Games

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.

Mr. Bleszinski,

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."

Sincerely,

Mark Filipowich

 

You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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