We Make You Think

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

On Tuesday, we looked at the first half of Act 3.  I also asked you to bring a snack, because this is going to be a long one.

Chapter 4: Ghost Town

Wait, why are there only six people now?  Where did the Stranded driver go?  Regardless, the chapter opens with conversation.

Marcus: “Dizzy, I thought you said this place was occupied.”
Dizzy: “Yeah, it was busier than a fiddler’s elbow a few months ago!”
Dom: “People don’t abandon a fuel depot for no reason.”

Dizzy said nothing about Mercy.  By pointing out that the town is abandoned, the player is instantly aware that Epic is trying to scare them.  Had Dizzy said that the town was occupied earlier, and we arrive and see that it is abandoned—without Marcus or Dom pointing it out.  Alternatively, Dom could point out the town is abandoned by saying, “I’m surprised there aren’t any Stranded here to greet us.  A fuel depot is too valuable to leave alone like this.”

Outside it is orange, warm.  It’s supposed to be no later than 8 o’clock in the morning, so the palette is either all wrong, or Mercy is in a very warm climate.  Much of the game has an orange tint, actually; so far, we’ve seen orange skies and environments whenever we deal with the Stranded.

Dom buried Maria’s family here 15 years ago.  He “wanted to bury Maria and the kids here.”  For the record, he killed Maria in the Locust tunnels on the way to Nexus, and just left her body there.  At the end of Gears 2, those tunnels were flooded, so her body probably rotted out at sea.  Dom’s kids disappeared shortly after E-Day and were never found.

In 1-3, Cole returned to Hanover—his hometown—and found it to be in a ruined state.  As I mentioned in the post for Act 1, the mood and atmosphere could have been very different with a few changes.  The same idea applies here, where we could be visiting Maria’s hometown.  We could approach this as a place where Dom spent a lot of his time and how it’s different, abandoned.  But the mood here is ruined.  This could be a very creepy section of the game, as opposed to how 1-3 could have been a haunting section.  Epic had a chance to deliver something special, and they blew it.  And, just like 1-3, part of the blame falls on the music, which intentionally tries to be spooky.

Mercy has buildings, but it doesn’t look like it could actually be a place where people live, thanks to the non-existent street layout.  It does not look like a city at all, but rather a series of corridors dressed up to look like one.  For comparison, Hanover looked more like a city, even though the layout did not make sense.  Showing a little bit of street would go a long way.

Let’s consider the fuel tanker for a moment.  The truck cab is facing away from the tunnel, and the parking job is terrible; there is no way that the tanker, let alone the cab, would be able to get out of the station.  I actually have to question how it got in like that; either Dizzy is the worst driver ever, or the best.

Further along, Anya will say, “No signs of fighting or grubs.”  Though the player should be able to see that there aren’t any bodies or bullet holes in the environment, Anya’s line is an effective bit of dialogue.  She is telling us something that we might have missed.  Not only that, but it adds to the atmosphere that something is amiss here.  Marcus ruins that mood by pointing out the obvious and clearly visible marked doors.

While the player is seeing all of these marked doors and condemned buildings, they will also see the Imulsion pipeline.  There are bombs on the pipes, to which Dom says, “This isn’t a trap, it’s sabotage.”  Dom was a commando in the Pendulum Wars, so he would have been doing this kind of work himself.  It’s more dialogue that adds to the mood, and luckily the mood isn’t immediately ruined by pointing out the obvious.  However, the bombs themselves ruin the mood.  The bombs are supposed to be motion-triggered, but are inconsistent and the beeping defeats the purpose anyways.

After defusing the third and last bomb, a Longshot cracks out and the nearby pumpkin explodes.  Oh shit!  But wait, the Stranded, a crazy old man, who fired the shot is holding a Hammerburst.  One of the strong points of Gears is that the audio is absolutely amazing, and one can learn a lot about a firefight just by hearing the sounds of gunfire.  So, for the weapon used to not match the shot fired does much more than ruin what should be a tense mood; it ruins the player’s immersion.  Anyway, the old man starts rambling:

Stranded: “Get your hands of those goddamn charges!”
Marcus: “Did you rig the pipeline?  Do you wanna blow this place up?”
Stranded: “Yeah! I gotta stop this thing from spreadin’.  Just let me get on with the job.”
Dom: ”What thing?  You got an epidemic?”
Stranded: “How the hell should I know what it is?  It’s, it’s, it’s—it’s some—some kind of fever.  People started burnin’ up, screamin’ and fightin’, turnin’ crazy.  And I’m damned if I’m gonna turn up like that, like some rabid dog, not even human no more!”

The old man does two things.  First, he tells us that there is some sort of sickness in the town.  This would be a much more powerful revelation if the mood hadn’t been ruined up to this point.  Second, the old man tells us that whatever the sickness is, it makes the infected violent.  Veteran Gearheads will think back to New Hope in Gears 2, where we apparently had victims of rustlung—Imulsion sickness—turned into Wretches.  Or worse, the infected of Mercy could potentially have turned into something similar to the Sires, also found in New Hope. The Sires are a loose end from Gears 2 that have been mentioned in several of the novels; about two years later, and the COG still doesn’t know what the Sires were nor what the true purpose of New Hope was.  Will we be seeing some resolution to that hook?

Shortly after the old man runs off, Marcus will say to Dom, “There’s a city out there.”  Dom replies, “Yeah, that’s Char.  The Stranded refined their own fuel there.”  Marcus then states, “If it doesn’t work out here, we’re going there next.”  I really dislike it when dialogue assumes that players are either stupid or haven’t been paying attention; the plan, as discussed at the end of 3-2, was to visit Mercy and Char for fuel.

No game would be complete without a sewer level, so the crazy old man leads the player into the sewer.  Once inside, Sam will say, “Oh god, it’s the crazy old man. But what killed him?”  Of course, the old man is dead on the floor so the player can see him; more dialogue assuming that players aren’t paying attention!  And hey, there’s imulsion next to him, but it’s not dripping from the ceiling.  Clearly, something Lambent killed him.  This is the final line of dialogue before the big twist of this Act, and the mood is just further ruined.

Anyway, the sewers are tinted a green color, which gives an otherworldly vibe.  It’s better lit than a sewer should be, too.  Then again, it was also pretty easy to get into, so I guess wandering children would need to be able to see?  On that note, if children are wandering into the sewers, then it’s very possible that the mysterious epidemic is indeed rustlung and we’re going to be seeing some Wretches.

Inside of the spacious sewers, Marcus approaches a Stranded woman.  She’s wearing a hood and looks very much like any other female Stranded NPC.  Off screen, the model is swapped and—surprise!—it’s a Lambent human.  This is a very cheap and dirty trick.  One moment the woman is normal, then the next she’s model swapped.  There is no craftsmanship to this scare.  It’s cheap and ineffective, much like a monster closet.

In the sewers, Anya asks, “How can humans turn Lambent?  It only affects Locust!”  The first time we see anything Lambent is in Gears 1, wretches at an imulsion refinery.  We see Lambent again fighting the Locust in Nexus, underground where imulsion is more concentrated.  And again, from the sinking of Jacinto, the Brumak that stepped into a puddle of imulsion and turned Lambent.  Here, we have humans living near an imulsion refinery.  What I’m getting at is that there has been a very long standing link between Lambency and proximity to imulsion.  Imulsion, that thing we never stopped to think about, that thing which is killing Sera, causes Lambency.

The squad exits the sewer through an airlock, and in co-op Marcus says, “help me lift this door!”  This is not a lifting door, but rather a double door to be slid open.  On the other side of the door, the square outside of town hall; this is the first part of Mercy that actually looks like it could be part of a real town.  There is imulsion in the fountain, which indicates that imulsion may have leaked into the water supply.

Anyway, in front of town hall is a Vulcan minigun, Formers come out, and the player has to defend against the horde of zombies.  Playing solo, the Vulcan is difficult to keep loaded with an AI partner, as they do not feed ammo in fast enough to be effective; the assumption the encounter designer makes here (and in 3-3) is that the player will be able to mow everything down with ease.  Thus, the designer throws dozens of enemies at the player all at once.  The encounter is troublesome on Normal difficulty with an AI partner, while incredibly trivial on Insane with a single human partner.

Chapter 5: Brothers to the End

This chapter opens with a cutscene, with a sick man lying in a bed.

Dom: “Is this how it starts?”
Stranded: “Yeah. You seen this before? ’cause this ain’t just rustlung.”

This town has never seen glowies before.  What happened to the Stranded radio net?  Formers then jump through the glass and nom the two Stranded.  Delta does nothing until the player gains control.  Dicks.

We can see the church from behind the town hall. It’s not obvious, but it is there.  Additionally, the player has been able to see the refinery on the hill above the town throughout the last chapter.  The refinery, a clue as to why these people got sick, a constant reminder as to how things got so bad.  Being able to see the church, the chapter’s end point, gives us something to work toward.  Everything comes together here, mostly because the Stranded rerouted the pipeline through the church; there is no logical reason for doing so other than convenience for the level design and plot.

When Marcus encountered the first Former human in the sewers, Sam yelled down at him, “Just shoot the bloody thing, it’s not human!”  And then, after getting out of the sewers, she laments, “Is that it?  Are we all going to end up like them?  Former humans?”  On the way to the church, Sam says, “I am not going to end up like them.  I bloody well am not.”  Sam’s humanity is very important to her.  Consider how meaningful it would have been for her to react when Delta initially encountered the old man in the previous chapter.  Sam is definitely an interesting character, and she’ll be looked at in more detail in the future.

Anyway, near the church, Dom tells Sam, “You won’t [turn Lambent], Sam. I’ve got your back.”  Sam is worried about losing her humanity, and here Dom is showing concern for her well-being, possibly for the first time.  The two might just have a future together yet.

Outside of the church, there is a glowing tent.  A desiccated corpse lies on the ground nearby with a shotgun before them.  A hand dripping with imulsion was smeared against the rock inside the tent.  This person likely killed themselves rather than be turned Lambent, though it is also possible that they died defending against the Formers.

Dom will say, “Front door is blocked. Let’s go around the back.”  However, the way the area around the church was designed, the player is basically put on a path to go around the back by default.  Going to the front door is not the natural response.  Not only that, but there is only one way forward, so… around the back is the only way to go.  The dialogue, therefore, is pointless

When Delta gets around back, Marcus tells Dom, “we’ll handle the pumps. Just make it fast.”  He knows Dom wants to pay his respects, and is giving his friend—his brother—a chance to do so alone.  Dom approaches the angel statue of the Flores grave, which looks very similar to the tattoo on his bicep that Sam did, he says:

Dom: “Maria…  Baby, I’m sorry I couldn’t bring you home.  But you’re with the kids now.  That’s home, yeah?  I’ll see you all again one day.  Look, Marcus is busy trying to save the world again, so I gotta be there for him.  Sleep tight, sweetheart.”

After paying his respects, and leaving his cog tag, Dom approaches the pumps.  Marcus is having trouble with the pump, even though he’s clearly not trying.  Dom hands Marcus his commando knife to use as leverage; in the novels, Dom’s knife is a reminder of his past life.  Under Bernie Mataki’s guidance, he killed his first chicken with it.  When he earned his position, he showed the knife to Maria with pride.  Now, he’s just handing it off to Marcus, and never asks for it back.

After Marcus and Dom get the pump going—funny how the two have to flip switches simultaneously even in cutscenes—Formers start trying to bust out of the church, banging against the wooden doors.  The banging stops.  It’s false tension, trying to get the player to think the monsters are gone.  However, this trope has been played to death, so it’s not particularly frightening in the slightest.  Epic has just been dropping the ball on emotion for the last two chapters.  I know Epic can do better, because they were able to make the player feel in Gears 2.

Dom’s reaction to the banging of the doors?  “Somehow I don’t think that’s the choir.”  Said with a straight face.  Considering the previous cutscene and his apparent overall mood at the moment, it’s very unlikely that he would be saying that with such a chipper tone.  And to think, less than two minutes before that, we hear Carlos Ferro (Dom’s voice actor) deliver a heart-felt speech.  Again, I know Epic can do better than this.  I know Epic can get their voice actors to deliver real lines and I know they can make the player sympathise.

Moving on…

After getting into the church, Sam asks, “How do we get out of here?”  Dom replies, “Vaults under the church.  Used to be an air-raid shelter in the Pendulum Wars.”  However, when we get to the vaults, Dom says, “Smell those imulsion fumes?  It didn’t used to be like this.”  It’s clear that Dom is living in the past right now.  It’s not a very stable place to be emotionally.  Also, I’ll bet that the stalks also didn’t used to be there.  Just a hunch.

The vaults have an elevator, which empties out… wait, on top of the fuel station?  Okay, that’s just too convenient.  That’s bullshit.  And what’s this with the tanker being moved?  The truck cab now faces the tunnel, and the truck as a whole was moved to another pump.  I think I know why the last two chapters seem so lazily done; Epic just plain got lazy and rushed this chapter to completion.  Hit the high notes, ignore everything else.

The chapter closes with a pre-rendered cinematic.  Dom drives off in the truck cab, causing Marcus to question the action with a voice of desperation; he saw his older brother Carlos—Dom’s blood brother—kill himself for a great heroic victory at Aspho Fields.  Dom turns the cab around and drives back.  In the tunnel, he talks to Maria, which is evidence that he believes in the afterlife.  The cab collides with the tanker, the station blows up, and somehow only the Gears manage to survive.  The cinematic is really powerful, yet I can’t help but feel it would have been more powerful.  The choice of music—Michael Andrews’ cover of Mad World—does two things for the mood: for Gears aficionados (like myself), the music is a powerful callback to the launch trailer for the first Gears of War; for players new to Gears 3, it adds a piano track to try and jerk a tear from their eyes.  In other words, the track is a great choice, but is only meaningful for veteran Gearheads.

Sorry, Marcus, Dom is gone… but you can’t save them all.

We look at Act 4 next week.

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