Why Gears Of War Succeeds Where Others Fail
Is the measure of a game’s story whether or not it will stand up to the ultimate test; to be stripped away from the game which surrounds it and live to tell its tale? To be torn kicking and screaming from its host just to see whether it thrives on its own merits, or coughs, turns blue and dies right there on the cold, unforgiving floor of the operating theatre? No. And if we’re absolutely honest, all games fall short of that measure, even those for whom their many fans would speak out on their standalone narrative greatness.
Ask yourself honestly, though: would you read a novel in which the vast majority was told from behind a gun whose monotonous report is seldom stilted by risible dialogue from a mystery man inside a daft-looking space hat? Or perhaps you’d happily sit through 30 hours of diuretic Hollywood cack in which our tale of vengeance is related through a series of four digit numbers emerging candidly from the top of the bad guy’s head?
In a truly remarkable action game, story is gameplay’s bitch. And it’s often the misunderstanding of how exactly the balance needs to be weighted that leads to the emergence of so many titles crammed with great ideas, yet falling as flat and uninspiring as a turd in an apple press.
In the case of Gears Of War’s story, if anything we’re grateful to be given the opportunity to talk about the cut of its jib as a separate entity. Not because its story stands up to the cruel birthing test described above – far from it, in fact – but because it’s one of those very rare examples in which its remit as a gameplay catalyst is so beautifully fulfilled. We appear to spend our entire lives littering our review copy with despondent lamentation over developers trying too hard, not trying hard enough, misjudging, mismatching and generally failing to understand a story’s place in an action game. So it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to stop moaning for the day and instead spoonfeed a masterpiece the kudos it deserves.
Gears Of War is dumb; and that’s its beauty. Peaceful, happy humans live arty-farty lives on the beautiful planet of Sera. Until – as God’s punishment for suffocating levels of planet-wide smugness – the ground opens up and out jump a couple of billion homicidal monsters intent on shooting everyone’s face off. Thus the Coalition Of Ordered Governments swiftly decide that this simply won’t do and appoint a group of men – made entirely of meat – to form a plan while the Locust are busy picking bits of Sera’s last surviving nerd from between their pointy black teeth. Go space-jocks!
It’s narrative law that the story’s hero or heroes will find themselves at the centre of every significant event. This is a concept which goes really rather well with the Gears Of War series – and with videogames in general – since every significant occurrence involves letting fly with some superbly entertaining weaponry. Told from the perspective of Marcus Fenix and his sidekick Dominic Santiago, so engaging in fact is the gunplay and the – now much-replicated – stop ‘n pop gameplay mechanic, it’s easy to see why its audience may assume that the story is kick-ass (it’s not). Instead it’s how the games involve you in the action while chipping in with the occasional smart one-liner that really drives things forward successfully.
During the first game, as well as introducing some entertaining secondary characters in the form of Augustus Cole – the Cole Train – and in a limited but memorable fashion, Anthony Carmine, the story plods along from one event to the next, most of the time involving pitched shootout’s from behind an increasingly incongruous series of small walls. The game’s attitude toward including out-of-place scenery for gameplay’s sake as well as toward characters such as the Carmine family – offing them in increasingly entertaining ways a la South Park’s Kenny – is not only unapologetic, it’s also one of the key factors in its success. Where many games approach such daft sci-fi bubblegum in a way which demands you look deep into the soul of their central characters, Gears Of War and its sequel will have you laugh it up all the way to the its over-the-top finale.
Gradually introducing the player to the delights of the Hammer Of Dawn – a sight which brings down the wrath of an orbital laser – and chainsaws, players chest-bumped their way amusingly through the first game’s funtastic gunplay. It eventually emerged that humanity’s great plan to hit the Locust where it hurts rested on a device known as the Lightmass Bomb. Essentially a nuke, the trick was to somehow launch it directly into their nest and cause a chain reaction in Sera’s subterranean emulsion – the game’s glowing sci-fi stand-in for oil – thereby wiping out the vast majority of the Locust forces.
The finale of the first game then is played out in one of the most obvious sexual metaphors we’ve ever come across. An unstoppable phallic train carrying the Lightmass Bomb ploughs into a giant wet hole in the ground, once in, launching dozens of tiny swimming missiles toward the central hub from which the Locust are continually birthed.
If you really think about it, Gears’ ending – in which we get an idea that the Locust are far from finished in a short keynote from their queen – has all of the right connotations. Quite apart from the train-meets-hole and launches little swimmers toward egg-factory sexaphor, it’s also ideal fodder for the setting up of a sequel. It incorporates the key components of both failure and rebirth; a good enough reason in fact for us to not mind starting from scratch, one small wall at a time.
Speaking to series creator, Cliff Bleszinski, he told us that “if the first game was a hit, we knew we’d make a second one and if the second one was a hit we’d make a third, but we never started out thinking we’re going to definitely be making a trilogy or whatever. You’d have to be stupid to promise that before you’ve even seen whether or not the game sells.”
But a sequel we have, with a third on the way and it’s comforting perhaps that their appearance is more a measure of series success than the fruition of a dream held by some crackpot auteur. Gears Of War 2 was a better game in every single way, barring perhaps the multiplayer. Once again Epic Games managed to add texture to the combat, peel further layers away from its central characters and ratchet humanity’s peril all the way up to eleven. The Locust had now taken to ‘sinking cities’. Using gigantic worms to tunnel underneath them, they were collapsing them into the earth. Jacinto was the last human city and its survival was the paramount of your reason to exist.
Once again, through a series of memorable set-pieces this simple story was played out, this time with the additional motivation of Dom attempting to locate his lost wife. He believed the Locust were holding her once it became clear that their goal was to capture and enslave rather than simply to destroy. The hunt and subsequent discovery of Maria Santiago is a far more engrossing and, dare we say, touching affair than a collection or frankly ridiculous characters in a gameplay-subservient story setting has any right to be.
Any good yarn will at some point bring in family ties as a tool with which to make its audience care. It is after all the one thing that we as a species share, and whether close or estranged to ours, there’s plenty to relate to in Gears Of War 2. Marcus’s father was introduced for the second time; a man whose shady past was hinted at having had some hand in actually creating the Locust, lending further credibility to the inklings you’ll have had right from the start that these swere not, strictly speaking, aliens. And of course, Kenny Mk II is back in the form of Anthony Carmine’s brother Benjamin, who once again dies in typically over-the-top fashion.
The ending of the second game is if anything even more open than the first. The queen still lives and more questions remain unanswered especially in relation to the Locust’s origin. It’s a showing of far greater confidence on the part of Epic Games that it would have the opportunity to sew up some of these storylines in a third game. The question for us was never ‘will there be a third?’ but ‘will there be a fourth, fifth, sixth?’. It’s Gears’ finely attuned action which drives this simple tale and in that respect, we certainly think it has the legs.