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A Criticism of Gears of War 3, Act 1 (Part 1)

Yesterday, we looked at the introductory cinematic for Gears of War 3. Today, we’re looking into the actual game. We’ll cover Act 1, Chapters 0-2. Let’s get started with Act 1: Prologue.

Prologue

Gears of War 3 opens with Marcus Fenix sitting on a cot in a prison cell.  Polyps scuttle across the grated ceiling above.  Anya Stroud has Jack, a floating robot thing, rip the door open.  She tosses Marcus a duffel bag of armor and tells him to “put it on, you’ll need it.”  After he does, the two leave.

Veteran Gearheads will recognize that this is very reminiscent of the opening to the first Gears of War.  This is actually a flashback, and Lambent pervade the opening;  In Gears 1, it is wretches that scurry along the grates, and it is Dom who rescues Marcus.  The change in enemy, Lambent instead of Locust, tells us veteran players that Marcus is more terrified of the Lambent that he was of the Locust.  However, the change also implies that Marcus’ memory is not entirely accurate.

Anya tells Marcus that his father, the renowned Professor Adam Fenix, is still alive.  Marcus denies it, to which Anya replies, “no—he’s out there and he needs you.”  Considering that this is a nightmare, possibly recurring, Anya is telling us that Marcus is still in denial that his father is dead.  As the prison walls peel away, veteran Gearheads are instantly aware that the two were exiting through the front door of the Fenix Estate.

Outside of the Estate, Professor Fenix explains to Marcus that his research must be saved, as it is too important.  Anya is no where to be seen, although Dom is now present; dialogue we’ll hear in 1-1: Anchored will validate Dom’s presence.  Also joining Marcus and Dom are two Gears, Anthony and Benjamin Carmine; brothers.  Anthony died in Gears 1—in the middle of Act 1, Chapter 5—outside of the House of Sovereigns by a Locust Sniper.  Benjamin died in Gears 2—at the end of Act 2, Chapter 5—having been swallowed by a giant worm.  The presence of the Carmine brothers suggests that Marcus feels guilty about their deaths.

The grubs start attacking, and so Marcus tries to buy his father time.  While the player does so, we are treated to Marcus’ inner monologue:

“It was always his work that my father cared about… his research.  He tried to save his work… I tried to save him.  I disobeyed orders to do it, and it cost us the battle.  Couldn’t blame them for court-martialing me, or the life sentence.  So the war went on while I was rotting in prison.  And I still couldn’t save my father… but you can’t save them all.”

The monologue acts as an exposition dump; Epic overuses exposition to a fault in this game, but this situation merits it.  We are told who Professor Fenix is and what kind of a father he was to Marcus.  We’re provided a reason why the plot must move forward the way it does.  The battle that was lost was for the Ephyran Plateau.  It was one of the last bastions of humanity for the Coalition of Ordered Governments—the COG—and the capital of Tyrus.  Most of Gears 1 takes place in Ephyra.

The prologue doubles as a tutorial.  The player has infinite ammo, encouraging them to shoot their Lancer without having to worry about conserving ammo.  They are given an elevated position, providing natural cover.  It’s quite an impressive way of teaching the player all of the basic knowledge and skills they’ll be using throughout the game, and the way it integrates with the narrative presented is seamless.  Kudos, Epic.

The prologue ends with a King Raven helicopter crashing into the Fenix Estate, rubble and debris crushing Professor FenixOverall, Prologue is an event having been loosely referenced throughout the franchise.  There aren’t any glaring continuity errors and the dialogue is great.  It’s a very well-crafted scene. That said, I must question Professor Fenix’ method of saving his work; he just cowers behind the fountain with a pistol in hand.

Chapter 1: Anchored

Anchored starts in Marcus’ room.  There are plenty of details here telling us more about the man.  Next to his bed, his father’s Octus Medal.  A Lancer stripped-down for maintenance on his desk.  Many books—the textures of which are of a high enough resolution to make the spines readable—on shelves, with topics ranging from botany to history.  In the corner on Marcus’ trunk, a Thrashball.  A corkboard hangs on the wall, with many pictures tacked on to it; one picture depicts a graduation ceremony,  the others are of people, some with “found” written on them.

In Baird’s room, we find Jack disassembled, as well as a guy wishing the polyps to finally be gone.  Marcus tells the guy to “dream on.”  Marcus is quite the conversational type, isn’t he?

Dom is growing radishes in his room.  Two pictures are next to his bed: one of him and Maria (the one he showed to people in Gears 2), one of him and Marcus.  Maria’s picture has candles next to it.  The only thing he has left in his life is Marcus.

Captain Michaelson broadcasts, and he’s the only one who remains vigilant for stalks; one of the Gears in the rec room closes the portholes so people can’t see the stalks.  “Out of sight, out of mind,” as Marcus put it.  This tells us that the Sovereign hasn’t seen any Lambent since they left Vectes.  There is a lot of attention to detail in this opening area, and it all conveys the idea that the situation is dire.  However, none of the details really capture just how deep in the shit humanity really is.

A piano is in the hallway along the route to the Captain’s Quarters.  In Coalition’s End, pianos were said to be a luxury that the people of Pelruan had to leave behind.  It’s a nice, humorous touch.  Anya’s dialogue in the cutscene shortly after tells us that Prescott was presumed to be dead.  Dom so helpfully points out that “that asshole ran out on us 18 months ago!”  Thanks, Dom.  I didn’t watch the Previously in Gears cutscene because I hate watching cutscenes.  Good thing you aren’t delivering that piece of exposition in a cutscene- wait.  Huh.

Prescott returns on a King Raven, and Marcus notes that “he sure as hell didn’t leave [Vectes] on one.”  In Coalition’s End, Prescott leaves on tiny fishing vessel and manages to vanish.  When Delta sees the Raven, it is noted to be new.  Even the 3D model is shiny and clean-looking, though that may just be due to how pervasive shiny, bump-mapped textures seem to be these days.

Dom says, “Let’s give him the traditional Stranded welcome and strip the chopper for parts.”  This reinforces that the Sovereign is a Stranded vessel.  Prescott steps off of the KR with two Gears clad in some sick black armor; these are Onyx Guards, a Chairman’s personal bodyguards, Rivera and Lowe.

The whole environment up to CIC is very detailed, with a lot to see and look at.  However, if you do stop to look around, Jace starts telling the player every 30 seconds, “hey Marcus, we goin’ to CIC or what?”  Epic, you paid your artists to detail this environment, so please don’t rush me when I stop to admire their craft.

Anyway, the message: Adam Fenix is unaware if Marcus is alive or not.  He should be, considering that Marcus was still alive when Prescott left.  The Professor is explicitly asking Marcus for help, as Imulsion is killing SeraImulsion is a recurring element in the Gears universe; the Pendulum Wars were fought for 80 years over it, and then the Locust apparently attacked the surface over it.  Furthermore, throughout the games, we see huge caverns of Imulsion, Imulsion fumes, people suffering from Rustlung (“Imulsion sickness”); it’s so prevalent, thus the player never stops and actually think about it.

An announcement comes up over the loudspeaker saying that the Galley Flat is on fire.  When the player actually gets there, Marcus says, “There’s a fire! Grab the extinguisher!”  However, the AI does nothing, no matter how long the player sits there; it’s a cue to the player, spoken by the player’s character.  Additonally, of course there’s a fire, Marcus; it was just announced over the loudspeaker!

There are many details in the Captain’s Quarters: a plaque commemorating 30 years of service by Michaelson, a trophy case, several boxes of cigars, and a screen highlighting damaged sections of the ship.  The closing cutscene—which starts as soon as the glowies die—is shot so that all of these items are framed in the background.  However, the only way to get a decent look is to avoid combat and look around while the Lambent shoot at the player.

Something that bothers me about this whole chapter is Captain Michaelson.  He doesn’t get very many lines of dialogue, and his only screen time is as a corpse.  Before the COG disbanded, Michaelson acted as one of Prescott’s three advisers, along with Colonel Hoffman and a man named Miran Trescu; for the moment, Trescu isn’t important.  Michaelson was the Captain of the Naval COG, having command over the fleet of ships; on a remote island like Vectes, that’s quite a bit of power to hold.  When Prescott left, the triumvirate of Michaelson, Hoffman, and Trescu were forced to step up and take command.  He’s a very important character from the novels, yet here he is basically treated as a Redshirt.  Epic might as well have dropped Sovereign’s bridge on him.

Chapter 2: Abandon Ship

Abandon Ship opens with polyps in the pipes.  An observant player would notice that polyps like to come out of tiny, pipe-like openings.  However, if such a player were to try to rush forward and get the drop on them, they would be warped back a safe distance after the vignette.  Inexperienced players are having their hand held, while knowledgeable players are being punished.

After the mess hall, we see our first “airlock.”  Any passageway that requires two characters to open is an airlock.  Cutscenes are another, more subtle, form of airlock. Airlocks allow Epic to minimize load times.  Levels are broken down into sections so that memory usage can be managed better; unused content can be dumped more frequently, which allows upcoming content to be streamed in freely.  Note will be made of particularly bad airlocks, although good airlocks are non-existent.

Below deck, in the KR hangar, there are many chickens.  Chickens can be tagged with grenades and turned into wandering bombs.  They can die by gunfire or melees.  They can be fired from a weapon.  Chickens are a running theme in Gears 3, an ongoing joke.  However, the important thing to take away from the chickens in the hangar, is that the crew is making use of every square inch of space.  This is the Stranded lifestyle.

In the second KR hangar, there is a button to lower cover.  However, Lambent are next to the button, and the affected cover right next to the Lambent.  The button cannot be reached until after the functionality is useless.  Shortly afterward, a Lambent Leviathan will attack, extending it’s tentacle into the hangar.  The objective given: “Defend against the tentacle.”  When I went through co-op, everyone present made the same joke: “just like hentai!”  Thanks for showing me who has dirty minds, Epic.  I appreciate it.

On deck, we find the ship on fire, creating a thick wall of smoke.  Luckily, Dom and Marcus both have a solution: “Open a water valve!”  Between Dom and Tac/Com, there is no reason for Marcus to say his line.  What was the point of forcing the player to use Tac/Com at the start of 1-1 if it is assumed that the player does not use it?  After opening the first valve, Marcus will say, “That’s one, we need to open two more!”  Granted, Gears of War abuses the rule of three, but how does Marcus know?  Or if other valves are already open or not, or if fires are even underneath the irrigation pipes?  It’s a stupid line of dialogue that only exists for the player’s benefit.  The third valve can’t even be opened, either!

After putting the fires out, the Leviathan attacks, busting the floor open.  Delta falls into the abyss, landing on separate catwalks; this is the game’s first split-up section.  However, there is no action here, making it completely pointless.  Also, looking up, the ceiling looks as if the Leviathan was kind enough to repair the floor after Delta fell in.  Moving forward, the Leviathan attacks once more, biting through the hull.  We can look outside to the bridge.  At this point, Cole tells Marcus that, “the blond genius had an idea;” we have a potential continuity error here, but that will be addressed in Part 2.

Throughout the last two chapters, the player has been constantly moving towards the front of the ship, completely independent of luring the Leviathan.  Maybe Marcus is psychic? That would certainly explain how he knew about the water valves.

Upon returning to the main deck, the Leviathan tries to crush Delta using shipping containers.  React quickly, or else death.  Stop to get your bearings?  Death.  Host loads in first during online co-op?  Death!

Looking up at the bridge, we can see the box of tickers and gunfire; Cole’s squad is busy.  We can also see the Thrashball stadium off in the distance, but nothing of the warehouse along the river.  There is no way that the zip-line at the start of 1-6 could work out, either;  the bridge is simply too tall, the stadium too stout.

In front of the Silverback bay, painted on the deck is a giant Raven inside of a cog.  Cog imagery is strong throughout the series, reflecting the COG pretty well.  This is a Raven’s Nest, thus combining a raven with a cog makes sense and is a very nice detail.

As far as the “fight” with the Leviathan goes, the player is on a hidden timer.  Taking too long to damage the face results in the Leviathan biting through the hull, yielding a game over; the Leviathan did that just five minutes ago to no ill effect.  On higher difficulties, dealing with the polyps, Lambent Drones, and Leviathan at once is overkill; the AI squad cannot be relied upon for crowd control, and the mech is paper-thin.

Fending off the Leviathan’s third attack starts the closing cutscene, which is obviously pre-rendered; the Leviathan is bombarded by tickers!  However, the Ticker box would be falling to the Leviathan’s right, leaving the beast unscathed.  Delta jumps off the port side, even though they’re on the starboard half and shipping containers are in the way.

In Act 1 Part 2, we’ll be addressing the continuity errors and more from Cole’s perspective.

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