The first season of 24 is some of the finest television I've seen — a very tight, mostly linear experience of a man who's driven in a frequently futile attempt to save both his family and protect those in his charge. In contrast, the later seasons of 24 constantly make Bauer the super man —  the only guy (despite all sorts of intelligence resources and military hardware) who can get the job done — and the series fails because of that.

My favorite concept art from the series

This is an apt comparison to the Gears of War series. I write this out of love — not hate. I'm a huge Gears of War fan, and my purchase of the third game is all but guaranteed (partly because my wife is an even bigger fan than I am). Still, I'll buy the third-person shooter knowing that it'll probably let me down with the direction the franchise is headed.

The first two games suffer an essential identity crisis. Epic can't seem to make up its mind whether Gears of War should be primarily a horror ride or summer-blockbuster action romp. The first game has a lot of nice bits. It's Gears of War 2 — with Lead Designer Cliff Bleszinski's proclamation of "bigger, better, more badass" — where the seams start to show. It's those "bigger" and "badass" moments that ruin the franchise, whereas the horror moments represent some of my finest gaming experiences.

 


What Gears does right

The ruins of the planet Sera are one of the best aspects of the Gears franchise . In fact, the more time spent above ground and not in the tunnels of the Locust, the more I enjoyed the game. Ruined architecture just does it for me.

A prequel set during the Pendulum Wars would be really interesting because you could see the cities transform from their early neo-classical beauty into the ruined states we're now familiar with.

From a gameplay perspective, staying above ground helps emphasize a "this is my squad, let's survive the day and night" feeling. When Delta squad goes underground, the game suddenly becomes a "we're super soldiers and the only ones who can complete the mission" experience. True, in the second game,many other squads traversed the Hollow with me. But most of the time, the Locust easily gun them down because they're not the super-soldier that you are.

The ruined architecture provides a nice setting, but it's the frequently harsh environment of Sera itself that provides the forboding mood that a horror game really needs.

In the first game, that was the Kryll:

In the second, it was razorhail:

Both forced you to constantly be aware of your surroundings and — especially in the case of the Kryll — introduced a very light environmental puzzle element. This heightens immersion, which is key to the success of any game. Plus, it helps break up the endless "get into cover, pop out, shoot some baddies" rhythm of many other parts of the series.

My two favorite levels of both games are where the horror element really shines. In Gears, the lead up to the immulsion refinery is an incredible tension builder, especially when I played it co-op with my wife and had the surround sound cranked up. The rain, the darkness, and the occasional, barely onscreen glimpses of enemies for several minutes really had us on the edge of our seats.

Games forget that sometimes not having an enemy to fight is more engaging than always having a bunch of enemies to blow away.

In Gears 2, the defining creepy moment comes with the New Hope Research Facility and the creepy A.I. guardian of that place. Here, plenty of random Locust burst through the halls, but the laser turrets and other hazards (not to mention Niles himself) really create a "WTF" factor.

Too bad the whole "Sires" element is left totally unresolved. The third game will be an abysmal failure if it doesn't capitalize on the most fascinating aspect of the mythology to date.


So, what's the problem?

For all the interesting coverage of the third game, it seems to continue toward the increasingly unbelievable "super-soldier" side of things and less toward the horror aspects I've enjoyed so much. The first time through Gears 2, I thought the driling derrick level was pretty cool. The second and third times, though, the more the idea showed its incredible ridiculousness.

Sure, Hitler launched a desperate counterattack, too, but Gears could have separated itself from franchises like Halo by not having it all fall on the shoulders of Delta and sporting blockbuster action sequences. A very tight squad shooter, especially when played co-op, would have been truly excellent rather than merely enjoyable.

Of course, I'm still going to buy Gears of War 3. It's still an enjoyable experience. My quibbles with it are between making the game fun and extraordinary. I'm okay with fun, but even when I decided I was done with the franchise, my wife wouldn't let me not buy the game. She's always Dom, and I'm always Marcus, and together we're trying to push back the Locust horde.


For more random observations, follow me on Twitter @MKEGameDesign.