Truth be told, I've been agonizing for the past few days over how to review Gears of War 3, the big blockbuster Xbox 360 game being released on Tuesday.
On the one hand, it's a grandiose, action-packed, pulse-pounding science-fiction shooter of the first degree that satisfies just about every itch one could have from the genre. Other reviewers are sure to rate it an eight or nine out of 10 for these reasons.
On the other hand, it is dumb, dumb, dumb and really highlights a question that many writers, academics and even mainstream media have been asking for some time: Why can't video games be smarter?
In that vein, Gears of War 3 is one of the worst offenders. It's juvenile escapism writ large with dialogue geared (no pun intended) toward the same teens who enjoy Michael Bay's brain-dead movies. Despite the game's tremendous design accomplishments, it's therefore hard to digest as anything but a shallow thrill.
The series is set on the planet Sera, which has been ravaged by a war between humans and a race of creatures known as the Locust. In all three instalments, players control Marcus Fenix, a soldier under the auspices of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (the COG). Fenix leads Delta Squad, a rag-tag group of characters who have arms and legs the size of tree trunks, ooze testosterone from every digital pore and spew obscenities with almost every sentence.
Collectively, the COG troops - or the titular "gears" - fight the Locust and other baddies while engaging in some of the most appallingly bad conservations ever penned.
In an early stage of the new game, for example, the troops enter an abandoned supermarket, where a firefight will obviously soon break out. No sooner does the action begin and the most obvious cliché comes to mind - somebody yelling "cleanup in aisle five!" - when sure enough, one of the characters shouts it.
Rapper/actor Ice T shows up part way through as Griffin, the boss of a small group of war survivors. He punctuates every sentence with the likes of "bitch" and the full version of "mofo," thereby caricaturizing the gangster image he cultivated in the 1990s. It's almost perfectly appropriate: the game should really be called 'Gears of War 3, Bitch!'
The game aims to create some level of emotional pathos for its characters - Fenix is searching for his long-lost father while Augustus "Cole Train" Cole wistfully reflects on his career as a pro athlete before the war - but it falls flat with terrible follow through. About half way through the game, for example, the members of Delta Squad mourn the death of one of their teammates. Two minutes later, the gravitas evaporates as they get back to trading cliched barbs and quips.
The developers at Epic Games have tried to offset some of the series' testosterone with the addition of two female characters to the front-line action, but they're not exactly going to advance anyone's notions of gender equality in games. One of the women, for example, shouts "You're not afraid of a girl, are you?" as she rushes into battle.
Despite all of that, Gears of War 3 is still a fun action game. While many shooters emphasize straight out guns blazing, Gears has always forced players to utilize cover and strategic tactics such as outflanking the enemy, who also duck behind walls and rocks.
The series also uses an "active reload" system, or a minigame that requires players to hit the right spot on a meter while reloading their weapon. Hitting it correctly results in a quick reload and damage bonus while missing it means the gun jams.
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