Saturday, 5 November 2011

Gearing up for War!

So, around the time I was half way through Space Marine and drafting my blog, a few days after release in fact, I ran back to the shops to collect my pre-order of Gears of War 3. The third (well, duh) in the series by Epic Games, Gears of War 3 has been a pleasure for me to play over the evolution of the series.

Anyone that knows me knows that I like a game with a story, and one that is told well regardless of how preposterous it might be in substance. This should be evident from my review of Mass Effect 2, where I praise the writing and story telling of the game in general. Gears of War as a series has story depth in spades, digging.. a very deep hole.... you get the idea.


Pre-canned melee moves are better shared.
Over all, from first to last, the gameplay mechanics have not really evolved all that much, and this is not really a bad thing. The first game was a simple over the shoulder shooter for the console generation of controls, no complicated inventory system, cover based combat and some special attack melee moves with a chainsaw strapped to one of the weapons. Quick time events were limited, mostly based on scenery interaction like turning a valve or a pulley for a cable car, you could only carry two guns, one pistol and some grenades and there was an emphasis on guerilla style camera action. OK this last point was not in its favour since people got a little motion sick playing the game. Especially when you would sprint through the long corridor sections with nothing to do, or getting into cover quickly, since the camera would hunker down to the ground near your ankles and whiz along with you while rocking back and forth and rolling around. Some find this quite objectionable and feel it ruins their experience making for a visual headache. And while they are not quite wrong I guess it is a matter of preference. I would not think anyone would prefer this system by choice, but I am sure many people exist that can look past it as a flaw and accept why it is there. It is meant to make you uncomfortable. War is uncomfortable. And Gears of War is set in a very uncomfortable feeling war.



These staples are all present in GoW 3, so like them or not they are at the core of the gameplay that Epic have seen fit to leave unmolested through the whole series and I think this deserves remarking on somewhat. It is not often that any series will get to the third game without fiddling with something in the controls or the core gameplay in general. However, Epic have remained steadfast and kept the way Gears plays consistent. I have replayed the first game after having played the second, and it struck me then how little they differed from each other. The only thing to improve on, as always, is the shiny new graphics. And right the way through the series itself this has shown. However, not all progress is good progress and I find the HDR Blooming on GoW 3 to be a little excessive. The shine effect on anything metallic, no matter how small, is pretty ridiculous and could have done with toning back. It does not impact any other performance aspects of the game, being a console game anyway you can expect this to always be the case anyway. Still it kind of spoils the feel on the whole.

Mulchers make mulch. The weapons available are enough to keep you
in mulch for a long time.
The other aspect of graphics I find that has gotten worse is the cut scene pre-renders. There are two types in GoW 3, opposed to the first two games where the quality was the same across the board. In GoW 3 some quick and less cinematic cut scenes are game play quality, and in the old days this meant they were not good as pre-render was a lot better. And then you have the cinematic style cut scenes where they need a lot of flashy stuff and CG effects they cannot get out of the game rendering engine. And given that it is the Unreal engine they use this is a very robust engine as it is so should serve them well in the initial pre-render process and they can do a lot of post-render CG effects after before bundling it into the game. However, the cinematic cut scenes look like something out of a late 1990's game with very bad dithering and low quality, low resolution imaging. I guess after putting all the sparkly bloom bit in there, they ran out of space on the disk and could not go further... except they could really since many console games now come out on multiple disks anyway. This is something the console industry has finally mastered, bringing it on a par with PC gaming that has had the benefit of multiple disks since the days games came on 3.5" floppies.

Anyway, this is a small complaint on the game and you don't buy games to admire the quality of the cut scenes any more than you order a fully loaded pizza to simply admire the quality of the base.

The question you all want answering at the moment is 'Is the core gameplay good?' and the answer is 'yes'. All of the above points about the game play are well implemented. There are very few control glitches that so many games suffer from on consoles. The environments, like in Space Marine, are varied and not much of the copy/paste feel about them. The game relies almost entirely on guns to kill the foul things coming up from beneath the soil, rather than melee combat being thrown into the mix as well needing one more set of combat rules to govern it.

Retro Lancers taped together to make a new static turret.
If anything the choice of weapons has increased more from the first game, and the second as well, and some new attacks are thrown in that gives a little more spice to combat in general. In the first GoW you had a couple of machine guns, a shotgun, explosive grenades that can be stuck to an enemy with spikes and a couple of pistols to pick from. Ohh and the Hammer of Dawn, which we will come onto in a moment as this is a little 'meh' in GoW 3. In GoW 2 flamethrowers make their d├ębut, a new automatic pistol and ink grenades, which are like chemical smoke grenades that ruin your whole day and darken your vision if you run into the cloud, incapacitating you. Also, they brought in the ability to curb stomp downed enemies, if you get to them before their fellow AI revive them. This is also added in as a reprieve for you as well, where you can be revived as long as one of your support AI is alive, or an enemy NPC does not decide to plant a boot on your forehead. And you could take a hostage as a meat shield, if you incapacitated an enemy, and eventually execute them as well.

In GoW 3 you have an entirely new machine gun, called the Retro Lancer, which is most likely a cruder and older form of the Lancer machine gun with the chainsaw attachment. Except in this case the Retro Lancer has a double bayonet which you can use to charge the nearest enemy, if you have enough of a run up, spear them and hurl them over your shoulder. There is the Digger gun, which shows you a path of a grenade you can fire, except it fires down under ground and runs along beneath the surface before popping up and exploding.

The curb stomping has been upped, as well, with a finishing execution specially made for each weapon and an unlockable for having checked off all of them on the list.

This is only concept art so the one in game is not quite like this.
Could not find a good image of the final in-game version.
Other things you can do in GoW that has evolved from the first game are the ubiquitous vehicle sections. It started with an oversized tank like thing with a UV lamp on the top to fend off hug bat like creatures that can rip you to shreds in seconds if you step into the shadows at night. In GoW 2 you could play with a lot more, driving a centurion tank shooting the cannon, riding an underwater raft with machine guns while fighting a boss monster, flying on a reaver while you man the rear facing turret and fend off a larger reaver piloted by another boss, hijacking some huge spider creature with a deck platform mounted on top and, again, manning the turrets, and even hijacking one of the bhrumak creatures and mowing down a whole army as they run from you in terror.

GoW 3 is, sad to say, lacking in this department slightly. Though you do fly on a blimp at some point that is essentially it. Also you can ride in a submarine and sit in a turret bubble shooting at sea monsters and auto-defence systems. And there is a road escort mission where you mount a gun on a combat truck and escort a tanker along a highway. The other new vehicle you have is a Silverback, which is a kind of powered walker system you use to move large crates at some point, as well as a military version you play with a couple of time with a machine gun and rocket launcher attached. So yeah it has some sections to play with other than on foot. On reflection I realise this is not a bad thing that there are no vehicle sections for the sake of there being as many if not more than last time. They are there because the story needed them there and Epic decided to make a game out of them instead of just some cut scene fast travel where stuff happens for you. There is enough variety in the game to keep it entertaining anyway so less may be more in some cases.

Another area the game lacks a little is the use of the Hammer of Dawn. I mentioned this weapon earlier, and for the uninitiated out there it is essentially a handheld laser targeting system that you use to call down a furious laser from the heavens and destroy the bigger monsters. The story establishes at the beginning that the Hammer is not working properly now due to it being damaged in the final apocalypse following GoW 2. Even so, it is brought back on line in time for a rather inaccurate use but later in the game you will find the Hammer targeting system and, impulsively, you scoop it up anticipating a need for it later when you can use it. At that point you are inside a building so you cannot use it anyway. Still, after having scooped it I could not use it anywhere, anyway. So this was kind of pointless. The only time you need and can use it is in the final boss fight with the huge battle beetle and the queen. At this point the only real change to an old staple shows up unexpectedly. They have limited the number of shots you get from the Hammer to two full blasts. And this is way less than needed to kill the final boss. So they have supplied you with an infinite number of targeting guns vended from two different pedestals in the middle of the combat zone. This just begs the question 'why?' since I have unlimited shots, effectively, making this a redundant change...

The Tempest Beetle. You need more than a roll of news paper
to swat this beast...
On the subject of the final boss fight, I will not lie to you. It is very hard. I played through on Hardcore first time anyway so I expected a tough fight. And it did not help that the curse of the auto-save kicked in at the difficult point. You know... that point where you have virtually no ammo or a gun that is kind of pointless, and no other guns are available without using your last three bullets to get a lucky shot on the nearest enemy and steal his gun. Either that or risk running away to a safer area for a moment to collect more ammo and a better gun. But doing this means you either fail the fight as the boss monster kills the person you are trying to protect, or you are killed anyway trying to get there. That curse...

Also, even when I had a good loadout of weapons with ammo aplenty, you can only use the Hammer effectively when the beetle is on the ground, and you have to bring it down with concentrated gunfire. And when it is attacking the building you have to get it off without the hammer too. If you skip just a second without gunfire, you will fail, so you need to keep the ammo flowing. I had to go back to the start of the section after a while to have a better run at it, knowing more about the dynamic of the fight and finally won.

Anyway, the challenge is what the game is about and, unlike recent reviews I have done on Space Marine and Homefront where I bemoaned the constant death syndrome of games to pad them out, GoW never feels like it is artificially lengthened by this. Yes you might die a lot, though usually you will die in a section where there is a boss to fight instead of just hundreds of enemies being thrown at you like someone tipped out a random bucket of bargain priced cannon fodder at you and walked away as you choked on a sea of alien flesh.

Armoured Kantus in action.
Also, more variation of enemies and environments are brought to the table to keep it interesting, as well as some of the old favourites. In GoW 2 they introduced 'tickers' which are little scuttling bugs with bombs on their back. They also threw environments at you like razor hail that would kill you in seconds. Some of the larger locust enemies would have mortar launchers, others the previously mentioned flamethrowers, and the Kantus priests with their auto-pistols and ink bombs. GoW 3 puts a few more in the pot with the diggers, again mentioned above, and my personal favourite being the armoured Kantus. These guys are nothing to sniff at, as gunfire bounces off them. They can only be brought low with explosives. And the first time they showed up I was hit with the auto-save curse again and had no grenades and there were only two in the room, and four Kantus... until after the 4th play through and death I realised I had a torque bow as well, which fires explosive arrows... This proved to be easier than just punching a Kantus with a grenade and leaping away before it exploded, then leaping back again to administer a curb stomp.

With all that out of the way I now come down to the storyline itself. Essentially, this closes off the story of Gears of War on the whole, leading us to a conclusion which I will try not to spoil for you, but since one of my last moans is based on both the beginning of GoW 3 and the end as well I must get into them, which is why I have left this while last. So if you don't want to know then stop here and I will leave you with my conclusion that GoW 3 was entirely worth the money at release, and will always be worth the money no matter what it goes down to in the future.

Now, the story..

The story is as much about the characters as it is about the situation.
I like this... very much.
I won't detail it chapter and verse as the point of having a story in a game like this is to actually play it and have it unfold. So I leave that discovery up to you. However, the main complaint I have about the presentation of the story is at the beginning, and only there. In fact, it is in the main title menu as I saw a button that lets you recap the story so far, as told by Anya, the support character that nags your ear off through the radio in the first two games. She has finally taken to the front line like the rest, which is nice to see and shows she was not just a suit and can hold her own when the chips were way down. However, she tells a story after the recap of events that never happened in the games previous. These events seemed pretty intense and looked like a game in their own right, waiting to be played, but the events are skipped over in a minute of dialogue and we fast forward to the beginning of GoW 3. Essentially, after flushing the Locust down the loo in GoW 2 by sinking a whole city on the coast and flooding their tunnels, you had presumed to have killed both them and the Lambent race of Locust as well who were chucking them out of their home beneath our feet. Only then to hear a scratchy radio message from Adam Fenix, the father of the main character, Marcus, sounding like we had just made the biggest mistake of our lives saying 'What have you done.....?' and leaving it there after the credits had rolled.

This was, in my opinion, a good suggestion that the worst was yet to come and the war was far from over, just like the end of GoW 1 where you launch the light mass bomb into the Locust tunnels and blow them all up, only to be shown this was the tip of the iceberg and hardly a dent in their army on the whole. During the fight at the end of GoW 2, the government had collapsed entirely and the leader of the government had absconded to somewhere no one knew about. Or so we are told... because it did not happen in GoW 2 to my knowledge. I was busy fighting so it was never discussed and it reeks of plot device needed to justify the current events of GoW 3 going forward.

THIS. IS. RAVEN'S NEST!
(ok, done enough before...)
Anyway, it seems the Locust were gone but the Lambent survived and they started sprouting up everywhere and attacked even harder than the Locust. Cities were destroyed and people took to the water and an island where they would not be attacked due to it being a huge rock. But later, like a whole year after the Lambent had died off, people took to the mainland again and began trying to re-establish bases and colonies with the last dwindling dregs of humanity and the armed forces. The rest took to the sea eventually to meet up with them. Again, all of this happens between games and feels like you have been rushed through a chapter of the story on the whole, because you pick it up here, on the boat.

Cole having a flash back.
Anyway, it is not all bad as the story is presented pretty well once you start playing. An example of this is right at the beginning where you play as Cole after the initial boat scene with Marcus and Dom. As the first boss fight looms, you are saved by Cole and Baird who, out of nowhere, drop a crate of tickers on the boss monster from the bridge. Then the game rewinds and you play the events leading there as Cole, with Baird and some other chick who's name I cannot remember right now. I just know she is voiced by Claudia Black. Sure I could look it up but I don't want to. All through the game she felt like an interloper that we suddenly have to accept has been there all along and is best buds with everyone for a long time. She has no depth or backstory so I cannot identify with her. Unlike Marcus, Dom, Cole and so on, who have their story told through all the games. There is even an entertaining point where Cole is back at his home team's Rush Ball stadium now infested with Locust and, in a cut scene, he is suddenly playing the game in his mind against Locust opponents, like he is in a delirium. It was a little... Uhh... yeah... wtf... but still entertaining to watch.

Anyway, the rush ahead makes me think that maybe they want to make a spin off game based in that time period. Who knows...

Anya finally gets to work and earns her pay.
Another issue is that the depth seems to fade at the end, or is at least abandoned and interesting points are left untied at the end of GoW 3. Let me explain a little better... In GoW 1, you are given the impression the Locust are an alien race, or so people think, who burrow underground and attack from below. They have been here in secret for a long while, building their army and weapons out of sight and then strike. They are a threat to humanity and should be destroyed. In GoW 2 however, you learn that the Locust and the glowing Lambents who made a token appearance in GoW 1 on their own, are at war and have been all along, and the Locust were losing. They also dangle the suggestion that the Locust have lived on the planet all along and are an ancient civilisation that evolved parallel to humanity, but beneath the ground. But this was never really settled and I hoped the key to this riddle would be in GoW 3.

However, the sudden and brief fast forward at the intro kind of discarded all this, and when the Locust finally do appear, none of these idle story points were raised or settled at all. All you know is that Adam Fenix was captured, not killed, by the Locust, and made to work on the 'cure' for the Lambent. And this is the whole focal point of the story and nothing else. As his cure will also kill the Locusts who are all infected due to their exposure to the liquid power source, emulsion, running through the planet underground. Essentially it is revealed that rather than simply good old fashioned radiation style mutations, they are infected with parasites living in the emulsion itself which control them. And it finally begins to infect humans as well... Which is a cool part of the storyline. Well, all of it is cool I guess. I just wish the intrigue had not been shelved permanently. Maybe if there is a spin off it could pick up this story thread and run with it instead? (Are you watching, Epic?)

Not a stab proof vest.
Finally, and this is a petty storyline gripe, you battle the Locust Queen at the end trying to stop you from helping Adam Fenix deploy a radiation weapon that will break down the Lambent cells infecting the Locust as well as the humans, though killing all of them in the process. I mentioned above the killing of a battle beetle of some kind. The Queen rides on top of this and you use multiple Hammer strikes to take down the beetle. Eventually it dies and the weapon fires, the Locust begin to crumble, the Lambent dissolve into a puddle of goo, the infected humans also die in a more horrific way given plenty of focus (yes thank you, we know this is going to be horrible Epic no need to milk it for drama) and even Adam Fenix dies as well, confessing to having known all along he was infected to a great extent, having infected himself as a tester before you got to him. And finally, the Queen slithers out from beneath the dead beetle and cried foul of the whole affair, claiming hubris and humanity being just vile and how Adam Fenix only solves problems by killing more people. Now, my first impression is 'Why has she not dissolved as well?' and also 'She is hardly scratched...' and then Marcus grabs her and knifes her in the gut. She dies... and I then add to my questions 'Why is it 20 Hammer strikes could not kill her sitting on top of that beetle but a knife in the belly killed her fast?'

OK maybe I am nit picking here but, god... I had to laugh.

So yeah, the story still has loose ends for me and I hope one day it all gets settled. But as I said, it is worth the money so go and buy it already!

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