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Why Gears of War 3 is the Spider-Man 3 of video games

Gears of War 3 is not a bad game. That’s not what I’m saying here. As Charlie said in his review, in many ways it’s an epic end to the trilogy. But he also mentioned a few fundamental flaws that really let the game down, and those are what I want to get into today. 

I had a weird reaction upon finishing Gears of War 3. A sense of deflation, as if I was still waiting for the game to grab me like the first two had, even as the credits rolled. I’d had a good time, but something was definitely missing. Something important. Then it struck me. I felt exactly like I did after I’d seen Spider-Man 3. And then I realised that Gears 3 shares a hell of a lot of the same failings with that much-maligned Spidey threequel. In fact, in terms of mistakes, they're pretty much the same thing in different media. So I decided to write it down. And here it is.

SPOILER WARNING

One word of advice though, before you start reading. I'm not holding back on the spoilers. To do this article properly I need to discuss Gears 3 from start to finish. I'd advise you to back off now unless you've finished the game or just plain don't care.

It’s the last part! Throw everything in!

There are two ways to do a continuous narrative in a trilogy. Firstly, you can take the sober, restrained approach and create a coherent, cohesive piece which manages to be epic yet intellectually satisfying at the same time. See Back to the Future or Lord of the Rings for examples of this. Secondly, you could just panic because the thing is about to end, and run around collecting together every idea you’ve ever had for it and stuff them all in as a knee-jerk reaction to your story’s imminent finish.

See Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix and now Gears of War 3 for evidence of this one.

Yep, Gears 3 is a mess in places because it just doesn’t know when to hold back. As a result it lets down its precursors in exactly the same ways that Spidey 3 let down the films that led us to have so much hope for it. In fact the Gears and Spider-Man series’ have exactly the same quality arc. Both started with an impressive, barnstorming entry which turned heads and caught the imagination for all the right reasons, but which left plenty of scope for development. Both got a sequel which deftly expanded and evolved both drama and action in exactly the right ways while remaining completely coherent with the original entry. 


Above: Just in the recap trailer, you can see the scale of the trilogy crank up exponentially

And then, just as a brilliant part three seemed an inevitability, both followed up with a fairly bloated, unfocused sequel that found itself flailing through too many ideas and narrative threads to give any of them a worthwhile treatment. Neither seemed to realise that it’s possible for something to be too flashy and too epic, and when a work in any medium crosses that line, it runs a serious risk of alienating its audience.

But if that’s the chief cause, what are the symptoms? Well…

Too much scale, not enough focus

This one is partly due to feature-cram, partly due to last-minute narrative-cram, but the effects are similar across the board. On the gameplay side, I can’t help but feel that the inclusion of four-player co-op, increased from the two-player option of the previous games, has had a detrimental affect on Gears’ overall feel and flow. I find it really interesting that Cliff Bleszinski was rather vocal about the reasons not to put four-player co-op in Gears of War 2. Speaking back in 2008, he explained:

“It was never something that was in a state of flux. It was always two players. Being narrative and story-based it's not a clone of Marcus Fenix, it's Dom. And that's always player two. And once you start with three or four players the game is no longer about the narrative, it's about shooting shit. And therefore we said let's do that in Horde”


Above: Notice how there's so much going on that none of it stands out? That's a metaphor right there

So Horde mode was created as a way of accommodating more than two players without wrecking the narrative and gameplay balance of the campaign. Interesting that such a rapid about-face happened with Gears 3 then. And I can’t help but feel that Cliff was right the first time. Personally, I feel that Gears 3 does suffer for the inclusion of four-player co-op. The tight, tactical focus of the first two games is greatly reduced, with an air of all-out carnage replacing the thoughtful viscerality that made me love Gears 1 and 2. In fact a lot of Gears 3’s skirmishes do indeed feel like playing Horde mode with bots, rather than taking part in a structured, well-paced campaign.

Yes, on a level of pure action-driven spectacle, Gears 3 is an unadulterated, explosive war movie, but it just doesn’t feel as satisfying to play. The principle is the same for movies as well. Too much scale, too much flash-bang, too many set-pieces, and you start to feel overwhelmed and disconnected. The over-cooked fight scenes of the Matrix sequels caused the same problems, and Spider-Man 3’s torrent of vast set-pieces helped its narrative issues in no way. As for Bleszinski’s previous narrative reservations in regards to four-player co-op, I certainly agree with 2008 Cliff over 2011 Cliff. Because in addition to the problems I had with the action, Gears 3 suffers a serious case of…

Too many characters, too little involvement

More players requires more playable characters. That’s a given. When you have a game tied to a storyline, you alas can’t just drop in or pull out additional character models as required like we could in the days of Contra. And while Gears 1 and 2 often featured more characters than Marcus and Dom by way of the rest of Delta Squad, for me, Gears of War 3 goes way over the top.


Above: A lot of people, barely any of whom matter

The great thing about standardising the four-man squad/two playable squaddies system in the first two games was that it left enough breathing space for Cole and Baird to disappear off to explore parallel story elements. The game was balanced for two players, so Marcus and Dom weren’t negatively affected by their occasional absences in the name of narrative richness.

In Gears 3 though, the provision for four players means there have to be at least four characters around at all times. And there are often more, as each time characters branch off from each other to explore additional locations and plot threads another four-person squad is needed. Thus we end up with a protagonist version of Spider-Man 3’s villain overload. With Sandman, Harry-Goblin and Venom all vying for screen-time, along with the symbiote suit plot-line and all of Peter’s emotional difficulties to compete with, hardly any person or story element in Spider-Man 3 gets time for a satisfying exploration. In Gears 3, we have Marcus, Dom, Cole, Baird, Anya, Sam, Jace, Adam, Hoffman, Bernie, Carmine, Dizzy and Prescott thrown into the mix, and as a result, most of them turn into interchangeable palette-swap ninjas.


Above: Seriously, who the hell are you?

Yes, I know a bunch of these guys are characters from the Gears novels and comics making their full game debuts, and as such are probably pretty important to the insanely hardcore fans who absolutely must soak up every bit of Gears media they can lay their hands on. To everyone else though, they’re new faces, and the necessity for so damn many of them in order to accomodate the mechanical structure of combining gameplay with plot means that very few of them rise above the level of non-entities. And that is exacerbated by the fact that Gears 3's writing assumes so much audience knowledge via different media that it doesn't bother characterising any of them. So they just end up diluting the mix.

We’re told that Jace is ballsy and has the respect of Marcus, but do we see any evidence of this? Does he say or do anything that makes us feel that he’s a part of this world, and a person who matters? No, we do not. Similarly, while made out to be a big deal by their playable inclusion for the first time, female Gears Anya and Sam are so lost amongst by the maelstrom cast-list that their appearance actually does them a disservice.

Anya was a much stronger presence when she was separated from the team, her relationship with Delta Squad actually far more intimately felt through the use of understatement and distance. Now though, she and Sam are pretty much interchangeable, their only notable differences being that one has an unspoken relationship with Marcus while the other has a thing going on with Baird. And frankly, their reduction to generic female trophy characters is actually more demeaning than empowering, as the inclusion of female Gears was surely intended to be.

69 comments

  • JonnyJon - November 18, 2011 12:28 p.m.

    I had myself convinced that all the characters were gunna die, kind of like halo reach. The trailers kept giving this hopeless feeling like there was nothing they could do except try to survive. I gotta say i was really disappointed with the whole "oh yeah, theres a giant machine that kills everything and saves the day" ending of the story. I think in some ways killing everyone off (of course, marcus and dom being the last ones alive) and making it emotional would have been better.
  • Ipriest54753 - October 22, 2011 5:03 p.m.

    I sort of agree with you but dude...don't be a turd in the punchbowl
  • ultimatepunchrod - October 17, 2011 10:20 a.m.

    i waited until i finished it to read this and i have to say i agree with you about all of this. nothing in the game hit anywhere near as hard as the first 2. it was fun, but we should hope for more from games than just fun gameplay. game developers should try and push the envelope for story telling and gears 3 did not.
  • ateamfan - October 4, 2011 4:46 a.m.

    " In Gears 3, we have Marcus, Dom, Cole, Baird, Anya, Sam, Jace, Adam, Hoffman, Bernie, Carmine, Dizzy and Prescott thrown into the mix, and as a result, most of them turn into interchangeable palette-swap ninjas." I see what you did there.
  • MyCoolWhiteLies - October 4, 2011 1:15 a.m.

    I've been waiting to read this until I finished the campaign, which I finally did tonight. I just want to say thank you for putting into words almost everything I felt about this game. I actually probably thought less of the first two games' narratives than you, but even still, this game was just completely lazy. As you pointed out, the not only was the story not up to par, but the gameplay suffered as well. Everything was simplified for the sake of having 4 players. The bosses were all just massive bullet sponges, with almost no strategy. Compare the Lambent Leviathan fight in the beginning of this game with the regular leviathan from Gears 2. The latter requires problem solving and fighting in equal measure. The former is just a slog where you're in almost no danger of dying. Bosses and bigger enemies like the Serapedes and big lambent types focus way too much on the sole player character, almost entirely ignoring the AI squadmates. This lead to some arduous fights where I was in a near perpetual cycle of being downed, revived by my teammates, then almost immediately downed again because the enemy was just attacking me. God, I could go on for a while about what bugged the crap out of me in that campaign, but I'm just gonna leave it to your article to express my views, probably more eloquently than I could myself.
  • thecakeisalie96 - October 3, 2011 7:14 p.m.

    i like doms death it was touching and go Cole train WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Boldbrute - October 3, 2011 1:05 a.m.

    Most of the points made here make a lot of sense. F--k Jace, unneeded character who was pointless. Sam? Just another token female, and all the sudden Anya is an active Gear? No... just no... she's the information chick, she never once showed a hint of combat readiness... no. One thing I was surprised to not see was Dizzy's miraculous survival against Scourge, and it's shocking lack of explanation other than "Well... he just kinda lives and now he's here..." The only character that was story relevant that was new was Griffin... and well a lot of time we got with him, another dickhead character and another plot device (his whole "me and you will have our day Fenix" line) that's probably going no where. Actually, I hope he was lambent and f--king died. One thing I do have to disagree on was Dom's "sloppy" death. Everyone could see it coming, from the second chapter where he just wants to deal with his plants to the emotional return to Maria's hometown, even to her parent's gravesite and his apology for being unable to return her there. He'd lost everything, his kids, his life, and he had to euthanize Maria after searching so long. He was just a broken down man looking for the end, either to the war or to everything. His death was coming, I even remember jokingly say "watch Maria's parents are going to become Formers and he's going to kill himself, watch." and yea I was wrong about the Former thing but that wasn't really said seriously. Dom chose to die, he chose the terms and he even saved everyone else. Would I like to have seen him live? Of course, who wouldn't, but it's fair to say that him taking his own life wasn't really a stretch. The only thing that bothered me was how Sam was so broken up about it. She hasn't been a character for the years this story has been going on and all the sudden her and Dom were close?
  • Boldbrute - October 3, 2011 1:06 a.m.

    About Dizzy, I meant to put seen in the article.
  • AuthorityFigure - October 2, 2011 12:47 a.m.

    I can't understand the need for any sort of 'narrative' beyond a rudimentary chain of events in any game. Anything further to this is just white noise to me. And complaining about absurd plot or story-telling devices in any fantasy film is like complaining that water is wet. It's like "I can accept this person has radioactive induced super power, I can accept that alter egos are physical beings, and so on, but I WILL NOT accept this character has a change of heart and hairstyle.
  • Defguru7777 - October 1, 2011 5:07 p.m.

    I agree with some of your points, but I think you're amplifying them too harshly. While I agree that the Locust/Myrrah could use a bit more explanation, I think that elements in Gears 2 (including Collectibles) leave enough for you to draw your own conclusions. But a little exposition would have been nice. But I completely disagree with you on Cole's role in the campaign. I thought the whole thing made him a more well-rounded character, showing that he isn't as unmovable as people think he is, but that it really isn't a character flaw. Also, I think you're exaggerating parts of Dom's death. It's perfectly understandable for people to have seen Dom's death coming, but come on. Did people really take note that Marcus kept Dom's knife? Or automatically think "he's a-gunna kill the Locust Queen with it." When I first saw it, I just thought Dom handing Marcus his knife was just to show that he was back, physically and mentally. I didn't even notice that Marcus kept it. Personally, I did like Gears 2's campaign better, not sure why. Also, personal gripe of mine for this kind of thing in particular. Why do we always have to have long articles talking about what's wrong with games? I know they have their place, but why are there never articles that appreciate the good things that games do? Or at least some middle ground (like the best/worst of Gears 2 article you guys did a few years ago. It's like a perpetual din of whining and complaining (not that it isn't justified, I know). Okay, rant over.
  • Defguru7777 - October 1, 2011 5:08 p.m.

    Oh, and to clarify my opinion of Dom's death, I thought it could have been better, but really wasn't bad.
  • danbedfo - October 1, 2011 5:58 a.m.

    I agree with a lot of what is said here. The story is just sloppy. It feels like a rehash and far less interesting version of Halo. There is a parastic organism infecting and destroying life as we know it. It is necessary to activate a device that will somehow destroy that organism. It shares nothing of the mystery and intrigue. The dimensions of the plot that can be considered original, which were set up in 1 and 2, were largely ignored. The connections between the locust and humanity. The "sires" were a major plot point in 2 that felt like it was being set up for further exposition in 3. How is this linked to the queens apparent human appearance? Also, the locust were torturing humans on a massive scale. Were they doing this for fun? Was it part of a process of turning humans in to locust? My intuition is that they have taken the easy option not just because they don't want to resolve these issues, but because it leaves open the possibility of another game. I absolutely guarentee that there will be a prequel in which we come to learn how the war really began and learn the connections of the two races. I think it will be much like how Halo 4 will explore the mystery of the forerunner race and its connections with humanity etc... The difference between Halo and Gears is that the former never really made the connections between the different races integral to the story. The story was always about how to stop a parasite, prevent the death of all life and end the war with a theocracy. The intrigue of the forerunner was always a background issue that was never integral to the plot and was never strongly built up during the games. It raised questions, sure, but it never felt like it was a major issue that was thrust in to the spotlight. In contrast Gears appeared to go out of it's way to highlight that there were connections between humanity and the locust. The sires, the queen, they appeared to be introduced in 2 with the aim of highlighting how the connections between the races would have a significant impact on the resolution of the conflict. Instead it was sidelined.
  • GeorgeyB - October 1, 2011 4:13 a.m.

    I must admit that whilst some of the comparisons between Gears 3 and Spiderman 3 are apt, I do think that it is a little unfair. I know I'm not alone in thinking Spidey 3 was terrible, but the general quality and the story telling in Gears 3 still far exceeded that of Spiderman 3. The point I disagree with most though is the number of characters. Admittedly some of them were underwritten (Jace and Dizzie especially) I found I liked Sam very quickly and Anya's character was expanded a quite a bit. They don't come off as trophies at all in my opinion and I enjoyed both the hinted relationship between Sam and Baird and the final moments with Anya and Marcus (even if it was a little cheesy).
  • TheSatur9 - October 1, 2011 1:18 a.m.

    Imulsion seems very similar to Phazon from Metroid Prime has anyone else noticed this?
  • HankVenture - September 30, 2011 10:02 p.m.

    I like how everyone is pissed you are comparing this to spiderman.. He is JUST SAYING that any flaws Gears has are the same ones Spiderman 3 had and he is on the dot with every single one. Thank you sir, I beat the campaign and felt no sensation like I did in Gears 2. I mean I was confused wondering what I had missed because I didn't read the books wondering if the locust queen looking human and those type of questions had been answered already. I had no interest in any of the characters and just HATED Jace. Dom dom dom.... that was sooo pathetic, they barelly give him any new character showing how he is dealing with life after his wife and lost jacinto, I mean he is just there and then he gets a "big scene?" ps. why didn't they allll just jump on the fu**ing truck with him and ride the f**k out of there.. DERP!
  • ashwell - September 30, 2011 9:15 p.m.

    As much as I enjoyed the game, calling the things that happen in the campaign a 'plot' or 'story' is giving it way to much credit. They could have done so much more and it disappointed me that they just used an easy option.
  • Fuzunga - September 30, 2011 8:54 p.m.

    I was satisfied with the ending, but for the stupidest reason ever. It was awesome because of Carmine. He came in the chopper all of a sudden after I hadn't seem him in three acts and it was badass! I was seriously wondering the whole time "I wonder what happened to Carmine. He just sort of disappeared." And then there he was, about to be the hero! And his Raven catches fire and goes down. Through the entire boss fight all I could think of was "I hope Carmine is ok!" And then the fight ended and I'm sitting through the cutscene and thinking "I guess he's gone..." AND THEN THERE HIS IS! Carmine made it! The only way the ending could have been more satisfying is if Carmine sacrificed himself by ramming his Raven into the queen and, killing her and saving humanity. Or even better if he killed her and survived. It would be totally stupid, I know, but it would have been God damn epic!
  • TheZigMan - September 30, 2011 7:56 p.m.

    To be honest, I think the comparison of this game to Spiderman 3 is a shame. Spiderman 3 is a complete piece of sh-t, and this game obviously isn't. I walked out of Spiderman 3, while I completed this game with a lot of fun to be had. I never felt ripped off by Gears, while I demanded my money back for Spiderman 3. While you may have lost the soul in the series, please do no insult it by comparing it to Spiderman 3, easily the most disapointing sequel in history
  • AuthorityFigure - October 2, 2011 12:50 a.m.

    If you actually demanded a refund then I applaud you. People are far too tolerant of bad quality media.
  • TheZigMan - October 2, 2011 12:29 p.m.

    It's the only movie that I have ever demanded a refund from. That is not to say it is the worst movie I have ever seen. Cool as Ice takes that title. But it quite possibly could be the most disappointing movie I have ever seen

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