On Gears

I played about five minutes of Gears of War 3 and that will probably be enough for me. It’s just not my thing. It reminded me of my reaction to the first installment of the game. The one that prompted to me to write at The Escapist that I wouldn’t buy it.” (Incidentally, a year later, Epic President Mike Capps was still fuming about this review. Sorry Mike, but I hated that game.)

Luckily for me (and Mike) what I wrote about the first Gears wasn’t really a review. The Escapist wasn’t doing reviews back then. Instead, I was aiming for commentary or critique, writing about my own personal feelings, rather than attempting to review the product from the point of view of its potential audience. When Gears 2 came out, however, the stakes were a bit higher. We’d since started actually reviewing, so I had to try and put myself into the mindset of the person for whom this game was intended and write to them – not my own personal tastes.

This is the part about reviewing games for a living that sucks. It’s not about you, the reviewer. It’s not about what you want as a gamer. It’s about the audience and what the audience wants (or doesn’t). It’s about setting aside personal preference and evaluating how well a game executes on its potential. It’s hard to set aside your own ego and preferences and really, honestly evaluate a game. A lot of people can’t do that. Some of those people are writing “reviews” for games media sites.

We weren’t yet giving scores when I reviewed Gears 2 for The Escapist, but if we had been, I probably would have given that game an 8, or the equivalent. I was impressed by the renewed attention to detail as well as the fact that Epic had clearly been listening to criticism of the first game. Gears 2 was better than the first game in almost every sense, even if it was still very much Gears. Still very much bro-tastic, bombastic, fist-bumping, balls-to-the-wall, high-octane machismo masquerading as drama. If I’d been playing it for my own enjoyment, I wouldn’t have stuck it out to the very end, but setting aside my own perspective, I could identify what made it a fun time for others.

So what of Gears 3? I will not be playing the game long enough to feel good about giving it a review score and, besides, that’s not my job for the moment. So I can afford the luxury of having a personal opinion unrelated to the larger issue of whether or not it’s a good game irrespective of whether or not I like it. I do not like it. At all. The end.

And yet, I can see how it is probably still a good game. Based on my own experiences with the previous installments and from reading the reviews, I can see how Gears 3 could be an 8, or maybe a 9. Probably not a 10, though, and here’s why: I love shooters, but hate Gears.

“Wait, wait, wait!” you may be saying. “Doesn’t that contradict your point about setting aside your own perspective?” No, I would answer. It does not.

A reviewer can and should be able to set aside their own personal likes and dislikes in so far as evaluating the quality of a game, but at a certain point, a reviewer must also acknowledge that they are still a gamer – still part of the larger audience.

Games can’t be completely reviewed in a vacuum. We try, in order to fairly assess a game based on its own merits, but at some point in a review, the reviewer must address the question of whether or not fans of a game’s genre will also be fans of that game. Is it the best there is, in other words. And with some games you can also ask whether or not people who play games at all will enjoy it. If so, then that game is an easy 10, no question. Even if it isn’t quite perfect. Unfortunately, you can easily find a game that may be technically and perhaps even aesthetically perfect, but is nevertheless not approachable or desirable to certain fans of the genre. A game like Gears, for example. One that just flat out pisses some shooter fans off. Shooter fans like me.

If I’m reviewing Gears of War 3 (which I won’t be) I look at how well the game executes on its promise, how technically and aesthetically refined it is and start working my score from that point. From all that I have seen and heard, were I to agree with what’s been written about the game, that would get me to about an 8 or 9. And then I would ask myself if the game is universally appealing, and I would have to say that no, it isn’t.

The world of Gears is well-detailed and vividly imagined, but it is still a juvenile escapade. Its attempts at drama fall flat because the characters have no definition, and it takes itself far too seriously to ever allow for the kind of vulnerability that makes for a truly great heroic drama. Gears is the high school quarterback of games. All sound and fury at its peak, but quickly forgotten after it’s gone.

Gears of War 3 may be the best game Epic Games has ever made, but it is not the best game that has ever been made, nor even the best shooter. It’s not even the best shooter made this year. From my perspective, it’s a textbook 8 (or 9), and if Epic truly wants to start bringing home unanimous 10s, then they should stop bitching and moaning and actually listen to the criticism.