Gears of War is the one series that I love to an absurd degree, and not just because it's post apocalyptic. I'm aware of it's many flaws but I'm willing to look past them to what the series offers as a whole. Other people go all fanboy for Star Wars/Trek, Harry Potter, The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, my brain turns to mush for Gears of War.
I'll get this out of the way first, primarily because this is meant to be an all-positive piece but also just to show that I don't have a blind spot to the shitty bits in the things that I love. Gears of War as a whole definitely has an overly macho tone to it, and some of the lines of dialogue are so absurd that they wouldn't even be accepted in a Sharknado movie. Alongside this, the games all have this habit of throwing in ridiculously left field gameplay elements that're simply there to break up the shooty parts. For a game about hiding behind chest high walls and shooting big ass guns, there's always one vehicle section of the game that feels totally out of place. I think the only game that doesn't have a vehicle section in it is Gears of War Judgment, and as the weakest of the 5 games, Judgment has a host of other issues. Finally, as much as I love the series, not even I can escape the fact that the plot and factions are basically interchangeable with the Halo series.
But enough of all that, a single paragraph has satisfied my pathological need for objective shredding!
Gears of War, as a series, is about how shitty human are. War is just something that humans do, it's part of our bestial and baser nature, we're always looking for excuses to go to war. Humans fight over resources, land, nationalism, religion, revenge or because we just don't like how the other guy looks. In Gears of War, there have been generations of war, and before that there were entire eras that were defined by conflict. As civilized as humans can be, that's just a thin veneer that hides the ever present animalistic element that wants to chew someones throat out. This is showcased splendidly by the series' contrasting theme of "destroyed beauty," where the heights of human creativity (often represented by grand architecture) are brought low by the base human ability to bring ruin upon the world. Finally, as a subtle nod to all this, the planet that Gears of War is set on, Sera, is actually 'Ares' spelled backwards. Ares being the Greek god of war... duh.
The basic premise of the original Gears of War trilogy was that, fifteen years prior to the first game, humanity had just finished an eighty year conflict, dubbed the Pendulum Wars, that was fought over a resource called Imulsion. It's basically a yellow glowing stand-in for oil, but much better because it's more efficient, clean and insanely powerful. Hence why they fought for eight decades over the stuff. Very shortly after this conflict ended, monstrous humanoids dubbed the Locust broke through the surface of Sera and slaughtered most of humanity. Thus began a new war - the Locust War. These horrific monsters literally tunneled up from underneath the surface of the planet and could attack anywhere and at anytime. Humanity suffered catastrophic losses in the first days of the war, but they managed to hold out for over a decade since the war began.
A major element of the story line, and game play, is the drastic lengths that humanity are willing to go to in order to survive. Humanity didn't just bunker down and play defensively for fifteen years, no, they initiated a scorched earth policy where they used orbital laser weapons to literally burn the planet to dust and glass. The idea being that the Locust would stop raiding if there was nothing left to raid, so humanity burnt their own crops, their own cities, and their own people, just to deprive the Locust access to resources and military assets. As many humans died when the Locust first invaded, billions more died from humanities own hand.
This point is further illustrated by the iconic Mk.2 Lancer - the chainsaw gun. It could be said that putting a chainsaw on a gun is stupid, and basically it is, but the point that it exists actually lends itself to the overall theme of the series. The Mk.1 'Retro' Lancer, had a simple bayonet on it, but the problem was that while this was great for skewering humans, it tended to break when used against the scaly hides of Locust Drones. The situation was that dire, that someone actually had the idea to attach a chainsaw to a gun, and then someone else in a position of means actually thought that it was warranted. And so they made a gun with a fucking chainsaw on it! That's how bad the situation was, the Locust were so much of a threat that the sheer insanity of putting a chainsaw on a gun was seen as a good idea.
Finally, a point of some contention among... certain... fans, is the fact that the humans of Sera used breeding farms to boost their numbers. For some reason, which is revealed in the series later on, humanity has a sterility problem. Civilian women who were fertile didn't have to join a breeding farm, but if they did they were given extra rations, and if they didn't like the idea of pumping out babies who would go die on a battlefield then they could always suit up and go become bullet sponges themselves. There's this line in one of the comic books, or one of the novels, where a character mentions there's a rumor that the female Locust are chained down and raped, and that's how the Locust reproduce. Now, you could either take this as a way for the writers to showcase how terrible and savage the Locust are, or you could take it as the humans of Sera trying to demonize their opponents in order to assuage their own guilt. Humanity had never gotten below the surface to the Locust cities before this point, so how would they ever learn of such a process? It's far more likely that someone made up the rape-story to allow people to deal with humanities own horrific acts.
"Humanity may have breeding farms, which are disgusting, but the Locust rape... which is far worse!"
Humanity goes on the offensive in the second game, attacking the Locust on their own turf. There's a massive invasion of the tunnels that honeycomb the planet and we get a chance to see the Locust side of things, and we learn what should have been pretty obvious by this point. There are links between the humans and the Locust, and the government that you're fighting for might have actually had a hand in creating them. By the end of the second game, taking inspiration from a gigantic worm, the humans preform one last act of psychotic desperation - in order to flood the tunnels and kill the Locust once and for all, they sink their last remaining city and allow the ocean to pour in.
Of course, since there's a Gears of War 3, we know this doesn't exactly work as intended. The Locust survive and flee to the surface, becoming just as homeless as humanity. The conflict is less larger than life in Gears 3, since both sides of the conflict are battered and running on empty, but there's a new player in the conflict. The zombie-like Lambent, who, while once only an issue for the Locust, were now zombiefying humans as well. And this is where the series as a whole gets the nice little bow tied around it. The human on human Pendulum Wars were fought over Imulsion, but the Locust knew that being too close to it tended to infect people and turn them into zombies, hence why they invaded the surface all those years earlier - they wanted to get the hell away from the Imulsion. The problem is that Imulsion isn't just resource, it's a living parasitic organism that, while technically able to be used as a fuel source, is alive and has goals of it's own. With the tunnels below Sera flooded in Gears 2, it managed to reach the surface and began wrecking havoc on both the Locust and human survivors. To cut a long story short, you manage to find someone who failed to help the Locust stop the Imulsion from infecting them years earlier, and this person is finally able to stop the Imulsion by killing it, but only by also killing all the Locust as well.
By the end of Gears of War 3, it's fairly explicit that the Locust are the mutated bastard offspring of humanity, evolved into horrific monsters by the Imulsion in one of the earlier stages of its life cycle. As monstrous as they are physically, they're just a dark reflection of how monstrous humanity can be internally, in their thoughts and actions. This is shown rather well in the Locust city of Nexus, which is carved into a series of gigantic stalactites that hang above an ocean of Imulsion - which is just an inversion of the human cities above. The Locust were just doing what they had to do to survive, just like the humans. When the humans successfully wiped out the Locust, they effectively proved themselves to be more monstrous than their mutated offspring.
Gears of War Judgment came out after this. It was a prequel that explored the back story of two the side characters from the original trilogy, Barid and Cole. It was great in terms of gameplay, but it didn't really add anything new the series, it was just more of the same to tide fans over. My only issue with this game is the fact that they put the Mk.2 Lancer (the chainsaw gun) into the game, even though the game was set before that weapon was even invented. Because apparently Gears of War *IS* the chainsaw gun, and you can't make a game without it. Can you imagine the sheer nerdrage that would result if someone made a Star Wars game with Lightsabers, but then set it before Lightsabers were even invented?! If they wanted to show how fucking terrible the start of the Locust War was, they should have just left us with the shitty old Mk.1 Lancers and had them break each time we tried to use them. Fucking coffee sipping hack writers, too chicken shi-
Sorry, gotta stay positive!
Finally, Gears of War 4 came out at the end of 2016, and it's set 25 years after the end of Gears 3. It's revealed that the Locust weren't exactly killed by the weapon used at the end of the trilogy, it's more like they were sent into stasis. Well, some of them woke up, and now they're messing with the genetic code of the Locust and we've got a more evolved form of Locust, the Swarm. They look like shellfish versions of Locust, but basically they're the same deal. The series continues with the son of the original trilogy's protagonist.
Now's a good enough time to get into these protagonists. Both Marcus Fenix, and later his son in the new trilogy, James-Dominic "JD" Fenix, are your typical gruff, loner straight white male action heroes. JD is less so in Gears 4, but he's young and hasn't the lifetime of conflict that his father had experienced in his first game. They're both massive, they were tanks for body armor and they carry guns with chainsaws on them - you'd be forgiven for thinking that both these characters are meat heads.
The problem is that this is a massive disservice to the characters, and ridiculously dismissive of males across the globe. A lot of guys can relate to these stoic action heroes because that's how they're expected to behave in the real world, I know that's how I was raised. When we see a big strong guy shrug off a death or risk their lives like it's nothing, it's not a cliche for us but a representation of our own reality (to borrow some totally cringe-worthy terminology...) It may not be the most emotionally healthy way to deal with things, but when the shit hits the fan in the real world, it's often the big guy that's expected to go deal with it. Trust me, I'm 6'2 and even when I'm showing ribs I'm a solid 90kg, so I'm a big guy and there have been plenty of times where I've been shoved outside to go deal with some nasty shit.
What other people see as emotionless machismo, people who actually live that life, or have a similar backstory, see the inner turmoil that goes on within these characters. With every other character in a story relying on them keeping their shit together, these guys are the central load-bearing pillars that cannot give up. But this is getting a little off track and I might delve into this in another post. The point is, if people read the novels, of which there are 5, and all the comics, they'd actually realize that there's a lot of backstory and complexity to each of these characters.
Marcus Fenix was raised in a wealthy household, but his mother disappeared and his father was always at work. As a child he drifted towards that Santiago family, who were much poorer than his, because they were a large family and there was a lot of love that he never found in his own home. He was smart, but lonely, and so he joined the military as a front line soldier, instead of as an officer, because he wanted the comradery that the rank and file provided.
Dominic Santiago was actually the younger brother of Marcus' best friend, and the two only really became close after his brother died just before the Pendulum Wars ended. He had a wife and children but they disappeared early in the Locust War and he spends most of his spare time trying to track them down - in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in video game history, he finally finds his wife and she's been tortured and broken by the Locust. All he can do is offer her a mercy killing, and this breaks him. In Gears of War 3, in the second most heart-wrenching moment in video game history, he sacrifices himself to save the rest of his squad. Dom was the heart and soul of the team, the guy that kept everyone else on the right path.
Augustus "Cole Train" Cole was a star Thrashball (football) player who signed up to become a soldier the day the Locust invaded. You get very little of his backstory in the games beyond him being the spirit of the team, the guy that keeps everyone else motivated and moving along the path. In the books however, you find out that his parents were killed in the initial invasion of the Locust, and he threw away his absurd amounts of wealth to combat the Locust as a front line soldier. He writes to his parents as often as he can, throwing the letters into a fire.
Damon Baird is the arsehole techie of the team, the engineer who is better with machines than with people. He had a wealthy upbringing like Marcus, but instead of seeking connection with others, he drifted further away from them. This became worse when his parents died when the Locust invaded, the few connections he had in life had been severed. He's rough around the edges but he desperately craves connection with people, just like Marcus did as a child. Damon is the sarcastic brains of the unit, while nobody is by any means stupid, Baird is genius levels of smart.
There's a several other characters that get introduced, especially in Gears 3 and 4, but this team is the core team for the original trilogy. Each of the characters in the Gears series is often seen as interchangeable, and several of the characters who wear helmets actually are, but there's actually a lot of characterization to the named cast. My favorite character across all five games is one that's introduced in the very first novel, Bernadette Mataki - she's a Northener from the South Sea Islands (basically a white New Zealander) who is a sixty year old sniper. She's an absolute badarse! And I've got a mate who loves Tai Kaliso, the unkillable soldier from the island of Irohma (basically, Samoa...) I'm fully able to admit that it took the developers a while to get this amazing cast of characters into the games, but once they were there they really beefed up the series.
At the start of Gears of War 1, Marcus and Dom have known each other for years, growing up and fighting in the Pendulum Wars together, and Cole and Baird have been together since basic training. But this is the first time these two pairs meet, and we actually get to see them grow as a team across the trilogy, they butt heads a bit to begin with but eventually they figure out how to work with one another.
There's a lot of depth you can explore in the Gears of War universe, if you're willing to look past the macho monster slaughterer aspect of the series. There's the brotherhood between the main cast of characters, the issues with family, especially parents, and an exploration of how far you're willing to go to survive. The series also delves into the concept of governments, and the amount of control they have over their people.... because funnily enough, the side you fight for is actually considered hardcore socialist/fascist. There's also the idea that the Locust and Imulsion represent mother nature and her natural resources, and that taking too much from her has caused her to fight back. And finally, there's that whole idea that I was talking about earlier, where humanity are basically shitty creatures when you strip away the cloak of civilization.
There is depth to Gears of War, you've just got to get past the superficial elements to find it. I know there are a lot of flaws with this series, but I'm more than happy to look past and even forgive them. It's got characters, and situations, that I can relate to and it's set in a beautifully destroyed post apocalyptic world. Gears of War is one of those series that I will eagerly follow until my time is up. I've got no doubt that there will be weak entries in the series at some point, and I don't always agree with the design choices that're made, but despite all that it's still my most favorite video game series... and I really really really want to see a trailer for Gears of War 5 already!