yet deadly, melee attack or count on your ammo supply to last?  Is trying for an active reload damage bonus worth the possibility of jamming your gun at a crucial moment?  This last question has always been my favorite.  Making a game out of reloading your gun is both exhilarating and delightfully meta.  I’m shocked we don’t see this crop up in more games.


While games like Army of Two were playing catch up, Gears came to represent industry standards for big budget action games.  By the time that Gears of War 2 lumbered into town, a new shooter template was being established.  Serious contenders had to have it all: a story mode full of scripted cutscenes, iconic characters, and massive set pieces as well as a multiplayer mode taht is complex and robust enough to attract serious and casual players.  Gears, along with Halo, went to great lengths to offer something for everyone: a sci-fi epic backed by ads scored by indie bands, a cooperative campaign that allowed friends to fight side by side, and multiplayer for when cooperation turned to trash talking.  Even Master Chief tipped his helmet to Horde mode, a setup in which players attempt to survive consecutive waves of enemies.  By striving for excellence in both its authored narrative and unscripted multiplayer, Gears of War exemplifies the challenge that Call of Duty, Halo, Uncharted, Red Dead Redemption, and a host of other less prominent games strive to meet.  Gears’ success has made it a standout, as has its constant evolution; Gears of War 3, which appropriates an in game economy and tower defense elements in the latest version of Horde mode to further innovate on an idea that the series popularized.


I used the word “popularized” very deliberately, as much of Gears‘s strength is derived from clear sources of inspiration.  As one of my professors once told me, “there is nothing new under the sun,” [He may have borrowed that from Solomon—Ed.] and Gears clearly owes much to games like Kill.Switch and Resident Evil 4.  The series has never been shy about learning from its contemporaries. The new Beast mode feels a lot like playing as the zombies in Left 4 Dead 2.  “Mutators” and other campaign challenges feel very similar to Halo and its skull quests.  Setting up barriers and turrets in the new Horde mode appropriates the core mechanics of tower defense games, a genre not normally associated with shooters.  Horde mode itself is essentially Space Invaders in the twenty-first century.  Throughout it all, the player is constantly rewarded with points that count towards unlocking ribbons, medals, achievements, and a sense of satisfaction that can only come from the most subtle Skinner boxes.  All of it is magnificently polished and integrated into the experience in a way that exudes craftsmenship.  There is nothing new under the sun, but some things are definitely better at catching its light.


The spotlight shone brightly on Gears of War 3, but its reception was not universally warm.  Certain reviews contained an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and uncertainty about the game’s offerings and long-term direction.  Johnny Minkley of Eurogamer senses that the series has reached its artistic and design potential and is left wondering “where next?” (Gears of War 3 - Review”, Eurogamer, 15 September 2011).  The often-laudatory Seth Schiesel couldn’t help but wonder whether Epic was phoning it in, commenting that the game feels almost “too refined” and that it “never surprised him,” (“Moving On, but Running in First Gear”, The New York Times, 19 September 2011).  Tom Chick, irascible as ever, derided Gears 3 as little more than a “roster update” akin to this year’s version of Madden (Gears of War 3 Review”, GameShark, 20 September 2011). 


These sentiments frame Marcus in a more ambiguous light, one befitting the solemnity that Jorge Albor identifies in Gears of War 3‘s story (“No Glory for Gears”, PopMatters, 29 September 2011).  Both Marucs and the Gears franchise must now deal with a world changing beneath their feet.  Marcus was an expert warrior, but his role in the changing post-war world is uncertain.  Similarly, how will Gears of War deal with the rise of new business and design paradigms? 


Gears rose to prominence in a pre-Farmville, pre-App Store, and pre-Minecraft world.  Today, the traditional $60 price point and optional DLC packs are but one strategy for distributing games.  It’s a strategy that will be with us for some time yet, but when Activision is experimenting with selling subscriptions to Call of Duty and Valve is giving away games for free, it’s safe to assume things are changing.  Gears‘s overpriced weapon skins seem clumsy in comparison to the sophisticated free-to-play and micro-transactions many games now tout.  Three years of downtime between releases seems archaic when compared with what can be accomplished by smaller, more nimble developers.  It’s increasingly difficult and risky to spend millions of dollars and multiple years developing a game.  Few companies have either the confidence or the capital that Epic enjoys.


Creating a successful, million dollar franchise also necessitates caution, which might partly explain the undercurrent of war weariness in some Gears of War 3 reviews.  Gears is the best it is at what it does but what it does is not necessarily as groundbreaking as it once was.  As was mentioned before, almost every shooter released today has some variation of the dynamics that Gears popularized.  Co-op campaigns are increasingly becoming an expectation, and there are only so many variations on “capture the flag.”  Of course, Gears can’t venture too far from its proven formula without disappointing its loyal fans or ceding the field to a competitor.  Epic must attempt to forge a novel, yet familiar, path, all without getting stuck in a rut. 


For many, Gears is the definitive shooter experience, but the seat of power can be a wobbly throne.  Gears illustrated a new way to design shooters, and everyone else scrambled to catch up.  But now that the war is won, the future is uncertain.  The aspects that made Gears unique have been appropriated and codifed as standard practices.  “What next?” is an understandable question, especially considering Gears‘s impact.  When a game that shifted expectations transitions into simply meeting expectations, people start to worry. 


Again, we come back to Marcus Fenix as a metaphor.  Marcus was the world’s greatest soldier, a savior that led his people to a new world.  But now that his fight is over, what will he do?  Perhaps he will never truly be a part of the new society he helped create, as his identity and skills are irrevocably linked to the past. 


Gears of War 3 may be suffering a similar fate.  Its predecessors ushered in a new zeitgeist that changed the way that we play action and shooter games, possibly even video games in general.  The series did this so well that players and developers have grown accustomed to and internalized its innovations.  Exquisite though it may be, Gears of War 3 is a symbol of an established order rather than the pioneering force that the series once was.  For some, this is a disturbing realization.  Marcus was the world’s greatest soldier, a savior that led his people to a new world.  But now that his fight is over, what will he do?  Perhaps he will never truly be a part of the new society he helped create, as his identity and skills are irrevocably linked to the past. 


Gears of War 3 may be suffering a similar fate.  Its predecessors ushered in a new zeitgeist that changed the way we play action and shooter games, possibly even video games in general.  The series did this so well that players and developers have grown accustomed to and internalized its innovations.  Exquisite though it may be, Gears of War 3 is a symbol of an established order rather than the pioneering force the series once was.  For some, this is a disturbing realization.  Like Marcus, the Gears of War series has accomplished its mission and is now faced with an identity crisis.  When the war machine winds down, what becomes of its gears?


 

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