Growing up with games like Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight and Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, I mourn for the days where the expansion pack reigned supreme. Add-ons like Mysteries of the Sith and Beyond the Dark Portal offered fully-fledged single player campaigns AND additional content for multiplayer. The modern equivalent – downloadable content or DLC – is a poor substitute as it's often overpriced and always under delivers. Developers also have a tendency to focus on multiplayer with their DLC efforts, which is puzzling as anything undercooked doesn't stand a chance against FPS stalwarts like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3. We have seen some exceptions to this rule, with worthwhile solo expansions to games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption and Bioshock 2. Epic have thankfully shrugged the map and skins model of DLC to produce RAAM's Shadow, a brief campaign that catalogues the trials of Zeta Squad "shortly" after Emergence Day.
I say "shortly" because I'm still not entirely sure when this little escapade takes place in terms of the Gears series timeline. The press material I'd read in the lead-up had me thinking that it was set the days following the cataclysmic E-Day. That surely can't be the case, as the COG have already catalogued each of the Locust genus that Zeta encounter. I did a quick search of the developer, Epic Games' forums and found that the events of RAAM's Shadow can be placed roughly nine years after E-Day (which is in turn, five years before the events of the original Gears of War). My apologies for obsessing over the finer points of the plot, but you must understand that it was somewhat exhausting trying to place this in the saga at large. Considering that Kim et al encounter an entire series worth of enemy types (save for the Lambent) in the space of three hours, it almost makes Delta Squad's first outing look like a walk in the park. You'll also have access to pretty much every weapon that's appeared throughout the trilogy in RAAM's Shadow (come to think of it, smoke and ink grenades are the only omissions I can think of). The whole scenario ends up feeling out of place in terms of the series' timeline at large.
Before you die, tell me one thing: what day is it?
Continuity and context issues aside, Zeta Squad is comprised of some fairly generic characters. Solo players will assume control of quintessential tough guy, Michael Barrick. He's probably the most likeable of the crew, even in spite of his foul mouth and tendency to be sent to the principal's office (read: he's such a naughty boy). Minh Young Kim, returns (?) from the original instalment and functions as the suitably-average leader: he often chastises bad boy Barrick and does a good job paraphrasing your current objective. Tai Kaliso – another returning character – waxes lyrical on literally everything, from the rumbling of the ground to a kid dropping a basketball. Then there's Valera: nothing offensive about her, but she doesn't really offer up much personality either. Jace Stratton also makes an appearance and he's (thankfully) somewhat quieter than he is in the Gears of War 3 campaign proper. The titular villain, General RAAM is also back to terrorize the COG. He's not really given much depth, even when you play from his perspective. He – like most other members of the central cast – is large, imposing…. and vacant.
The action takes place across a series of innocous locations within the COG city of Ilima, which is under siege by the Locust Horde. You'll tick all of the generic shooter setting boxes: a parking complex, rooftops, a bank, a construction site and what must be the largest school in videogame history. Ilima High School seems to go on for miles, and the ham-fisted attempt at jump moments you'll witness within its walls will incite many an eye roll. You'll easily spend more than a third of the adventure grinding through this impossibly-vast educational institution. All of the combat situations will feel overly-familiar to any Gears veterans, and you'll rarely be troubled; even on Hardcore difficulty. Even two short stints in RAAM's boots fail to significantly change up the action. If anything, it's limited by the great (in terms of size) general's two trick arsenal. RAAM's Shadow fails to excite, even with an entirely different perspective on Locust War.
Beats being stuck in that school, right?
I desperately want to see developers releasing more content for my favourite games that I can engage with by myself (or with a select group of friends): new stories, new characters, old characters, new locations. A Gears of War prequel should've portrayed the horror of post Emergence Day Sera, but all I found in this short campaign was tired characters in tired situations. RAAM's Shadow may fulfil the literal definition of prequel, but it's a meaningless, expensive ride that's best avoided.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!