Spin-offs are dangerous territory. With predominantly low success rates across the board, the highlighted trials and tribulations of supporting casts-turned-protagonists have never seemed to be enough in the entertainment world. And it makes sense. They’re called “support” characters for a reason. Their job is to help carry the emotional conflicts of the heroes and story, to add a second layer of complexity (i.e. humor or intensity or ennui) to the bones that have been already placed. They’re the B-sides, beautiful tracks for a rainy day, but never truly intended for mainstream radio, which is exactly what seems to have happened with Gears of War: Judgment.
While the game itself may be a cash cow, the shift in focus to Baird and Cole is interesting, because it highlights what made the Gears franchise successful in the first place. The saying goes, “Behind every good man, is a great woman.” In this series, behind every great beefcake protagonist was an ensemble cast reflecting aspects of his emotional schism he couldn’t illustrate himself. Marcus was the linchpin of the series. It was his story and his pain, and while Dom crisscrossed in and out of the main arc, his job was to look after Marcus. His role was defined as supportive, even as a protagonist. Dom was the man who’d lost considerably, but expressed and acknowledged it. He was the hope springs eternal to Marcus’ just keep moving attitude. In the same vein, Baird provided the model for Fenix’s (and the others’) unsung anger. His sarcastic lashing out was both catharsis and self-preservation, while Cole’s job was to exemplify innate goodness. Cole gave us humility and thankfulness, and he rounded out a picture of the unwavering human spirit that tied into the game’s main theme of redemption. And while the dialogue was often clunky and the story was sometimes trite, most players could relate to the message of overcoming unspeakable obstacles, of surviving, in an engaging way.
With Marcus out of the picture though, and the light being shown on the background singers, I just have to wonder how well the story will hold up. Self-sustaining stilts were never really placed with Baird and Cole in the trilogy. Some work was done in the novels written by Karen Traviss, but those were supplements and not digested by the fanbase as a whole. All we know about them, really, is that Baird cracks jokes, because he’s scared of losing people and that despite the fact that Cole used to have everything, he’s still puts on an optimistic face. But in reality, that’s not too much, and if that’s all the polish and trim they were given when the games were front and center golden gods at Epic…
To be fair, the development team had a fairly clean slate, which left the field wide open for new and wondrous things. The flipside, of course, is that because they had so much space to fill, they over-extended the narrative, or worse, reached into their bag of used tricks, but who knows? Maybe the crew at Epic have always had a prequel in their pockets; maybe they planned for this, and I’m ruffling feathers for nothing.
An intriguing tidbit that’s surfaced about Judgment, though, is that it’ll use testimonial flashbacks to drive the campaign mode. Perspective stories are always a plus, because they allow for plot contradiction (see: tension) and major character development, something both of our Gears desperately need. It also adds a layer of self-awareness, telling a story within a story, and while it’s a bold move, it’s not entirely a new one. Gears of War 3 utilized this narrative device with the Leviathan scene (oh, giant fish, how you sway my heart so), which doesn’t seem to bode well for freshness, and even the main premise of Judgment seems a bit rehashed. Baird, Cole, and the other two newbies in Kilo squad are on trial for treason. Stop me if I’m wrong, but… wasn’t Marcus a war criminal? That was a big deal, right?
In the end, Gears of War: Judgment is going to be a good game. Probably. I hope. Given the bones laid before it, unless the developers took a bunch of acid and wrote the dialogue in the form of an epic poem, they’d be hard pressed to run it totally into the ground. Baird and Cole have enough dynamism to keep old faithfuls of the franchise coming back, but the concern is they may seem too one-dimensional for new fans. The wise-cracking bastard with authority issues and his angelic, “just be positive” pal—here’s hoping they get the fleshing out they deserve as characters and can make Judgment a positive edition to the canon.