An Open Letter to Cliff Bleszinski Following the Release of 'Gears of War 3'
Epic's lead designer expressed dissatisfaction with some unexpected criticisms of Gears 3. But those criticisms aren't without warrant.
First, congratulations on the conclusion of the Gears of War series. As someone who has shared more than a few toasts of rum and coke with the esteemed series, I can honestly say that it’s been a great run from start to finish. However, I was a little taken aback by your reaction to Jim Sterling’s review of the game on Eurogamer. As I understand it, the score of eight out of ten upset you somewhat, and you are convinced that Gears of War 3 deserves a perfect (or indistinguishable from perfect) review. While I agree that Gears of War 3 ought to be perfect, I would like to respectfully argue that it isn’t.
To begin with, let’s look at the first two games before I point out the imperfections of the finale. When the first Gears of War was released, there wasn’t anything quite like it. There were plenty of hive-minded aliens, rugged fridge-man hybrids, and even a few third-person over the shoulder shooters. But combining cover-based shooting, co-op, and a small group of heroes that truly felt alone against an endless onslaught was a unique chemistry that hadn’t been tested before and the mix worked very well.
A part of the magic of the first two games was in how the second Gears built on the first without overwriting it. Gears of War featured only a few characters, those that weren’t hidden behind a helmet were only given a few moments of screen time. The locust shook the earth from below, blackened the sky above, and always surrounded the four members of delta squad. And Delta was truly alone, just a few words of encouragement from the disembodied Anya were all the support that Marcus and Dom could count on from the brass. There were four guns against an army that was always watching from just beyond our sight. Our battleground was the shadows and ruins of decayed cities, our own homes. Hearing a wretch screech meant a frantic and panicked run for a corner, desperately blasting each and every particle of a never-ending swarm. The game was dark, claustrophobic, and isolated.
The second traded horror and solitude for mass-scale assaults occurring on unmapped territory. No more was Delta alone, instead it was a working cog in a massive machine. Territories were won, ambushes were laid, and armies of hundreds clashed with siege apparatuses. If the first Gears showed the terror in leaving Jacinto, the second showed the ferocity with which it was defended. We were given a hint for the first time about what life on Sera after E-day might be like. We didn’t experience it, but we got pamphlets, letters, journals, and newspaper clippings detailing a world that tried to deny its own inevitable apocalypse. The tocust terror had a face, but the conflict grew to such importance and personal investment that it didn’t matter. Hundreds of drones crawling over an assault derrick or the halo of AA guns lighting Jacinto was as close to home as huddling in a corner waiting for the last Theron to pop his torque bolt.
Gears 3 lacked both environments. There were too many secondary characters airdropped into the plot to make us feel alone and frightened, and the scale of war was too low to make us feel like there was a battle of great enough importance. Adam Fenix had his solution to the lambent, and a white lie could have fooled the queen into letting him use it. Gears 3 wavered indecisively between the first’s lonely tour through constant danger and the second’s last stand for survival.
The events between the first game and second are also neatly tied together. The ending of the first game directly leads to the beginning of the second. Our initial goal of detonating the lightmass bomb doesn’t destroy the locust, it rallies them for the events ofGears 2. The third game requires several other media forms of exposition that players should not have to be exposed to in order to understand this game's plot. Beyond plot, the mechanics that once seemed so compelling have now become stale.
In the years since the first Gears of War, there have been dozens of clones and the third has done little to keep pace with all the copycats, which is a shame because if ever there was a game to emulate, Gears of War 3 is the title to do it. Most game vendors were selling out of copies during the game’s midnight release. The pre-release hype guaranteed a return of investment. And since it has been established for some time that this will be the last of the series, there’s no reason not to play around with the established formula. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but for the sendoff to what has been an otherwise outstanding series, Gears 3 can come across as disappointingly safe.
There are the usual host of weapons, a few new variations to fighting, a couple rail-shooter vehicle sections, and glowing versions of old enemies, but by now, it’s everything that we’ve seen with a new coat of paint. The game starts with a few parts Call of Duty seasoned with Dead Space and is set to broil in the pre-packaged Halo mix that has become the standard recipe for shooter trilogies of this generation. There’s nothing wrong with taking cues from other series (I’ve played and enjoyed all the titles in the tortured metaphor above), but for the series that set the mould for many games over half a decade, it’s unfortunate that more effort wasn’t made to innovate rather than imitate -- especially when there was so much opportunity to do so.
In fairness, you’ve been a major part in creating something that a lot of people love. Not many people get to say that. I’m sure you -- and all of your colleagues at Epic -- are still very close to your work. So I can understand being let down by what may seem like a harsh review. And while there is much to appreciate in Gears 3, it isn’t perfect -- even if everyone expected it to be perfect. In an attempt to do everything, very little remarkable emerges.
To conclude, even if this is just an overwrought response to a few throwaway comments that you’ve already forgotten, I think it’s productive to justify some of the criticisms of your studio’s work -- even if they do come from “haters.” If nothing else, I hope this has granted you a new perspective on why some of us appreciate the game but don't feel that it is "perfect."
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