The Game Jar Files: What will the next Gears of War game look like?

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 24th 2014

I have a pretty special relationship with Gears of War. It was the game that convinced me to buy an Xbox 360, the game that showed me what Online Co-Op could be like if done right, and the game that encouraged me to venture out in the world of gaming communities. I’ve had a lot of fun playing these games. So when the news broke that Microsoft had acquired the rights to the franchise, and also revealed that there would be more Gears of War games on the way, I was slightly surprised to find that my reaction was one of trepidation. Having followed the development of multiple Halo games, I’m of the opinion that Microsoft aren’t really a ‘hands off’ type of publisher, so what would a new Gear game look like now that Microsoft have direct control of it?

In 2013, Gears fans got a taste of what a non-Epic made Gears of War game would look like. The People Can Fly developed Gears of War: Judgment arrived with much fanfare, but ultimately failed to capture the same spark the previous games had. For whatever reason – the lack of Horde mode, a changed multiplayer, or revamped mechanics, fans just didn’t take to the game and now they’re quite rightly wondering how the next game will shape up. Fans can be somewhat reassured that the studio responsible for creating the next Gears game – Black Tusk – is being headed up by series veteran Rod Fergusson, but how much freedom will they have to make the kind of game the series desperately needs?

If we’ve learnt anything from Halo 4, it’s that Microsoft doesn’t appear to like taking risks with their premier IP’s. There’s a set formula for making successful Halo games for example, and I don’t doubt for a second that Microsoft made it very clear  to 343 Industries they were expected to stick to it. To give 343i their due, Halo 4 was a pretty good game, but it came after five other Halo games and had no ambition to be original whatsoever, and as a result it was never going to be a truly great game. Playing it safe held Halo 4 back in my opinion, and I fear the same will happen to the next Gears game. Having witnessed PCF’s failed reboot of the series, will Black Tusk be given license to stray from the Gears of War formula? I think not. So I find myself asking; is that really what Gears of War needs right now?

Personally, I like to think the reason Judgment wasn’t that great was because People Can Fly would rather have made Bulletstorm 2, and as a result their heart wasn’t quite in it, but that’s just me being mischievous. Very probably Judgment’s lack of stellar quality arose from the studio being unable to fully unleash their creativity. I say that because I’ve played both Bulletstorm and Judgment, and I find it difficult to reconcile to two games. The former is a brilliantly fresh take on the genre that doesn’t pull its punches, and the latter is a game that never feels confident in the changes it’s tried to make. It’s almost as if someone was looking over the developers shoulders, constantly telling them ‘you can’t do that in a Gears of War game’

The trouble is, Gears of War’s particular brand of meathead combat has already been perfected over the course of three games, and it’s hard to see where the franchise goes next. The most obvious option is to explore the Pendulum Wars, but with the storyline never really being the series selling point, it’s difficult to think of a scenario that won’t simply be Gears of War with different weapons. In my opinion the game needs to start with a blank piece of paper, perhaps one that does away with single player all together, and focuses solely on Co-Op modes and multiplayer. Whatever direction they go in, one thing is for certain; the next Gears game needs to be a triumphant return to form.

Whether Gears of War can ever be the system seller it once was, I’m not so sure, but to stand a chance, Microsoft need to allow Black Tusk the kind of creative freedom that gave birth to the franchise to begin with. If the studio is given the freedom to tear up the Gears blueprint and start afresh, the next game could be truly special. After a lacklustre last game, the last thing the series needs is a publisher determined to play it safe by holding on the hand brake. As much as we love chainsawing Locust in half, we’re also ready for something new. Whether Black Tusk are allowed to give it to us, only time will tell.

The Game Jars Files: A trip down gaming memory lane

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Originally published on The Game Jar November 28th 2013

With the next generation of consoles just round the corner, I’ve decided I need to begin the journey mentally refreshed. Time to dig out the install disc, wipe the cranial hard drive, and make room for lots of lovely new adventures. With that  in mind, I thought I’d commit a few of my most favourite gaming memories to text, so that they’re not lost forever to the mists of time. These memories aren’t about the games – they were just the catalysts – it’s about the moments spent gaming I’ll never forget. The nights sat in a lobby full of friends, giving each other shit about each other’s gaming prowess. The hilarious friendly fire incidents that immediately followed heroic speeches and great bravado. In short, the little things that make gaming worth doing.

Playing Gears of War for the first time.

In 2006, I was stuck in between console generations. Microsoft’s early euthanasia of the original Xbox, and subsequent announcement of the Xbox 360 had caught me out, and I ended up sticking with my trusty PlayStation 2. Then, at my mother’s house on boxing day that year, my brother asked me if I wanted to have a go on his Xbox 360. He fired it up, placed Call of Duty 3 in the disc tray, and showed me what a next-gen console could do. I wasn’t particularly impressed if I’m honest, but he was determined to get me hooked, so he switched to Gears of War. I was utterly blown away. The graphics were stunning, it had this whole cover to cover mechanic going on, and the gun had a chainsaw built-in to it. A FRICKIN CHAINSAW! I left my mum’s house knowing I had to have this game, and so on the way home, on boxing day evening, I stopped in Gamestation and bought an Xbox 360 and Gears of War. I joined the next generation right then and there, and all because of Gears of War. No surprise then, that it’s one of my stand out memories of this current generation.

Race Pro with friends

I’ve often thought the real selling point of Xbox Live isn’t the games at all, it’s the friends you play with, and the connections you make. Without them, Xbox Live is nothing. Never was this clearer to me than during the time I spent playing Race Pro with the guys over at Xbox Society. The Race Pro WTCC competition they ran was easily the best online racing I’ve ever taken part in, and served as proof, if any were needed, that with the right group of friends, any game can feel truly special. Race Pro, in my opinion, is the best handling sim racer on the current generation of consoles, and when it’s mixed with a group evenly matched players, you have the recipe for a fantastic nights racing. The competition was fierce, but clean. The whole race was spent either defending your position, or trying to take someone else’s. It was quite literally, bumper to bumper racing. I learned with that one competition just how important the social aspect of Xbox Live really is. Friends, not code, are what make an online games really memorable, and that’s why recall Race Pro so fondly.

The sweet, sweet Halo 3 beta

As I said earlier, I was caught out by Microsoft when it came to Xbox, so I never did that whole Halo thing. Friends were telling me about it, but somehow I was never sold. Halo 3 then, was my first proper taste of Halo, and the beginning of that was the beta test. I don’t know why Bungie chose the three maps they did, but it was a perfect choice as far as I’m concerned, because I fell in love with the game instantly. Snowbound was a perfect small map, with high points for sniping, and interiors for close combat. High Ground was an absolutely brilliant asymmetric map, perfect for attack and defend game types such as capture the flag. Finally, the awesome Valhalla was an updated take on the classic Halo CE map Blood Gulch, and was an instant classic. These three maps where a revelation to me, where had this game been all my life? As soon as I’d played it, I understood why my friends were always talking about Halo. After the beta, I went on to play every Halo game released, and with each game, I fell deeper in love, but it all began with the beta, and for that I’ll always remember it.

Clan life and Rainbow Six

When Microsoft announced that Rainbow Six Vegas would be one of the free Games with Gold titles, I thought they were insane. It’s ugly as sin, as buggy as hell, and I couldn’t think of a single game less suited to showing off what the console was capable of. But then I thought of my time spent play it whilst being a member of the now defunct gaming clan, LoX Gamers. Like Race Pro, here was a game capable of transcending its technical limitations with the addition the of a good group of friends. Those early days spent playing Attack and Defend and Team Sharpshooter were my first real taste of what gaming could be like when playing with the same group of people, and it really crystallised what online gaming was supposed to be about – friends getting together online, and having fun. LoX gamers is long gone now, but most of the friends I made then, are still on my friends list now. Rainbow Six Vegas was one of those early games that cemented us together, and without it my friends list would be emptier.

A little while ago, I wrote a piece asking whether you’d stop being a gamer. One of the points I made was that I felt like I’d seen all the games industry had to offer, but perhaps this is the counter-argument. This current generation of consoles has added so many good moments to my memory banks, it’s impossible to look back over it without raising a smile. I’ve enjoyed many games over the course of this generation, but only a few of them have left an indelible mark upon my brain. Every single time my friends and I recall past escapades, these same few moments come back to us. That’s the real power of gaming, the ability to forge common memories between friends, and I look forward to the next generation forging more.

Three is the magic number (sometimes).

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Originally published on The Game Jar October 12th 2012

Number three. In Half Life terms, three is a never-ending wait for a game that can never live up to the hype. In Fable terms, it’s a terrible second half of the game, which then drags the good bits down with it. But does it always have to a bad thing? Making a third game in the trilogy means two games worth of practice previously, right? Some developers do get it right though, so here’s my take on three games that perfected the formula the third time around.

Halo 3 Not only is Halo 3 the best Halo game ever made in my opinion, it’s one of the best games ever made. It’s nigh on perfect. It’s why I hold out no hope for Halo 4. It’s why my love for Reach was always a little white lie. With Halo 3, Bungie had perfected their craft. Whenever I look back at any of the Halo games, it always seems to me that Halo 3 was the last Halo that Bungie enjoyed making. Although Reach was a good game, it never felt like it had the developers heart and soul poured into it, Halo 3 was the conclusion of a story they’d been telling for some time, and their desire to do it right shone through. Even though some criticised the graphics, I thought it looked beautiful. The jungles were lush and vibrant, the deserts were dry and arid. With two other game’s worth of weapon balancing to fall back on, Halo 3’s combat was as tight as a drum. The guns felt great, vehicle combat was awesome, and they even gave us a new toy; the Spartan Laser. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved that gun, so I’ll stick to telling you that it’s in my top five of greatest ever video game weapons. As good as the campaign was however, Halo 3 had a bigger reputation to live up to; multi-player. The original Halo’s LAN multi-player is regarded as a seminal moment for the FPS by many gamers, and Halo 2 was just as loved as the first, and as a result the third game had huge on-line shoes to fill. To my mind, it succeeded. Still to this day, objective based games on the Vahalla and Sandtrap maps are some of my greatest gaming memories, nothing will ever touch playing Rocket Race with friends on either of them. I’m running out of room here, and I feel like I’ve missed loads out. Saved films and screenshots, the huge amount of stat tracking, just two things introduced by Halo 3 and only now being done by other games. I could go on into a whole other article just to do halo 3 justice, but I won’t. Quite simply, Halo 3 is the best Halo game ever made.

Mass Effect 3 Admitting this game is the best of the three is a little painful for me. After I’d finished it first time around, I spent a fair bit of time telling my gaming friends that I didn’t like it very much. Then, after many weekends spent playing the multi-player and another go at the campaign, I had to grudgingly admit that Mass Effect 3 was the best of the trilogy. With the first game, Bioware nailed the compelling storyline bit, but the mechanics were a little unwieldy. With the second game, they polished the controls, but the story was a little basic. With the third game Bioware combined the best of the first with the best of the second to produce a Mass Effect game that was almost perfect. For a long time I let the ending overshadow the rest of the game, and whilst I still don’t like it, I have come to realise just how great the rest of the game is. Thanks to two previous games worth of back-story, ME3 takes the friendships you made along the way and gives them real emotional weight. Losing a character that’s been with you for so long really hurts, putting the others in the way of danger becomes the hardest decision you have to make. And don’t think being a Paragon in the two previous games makes things any easier, either. The “right” choices from the first two games have a lasting effect on the third, and it’s not long before they stop feeling so “right”. It’s hard to think of another game that tracks so many previous choices and successfully weaves them in to a coherent, gripping narrative but Mass Effect 3 does just that. The fact that I and so many others had such a strong emotional reaction to the ending demonstrates one thing, that Bioware has created a galaxy full of characters you genuinely care about on an emotional level, and not many games can say that.

Gears of War 3 Why is Gears 3 the best of the trilogy? Simple, Horde 2.0 is why. Declaring Gears 3 as the best of the three based on one game mode might seem a little crazy, but not in the case of Horde mode. Have a think now, how many reviews did you read post Gears 2 that referenced Horde when describing some other game’s survival-based feature. “What’s Halo ODST’s Firefight mode like? Kinda like Horde, only with Halo…” That was what my friends and I were saying at the time, and it was a similar kind of description for Call of Duty’s zombie mode too. Other games had done co-op survival modes in the past for sure, but none of them had done it with such style. With Gears 3, Epic Games blew the mode out in almost every direction. More weapons, more enemies, more deliciously sadistic executions.., and all playable with four other friends. In my opinion Horde 2.0 is about as perfect as a co-op mode gets. But it doesn’t stop there, for the first time in a Gears of War game you could instajib the COG too, via Beast mode. All of our Locust-loving fantasies were indulged by Beast mode, finally we could blow those filthy humans into meaty chunks by picking the Boomer Locust, we could turn them into a bloody smear on the floor by running them over with the Berserker, we could take them apart in many, many different and violent ways. As you’ve noticed, I’ve gotten this far into the paragraph and I still haven’t mentioned the single player campaign. That’s not because it’s bad (it’s really very good), it’s just that kick-ass multi-player has always been the game’s party piece, and with Gears of War 3 Epic Games has made one of the finest multi-player shooters money can buy.

Do review scores matter any more?

Outside of Metacritic related bonuses, do they really matter any more?

Name whatever series you want, we’re all invested in one title or another. We all have an attachment to at least one game that’s so strong, review scores become irrelevant. For me it’s games like Mass Effect or Gears of War, for you it could be Battlefield. Whatever it is, chances are it’s a sequel of some kind. And that’s not a criticism, publishers are businesses and sequels are where the low risk sure-fire profits are at right now. Despite the fact that most of us like to think we want new IP, the sales figures say we want sequels. But that’s not all they say. If you listen carefully they also say that the whole practice of reviewing games and giving them a score is fast becoming a pointless exercise.

Let’s take Call of Duty Black Ops 2 as an example. Anybody involved in this hobby will be able to tell you this game will be the biggest launch of the year regardless of the reviews it gets. Call of Duty fans buy Call of Duty games, so what relevance does any score have? The same immunity to a 1/10 score also renders a 10/10 score meaningless. Why even bother reviewing the game at all if the very best score possible has no real impact on commercial success? You have the holy grail of video games here, a title so strong that it’s a guaranteed sales blockbuster, and at the same time impervious to negative write ups.

At this point you’re probably thinking that I’ve missed the point of reviews entirely, but it’s not the text I have a problem with, it’s the outdated mechanic of putting a number at the end. Even though the write-up is someone else’s subjective opinion, it still gives you a much better flavour of what the game is like than an arbitrary mark out of ten. So come on, isn’t time we ditch the review score and rely solely on the text of a review? I’d argue we’d all be better off if we did.

Multi-Player Weekend Event Madness!

Apologies for no post last week, a stomach bug has been sweeping through our house and one of the casualty’s was last week’s post. I did have a long old speech about Bioware’s artistic integrity not really being under attack three quarters done, but as it’s not really that relevant now the post is lost to the mists of time. A lucky escape I hear you mutter.

Anyway, I’m still not quite 100% so this post will be short and sweet, and not really about anything at all. This weekend I’ll be trying to fit in two multi-player event weekends, one on Gears of War 3 and one on Mass Effect 3. If you fancy joining me hit me up over Xbox Live – Gamertag: SGT Benton.

Details incoming!

Gears of War 3

Gears Weekend 2x XP in versus, beast and horde. Guardian has a new xp multiplier. Horde bonus objectives every 2 waves. Custom gnasher skin.

Gears Weekend playlist is Raven Down 24/7. First to 10 Execution with Gnasher and golden snub loadout on Raven Down only.

Gears Weekend features tophats and flower blood for the Raven Down massacre playlist.

Mass Effect 3

Join the war against the Reapers online between 5PM PST Friday, March 30th to 5AM PST Monday, April 2nd and promote at least 2 characters to your single player campaign.

This operation includes PC and Xbox 360; we are continuing to work with Sony to enable these types of Operations on the PlayStation 3 platform. We appreciate your patience, and we expect an update later this week regarding Operation Raptor and the PlayStation 3.

Commendation Packs will be awarded to individual soldiers who complete their training, and a Victory Pack will be awarded to everyone if the Allied Goal is achieved. Packs will be available to download the following week. Please note that participants need to set “Upload Gameplay Feedback” to “on” in the online options to be able to participate in Operation RAPTOR.

Arrgh!P.G.

I am a self-confessed RPG addict. Whether it’s wandering around Skyrim in the latest Elder Scrolls game or Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings: Online, I spend most of my gaming time wandering a virtual world earning virtual baubles. Investing time in questing to earn new shinys for a character that no one else will see is pretty pointless. I’ll freely admit that it’s the collecting aspect that hooks me, I’m comfortable with my addiction. What’s bothering me is other non-RPG’s feeding my addiction with their own sweeties, albeit in a far stealthier way.

The game chief in my mind right now is Gears of War 3. Like all good pushers, Epic offered up the first hit free via the campaign, gently feeding us with achievements as we progress through the story. Next comes the unlockables. All good RPG’s feed the collection habit with offer of new armour and weapons for you character and Gears 3 is no different. OK you don’t get actual new armour, but a new character skin is no different in reality, and they only unlock by XP grinding.

The final step to complete Gears substance dependence  is the collecting of medals and ribbons. Again Epic start us off slowly, the first few come easy and serve to take your eye off the horror of what’s looming on the gaming horizon; months of Locust killing, grinding XP and gaining those sweet, sweet Onyx medals. Why have you done this to me Epic? Collecting things is my addiction and you’ve used your shooting game to feed my habit. PLEASE STOP!

Precious… must have the precious…

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