Gears Awakens

I have something additional to say about video games in general which is something of a follow-up from a post I made earlier this year. However, this one fits in too. It is a bit late in coming since this is concerning a game I played back in September, but my thoughts on it are still fresh enough to make it worth writing.

I have been into the Gears of War series for about ten years when I played the first two games around 2009/10. I wasn’t initially very interested in the series because I didn’t own an Xbox 360 until years after the release. It also wasn’t previously a genre I had much interest in. This changed not after playing the first game but with the second which was a considerable improvement and it led me to appreciating what the first was trying to do. I could also see the influence that Resident Evil 4 had on development which is significant because this remains one of my favourite games of all time.

I was very into the series when Gears of War 3 arrived to finish the story arc of the first two and back again a short time later with the inferior but still competent series prequel: Gears of War: Judgement. When Gears of War 4 was on the horizon, I decided it was time to get an Xbox One. The first entry in the new series was initially disappointing but improved a lot in the latter acts and I enjoyed it more on a second playthrough. Something I couldn’t quite shake though was that while visually stunning and entertaining; it never felt like something that needed to exist.

Over the same time period, I also read through the Karen Traviss novels written during the series’ run on Xbox 360. These were set both before, during and in-between the games and did a great job of fleshing out the universe. I only mention this to show that I know the series well and my criticisms of the latest entry aren’t from someone who is just a casual fan.

In many beloved franchises whether in film, comics, games and even literature, the spirit or rather infection of “wokeness” has been spreading rather fast. The initial reveal of Gears 5 made this immediately obvious with the main protagonist being moved from JD Fenix to Kait Diaz. JD for those who don’t know, is the son of Marcus who was the main protagonist of the first three games. To be fair, this change in focus was hinted at the end of Gears of War 4 but the change still felt more forced than organic and playing through Gears 5 has only confirmed this.

The main character from Gears of War 4 is moved to the back.

I finished the campaign back in September and was more disappointed than I expected going in. Despite my misgivings, I was till looking forward to the game and while it wasn’t bad, I would still put it firmly at the bottom if I were to rank the series. Technical hitches did play some part in this as there was a lot of background loading and online tracking that hampered the experience. I understand some players at the time even lost progress and I certainly had to restart sections and one entire Act did not register as completed for me.

There are some genuine changes to the gameplay in the form of the semi-open world sections in the second and third acts. They are certainly different but in practice just stretch out game’s length artificially by making the player travel a much longer and less direct route to the next objective with a few bland side-quests to be found. It does not feel like a lot of thought went into this and there are better ways to break up gameplay that don’t become monotonous. There were also some similarly simple progression mechanics introduced which I found almost completely useless outside of the few areas where a tutorial made them a necessity. I have no complaints with the classic Gears gameplay though and I had no problems with the game mechanically. All this means is that what was already there is still good and what is new is at best superfluous when not a hindrance.

One major reason for my disappointment was present in the former and that was the same feeling that it was a pointless game going over the same ground; much like the 2015 Star Wars film which my title for this post is referencing. This trend of making sequels that are also remakes has been called the “soft reboot” and this fits here too. The idea (I suppose), is to try to please the old audience while bringing in a new one rather than doing the hard work of creating something new. The game’s cover even looks strikingly similar to one of the posters for 2017’s The Last Jedi.

Not a coincidence.

The way the game had been promoted was as Kait going on a journey to discover her past. This begins in Act 2 when the player takes control of Kait instead of JD and it is not a coincidence that the game goes downhill from here. Anyone who played Act 3 of Gears 2 and saw the ending of Gears of War 4 already knew everything that was going to be “revealed” during the game. So the player is stuck controlling a character that is finding out what we already knew. The exposition was not the least bit subtle and it was frankly boring being made to walk around finding out things that anyone who didn’t skip cutscenes in the previous games could already guess. This is also one of the problems with trying to keep an audience while bringing in a new one. To the audience that already exists, you’re just retreading old ground and the new audience is probably finding it far too convoluted.

It feels necessary to state that I wasn’t bothered by Kait taking the lead as the more woke will assume—I just thought it was done poorly. As admittedly uninteresting as JD was in the previous game; I was far more interested in the direction they took his character by the end of Act 1 in this than I was with Kait. I found myself wanting to see what sparked the change in him as he was the only character that did genuinely change. He had also come much closer to resembling his father in both appearance and demeanor.

The other problem with Kait is her insolence. There is a point early in the game (that was also shown in one of the trailers), of her openly refusing to follow orders of a superior (JD) and basically getting away with it. Now there are situations in both life and in fiction where this would be necessary and exciting. In this case, her reason for refusing came down to her saying something like, “this is about me — not you!” like a teenage girl might to her parents after being told she can’t go to prom in a limousine. Then the soldiers surrounding her actually let her go. This isn’t by any means a realistic game or series but as with fiction in any genre, there are parts that have to reflect reality to engage the audience and human interaction is one of them. It also shows the writers don’t know the series well as the original protagonist is first met in a prison cell which he was in for disobeying orders to try to save his father. Kait of course is not punished but allowed to divert time and resources to her personal voyage despite the much bigger problems the world has to deal with.

Similar to bringing back yet another world-destroying weapon in the new Star Wars films, a significant part of the game is devoted to bring back the Hammer of Dawn weapon in Gears 5. As I said, I have read all the books and played all the original games so this will be my red shirt moment. If you’ve done either, you know a major reason the COG is hated is because of the Hammer of Dawn which is a satellite based weapon that desolated most of the planet prior to the previous games. A moral and political subtext running through most of the series had been the justification for the use of the Hammer which kind of parallels aerial bombing and nuclear weaponry in modern history. It frankly doesn’t make sense that characters who were against how JD and Fahz (an irritating new character), handled protesters in a settlement wouldn’t reject the very idea of restoring the Hammer network again considering what it had done to the planet and the many innocents that were incinerated when it was used. It also seems to be forgotten that it is left to question whether the Hammer did much to help the forces against the Locust at all in the first war — as mentioned, parallels with the effectiveness of aerial bombing of cities during World War 2.

Another point is that in the games and also the books the Hammer network is rapidly decaying and soon inoperative leading up to the events of Gears of War 3. When they are fighting the Lambent on Vectes, Baird is barely able to aim the remaining satellites. It really isn’t believable that even the un-launched satellites would be workable more than 25 years after that. I know this might be reading too much into it but even accepting that, it is just something else about the game that feels poorly thought out.

As with the new Star Wars trilogy the writers obviously wanted to set it apart from the original while still making it familiar but it would have been better to make a complete break. Something I really loved about Gears of War 4 was that rather than having destroyed beauty; we had renewed beauty. The original trilogy was full of destroyed cities that were once beautiful and barren and deserted areas everywhere else. Gears of War 4 still had ruins but lush greenery had grown over them and life had returned. As well as this, there was a new civilisation growing next to the renewed wildlife. By the end of Gears 5, the world was back to where it was left in the original trilogy.

One reason the new Star Wars films are so bad is because they make the events of the original films seem ultimately pointless as these characters find themselves in almost exactly the same position that they were. Gears 5, has essentially done the same thing. It ends with the fledgling civilisation overrun and in ruins from what is essentially the same enemy in all but name. And as with The Last Jedi, it hasn’t really left the characters anywhere to go. I would normally hesitate to claim something like this but I am confident that I could have done a much better job writing a new trilogy for the series.

I know I used the word “pointless” and synonyms for the same word quite a lot but that’s really the best way to describe this game. There is nothing new worth experiencing here and the series will probably become unprofitable if not already. This is a trend not just with Star Wars and now Gears of War but with so much media today. These are sterile stories written by committees that alienate their audience while futilely trying to appeal to another virtually non-existent one. In doing this, they are only able to emulate the outer appearance of the series’ legacy while leaving the core rotten, empty or simply forgotten.

I am not looking forward to what the future holds for the Gears of War series and this is increasingly the case for a lot of entertainment I used to enjoy.

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