Gears of War 3
The one thing the first Gears of War realised – the one thing that raised it above all the ridiculous musclebound-homoerotic-dripping-sweat macho cliches it so loved – was that it is just as exciting to be shot at as it is to shoot.
Within six months, every shooting game had a cover system. By the second game, it felt less special, and so overblown spectacle and setpieces became the order of the day. Gears of War 3 was showing off its new Beast mode. Beast is an inversion of the old Horde mode, probably Gears of War 2‘s greatest contribution to the genre. It flips the core idea, placing a team of Locust baddie-monsters against wave after wave of wily humans.
And so Gear’s precious vulnerability is replaced: at least in the version I played, the ‘one death and you’re out’ mechanic is gone. The key thing, however, is the unlockable tree of characters. The longer you play, it opens up the option to play as a whole host of ridiculous monsters, from the mace-wielding Behemoth fella to the virtually indestructable Sonic-by-way-of-Predator Kantus. To call Beast mode asymmetrical is a powerful understatement. You are the destructive force tearing Gears’ world apart.
Having sacrificed the one thing Gears has always done right, Beast Mode really needs to capture the just as rare sensation of being genuinely all-powerful. Which, sadly, it doesn’t quite manage.
Nevertheless, and annoyingly counter to my argument, it was compelling. It aims for somewhere between all-powerful and battered-down – embodied in the way humans can hem the big all-powerful guys in with laser traps – and instead concentrates on being a tight, sharp game. There’s clearly room for sharpened strategic playstyles there, for large amounts of variety within the same play session. I accept, grudgingly, that letting me stomp on puny humans might imbalance the game. But just where is the tension?
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
You know those party games, where one person can kill everyone else by winking? Or the one where people have to try and guess who the secret killer is, doing the dirty while they’ve all got their eyes closed? Mafia or Werewolf or, relevantly, Assassin?
It’s looking to be the year where people realise that would translate beautifully to videogames, and Brotherhood is the big-budget example. You’ve got one target, dressed in one of seven strikingly identifiable costumes. Your job, obviously, is to assassinate them. But those seven costumes populate the world hundreds of times over. The key is picking out exactly which one is your target and not just an AI clone.
Meanwhile, you are someone else’s target, and they’re trying to do the exact same thing as you. And so the game becomes trying to pick people off, while remaining invisible to your pursuer. Do you try to force someone’s hand into revealing themselves, and risk giving yourself away? Do you concentrate on being the perfect AI and wait for the inevitable mistakes to happen around you?
Or, do you clamber up the nearest trellis and pelt it across the rooftops?
As previously mentioned, Brotherhood is the blockbuster iteration of the idea. That means turning up the thrills, adding gadgets and fast-paced chases to the simple beauty of the parlour game at its heart. It’s just a little bit too easy to not play by the game’s rules. During my numerous play-sessions, some people chose not to play along, and played the admittedly fine action game instead. The game’s unique joy walks, by defintion, a razor’s edge. Bring that to Xbox Live’s infamous idiot-mentality, and you’re looking at a beautiful system inevitably broken.
On the other hand, us boring patient thinker types have got SpyParty coming. And it is thrilling to realise you’ve just screwed up and throw caution to the wind. Giving up the pretence and just legging it over the aforementioned, beautifully-modelled rooftops. Slamming a door in a pursuers’ face and knowing you’ve lost them. For now, at least.
So here we have two games that aim for an interesting extreme. In my head, I see them existing as a perfect caricature of an idea. Gears of War 3‘s Beast Mode living up to its name, throwing your foolish concepts of ‘fairness’ and ‘balance’ out of the window and laughing deeply, handing you the reins to an out-of-control overpowered war machine destroying all that lays before it.Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer living up to its name: drawing a tense mano-y-mano duel out of a crowded plaza, forcing you to eye up the three richly dressed merchants as you finger the whetted knife and wondering, exactly which one is the man you’ve been paid to kill, narrowing it down to two, to one, squeezing your eyes tight as you squeeze the trigger and — red, everywhere red, what happened? As your model ragdoll flops to the floor, you see the blade pulled from your ribs, the smile on the face of the pursuer you forgot all about.
…Instead, they aim to be good games. Balance and tightness over big stupid innovation. And no doubt, they will be. They’ll be well-received, get 8s and 9s in all the right places, sell beautifully. But maybe we’ll look at it, this healthy beautiful success, and remember – for one unjustifiably bitter moment – what it should have been.