Monday, November 24, 2008

Too dumb for print

Above: "Bro... you're overthinking it."

In writing my upcoming Gears of War 2 review, I started down a path of inquiry and then quickly retreated. It wasn't the kind of thing that would make sense to a general audience, I didn't think. Also, it was kind of half-assed. But I thought I'd run it past you all and see if you think there's something to it, or if it's a load of bollocks.

I was trying to figure out why the campaign seemed a little lackluster to me. Partly, it was easy to determine: a few too many turret missions, a bland vehicular sequence, and, ultimately, too many parts where the game got away from the thing it does so well. But that really wasn't all of it. I think the kids call it "ludonarrative dissonance," but I have a habit of picking these things up and misusing them later.

Here's how I see it: Gears' gameplay is essentially defensive. Taking cover well is more important than having crackshot aim. Using the environment, not targeting your enemies, is the skill you need to master in order to progress through the game. Most of the times I died during the campaign, it was because I had mistakenly dug in too close to the line, and was swarmed by foes. I learned to stay back as much as possible.

The storyline, though, puts the COGs on the offensive for the duration. It's all rah-rah, take-it-to-'em stuff. You get all geared up to fight, pardon the pun, and then spend all your time with your head down. That doesn't make sense.

I didn't feel the same way during the first one. In the original game, I felt very much on the defensive, overwhelmed and outgunned at all times. It made more sense for the story that I was playing it the way I was. The incursion into the Locust caves was presented as a suicide mission. In Gears 2, for whatever reason, the characters just don't seem to mind as much to be heading down there by themselves. That never struck me right. You could say it's because they know they have no other option, but I don't know if that's good enough -- even if it is the case, no one ever communicates it.

(Slight tangent: The sequel does a slightly better job than the first of making it seem like you're a small part of a bigger conflict, but why do they keep giving the most important jobs to just two guys? Is that some kind of advanced military strategy, giving your enemies as few targets as possible? Think of all the lives that could have been saved on D-Day if we'd had Marcus and Dom fighting for the Allies. "You two take Omaha Beach, and Baird and the Cole Train will take Utah." "Woo-woo! Pain train's coming!")

Like I said, it's a little half-baked and I'm not sure how much I even believe it, but there had to be some reason why the Gears 2 campaign didn't seem as gripping as the first. What do you think? Am I grasping for something that isn't there?


Mike said...

This reminded me a bit of my thoughts when playing a couple of the Medal of Honor games on the GC.

"Honey, I'm home!"

"Oh hello, dear, how was your day?"

"Good, good. I stormed Omaha Beach and all my buddies died but I managed to single-handedly infiltrated the Nazi bunker and kill them all. Then I criss-crosssed Europe assassinating various SS targets, used a fake disguise to get into a Nazi evening gala, killed some more dudes, and eventually won the war all by myself. What's for dinner?"

Anonymous said...

I think its a good point well made. The same thing occurred to me during Dead Space, as well as Gears 2 - I was having trouble justifying Isaac's willingness to run headfirst into situations, at the behest of his team-mates, that always escalate into bloodbaths and near-death setpieces, in which he will be horribly injured, every time, in order to fix a tram. It came to a ridiculous head (for me) when Kendra chirpily told me "There's a 15 Kiloton creature in food storage: you have to kill it!"

I don't really have a point. I guess looking at Marcus and Dom's track record of killing Brumaks and defending indefensible positions and killing locust generals, it might be overkill to send anyone else?

Anonymous said...

Mitch, I felt mostly the same as you, especially concerning the turret/vehicle missions. You are right, there were way to many of them. I'm guessing they wanted to add some sense of scale to the characters, and to the war in general, but that was never fully realized for me. I never felt any sense of urgency or vulnerability during any of those sequences either. They are less than successful when compared to the original Gears escape the Kryll or whatever mission, or the final mission in Halo 3. The worst by far IMO was near the ending where you are forced to ride the slowest moving "vehicle" and then told to complete the game with one of the least satisfying single-player weapons available. This was so not Epic (pun intended).

Also, where was the big important satisfying battle with Scourge? I have played through the entire campaign, but never saw one. I remember a few interviews where Cliff talked about how "Bad-Ass" this new character was, yet I completed the game barely remembering him. I don't know about you guys, but I still have random nightmares about Raam...

Darius Kazemi said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head.

Anonymous said...

I agree - it feels much easier overall, and it loses the tactically-intense experience of being one lonely squad stuck in the ruins.

But there are some great moments of beleagured, "this is how they treat the grunts" moments. My biggest laugh of the game came when they were breaking into the completely classified location in Chapter 3, and the place was so secret and dangerous that even their commanding officer didn't know anything about it - and Dom just goes, "SCREWed."

Anonymous said...

Can it be that the new car smell has gone away and Eventhough the new car is absolutely fine and a beast of a machine. You have heard that Engine roar before.

Brammy said...

yeah, i agree that the second gears is not as good as the first, head over to my blog and I've pretty much agreed with what you've said :D

Iroquois Pliskin said...


I think this point is a really interesting angle to take on the game. Maybe it fits in with Clint Hocking's Ludonarrative dissonance idea-- the game's acting and narrative are giving one portrayal of the events and the mechanics are giving another.

One question I had: do you think that this is *really* what's bothering you? I mean, the reason that ludonarrative dissonance matters in a game like bioshock or GTA 4 is that you have an investment in the atmosphere and story which is undermined by the game mechanics. I mean, how much of the experience of gears hangs on its imparting a feeling of untrammeled badassery? If the underlying combat mechanics are satisfying, would the clash with the aggro-levels of the story bother you?

Mitch Krpata said...

I'm not sure if it is, which is part of why I struck it from the review. I couldn't adequately defend the point. But there's got to be some reason why I didn't feel the same sense of peril this time around. Then again, like one commenter said, it could just be that it's the same old thing.

I don't know, though. Horde is exactly like the first game, and it's fantastic. It does what I wish the campaign did.

Daniel Purvis said...

I haven't played much of Gears 2, so take my comments with a grain of salt, but it seemed like a lot of Dom crying.

The first game was you and a big gun, with a chainsaw, killing locust and that was about it -- in Gears 2, all the dialogue centred on Dom being a whiny bitch.

Like I said, haven't played a lot, but it felt like Gears 2 was trying to force down your throat a whole bunch of feeling that materialised from nowhere.

Ben Abraham said...

Mitch - the back and forth between you and Iroquois Pliskin is really something. I hope you develop this idea further because I can definitely see the glimmer of some grain of truth in there.

Let us know how it goes, K? =P

Anonymous said...

It doesn't necessarily seem like ludonarrative dissonance to me - just like regular old narrative dissonance. The problem is that there are two stories going on (or more properly, being progressed by the player) that don't make sense together: the story of the large-scale war and the story of the two to four guys that kill everything ever. This would be a problem in a war movie or a war book just as much as it is in a war game.

I think that we need to be careful of framing every inconsistency of plot or characterization as an inconsistency of gameplay, because it can distract from the underlying issue and lead to "Games can't tell good stories!" screeds like Juul's or Costikyan's.