This post contains spoilers!
Gears Of War is a series I'm constantly on the fence about. As much as I love the series for it's cover-based gameplay, giant setpieces, and huge suite of modes and options giving the player great value for their money, it's not a series without some deep flaws. The characters are all cartoons, right down to their thick-necked, impossibly proportioned character models and ridiculous "ooh rah" mentality. Unless you're willing to read the novelizations and comic books, there's not a whole lot of interesting stuff going on from a story perspective. It's a bunch of war movie cliches and melodramatic nonsense that telegraphs every character moment and plot twist by signal flare.
The first Gears game is, to my mind, the only one that had the right tone: it was a romp. There were serious moments, or moments we were meant to take seriously, but it was all in service of blowing shit up. It seems that, once the first game set the world on fire, the writers never quite found their footing. They had to make the narrative more and more grandiose to match the level of attention heaped upon the game and it's never really been to the series' benefit. It certainly made for some excellent setpieces but the stubborn refusal of characters to act human rubbed against ham-handed moments so incongruous to what came before that my reaction was to sputter with laughter, not get choked up.
As a sidenote: there's plenty of people who like to act as though the narrative of the Gears games are bulletproof. Why question something so resolutely stupid? Well, for the same reason I was one of the guys criticizing the storytelling issues in Mass Effect 3: if the writers want us to take their story seriously, we have to oblige them and judge it as such. If this were Bulletstorm or Vanquish, I'd let a lot of things pass because they never wanted to be anything more than a ridiculous shooter. While Gears may have started as a ridiculous shooter, it discovered ambitions along the way they could never pull off. If you just want to shoot stuff, you can pretty much stop wasting your time with this article now. It's still really good at that.
This was all supposed to change with Gears Of War: Judgement. Developers People Can Fly, those responsible for the aforementioned Bulletstorm, are solid developers picking up a very tried-and-true series. There's no pressure to reinvent it, merely give it a twist while Epic proper works on the first next-gen Gears game. It's role as a placeholder actually works in it's favor because it means they can take more chances than Gears Of War 4 can. They picked game journalist and respected author Tom Bissell to write the game, lending a little credibility to the series and hopefully moving it beyond the Random Quip Generator it had been up to that point. Based on the hushed tones other game journalists spoke of Bissell in, I figured good things were in store.
Sadly, the campaign is only a marginal success... mostly due to the unimpeachable gory action the series is known for.
The first thing I noticed when they previewed the game was the slightly tweaked character models. While still exaggerated, they seemed a little less beefy and more realistic. As a prequel, this could either be because the characters are younger or because of a commitment to a slightly less bro-ified attitude towards the series going forward. Choosing Baird and Cole as the leads was a smart choice as they were the characters who had the most personality in the original trilogy. A game where we see Baird become the increasingly bitter and sarcastic man he is in the first Gears is very much a game I'd like to play. Turns out, I'm still waiting.
People Can Fly know their way around arcade-y score-based action games and Judgement sort of smashes together the vanilla story mode and the arcade mode from the previous games into one. The idea is to collect stars through your performance. Each area has three stars to collect depending on how well your team does. Die or go DBNO (Down But Not Out) and you lose stars. Kill your enemies in various creative ways to earn Ribbons which increase your stars. Collect enough stars and you unlock bonuses including an extra couple of campaign chapters called Aftermath which are a side story to Gears 3 and the only part of the campaign that has no Declassified modifiers. It's also the best chunk of the story in the game, partly for that exact reason.
Every significant firefight in the game has an option to be "Declassified," which imposes any of a number of different battle conditions on you from limited arsenals to increased difficulty to visual impairment which will allow you to earn stars faster at increased risk. It'd be an excellent system if it didn't hamstring narrative momentum and pull you out of the game.
By interrupting you every ten or fifteen minutes by asking you to click on a big COG logo to see what the Declassified factors are for the next fight, Judgement is constantly reminding you that it's a game. I'm a little shocked that Declassified wasn't offered as an optional mode or unlocked after beating the game. The single player wouldn't have been particularly compelling anyway but at least you'd have been able to focus on the story and the flow of action unhindered. Every Declassified logo was an opportunity for me to stop for a bathroom break or a bite to eat or a "Oh, hey, I should go back and continue my Persona 3 game... I'll come back to this later."
The fragmented nature of the narrative gives added scrutiny to the story that it doesn't particularly need. In addition to much quieter, more sober iterations of Baird and Cole (not once are the words "Cole Train" uttered over the course of the campaign), your other squadmates are by-the-book cadet Sofia Hendricks and scarred, grizzled Russian-analogue Garron Paduk, who sort of becomes the game's Baird despite the presence of the actual Baird.
Paduk is far and away the best character in the game. He has a history, a point of view, motivation, a disrespect for authority, and a sharp tongue. And then there's poor Sofia. If you were thinking that a respected writer might mean a well-drawn female character in a video game... not so much. At the military tribunal, Sofia is the only one to try and pass the blame to her squadmates. Later on, it's revealed that she was schtupping an ancillary character they've been searching for, a married man and father. And at the end of the Aftermath chapter it's revealed that she moved on to sleeping with Garron and was brutally murdered off screen to attempt to add a bit of dramatic weight to the story. The Feminazis Coming To Destroy Gaming will not be amused.
The game is ostensibly about Baird's Kilo Squad trying to stop a rampaging Locust leader named Karn by dropping a missile on his head. However, Karn is a just a walking boss fight waiting to start. The real antagonist of the story is Loomis, a moustachioed avatar of myopic military arrogance. After disobeying orders and dropping a Lightmass missile on Karn's head, Loomis has Kilo Squad arrested for treason. The game itself happens in flashback. (I was hoping there'd be some element of Baird and crew as unreliable narrators but that's a bit too ambitious, I suppose.) When you Declassify a section, there's normally a bit of text about how Kilo is alleging something that runs counter to Loomis or the COG brass' intel, illustrating pretty clearly how badly the Locust were underestimated. It's an additional shade to the series I actually quite liked given how black and white the conflict has been portrayed.
By insisting on court martialing Kilo Squad in the middle of a city that's at war, with Locust literally breaking down their doors, there's no interpretation of Loomis' actions that doesn't fit the definition of cartoon villain. Regardless of Kilo's testimony, it's clear he intends to kill them for their disobedience. Between the Declassified text and putting soldiers in harm's way needlessly out of ego and single-mindedness, they spend the entire game building and building up to a reckoning for Loomis and... it all ends with Baird essentially shaking his hand and going their separate ways. No harm done.
Yeah, really, that's it. It's a moment every bit as stupid as the finale of Gears Of War 3 where they tease the idea that there's something more to the Locusts before... well, committing genocide. There's no case to be made that Loomis is just a hard man making hard choices. He's willfully doing wrong because he cannot admit that the Locust are any smarter than "animals" and because he can't see beyond hardline military doctrine. There's a moment in Aftermath where Kilo Squad comes across a statue dedicated to Loomis and I would have been fine with that as a "the real heroes never get recognition" moment if it was clear that he got the ignominious death his actions warranted.
There are action genre rules, the same as in horror. If a character is a dick in the first act, usually an officer or bureaucrat, he gets his just desserts in
the third. Hopefully in a fun, ironic way that will make us cheer. Because that's what we're here for. Maybe he dies due to his own arrogance. Maybe he dies despite Kilo's best efforts to intercede, thus making them seem more heroic. Maybe he survives despite all odds and Kilo helplessly watches him leave to continue to lose the war for them, but you don't have your hero characters absolve the villain without the villain changing their ways. If you're going to buck action genre conventions, you need to make your intentions very clear as to why or else it seems as though you're wildly out of sync with the genre you're working in. Because what we got was a very unfulfilling, sour ending.
If only this were the game's only story-related problems.
The game is woefully in need or memorable setpiece fights. The only one that stands out to me is a Normandy-like beach invasion followed later by a defense of the same area, which only stands out due to how tired of a concept it still is and how it will be nakedly reproduced for multiplayer. Judgement seems to have fallen in love with wave-based hold out sequences too. There's several dotted over the course of the game which only make the absence of a proper Horde mode more curious. It also becomes a crutch they lean on by the end of the game. By keeping you penned up in one area, they don't have to generate new areas or sequences. The combat mechanics are as solid as ever but nothing stands out after you're done as being memorable as far as settings or enemy types.
Loomis isn't the only character in the game who has no arc. Character development on the whole just doesn't happen. The opportunity to see Baird and Cole start as rookies and move towards the characters we know from the main series was tantalizing yet is absent in the game itself. Baird has a couple of quips but it otherwise bland as can be. We're left to understand that any serious adjustments to his character were made between the end of Judgement and the first Gears, which is an utterly wasted opportunity.
The handling of Cole is even worse. He has none of the boisterous personality he's known for and doesn't show any by the end of the game. At one point Loomis tells him that he's been "uncharacteristically quiet" and I had to chuckle. Where's this loud Cole he's talking about? The only lines of Cole's I remember are him off-handedly reminding us of how rich he was as a thrashball star. Using his inside voice, no less. There's a case to be made that Cole needed to be a bit more grounded in reality but, at the same time, it wastes Lester Speight as a voice actor. Dude does not do "demure" well. There's a middle ground to hit with the character that the game has no interest in.
These are all things that could have been handled in a few lines of dialogue or a short cutscene. I'm not asking for the game to be based around it's characters, merely that it give us something, anything, to chew on while we play. The Gears series has always struggled in this respect. While Judgement represents an attempt to grow the series up, it's still a long way from meeting it's potential. It still has the smooth, gratifying gameplay we expect from the series but there's only so long you can coast on that. Mechanics get repetitive over time and familiarity will eventually cause people to move onto the next thing. However, if your characters and your world are compelling, that will go a long way towards extending the life of your franchise. Given how sober and ponderous and mishandled Judgement's story turned out to be, it's a lesson Epic is still learning.
Gears Of War is not a series that needs to be taken seriously. It just needs to be a well-written action game. Well-written action, contrary to being "dumb" as people assume, actually means being clever rather than high-minded. There's no Terrence Malick film hiding somewhere in the Gears Of War universe. There are series that can get away with Big Thoughts but Gears isn't one of them. All we need is solid action and to not have our intelligence insulted. They've long since mastered the former, now we just need them to start on the latter.