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A Criticism of Gears of War 3, Act 2 (Part 1)

This week, we’re looking at, and criticising, Act 2 from Epic Games’ Gears of War 3.  We covered Act 1 last week here.  When we last left off, Marcus and friends jumped off of an exploding ship in an improbable manner, while Cole and friends failed to drop a box of Tickers onto the fish eating the ship.  Today, we’re covering Chapters 1-3 of Act 2.

Chapter 1: Shipwrecked

Act 2 starts off with the player controlling Cole.  His squad must have washed up on the shores of the Deadlands.  We can see the Centennial Bridge from where the chapter begins, and we can see a statue (which we could also see in 1-2 and 1-6); if we presume that Sovereign was heading north, and Hanover is to the east, then the chapter starts to the northeast of the bridge.  It’s hard to describe, but the important take-away from this is that going forward, we’re looking at unfamiliar territory.  We could not have seen the area we’re about to explore before hand, which really works to Epic’s favor; after all, much of the Act 1 posts were directly influenced by being able to see Hanover, the bridge, and the ship, all from different angles.

The chapter’s opening cutscene off shows Clayton’s memorial tattoo:  A skull, along with the names of his brothers, Anthony and Benjamin; this is, without a doubt, more of Sam’s handiwork.  Sovereign, meanwhile, is totally trashed, having run aground.  There are shipping containers strewn all over the area, and we’ll see the ship’s bridge later, having been blasted clear of the ship and landing on top of a crag.

This chapter start off really stupidly.  As Cole, the player starts without weapons; any weapons they may have found in Act 1, such as the Boomshot or retro Lancer, are now gone.  The player must find weapons to use.  At the same time, however, there are wild tickers which are running around and eating whatever weapons are laying about, and there are many weapons; the player must rush to re-arm themselves before the tickers escape with the goods.  In addition to that, Locust are jumping out of the ground to attack the player, though these enemies are only armed with pistols at first.  Despite all of that, there is one prize to be had, and that would be a Longshot.

The Locust that are encountered are quite the pushovers, and the firefights aren’t too bad.  The Locust even start to carry retro Lancers before too long.  However, Cole will eventually come across Marcus and Dom, who are unconscious.  Cole is unable to find them at first, but then he turns around to look at where they are and so we can see them clearly; the cutscene in reference is just very poorly put together.  After the cutscene ends, the player is now controlling Marcus.  Cole?  He doesn’t have any of the weapons that the player found.  That prized Longshot, and the retro Lancer?  Inexplicably gone, to be found on neither Cole nor Marcus.  It sucks.  Why bother going to the trouble of making me find weapons and then just take those weapons away from me?  Additionally, Sam and Carmine are ordered to go attend to the lifeboats north of the ship; now, despite what I wrote in the introduction earlier, we don’t actually know which way north is.

“Wait, of all the things you did look at, you didn’t pay attention to the sun?” I can hear you asking.  In fact, I did pay attention to the position of the sun.  In 1-3, at 14:27 hours, the sun was sitting happily over the Seran Deadlands; in 2-1, at 17:04 hours, the sun was still sitting happily over the Seran Deadlands.  The sun did not move in those 2.5 hours, which makes it impossible for us to actually tell which way is north or not.  Furthermore, Sera has 26 hour days.  Combine that with the fact that we don’t know which season it currently is in game, or where Hanover is in relation to Sera…  Finding out which way is north is a wasted effort.

During the cutscene that switches us to Marcus, Sam pleads for Dom to wake up; she clearly cares for the guy.  After Marcus tells Sam and Carmine to take a hike, we’re introduced to the Digger.  The Digger is a rather useless weapon to have in campaign, simply because it cannot dig under a lot of the environment.  In multiplayer, the basic rule is that the shot stops when there is standing cover (when the player can cover-snap to a wall and be in the standing position) which is also rather thick; it can tunnel under the church walls on Mercy, but not the dividing wall opposite the bell tower on Gridlock.  In campaign, that rule does not apply.  The rule for campaign is… well, there is no rule.  Usage of the Digger is restricted according to how it changes the way the level plays out.

The Digger isn’t the only useless weapon, however.  In co-op, both the second and fourth players will have sawed-off shotguns, which are only effective in very close, personal-space-being-invaded quarters.  The sawed-off is a much more useless weapon, as the encounter spaces for campaign are rather quite large, as the spaces need to accommodate four players without feeling cramped.  The even-numbered players will start with sawed-offs in 1-1, 1-3, and after the squad reunites with Marcus and Dom in this chapter; in Arcade, they’ll start every chapter with the sawed-off.

In the Digger battle,  Dom yells, “flank right!”  Yes, Dom, I’ll go take the only available path up to where they are.  There are literally no other paths to take to move forward other than going to the right.  And how does Dom know the path won’t suddenly take a turn and lead Marcus up to the rope bridges above?  Also, isn’t Dom only a Private?  Why is he giving his Sergeant an order?  Yes, I know that the COG is disbanded (better than any given character in the game, actually), but Dom has been barking orders at his superior ranking officer for the last two games, as well.  Dom, having trained to join the army and having served in the army for more than 20 years, should not be doing that.

Oh hey, Prescott dies.  Did not see that one coming.  He gave Marcus the key to unlocking a disc first, though.  Afterwards, Baird makes a comment and Marcus questions him on it, to which Baird explains:  “Hoffman’s been holding onto the data disc he stole from Prescott back on Vectes.”  This refers to an event that was covered in the novels; Hoffman steals the disc from Prescott at the end of Anvil Gate, while Baird obsesses over trying (and failing) to crack it in Coalition’s End.  It’s always nice to have the novels be referenced and tied in, but this dialogue comes off as… well, derpy, for lack of a better word.  Marcus already knows about this disc, so Baird is only saying it for the players benefit. Regardless, players who didn’t read the novels won’t understand the nuances of the topic at hand anyway, so even in that light, the dialogue comes off as being very overt exposition.

After Prescott dies, the Locust start attacking.  Why are they attacking this location?  It has no strategic value, and the ship can be salvaged without even passing through the place.  This is yet another firefight that is just excessive filler.  After three waves of Locust, we’re treated to a short cutscene where the ground starts to shake.  Naturally, after 16 years of fighting the Locust, the first reaction of these characters is to get out of cover.  This is a classic example of cutscene incompetence, whereby the characters in a cutscene are far more stupid than when the player has control over them.  Shaking, as the characters should know, means that the shit is about to hit the fan and that they should get behind some cover; there is even dialogue in the first two Gears games where Marcus will tell his squad to find some cover just because the ground is shaking.  When the ground is shaking, our basic survival instinct is to run away.  Yet here we are, with characters who should know better, walking towards imminent danger.  I honestly have to question if the characters have just gotten very stupid ever since Sovereign departed Vectes, or if they’ve just survived by dumb luck thus far.

The shaking?  It’s a Brumak, one of the most fearsome weapons in the Locust arsenal.  This is essentially the second boss fight in the game.  How is the player supposed to deal with it?  The player was not taught any of the relevant information for dispatching this boss at any point in the game, and there is no dialogue that offers suggestions of how to fight it.  This leads to the player having to rely on the tip that comes up on the screen.  If the player has to be told how to defeat the boss, then the designers have failed and the encounter is flawed.

Also, thanks to the cutscene, the player has to scramble to get back behind cover.  Brumaks are equipped with rocket launchers.  Luckily, there is an infinite ammo cache nearby.  Another thing about this flawed encounter: the wrist guns can be destroyed, which actually does have tactical value; the helmet can be destroyed, which has no tactical value; the rocket launcher cannon on the back can be destroyed, which kills the Brumak.  The problem is that the wrists and helmet don’t actually contribute to killing the Brumak, which effectively makes those pieces glorified bullet sponges.  The player is supposed to see that those pieces take damage, which prompts them to waste ammo on them.  Unfortunately, defeating the Brumak triggers a cutscene immediately, where the damage the Brumak took does not even match up with the damage the player inflicts!  The worst part, however, is that the player will not have a chance to restock on the ammo before the cutscene unless they are aware that the cutscene is coming.  Essentially, the designers goad the player into wasting their ammo, and then punishes them for falling for it.  Betraying the player’s trust like that is not cool, Epic.

Ironically, goading the player into emptying their ammo and then forcing them to move on ahead fits in well with the characterization from the previous cutscene.  I would really love to think that was intentional on Epic’s part.  It just sucks that the player ends up having to go into a new, dangerous area completely under prepared.

In the post-Brumak-death cutscene, Marcus asks Sam for directions.  She offers to just go with Marcus, but he says no.  Marcus, just take her with you!  And wasn’t she and Carmine with the life boats to the north of the ship?  When did she even get here?  Also, we see more of Adam Fenix’s message to Marcus, courtesy of Baird.  The Professor was abducted by Prescott all those years ago.  Remember when Prologue was covered and I mentioned how Marcus’ memory isn’t entirely accurate?  This is why.  Also evidence for the faulty memory: he couldn’t remember what to do when the ground was shaking.

Chapter 2: House of Sand

The cutscenes in this game abuse the trope “beyond the black;”  characters can’t see anything in front of them unless the camera can see it too.  In this cutscene, Delta is looking around.  They don’t know where they’re going.  The camera pans a little to the right and we can see a gas barge going somewhere; the gas barge is obviously in front of the characters before the camera pans to show it to the player, and of course it’s only pointed out after the camera can see the barge.

This chapter starts the player up on the cliffs above Sovereign.  First off, how did Delta even get up here?  Second, it really is clear that the layout of the Sovereign we play on in 1-1 and 1-2 is different from the one we see wrecked on the shores below.  That said, the layout of the wrecked Sovereign does match the layout of the Sovereign we see from the bridge in 1-6.

Additionally, we see wild tickers in the cutscene.  Where did they go?  We don’t see them after we follow the route they took, and there aren’t any little holes for them to have crawled in to and hide.  Delta doesn’t shoot them either, though the tickers would have left corpses, anyhow.  The answer?  More of that good ol’ cutscene magic; it’s either that, or the tickers leaped over the cliffs in the next area and fell into the great expanses below.

One of the first things the player can do when they regain control of the character is grab ammo.  However, there are only two ammo crates.  If more than one player needs ammo, then everyone is going to have to suffer in co-op.  The second thing the player can do is try and follow the tickers and go into a tunnel, which promptly collapses.  Less than 10 seconds into this chapter, and we’re already looking at an airlock.  This one is kind of pointless, too; how is it that the tunnel only collapses after the player goes through, instead of any time before they get there?  Sure, the squad would have to find an alternate route around the tunnel, but that might at least lead to some interesting level design as they scour the cliffs.  Y’know, just something to break up the monotony of running between spaces filled with chest-high walls and shooting from behind said chest-high walls.

On the other side of the tunnel, there are cages suspended from a tree.  I really like this moment.  The player can already see the cages and the view isn’t snapped to force them to look at it.  In addition, there isn’t a Y-button prompt to look at the cages, either.  Here, the designer is trusting the player to see the cages on their own.  Granted, it’s virtually impossible not to, unless the player is walking backwards, but it’s still really nice.  However, the moment is ruined by the dialogue.  Marcus points out that the cages are a “keep out sign,”  as there are rotting corpses in the cages.  Without the dialogue, this moment could go from being, “yeah, okay,” up to something as creepy as, “I don’t think I’m going to like it here.”  It would be a much more subtle message that the player has to figure out on their own.  And to think, I just said that the designers were trusting the player.

In the same area as the cage-tree, there is a cliff—the one which the wild tickers presumably jumped off of.  There are tree stumps near the cliff.  The stumps look unnatural, as if they were methodically placed.  I cannot look at stumps and think, “yeah, trees used to be here;” I look at the stumps and think, “these stumps were put here.”  It looks bad.

After dealing with the mini-corpser, the player has to survive the onslaught of a catapult.  Until now, the player has only been on the delivering end of catapult ordinance.  Now, they are on the receiving end.  For the solution to this predicament, we turn to Marcus for advice: “Run! Get out of range!”  The line is very misleading.  The squad doesn’t need to get out of range, they just need to get inside of the catapult’s blind spot.  Speaking of the blind spot, spots where the Locust can hit and where the player can hit are very different.

Before the catapult launches it’s first shot, the player—if they have a Longshot—can take aim and kill the two Locust that take up positions on the cliff next to the catapult; this is a very offensive maneuver.  After rushing up the one path available to “get out of range,” those two Locust would rappel down the cliff and drop in front of the player.  If either (or both) of the Locust were taken out, then the rush can continue up the path.  However, it’s a bad idea to be overly offensive and try to best the game like this.  If the player gets downed, then they’re dead and they have to start all the way back at the top of the cliff; the AI absolutely refuses to move up with the player until all of the Locust are dealt with.  They will just sit in their pathetic defensive positions on the low ground.  I honestly don’t know how this encounter is supposed to play out, because it seems like the most logical thing to do is move up the sides.  However, the AI refuses to move until some pre-determined point, which makes any strategy you want to carry out virtually impossible.  The only exception to this is if you’re playing co-op, in which case you can just have your buddy come up and pick your aggressive, strategic butt up off the ground.

There is a ladder at the end of the rush.  If the player rushes to the ladder to try and get the high ground and/or skip the encounter, the character will say, “Can’t do that yet!”  The player must defeat the encounter before they’re allowed to climb the ladder.  After they do, they can take control of the catapult!  But more Locust come out ahead, so the player is then encouraged to try and thin those reinforcements out.  Here’s the thing about the catapult: this one has limited ammo (the first one did not).  If the player did not catch on that the shot will land where the reticule is targeting, then they’re going to try and arc the shots, which will fail.  In addition, the layout of the next encounter space, combined with the Locust’s scripted behavior of staying within that space instead of trying to rush the catapult, makes it very difficult for anyone to actually use the catapult.  The efficiency of the catapult is severely limited by the designer, instead of by the player.  This is a flaw.

The chapter closes with a view of the Locust base.  They’ve been carving this place out for quite awhile.  A sand devil then comes down the path, causing Marcus to shield his eyes.  It’s a nice touch; the last time we saw this was when Cole was approaching the Stranded outpost in 1-3.  Before the chapter comes to a close, we can also see the Deadlands, and the many, many skeletons that litter it.

It’s not called the Deadlands for nothing.

Chapter 3: Forced Entry

The transition from 2-2 to 2-3 is rather significant.  The last time we had a seamless transition from one chapter to another was 1-3 to 1-4, but that doesn’t count.  That may sound like I’m hating on Cole’s side-story, but I’m not; the problem with Cole’s story lies entirely with the execution.  Cole’s story ends in 2-1, when the player resumes control of Marcus.  What happens in 2-1 before that point?  The player finds a Longshot (and whatever other weapon they wanted) and then those weapons are taken away.  With this transition, the player gets to keep the weapons they found thus far.  Yes, the player will have the weapons they found in 2-1 (as Marcus) in 2-2, but there is a huge jump in location from the end of 2-1 to 2-1.  Here, we have the player able to see where they came from at the start of 2-3, and where they’re going at the closing of 2-2.  It’s seamless, and the player gets to keep their weapon.  Not all transitions from here on are going to be seamless—going from 2-4 to 2-5, for example—but from this moment on, the player is going to be able to hold on to their weapons throughout the game.  If you picked a Digger up in 2-1, then you’re going to be able to carry that all the way through to the end of the game.  And that’s pretty damn significant.

Regarding the large rib cage on the skeleton… Holy shit.  What was this thing?  For that matter, there were quite a number of large skeletons out in the distance.  It’s almost scary to think of what used to live on Sera, though I’m sure if that’s what Epic was trying to go for, then there would be some bit of dialogue to tell the player they should start feeling scared. I think I’d want to watch Sera’s version of Jurassic Park, at any rate.

The initial layout of this chapter is really well done.  After walking through the remains of a large skeleton, we can see a large horn.  And then we can see a lone drone patrolling next to it.  A sentry.  The dialogue encourages us to try and be sneaky.  We’ve got to drop the Locust though, but the tone has been set; the player has to drop the sentries before they can blow the horns, otherwise bad stuff will happen.

This section is really well designed.  The player gets many chances to stop the horn from being blown, from having the OneShot—no head-shots required for this long range sniping—to having explosive barrels next to the horns.  It’s also great because it rewards the player, in the form of a COG tag in the side passage, for playing well.  Also, the Oneshot.  Oh my, the Oneshot.  Instantly gibbing any enemy from half a mile away?  What’s not to love?

Admittedly, I have never failed to get through this sniping section, but it looks like there would be a total pain if people failed and had to go through the front.  Attacking the front gate should at least mitigated by the mortar nearby.  And you had better keep those Longshots for after you get inside, folks!  You’re definitely going to need them…

There isn’t much to say about the encounters inside the compound.  For the most part, it all works.  Really the only complaint I can raise is that the first turret has an infinite supply of drones to man it.  But on Arcade, that can be exploited for points.  It’s bad, but it’s good.  And, the drones spawn, rush out to the turret, and then get in.  There is plenty of time and no inherent risk for moving up to get the shot on the explosive canisters underneath the turret.

Act 2 Chapter 3 is the first flawless chapter we’ve seen so far. (Prologue doesn’t count.)  This can probably be attributed to the fact that there is barely any dialogue.  It’s just all gameplay. The only thing that I can say about it is that Marcus really should have brought Sam along; as we enter into this crude base of operations, she would see that even the Savage Locust can be organized, much like they were in Nexus.  Unfortunately for her, it’s going to be until Act 4 until she sees any more Locust.  Will she see these Savage Locust as being organized, or in the squalid state she thinks is normal?  We’ll find out the answer to that in two weeks.  On Thursday, we’ll cover the rest of Act 2, chapters 4 through 7.

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