Somewhere along the way, ‘linear’ became a dirty word. Conventional wisdom says that non-linear games offer players more bang for their buck, letting players play how they want and never providing the same experience twice. Last year was great for non-linear games, from the incredible The Witcher 3 to the definitive release of Grand Theft Auto V, but let’s not count the linear narrative out just yet. I’ve been playing the Gears of War games in preparation for Gears of War 4 this fall, and I think Gears of War 3 might be one of the best games ever made, thanks to its linear design.
In practice, open-world games tend to recycle the same encounters over and over; the jokes about Fallout 4’s Preston Garvey tasking players to do the same things over and over have such staying power because we all know exactly what we’re getting into when another settlement needs our help. The rules of engagement rarely change. Clearing out an open world map is about as satisfying as popping zits; there’s a strange sense of calm to it, and it’s satisfying as heck, to be sure, but if you asked me whether I’d rather pop a zit or watch Mad Max: Fury Road, I’d pick the latter every time.
Repetitive encounters are easy to set up: place three barrels here, spawn some sirens there, wait for the player to sail up, attack them, let the player loot the barrels. Repeat around the map fifty times. Developers are fond of something called “The Rule of Threes”: give the players the same objective three times. Change it up a little bit, but not too much. The idea is that players want or need to learn how to perform a task to have fun doing, which seems like a great idea if you don’t stop to think about it.
In storytelling, this would be called a double or triple beat, and that’s a huge no-no, because audiences tend to tune out when narrative information is repeated. Mad Max: Fury Road is constructed with perfect economy; the film never loses its forward momentum to double beats. Gears of War 3 works so well because it maintains its momentum while avoiding predictability.
Gears of War 3 opens up shortly after the events of Gears of War 2. The underground lizard creatures, the locust, have been driven from their holes by their infected and highly explosive brethren, the lambent. Humanity is nearing extinction; the Coalition of Ordered Governments is broken, and what remains of its army struggling to survive on a lone ship, the Sovereign. Marcus Fenix, the protagonist, wakes from a nightmare to find the Sovereign put on high alert as they enter lambent-controlled waters.
Walking through the ship, you’re introduced to your fellow soldiers in Delta Squad — Dominic Santiago, Jace Stratton, and Anya Stroud. A sailor berates another for filling in the crossword puzzle; another jokes about how many times he’s read the same book. You can kick a recalcitrant vending machine into submission. When you’re finally attacked by lambent, the first encounter is simple: monsters are directly ahead of you, they can only do melee, and they’re the weakest monsters in the game. You’re gently eased into combat.
Fighting your way to the Sovereign’s deck, you learn that Chairman Prescott, the former leader of the COG, is on his way in. You have to clear it and give his chopper room to land. More lambent attack, so you fight your way across the deck. After a quick cutscene you’re back in the fray, overlooking the exact same arena you just fought through. The difference is that you’re upon a balcony, this time with a sniper rifle. It’s a clever recontextualization of the space.
An open world game tends to be so open that it ensures a kind of complacency; find the one weapon loadout you like, then repeat all the encounters with that method. The problem with always playing the way you want is that complacency is often encouraged, solutions remain the same, and the game becomes boring. Linear design forces situational change, ensuring variety, keeping things interesting. First a ground-level fight, then a sniper duel, then a reverse ground-level fight.
A fire breaks out, but luckily for you, there’s a fire extinguisher nearby, and it works just like the guns in the game. Point and shoot. After you rescue Prescott, you’re tasked with saving the choppers, your only means of escaping the ship. This arena has civilians and chickens in it, though the chickens have a higher survival rate than the civilians.
The dynamics of this particular fight change frequently; you’re always pushing forward, but when you start, you’re looking down at a lengthy corridor. Fight your way down it, take a right, and now you’re at the bottom of a similar corridor, fighting your way back up. Starting you with the high ground is easy mode in a sense — Gears is a cover-based shooter, so the elevation gives you a bit of an advantage on enemies taking cover. The difficulty is then inverted, which encourages you to try your grenades. Once you’ve fought your way uphill, you have to breach a control room. The enemies are holed up behind cover while you have almost none.
More lambent attack, but you have the high ground with an additional goodie: there’s a button you can press while on your way to the second helicopter that removes the lambent cover. Without cover, you can make short work of the lambent. It’s a nice, easy breather between the previous uphill fight and what happens next.
A giant tentacle snakes through the cargo bay, crushing the helicopter you were trying to save. The tentacle itself is not a challenging enemy, though the small lambent Polyps that attack during this encounter don’t help, but the fight is enjoyable because you haven’t done anything like it up until now. It also ups the stakes and builds anticipation for the fight to come.
The next fight is a mix of Gears’ great base combat and putting out fires. The lambent are an interesting twist on the game; the spider-like Polyps are easy and satisfying kills, the lambent drones explode, which means that tactically-minded players strategically detonate certain enemies to damage others around them, instead of just focusing on one enemy at a time.
The firefighter component of this sequence provides a clever subversion of the Rule of Threes. The first two times, you simply turn a valve to let the water put out the fires. The third time, an explosion takes out someone fighting the blaze, and you’re tasked with using her fire extinguisher instead. Just when Gears started to get predictable, it switches things up; this moment feels like a brief design in-joke at the Rule of Three’s expense.
At this point, you’re attacked by a lambent Leviathan, the largest enemy type in the Gears of War universe. It was a nightmare in Gears of War 2, but now that it has become lambent, it’s even more dangerous. The Leviathan itself is still something of a tease — the actual encounter has you facing off against lambent Drones while polyps attack from behind.
Cover is an important component of Gears, but equally important is how the game attempts to force you out of it. Too many cover shooters place you in an arena with waist-high cover with enemies directly ahead of you, and, if you’re lucky, you might get a couple guys with different weapons, and they might try to flank you.
Poor cover shooters rarely change things up, turning most cover-based combat into a simple shooting gallery that isn’t dynamic or engaging at all. Even the first Gears of War struggled with this, but not Gears 3. The polyps are weak; a single polyp can’t kill you on its own, but it can provide a distraction while pushing you out of cover, letting the Drones do the real damage. These two enemy types play a game of tug of war for your attention; enough polyps can kill you, so you have to manage them, but the Drones do far more damage, and you can’t move on until you’ve killed them all. This encounter is also solid because, while the polyps are meant to push you out of cover, you’re also positioned above the drones and have the ability to flank them from above, so you’re not completely at a disadvantage.
After being given a few moments to breathe, the Leviathan comes back, this time trying to crush you with some cargo containers, requiring you to rush to the nearest safe spot, which just happens to be a garage occupied by two Silverback mech suits. Time for the boss fight!
Great bosses are the perfect climax for a level; the Leviathan itself is pretty simple, but the sheer scale, combined with the awesome feeling of running around in Silverbacks makes it more of an emotionally awesome moment than anything else. Enemies who gave you trouble before are spawning in droves, but the Silverbacks make short work of them. The boss fight is simple: target the leviathan’s weak points while keeping the smaller enemies at bay, but the game makes you feel so cool running around in a silverback that it’s hard not to enjoy the encounter.
The fight ends on a cliffhanger, sending you back in time to a few hours prior. Now you’re playing as Augustus “Cole Train” Cole, leading his own squad, comprised of the ceaselessly sarcastic Damon Baird, the Claudia Black-voiced (and therefore awesome by default) Samantha Byrne, and Clayton “Both Of My Brothers Are Dead” Carmine, and you’re playing on land, visiting Hanover, Cole’s hometown.
The first major encounter here is in a playground; it’s a more traditional Gears of War fight than what we’ve seen on the boat — a nice, big space with plenty of cover. This particular encounter showcases the lambent and introduces a few new tricks as well. My favorite lambent form, the Drudge, is one of the coolest enemies in video games. Drudges can mutate; the headsnake variant blasts players with a flamethrower, and when the body dies, the snake can attack the player independently. The arms mutation blasts you at long range with blobs of emulsion, and the leg stalk version is tall enough that it gains a height advantage against cover while also spawning additional polyps to fight, at the expense of its mobility.
Because Drudges can change form dynamically, Gears 3’s encounters never play out the same way. The enforced variation of the linear design coupled with the random mutations of Drudges help the game feel both fresh and varied. The later Gears of War: Judgement would take this a step further, by changing the enemy mix every time you spawned.
Another core element of Gears’ design is clear communication. When the lambent stalks arrive to deploy more troops, squadmates will shout about destroying the pods that keep the stalks alive and spawning enemies on the battlefield. Enemies will call out attacks or display exaggerated animations; the game is always making sure you understand what’s happening.
The next encounter takes place in an abandoned grocery store — where the previous fight was all about waist high cover and one open space, the grocery store pits you against lambent down long corridors and hiding behind grocery shelves too tall to see over. Epic is generous with sniper rifles in this section, however, making the keeping the encounters taut but frenetic. A boomshot, the first one you can access in the game, is hiding off the beaten path; if you locate it, you can bombard enemies from a distance.
Following this, you’re given a new robot to play with, but unlike the silverback, this civilian construction loader has no guns. Fortunately, it’s a capable melee weapon, and the encounter itself gives you plenty of ways to bash and crush any lambent foolish enough to oppose you.
From there, you make your way down a city street; this part of the level is set up so that all attention is directed ahead, priming you for when Cole asks if anyone hears gunfire up ahead, then says that it sounds like someone need’s help. As you approach, you can’t see either side, but a massive ball of goop flying from left side to right tells you exactly where the lambent and the humans fighting them are. The arena’s set up so you have to move around left anyway, which steers you directly into the Gunker, a massive tank enemy who lobs blobs of gunk from afar and melees anyone unfortunate enough to get up close with its tentacle.
The cool thing is that Gears shows you what the Gunker can do before it can hurt you — it attacks the settlers before you’re within engagement range, and then it makes sure that the Gunker telegraphs every move with absolute clarity. Other third person shooters I’ve played this year, from The Order: 1886 to two different Uncharted games and Rise of the Tomb Raider, all struggle to clearly communicate what’s happening, but Gears has no such struggles; it’s an eminently readable game.
The ensuing gauntlet is intense, but it’s immediately countered by a character-driven walk and talk through the Stranded — that’s the name for the surviving civilians — base. This kind of pacing is vital — after an intense fight, players should have the opportunity to relax, but many games take these opportunities to force players to walk slowly or stare at cool scripted sequences. Gears allows you to maintain your agency; if you poke around, you’ll find plenty of hidden ammo and collectibles before you’re ready to fight again. Your next goal is to try talking to the leader of the local survivors, but you’re warned she doesn’t like the military.
You fight your way to them, experience some great character moments, but then lambent forces attack. Gears puts you through another frenetic, uphill battle into the arena; the odds are stacked against you. Entering the arena itself, Cole finds himself flashing back to his glory days. He envisions himself, with the ball in his hands, running to the end zone and scoring a touchdown, though, when the encounter ends, the ball is a bomb, and the opposing team are actually lambent forces. The sequence is strangely conveyed, but it’s brief, and it’s a cool moment of empowerment. After that, you meet the survivor leader, and true to her word, she doesn’t like you. She also informs you that the survivors on the bridge ahead are even more hostile than she is.
The next few encounters go by quickly; you ride some glass elevators, shooting the lambent on the floors you pass, then you zipline from the stadium to the bridge, killing lambent as you ride. When you get to the bridge, you discover that the reason the survivors on the bridge are so hostile is because they aren’t human at all. They’re locust.
Each encounter with the locust reintroduces the old enemy types, and each one is unlike anything you’ve encountered before. There’s a fight against some locust-salvaged turrets, a tight encounter in the dark with explosive tickers, a rush down a section of bridge being shelled by mortars, a fight against a locust airship, and finally a battle against some snipers before the game’s first act ends and the Leviathan from earlier is defeated.
My favorite piece of video games writing, “Don’t Call Uncharted 2 A Film,” has a fantastic takedown of the Uncharted series’ distinctly anti-cinematic encounter design. The author, Chris Breault, brings up the oft-discussed idea that action scenes are stories in and of themselves, with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends, illustrates how Raiders of the Lost Ark effortlessly drops interesting set piece after interesting set piece, but Uncharted 2 never does.
“And what happens in Uncharted 2? Well, Drake jumps from truck to truck. He kills some samefaced generic guys who tend to stupidly approach the side of the truck he jumped to. Later, he gets a big gun and shoots a lot of vehicles (although they seemed to be exploding pretty much of their own accord earlier, when he moved across them). It’s the same thing over and over and over. It’s shamelessly repetitive, and there’s no style to it at all.”
Great game encounter design is full of variety. As we see throughout the game’s first act, no action is repeated more than once; the only time it appears we’re going to repeat a task ad nauseum, the game blows someone up and gives us a fire extinguisher instead. When we’re launching helicopters, the first one gets away just fine, but the Leviathan destroys the second.
Gears 3 derives its variation from three different spaces: level design, enemy composition, and unique mechanics. The specific mechanics are always simple enough that they don’t require being taught.
What I’ve played of The Last of Us this year could never compete with that; I moved platforms or ladders around so characters could progress through the level, or I fought in obvious combat arenas. The Order: 1886 had some cool guns, but the encounters rarely varied from the established formula. Rise of the Tomb Raider had some great puzzles, but the human enemies were too rote to be interesting.
Earlier, I brought up my favorite movie from last year, Fury Road. I’ve watched it several times since its release. It is an immutable, linear experience, but it’s so good that I don’t care. Any good linear experience will be worth checking out; it doesn’t need to be different every time. If I can rewatch my favorite movies, I can replay my favorite games.
I love open world games. At the time of writing, I’m about to go play Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which is a completely non-linear game. The Witcher 3 might be one of the best video games ever made. But I think our ideas about variety are backwards; I think that open world games, where developers find themselves repeating content and audiences tend to find a single optimal strategy that works for them, don’t offer the variety they promise. It’s hard to make a truly great, varied linear game, but Epic proved it can be done. You bet I’ll be returning to Gears of War 3 plenty in the years to come.