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This is a year of bookends for the Gears of War franchise. Mere months after saying goodbye to Delta Squad (temporarily, at least) in Gears 3, we’re given an opportunity to rewind and experience how this just-concluded war between the humans and Locust of planet Sera actually began in the DLC prequel RAAM’s Shadow.
What were Marcus and Dom doing on Emergence Day? How did Baird and Cole first meet? Well, that’s the one disappointing part of RAAM’s Shadow...
You’re not playing as the characters you already know, love and want to know more about, but as a bunch of “oh yeah, that guy” supporting characters like Minh Kim (the straight-laced original squad leader in Gears 1), Tai Kaliso (the tattooed fortune cookie from Gears 2) and Jace Stratton (the dull new dude from Gears 3). As a result, the story isn’t quite as interesting and the dialogue isn’t nearly as funny as you’ve come to expect from the series. Sample of the former: Saving an orphanage. Sample of the latter: “To think we once dared to build our dreams.” Yawn.
The action, however, easily makes up for whatever’s lacking in the narrative. RAAM’s Shadow is three hours and five chapters long, but the developers have packed in enough unique, memorable and truly intense moments for a game twice that size. Within seconds of the opening cutscene, you’re on a turret, mowing down armies of Reavers, Boomers and other boss-sized monsters that are normally saved for the ends of missions. Minutes later, you’re on an awesome new version of the Hammer of Dawn, melting enemies with massive microwave rays from a sky-down perspective. A single chapter can include both a loud, epic battle with a volcanic Berserker careening violently through a parking lot, and then a disturbingly quiet horror scene in which Tickers rush towards your feet in a darkened cafeteria, obscured by the rows of lunch tables until it’s almost too late to kill them.
Best and most unforgettable of all are the two missions in which you switch from the COG squad to take control of the Locust hordes, including a ridiculously overpowered General RAAM himself. The gameplay here is almost primal – as gory as Beast Mode in Gears 3 and as godlike as the Brumak near the finish of Gears 2. For five glorious minutes each time, you don’t worry about cover. You don’t worry about ammo or reviving your teammates. See a soldier in the distance? Simply point, and your flock of murderous Kryll demon birds will swarm until he explodes into a chunky red mist. See a soldier right in front of you? Simply run, and watch with smugly superior satisfaction as he’s instantly impaled on your pitchfork-sized blade, then slung unceremoniously to the side of the screen. Pure rampage. Pure fun.
RAAM’s Shadow is short, expensive ($15 at the time of this review, unless you’ve already bought the DLC Season Pass for $30) and doesn’t feature the prequel story one might expect, but with gameplay this visceral and diverse (and four-player co-op ready!), passionate Gears fans won’t mind, and even casual Gears fans will be intrigued.