Gears of War 3: Raam’s Shadow
It seems to me that creating prequels is one of the hardest things. In the best of worlds, a good story – or series of stories – is probably the standalone kind. That’s not to say good work hasn’t been done in series; plenty has. What it means is the best stories are confident and self-contained enough to have the right structure.
What separates exemplary stories like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from other prequels, for example, is that it doesn’t even matter much if it’s connected to A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. That a videogame might benefit from such an open-ended approach to storytelling without losing out on the necessity of authorial control seems reasonable. What matters as much – if not more – is that they remain interactive and make the most of the medium.
And that’s where Gears of War has always found the best success. The action excuses the pulpy sci-fi novella plot. You’re there for the weighted third-person action and that sense of power and control it enables, the feeling of momentum and a rooted connection to the world. That Raam’s Shadow is a bite-sized prequel story doesn’t get in the way of feeling like a badass much but it doesn’t add a whole lot of new value either.
The appeal comes in the experience of a known story; seeing out the events of Emergence Day. Gameplay carries the entirety of the burden because it’s a regressive story. It opens well enough, in the sunny locale of Ilima. A boy is handed a Thrashball and is told to stay hopeful and it’s not all bad. Then he’s killed.
This initiates the action. The Locusts are bringing on a full-scale military assault all across Sera and it’s your job to go on a rescue mission because of it. It feels good jumping straight in as the newly reprised Zeta squad, formed around second-fiddle characters from the first couple games and comic books and one new character. They’re no Delta Squad and the half-hearted banter that bookends combat scenarios often devolves into dense commentary. But it doesn’t really matter. While the Zeta squad is featured for most of the content, we’re also allowed control over the Locusts for the first time in a series campaign.
These parts are exceedingly fun and present the main draw for the download. Given control of General Ramm, the hulking leader of the Locust Horde, lends itself well to the way Gears approaches third-person combat. He plays a little differently than the humans, employing a stream of flesh-eating bats which follow his commands and can be launched in rapid succession. He’s also able to hack through enemies at close range and has a brutal melee attack in which he lifts a downed opponent up by the skull and slices off their head. These mechanics are a bit limited and while they feel great in spurts, the campaign quickly reverts to human control in a mostly elegant way, showing both sides of the battle without either wearing out their welcome. And while neither feels as developed as the series main characters, it’s generally all workable.
The pacing’s problematic sometimes. Never before has Gears felt so easily broken down into a sequence of such transparent parts. It feels like the sections are forced into that structure regardless of its effect on pacing and I don’t know how they’re ordered exactly but the component fragments fit together in such a forced way. There will be some fairly lively battles followed by bits of exposition then a bit with a machine then a boss battle, etc. Rinse and remix those parts, interspersed with Raam segments, and that’s about the full scope of the campaign.
What’s most redeeming about Raam’s Shadow is the return to a nightmarish kind of aesthetic that hasn’t been fully embraced since the first iteration. As the story takes us back, the architecture and gloomy, dark atmosphere returns. The atmosphere once again feels fit for some Gary Jules song in a way it no longer did after the first one. That said, there’s also a colorful touch applied and one of the great things is simply watching the landscapes slowly deteriorate and the sky fill out with ink as you continue.
Ultimately Raam’s Shadow provides all the things the series has been about from the beginning, mixing the most up-to-date mechanics with a known origins story that’s simultaneously disposable and perhaps crucial for the hardcore fans. What it doesn’t provide, however, is anything that’ll change your mind either way. Perhaps the biggest problem’s that the slice of content is completely overshadowed by the Gears of War 3 campaign without adding much new value on the experience. However, because the story’s just a prequel, we can only expect what’s already been established by series canon. That seems to be both the biggest sticking point and the best basis for recommending the content.