Epic Games brought the saga of Marcus Fenix to a close in September with the release of Gears of Wars 3, but none of us ever thought for a moment that it would be the end of our time fighting in the human war against the Locust Horde. This week brought the first story-expanding downloadable content pack for Gears 3, a prequel tale called RAAM’s Shadow that drops players into the early days of the post-Emergence Day conflict.
The five-chapter campaign will take the average player roughly three hours to push through, give or take an hour depending on the difficulty and number of players (four-person co-op returns from the Gears 3 campaign). Fenix is nowhere to be seen, not even in a cameo. The focus of this adventure is on Zeta Squad, a foursome of COG soldiers led by Lt. Minh Young Kim (of Gears 1 fame) and rounded out by Michael Barrick (from the Gears comics), Tai Kaliso (Gears 2) and Alicia Valera, a brand new character. You also get to spend some time tromping around in the shoes of Locust General RAAM and his Onyx Guard protectors.
The story unfolds in two parallel threads, with Zeta Squad working to aid in the evacuation of Ilima City while Queen Myrrha directs RAAM and his forces in their sustained assault. The Seran city slowly crumbles around you as onscreen captions frequently appear to tick off the minutes until an approaching Kryllstorm arrives. Over the course of five chapters, you get to watch as Ilima City falls into ruin, transforming from a beautiful, sun-baked city into the sort of dark and gloomy battlefield that we’ve come to expect from the Gearsverse.
Judging the DLC purely on the merits of its presentation, RAAM’s Shadow is a win. The city itself isn’t just well-designed, it’s also a nice change of pace for the series. The Gears that we know is all dark, rubble-filled battlefields. You’ll see your share of those by the end of this adventure, but much of the campaign is built around forcing you to survive as Ilima City crumbles all around. There’s also a new “orbital view” interface for Hammer of Dawn attacks; they’re all story-specific, so don’t expect to see the change retroactively implemented in the Gears 3 campaign, but they serve to break things up a bit.
The same is true of the sections where you get to play as RAAM and his Onyx Guard. There’s very little challenge in these sequences, but that’s okay. RAAM is, of course, the final boss in the first Gears, so it’s not as if he’s an easy mark. The four playable Locust are all overpowered in their own ways, from RAAM’s COG-exploding Kryll flinger to his follower Maulers’ bullet-reflecting shields. Their sequences are pretty much designed to let you turn armies of COG forces into gooey puddles on the ground.
What’s baffling is, with all of these basic, seemingly awesome parts in place, RAAM’s Shadow never really manages to find its voice. Let’s start with Zeta. Kim may be the squad leader, but Barrick is this mini-campaign’s principal protagonist. He’s just as gruff and no-nonsense as Marcus Fenix is, only he has a slightly smoother voice and an impressive set of muttonchops. Five chapters doesn’t present a whole lot of opportunities for character development, but the story in RAAM feels light even when you bear that in mind. It’s telling that the most well-developed character thread goes to a secondary character who isn’t even in Zeta, Gears 3‘s Jace Stratton.
Then there are the RAAM bits, which comprise maybe 30 percent of the DLC’s overall play time. In terms of their basic combat abilities, this Locust foursome offers up a nice change of gameplay pace from the cover-based shooty mechanics of your typical COG squad. It would have been so much more fun though to play as RAAM’s crew in a more varied set of scenarios.
What you get instead is a series of gauntlet-like advances in which RAAM and his guard push forward, defend a Locust “Thumper” as it performs a very specific (and spoiler-y) task, rinse and repeat. There’s very little divergence from this setup in the RAAM-led sequences, turning what could have been a fun palette-cleanser into a tedious crawl.
There are also some straight up technical issues with the DLC that I ran into. I’m willing to let some initial troubles downloading the 2 GB DLC pack slide, since it was the day of release and servers tend to clog up when too many people are jockeying for bandwidth. What I can’t let slide are some egregious AI pathfinding issues.
My Zeta squadmates frequently stumbled while trying to negotiate some of the more winding pathways the campaign throws at you. At one point, I went through at least one full checkpoint with only one squad member backing me up, since the other two had gotten stuck in an earlier room, a fault that the most recent checkpoint save had committed to memory. Epic tends to be pretty great about getting timely patches out, but it’s still a shame to see that kind of issue in such a relatively small (playtime-wise) DLC offering in the week of release.
Hardcore Gears fans probably bought the Season Pass when Gears 3 dropped, and so there’s no “to buy or not to buy” question; if you have the Season Pass, you’re looking at a free download. Those who care about the Gears story will definitely be interested in playing through this mini-campaign, though bear in mind that the story isn’t nearly as well-developed as it could be. RAAM’s Shadow is by no means a waste of time, but the uneven pacing and minimal story development are big strikes against what is otherwise a fun extension of the Gearsverse.
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Microsoft Studios)