Gears of Halo, Part Three

Louis Wu says this article is supposed to have three parts, so I guess this is the end. Weapons? Covered. Characters? Covered. NPC behaviors? Covered. Cover? Covered. What's left? Oh, right. Story.

Plot Holes You Could Drive A Warthog Through
Normally, when one is talking about plot holes, one is referring to elements of a work of fiction that cause the audience to lose suspension of disbelief: characters acting contrary to their nature, unlikely and unexpected events, strange conspiracies of circumstance and coincidence. Things that make you want to lean over to your neighbor and say, "that would never happen in real life".

Works of fiction in fantasy and science fiction universes have a lot of different ways to conceal those flaws: magical mysteries and high-tech mumbo jumbo. Wizards are people who can summon fireballs from thin air, and the Enterprise is a ship which, by very definition, travels faster than the speed of light. All that remains is for these fictional universes to remain self-consistent. Which they sometimes do.

Gears of War, though, has some plot holes. They're different kinds of holes. Most of the time, characters in Gears are fairly easy to understand, and act in accordance with our expectations. Since most of the time we expect them to be either kicking ass or taking names, we are not confounded when these things occur. So when something happens that does seem unexplained, it stands out. Some sharp readers already pointed out a few, but I'll try and start from the beginning.

Gears does a fairly good job of setting the stage. They cover a bit of what would otherwise be tedious exposition by Colonel Hoffman, who explains about the Locust, the Lightmass Bomb, and the Resonator, by having his speech occur during a firefight. The Resonator goes into the Locust tunnels, maps them, gives the Lightmass Bomb a target, and boom: no more Locust. Simple to understand, and succinctly presented.

A little later, Fenix asks a COG soldier if what he's holding is the resonator. It's a blue device shaped like a football; at first glance, I thought it was a severed head inside a helmet, but frankly, the exaggerated nature of Gears' character designs means it's far too small to be anybody's head. The soldier answers only "no" and chucks it down an emergence hole, never to be seen again... or is it?

Don't Call It A Vibrator
Things follow pretty logically for awhile. Fenix has to find the remnants of Alpha Squad, who were carrying the Resonator, and then takeover their mission of delivering it to a specific location underground. From a design perspective, the game wants to give you a quick way out of the mine from the pumping station after you deliver the device, so there's a lift convenient right there. Except it's unpowered. So you enter the mines from another location, go on a long slog, then plant the device and exit immediately-- only to find the thing doesn't work. This is also where the easy-to-comprehend plot stops working.

First, we're treated to a flashback of a cutscene within the same cutscene, which looks about as awkward as that sounds. We see the resonator detonate, and our squad escape to the surface, hit the deck, and hear the blast. Colonel Hoffman calls on the radio to say the thing didn't work, and then to illustrate that point, we're treated to a replay of the resonator's detonation, this time lasting longer, to show how its effects faded out too soon to be of any use.

While we're absorbing that, and just when we're expecting a nice anti-authority rant from Fenix about incompetent military strategists and egghead scientists who make technical jiggery-pokery that doesn't work, the resident egghead, Baird, suggests an alternative. He's holding another of these blue, metal footballs. Apparently it's called a "geobot", from which we can assume it's used somehow in mining, and further assume that Baird picked it up inside the mine. Perhaps he did, perhaps not. There is such a device on the pumping station. Is it the same one we saw earlier, and that's why it has all this information on Locust tunnels? We don't know. We're also not going to find out, since we're immediately sent on our next inexplicable mission.

This Question Is Worth Zero Points
Colonel Hoffman asks the egghead girl, Anya, to "find the zero point of that data" which leads to Fenix getting instructions to go to his father's house. What the heck is a zero point? I don't know, and neither do you. Is it where the geobot came from? Is it where the geobot stores its data? If the geobot Baird has already has the Locust tunnel maps, why is it necessary to go anywhere else? Even if it is, why is that place the Fenix mansion-- rather, a secret lab underneath the Fenix mansion?

Likely all this may eventually be explained, but it doesn't make sense to the audience now, and it shouldn't make sense to the characters.

Once you've reached the lab and retrieved the data from a computer there-- without explanation of what data, or why it's there, and how we knew it was there-- we're sent to a train station. We have to hop the train, which is infested with Locust, and reach the front, where the bomb is, to put the targeting data into it.

The Train Is At Home On The Rails, But The Passengers Are Motion Sick
Why is the bomb on a speeding, out-of-control train? We don't know, nobody says. Why is the train overrun by Locust? We don't know. Wouldn't it have been better to keep it in a warehouse until the targeting data was input, and then put it on a train to take it somewhere? We get it. Epic loves trains. That level is beautiful and fun. However, there's no sense of why we are there, or why the Locust are there.

For a moment it might seem odd to be putting targeting data into a bomb that's on a runaway train about to plummet into a chasm underneath a broken bridge. After all, what's the point of aiming something that's going to fall into a hole anyway? The cutscene at the end of the last level tries to answer this; segments of the bomb disengage and seek targets independently. Lucky for COG that the targets the torpedoes needed to hit were accessible from that gorge the runaway train was heading towards, right?

Gears is a game with only five acts; especially on the lower difficulty levels, it's pretty short. It's shorter than Halo 2, which we already know had three levels lopped off to make its ship date. Gears, while a lot of fun and very polished looking, also feels as if there are parts missing, either cutscenes or perhaps whole levels that would have given the required context; that would have explained what the connection is between the geobot Baird finds in the pumping station and the secret lab in the Fenix mansion, that would explain how the Lightmass bomb gets put on a train that is subsequently overrun by Locust before anyone even knows where the thing is supposed to be delivered. Was it stolen? Hijacked? One can only guess.

Stop, Children, What's That Sound
It's probably not going overboard to say that Marty O'Donnell's music is perhaps the biggest single element that makes Halo what it is, and a big part of the reason why even ignominious shooters these days have full orchestral scores. Gears has a couple of nice variations on a single theme, played quickly for combat or slowly for moments of quiet admiration of the crumbling world around the player. Mercifully Gears does not rush headlong through its five acts like a flaming ninja through a hospital zone, but allows for plenty of moments of quiet contemplation, not unlike the first installment of a game we know quite well.

Still, most of the time, the music is functional rather than inspiring. Combat tracks play on a loop until all the enemies are done; here or there a triumphal flourish might play when you've taken out a particularly big enemy, and it always ends with a final guitar chord that lets you know all the enemies in the area are vanquished and it's safe to come out and look for ammo. The variation of the theme played during the Act Five train battle is probably the best, but you'll hear those same strains repeated over and over so many times it will begin to grate on you, and you might consider turning down the volume. Gears seems to make up for being a relatively short game by having individual sequences be so hard at the higher difficulties that you'll be required to play them over and over. Gears' boss battles are hardly ever those kind, except for the last one-- more often it's the encounters with regular enemies that require seemingly endless iteration, especially when you can be taken out at any moment by a distant torque bow you could hear, but not see.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Who Knows Jack?

Just one more thing I never picked up on. What the hell is Jack? That cloaked, floating robot that just comes around to open a couple locked doors, but not all of them?

I'd also like to understand the point of the split paths in the underground act. Supposedly, we split up to save time in our search, but we are only split up for a minute, and the whole time we could see each other, separated by only a crack that was a few feet wide. Not only did the story have holes, but sometimes, as this, it was just plain stupid.

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narcogen
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Good Question

Yes, Jack raises some interesting questions. Convenient how he can open some doors, but not others. And he's conveniently invisible, but that technology isn't used anywhere else, and Jack himself is unarmed. Seems like a lot of untapped potential there.

Game-unbalancing potential, but potential nonetheless.

The bit about splitting up is basically just a gameplay thing. It allows for 2-man and 1-man sequences in a game that usually has 2-man and 4-man encounters.

I think it was intended to force the player again into a series of tradeoffs-- do you worry about your own butt, or try to save your buddy? It's possible for Dom to die in some sequences, forcing a restart. However, I found that even on Insane this was rare. The only place I ever had Dom finished off was fighting the first Berserker on Insane, since once he's downed, the Berserker only needs to touch him for him to die.

Plenty of other places, you could just ignore him and wait for all the enemies to be cleared, which would revive him.


Rampant for over se7en years.

Miguel Chavez's picture
Miguel Chavez
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Joined: 10/12/2001
Let me be succinct

GoW sucked balls. Pug balls at that.

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narcogen
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Really?

How come? I enjoyed it quite a bit, despite a few noticeable flaws (mostly mentioned herein).


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Miguel Chavez's picture
Miguel Chavez
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dunno why it's not obvious

your articles pretty much summed it up. In a day POST-Halo, for an FPS with such talent to create basically a rails shooter, with mediocre use of music, etc. How could I not throw up in my mouth? Maybe pre-Halo I would've loved it more, but once you see a 10 or even a 9, it's harder to let others share that vicinity of score. One thing you didn't mention that to me is a deal-killer: there is no 'vista-like' playing field. Yah, the surroundings look beautiful and expansive, but every stage of action is no bigger than the small covenant rooms in T&R level in Halo 1. It's utterly ridiculous. It made even Halo 2's restrictive playing fields seem like never-ending playgrounds of death and destruction. I played the GoW, intensely, for a month or so, but after every session, it just left a bad taste in my mouth. So much artistic skill spent on what? Making the prettiest cinder blocks you ever saw? What a waste. Ugh, I could go on and on.

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narcogen
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Yikes

Miguel Chavez wrote:
your articles pretty much summed it up.

Well, in all fairness, I tend to focus on the negative aspects of just about anything I bother writing about, because I find them more revealing of the processes behind how something works (or doesn't). When things are really, really great, they lend themselves less to analysis.

Miguel Chavez wrote:
In a day POST-Halo, for an FPS with such talent to create basically a rails shooter, with mediocre use of music, etc. How could I not throw up in my mouth?

You've got a way with words, Mig, sometimes I wonder why I even bother Smiling

However, a couple things: I'm not sure that "post-Halo" really means much. Or means any more than, say, post-Half-Life. Sure, all these games are arguably sci-fi shooters, and a lot of gameplay involves aiming guns, and two involve primarily gray post-apocalyptic landscapes. Those are pretty cosmetic similarities, though. I don't necessarily expect GoW to be like Halo just because it came out after Halo. However, you do have some points.

The "rails shooter" argumet I think is partially valid. In terms of the order in which you tackle encounters and scripted events, there is literally no freedom whatsoever. That freedom existed in several levels in the original Halo (not so much in Halo 2, so I suppose we have to rap Bungie's knuckles for not learning their own lesson, but I suppose that's been handled by this point).

As in Halo 2, there is an awful lot of nicely textured scenery in GoW that you can't explore. There's nothing to do there. I think this is a challenge every game faces now, though. Graphic quality has risen to the point where flat skyboxes and backdrops, like we saw in the Doom and Marathon days, are no longer acceptable. However, it's simply a fact that no matter how large your playable area is, there will be an area outside that area. The question is, what will it be, and what will it look like?

Halo used a number of tricks: fog, high cliff walls, dropoffs, ocean, invisible walls. Halo 2 used... well, invisible walls, with territory behind it that looked like it should be passable, but wasn't. While I think Bungie expected that this would make the game world seem larger, it actually had the opposite effect, at least for me.

GoW takes the Halo 2 approach, but I'd say it's implementation is quite a bit less annoying than Halo 2's because of another feature GoW lacks: jump. There is no jump key in Gears. There are no bunny hoppers in Gears. Gears allows you to vault over certain specific barriers, and everything else over a certain height is impassible. Some of these are really ridiculous, like the telephone pole that falls behind you after you leave the fountain area in Act One.

I suspect this is largely a problem with how the Unreal Engine works with regard to loading areas. Just as in the original Unreal years ago, you can't explore a level end to end and go backwards, entering any area you like. You're cut off from each previous area by doors, landslides, and other events. Very often for the purposes of scripted events, doors that were sealed off an unopenable will open and enemies stream through; when the encounter is finished, the door returns to its previous state.

Lot of games have such monster closets; Gears is not unqiue in having them. Halo, to its credit, largely avoids this.

Here's why I don't mind this linearity and lack of freedom in Gears, though: firstly, I had no reason to expect it, and two, because within the context of each encounter, I find Gears is designed to allow slightly more variety and freedom.

On the expectations: Halo 2, with its invisible walls, was frustrating because Halo had so few of them. Bungie clearly wanted larger vistas for Halo 2, eliminating the cliffs and walls of Halo. This meant more area you could see, but a smaller percentage of it was playable. Bungie couldn't possibly place content everywhere in that space, so some of it was going to be boring anyway, with nothing to do there. That's why I don't understand the H2 explorers who finally figure out a way to go someplace, and then complain there was nothing to do there. What did you expect? The developer put a barrier there partially to keep you out but partially to tell you there's nothing interesting over there. The ironic thing, though, is that compared to Halo 1, those areas looked more interesting, because now instead of being blank cliff walls on the sides with infinite fog above, they were expansive scenes. So H2 seemed like a big tease.

With Gears I had no such expectations. It's also our first introduction to the world of Gears, which is basically a human colony. No big deal. If I don't explore every square inch of Sera, it's no skin off my nose.

Within encounters, Gears' placement and use of the cover mechanic allows, I would say, for more tactical choice than most Halo encounters. You can take the enemy head-on, or try to flank to either side. You can try and soften them up with grenades, or hang back and support your squadmates while they attack. If there's an emergence hole, you can risk your neck in the short-term to shorten the encounter, or you can hang back and just ride out the tide, counting on picking up more ammo later. Many other tactics will depend on what weapons you've chosen; if you've got a longshot and/or torque bow, you can hang back; if you've got a shotgun and a lancer, you'll have to push forward.

I find that aside from a few ambushes and set pieces, encounters in Gears tend to have a few more ways to fight them than in Halo 2.

Miguel Chavez wrote:
Maybe pre-Halo I would've loved it more, but once you see a 10 or even a 9, it's harder to let others share that vicinity of score. One thing you didn't mention that to me is a deal-killer: there is no 'vista-like' playing field. Yah, the surroundings look beautiful and expansive, but every stage of action is no bigger than the small covenant rooms in T&R level in Halo 1. It's utterly ridiculous. It made even Halo 2's restrictive playing fields seem like never-ending playgrounds of death and destruction.

I suppose I addressed that already; I'd just say that this was obviously an intentional choice. Large playing fields require large encounters or else they feel empty. Given any set amount of computing resources, more space and more elements means less detail. Gears was obviously designed to allow two and four man teams to handle groups of up to a dozen enemies simultaneously in an urban setting, which means a mix of indoor and structured outdoor environments. I didn't expect wide-open vistas, so I wasn't disappointed to not get them. I trust when Halo 3 comes out, I will.

Miguel Chavez wrote:
I played the GoW, intensely, for a month or so, but after every session, it just left a bad taste in my mouth. So much artistic skill spent on what? Making the prettiest cinder blocks you ever saw? What a waste. Ugh, I could go on and on.

I do agree there. Gears' color palette, like Half-Life 2's, is far, far too grey.


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Geobots

Thought I'd just post this up here for the sake of making the point public.

My understanding regarding the geobots seems to differ from yours in that I saw them as high tech floppy disks rather than a means of gathering tactical data. In fact, I don't recall them ever being referred to as "geobots" in the first place but I'll take your word for it. That one geobot Baird found was containing data whose zero point is Mr. Fenix's super secret underground lab and, from what I gathered, a "zero point" is the origin of the data (or at least the location where it was "last modified"). This is assumed. But hey, "zero point" really does seem to imply something about an initial location; considering they "track" it to the Fenix residence.

Quote:

If the geobot Baird has already has the Locust tunnel maps, why is it necessary to go anywhere else?

Now from what I understood, The resonator didn't get reliable data because its effective radius was not sufficient enough to do the job; it would seem as though the COG didn't foresee the sheer depths to which the locust were burrowed and, as a result, the area it mapped was incomplete (somehow they can tell). So in pops Baird with a remarkable find. Is it that device we saw Carmine toss? I want to say yes, but who knows. In any case, the way I see it, if they can tell the data from the resonator is incomplete, then they can tell Baird's data is incomplete. His data appears much more reliable, however, and thankfully we know has an origin. So off to the source, right? That was my understanding.

***

Hmm. Just decided to look up this "geobot" term in the GoW context...

http://gearsofwar.wikia.com/wiki/Geobot

Sounds like it does both what you say and what I say. I guess the problem here isn't that the story is inconsistent, just that it's not very clear. It would make sense, now, that Fenix's dad was mapping the tunnels and, as we know, something happened to him. Baird just stumbled upon one of his abandoned geobots.

There's no denying that the story isn't as cut and dry as it could be. Perhaps all of this was left ambiguous to allow room for rampant speculation. A story that allows people to theorize and deduce things seems to work for other games...

The casual player couldn't care much less and the story aficionados get some digging to do. Maybe it's a good thing...

...Or maybe I'm making excuses for all the things that make you go "huh?"

In any case, in my experience playing the game, I made my own inferences as the story was presented to me and stuck with them rather than questioning why I was doing so. Worked for me, and I wasn't that far off.

My only qualms all pretty much centered around the overrun train... but trains are cool so who cares, right?

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SG
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Rampant Speculation

I'm sure the story is cut and dry because the development team saw it as more important to up the entertainment value rather than the continuity of the story. The story seems to be made up as it goes along. Its almost like the developers made one level after another with no idea what they were going to do next. I immagine it was something along the lines of,
"Hey, I know! Lets have them go underground to see the Locust lair!"
"Or how about there is this secret laborotory... in Fenix's own house!", or
"You know what would be cool? A runaway train. We should totally do that!"
I doubt much thought or planning really went into the story.

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narcogen
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Continuity

SG wrote:
I'm sure the story is cut and dry because the development team saw it as more important to up the entertainment value rather than the continuity of the story. The story seems to be made up as it goes along. Its almost like the developers made one level after another with no idea what they were going to do next.

I don't know about you, but an obvious lack of continuity does lower the entertainment value for me.

SG wrote:
I immagine it was something along the lines of,
"Hey, I know! Lets have them go underground to see the Locust lair!"
"Or how about there is this secret laborotory... in Fenix's own house!", or
"You know what would be cool? A runaway train. We should totally do that!"
I doubt much thought or planning really went into the story.

I think it's an uneasy mesh of how the story needed to run (Fenix out of prison, redeeming himself, the resonator, the bomb, and RAAM) with the list of encounter types and environments they wanted to include (underground, aboveground, inside houses, outside at night, the processing plant, the train).

The interstitials that linked these environments at times seem weak, especially the "zero point" reference that links from the resonator at the pump station to the lab in the Fenix mansion by way of a device that is only named once: the Geobot. (To HP above: Anya names it in that cutscene, when she says "that Geobot is showing more tunnel data than the resonator." That's the only explicit reference, though.)

I think it's possible a whole level or part of a cutscene was removed there, something that spells out more clearly what the connection is between Imulsion, the pumping station, the geobot, and Fenix's dad. Perhaps Fenix has some role in this that we haven't seen yet; perhaps he designed the geobot, or deployed them, or something. Possibly there was a level between the end of act 3 and the beginning of act 4, but gameplay-wise it either wasn't fun, or was too much like one of the other environments, and so it was cut because it didn't offer unique value.


Rampant for over se7en years.

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