The latest Gears of War 4 trailer dropped a few days ago, entitled “Tomorrow.” At the first notes of its score, I thought it was paying homage to itself by repeating “Mad World” by Gary Jules, but it turned out to be a song I was quite familiar with, Disturbed’s cover of “Sound of Silence.” Still, this is clearly a part of a lineage, making the Gears of War trailers mildly fascinating – worth a second look.
If taken as an individual work, they represent a ‘series’ with a critical reception on track with the Transformers live-action movies (you know, the ones often referred to by a pejorative portmanteau I dare not repeat here). The first one was considered to be good – great, even – and the other four, despite being functionally identical, weren’t so praised. By that point, the jig was up.
For Gears of War, I think it’s because the thrust of these trailers is emotion. Epic Studios wants to demonstrate the softer, more ambitious side of the franchise. But for anyone who saw Dom mercy kill his wife in Gears of War 2 – well, this is a trick you can only pull off once. And they did, with the first trailer. Of course, these are more like teasers, better for announcements and television broadcasts than gameplay footage tends to be. So it’s understandable, but maybe just a little bit depressing. We’ll see…
Back in 2006, we didn’t know what Gears of War was, that it was gonna be the thing on Xbox that made Halo look like a work of science-fiction canon. The award-winning “Mad World” trailer gave us a glimpse of something sad and dark, but not without the largess of blockbuster games of the era. It’s directed by Joseph Kosinski, who also did the very cool Halo 3 trailer “Starry Night,” and scifi features like Tron Legacy and Oblivion.
So by 2007, we’ve played Gears of War, and we’ve seen just how tonally misrepresentative that trailer was. Not false advertising by a large margin, just curious. And cool, really. It’s an artist’s interpretation of something we all enjoy, and we can celebrate that, detached from any lingering anxieties about the brain cells video-games are popping like bubblewrap.
Here comes Gears of War 2’s “Last Day,” with its washed colors, somber faces, paradise imagery, and the song from Little Miss Sunshine. “BOOM HEADSHOT!” Look, I don’t take any pleasure undercutting the theses of Gears of War with the reality of Gears of War, especially in the face of a trailer like this, which is again highly effective. I think that song sold Little Miss Sunshine, so it might as well help this family drama too.
They strike a chord here with the melancholy of going to war, their deep dive into the hollows making a good visual metaphor for descent, or a trip to Hell. Science-fiction is so rarely dramatic, that the big and fun aspects like aliens and space battles are thought to be fundamentally polar to human drama. At least they’re trying… right?
We come now to the end of the trilogy, and the beginning of the indefinite franchise, Gears of War 3. There’s no piano, and the action depicted is accurate to the game. And given that this is the end of the story (for now – even back in 2010, we knew it was too much of a flagship title to give up on completely), the somber tone makes sense. They’ve earned it, debatably.
I never played Gears of War 3’s campaign, but I know that there are some moments that genuinely affected people, most notably Cole’s flashbacks to his glory days as a Thrashball player. Sounds silly, but it’s all about execution. You don’t feel bad when a guy with basically no characterization executes his wife, who was only really mentioned a few times before – you only really feel uncomfortable. Something with more setup? Maybe it could work.
This trailer benefits from the game’s high concept story premise. It’s interesting, and engaging, because it’s not the usual fare. That said, the trailer itself is unusual for being so usual, reflecting the bombast and the silliness, with enough gameplay footage to truly market what’s truly on sale.
My first brush with Judgment came in the form of criticism by Samus clone Maddy Myers, who was understandably disappointed by the treatment of the token woman character, consistent with so many others. This instance stood in contrast with Gears 3, whose women were not only plural, but treated better – could have something to do with the game’s writer.
Hiring Karen Traviss for Gears of War 3 was an impressive move, and further proof of the studios’ narrative ambition. While never as successful as Halo’s original trilogy, the Gears games did have a plot. But if Judgment is any indication, perhaps it’s a give and take. This game has a clear story drive, but is the worst received of the entire series.
I played the first few levels, and found them to be cinematic and genuinely impressive. The moment Sofia passes through the door and the background opens up to this huge landscape, a couple of reavers fly overhead, and that bombast, so often disparaged, comes together with a satisfying click, like the gears turning in a well-oiled machine.
And now we’ve come to the future – the next generation, apparently.
Disturbed’s “Sound of Silence” has been getting some press, making an appearance on one of the late night shows. It’s hard for me to discern whether or not it’s good, but that’s been true of myself and this band since the mid-2000s. We go back.
My earliest memories of YouTube are watching the videos of a middle school buddy, who uploaded some footage of his playing Gears of War multiplayer set to “Stricken,” by Disturbed. This was an era of some favorite video-game favorites, and my first foray into the current period of gaming (Adulthood? No, more where next gen really felt like a sunny future), with Halo 3 and Mass Effect and of course, Gears of War.
There was also Guitar Hero II, and with it, music was introduced to nerds. Sounds of Kansas and Blue Oyster Cult and visions of Halo 3 mark that period, as does Disturbed and Gears of War. I can actually get pretty nostalgic about it, given middle and early high school was the last time I had more than two friends at a time.
So the implementation of Disturbed here really feels like we’re rounding back to the start, in this way that the creators could never have intended. And yet, just as the band has finally struck gold with one of their covers, or David Draiman solo efforts, it represents a fresh new direction.
Either way, I don’t have an Xbox One, and have eyes only for a 3DS, of all things. Tomb Raider and Halo 5 have come and gone – Fire Emblem and Nintendo Virtual Console make a stronger case than anything else. Maybe Gears 4 will be good. It doesn’t make a difference to me. This series has always been the really fun but numbingly idiotic title, which made itself a caricature of a caricature. When we think of space marines now, it could be 40k, it might even erroneously be Halo (I’ll give you Halo Reach). But Gears embodies that masculine worship better than any other.
And so the saddest part of this saga is that this trailer business isn’t arbitrary. Cliff Bleszinski can be a pretty dry interviewee, so often fielding questions about map packs and ports, but one time he mentioned that Gears was always meant to be more critical of war, almost a satire. But he admitted they wandered away from that original intent, and boy – they wandered far.
I don’t need the games to be different, or more literary. They’re great. But these trailers give us a glimpse of what they could’ve been, instead of their current form as benchmarks for video-game dissonance and the ultimate failure of artistic failure – that when the emotional beat doesn’t land, or the character arc is weak, the game is not diminished. It’s a tough lesson to take forward.