Sunday, 24 August 2014

Gears Of War: Book 1 - Hollow (#1-6)

"How else do you react to in the face of insanity or horror? You laugh or you cry basically." - Jace Stratton

We're back in the world of videogame adaptations today.  However this is a little different from the DOOM comic, which simply told the story of the game.  This book is part of an interesting movement in tie-in comics to fill in gaps between games as well as provide further adventures of popular videogame characters or new characters placed into the same universe.  This comic book collection bridges the gap between Gears of War and Gears of War 2, told from the perspective of a new character Jace Stratton, who would later be added into the game canon as a character in Gears of War 3.

Gears Of War is a third person shooter for the Xbox 360.  A third person shooter means you can see your character on screen as he runs about shooting things. This game helped popularise both the use of cover as a game mechanic and the ability to play co-operatively with another player. I absolutely love the Gears series.  I have finished all three games on the hardest difficulties, played them in co-op with myself (for the Achievements) as I refuse to have anything to do with the cesspool that is Xbox Live.  I keep my cash in a Gears Of War wallet.  I often wear a Gears Of War t-shirt and I have two action figures of the main characters of the first two games, which live on my bed side table.  So a comic book series set in the same universe should be right up my street and to be fair, it's a pretty decent attempt at putting the intimate epicness of the Gears series onto the printed page.  The arist of the main story is Liam Sharpe and the writer  is Joshua Ortega.

Gears and Locust
The story so far as far as this comic is concerned, is that on an Earth like planet called Sera, fourteen years ago from underground there suddenly burst up millions of humanoid mutants called "Locust".  After fighting a huge, genocidal war against them, the human population was forced back into the capital Jacinto, the only city that the Locust can't burrow underneath.  From there the COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) coordinate the continued struggle against the Locust, with the soldiers known as "Gears" constantly being sent out to battle them.  Not all of the humans made it to Jacinto and the Stranded as they are known as, eke out a precarious existence in the ruins of the rest of Sera.
Jace Stratton
The main character you control in all the three games is a man called Marcus Fenix, a badass soldier who was court-martialled after disobeying orders during the first part of the war and placed in prison.  At the start of the first game, your bromantic partner Dominic Santiago comes to get you out as the war is going so badly, all prisoners have been pardoned. You later hook up with ex-Thrashball player Augustus Cole and sarcastic tech-geek Damon Baird to form Delta squad, and their mission in the first game, which comes just before this comic, was to go underground and detonate the "Lightmass Bomb" in the hope it would wipe out the Locust.  But although it killed a substantial number, the Locust are still around in great numbers and the war still goes on. 

The story begins with Jace (who narrates the story) reflecting on the background to the conflict. Turns out during the initial E-Day, he was orphaned. He battles Locust along with Marcus Fenix, who he hero-worships enough to be wearing indentically styled armour as him. Marcus chews him out for dropping his Lancer (an assault rifle with a chainsaw attached), then they clear the area.  They find a gruff figure called Michael Barrick, the sole survivor of his squad and who has a nasty cough.
Locust versus Marcus Fenix
Jace: "It was tough not to feel disappointed. Three weeks out in the field and we'd only found one Gear.  The APC was packed with supplies.  But still we needed people a whole lot more than we needed supplies."

After stopping to investigate another area, they relax by a campfire and tell war stories.  Back in the APC they hear a beacon.  When they travel to its location it turns out to be a trap.  One of the squad is badly wounded.  Marcus and Michael take out the Locust and Jace tries to stop his comrade bleeding.  But suddenly they hear the word "Boom" which means the heavy weapons Boomers are nearby and that they are in a lot of trouble.  

Marcus acts as a moving target so Jace can get the wounded Gonzalez out of there.  Between them Marcus, Dom and Michael deal with the Locust, but it's too late for Gonzalez who dies in Jace's arms.

Jace: "Part of me wished I could still do that.  Cry or scream or something... But I just felt hollow. Numb. Gil was like a brother to me and I still didn't have any tears for him."
Michael Barrick makes the Locust lose their heads
They return to the impregnable city of Jacinto and cremate Gonzalez. The Gears female liason to the Jacinto based command structure, called Anya, meets them for a chat.  She finds Marcus in a bar and a lecherous bar patorn makes a move on her, saying that all the goods ones are being kept "locked up".  ALERT. ALERT.  Reference to the COG Breeding Farms/Rape Camps, one of the stupidest EU concepts ever introduced into a fictional universe ever.  If I can bring myself to review book 2 in this series and make the review more that the sentence "Karen Traviss is a talentless haaaaaaack" repeated over and over, you'll find out what I am finding so disagreeable.  But lets not derail this review anymore.

Anyqway Marcus tells him to get lost, which he does when he realises who Marcus is.  Jace visits the orphanage he was raised in, then when their leave is over, they move out.  Michael is replacing Gonzalez in their four man squad.  Unfortunately as they travel across the barren lands their helicpter is hit by Seeders, Locust anti-aircraft missles.  The pilot is killed and it's up to Jace to land it.
How the other half live...
Jace manages an unorthodox crash landing that they all survive.  They start the long walk to their destination - Montevado. On the way they meet a Stranded called Jonboy who takes them to a town called "Fucked".  The Gears fight off a Locust attack on the town and in gratitude Jonboy agrees to let them have his vehicle.  Jace spots an young teenage girl called Lily and asks if they can take her with them as she'll have a better chance of surviving when they get her back to Jacinto.  Marcus reluctantly agrees and she rolls out with them.  Jace promises her they'll find her parents who had left Fucked looking for help.
Locust ambush them, and after dealing easily with the initial Locust attackes, things take a turn for the horrible when a Brumak appears.  That's a huge mutant with a massive gun strapped to its back and if your facing it with anything less than a cannon of your own, you are basically dead meat.
Lily and Jace
Jace: "When the odds are stacked against you.  When everything seems hopeless.  Sometimes the strategy is to take the problem head on. Rush in with guns blazing and pray for the best.  Other times, that's absolutely the stupidest thing you could possibly do."

Jace survives the blast from the Brumak after he charges it.  Marcus gets him into cover with Dom and Michael.  Realising they don't have a hope, they try and lure it away from the vehicle that Lily is in.  When things look bleak, the cavalry arrives.
A Brumak.  Aka, you are screwed.
Augustus Cole and Damon Baird arrive with a tank like vehicle. Everyone gets inside and they blast the shit out of the Brumak.  Jace then returns to the other vehicle and gets Lily who survived the assault. Marcus sends Lily back with Baird and Cole to Jacinto and they take two bikes and travel to Montevado.  Part of the reason they are going there is to investigate seismic disturbances that have been happening recently.

They split up into two teams of two. Marcus tries to find out more about Michael who turns out to be an ex-Stranded who lost his entire family.  He also keeps hacking up bloody phlegm, suffering a new fatal disease known and "rust lung" that was triggered by the Light Mass bomb explosion.
Jace and Dom find a Stranded who warns them the whole place is a death trap.  Then a mob of Wretches attack.  They are small, animlistic Locust who like to swarm you and are a right pain to fight in the game.  Then suddenly they stop attacking and run away.  The ground shakes and suddenly Montevado collapses into a hole in the ground.

Jace is trapped under a concrete beam, suffering flashbacks to E-Day.  Dom manages to lift the beam off him, and thanks to his armour, Jace is not badly damaged.  They both lost their Lancers in the collapse, but have other guns with them.  Marcus and Michael are also both OK, although Michael is coughing badly now.
Dom has a plan...
Jace and Dom are attacked by giant insects as they blast them en masse Marcus and Michael arrive to help them and they wipe them out.  They stop and ponder the crater the city has noqw become. Marcus says no way was this a natural occurence.  The hole is too neat for that.  This was done deliberately (this turns out to be a major plot point in the second game, set after this, qwhich reveals the holes are being made by a giant, Locust controlled worm burrowing under them).  Suddenly a huge, spider like Locust appears called a Corpser.  Delta squad fall back, but the Corpser retreats to allow a horde of Locust, some on Blood Mounts, to attack.
The crater where the city used to be.
They engage in a furious firefight.  Marcus orders Jace and Dom to higher ground.  As they climb they come across a bunch of Stranded hiding in a hole.  Michael tells Marcus to leave him and get to higher ground himself.  Jace asks the Stranded if they have heard of Lily's parents, while Michael yells at Marcus to go.  He runs into the Locust, punching them to pieces as the rest fill him with bullets, killing him.  But his sacrifice allows Marcus to escape. Jace is shoqwn Lily's mum who is very sick from losing a hand to a wretch bite. Her dad didn't make it.  Suddenly the ledge Jace is on crumbles, sending him tumbling into the pit.

Jace: "Marcus Fenix was a hero, and heroes never die right? Unfortunately there was no rule like that for the rest of us."

Anya gets in contact with them saying and evac and med helicopters are on their way. Down in the crater, Jace is alive, but close to a huge, blind Locust called a Berserker. The helicopter arrives and flies down into the crater.  Marcus hangs off a ladder and Jace manages to jump across to him, the Berserker missing him by inches.
Jump Jace, Jump!
Back in Jacinto, Lily is being looked after by the same orphanage Jace grew up in. Her mother is being treated in hospital and Jace and Lily go and visit her.

Jace: "You realise that feeling is the key to everything.  Being hollow is the danger... It's tough sometimes.  Hell, it's tough most of the time.  But feeling is what makes us human."

And that brings the main storyline to an end.  The book has a short coda, which tells of how much Dom loved his wife and how they came to be seperated in a Locust attack and how he has never stopped looking for her.  In the second game this leads to a tragic scene where he finally finds her, an emaciated figure, tortured so much she's become a vegetable and all he can do is end her suffering.  Very sad stuff.
A happy ending....?
If the story seems a little on the basic side narrative-wise it is perhaps because it does pay such strong tribute to the game itself. And for me that's a point in its favour actually. The only time this comic strikes a false note is when it mentions stuff like the "Breeding Farms" which are things that in no way could be extrapolated from the game itself.  There is a great debate in academia about how to approach games critically and anylytically, with the two extreme views being the Ludologists - who prioritise how the game functions as a mechanism of play.  Versus the Narratologists who focus more on the story-telling capacity of a game and the possibilities for telling stories in a new way that they involve.  Gears Of War is one of those few games that manages a perfect balance between the two approaches, working in synergy to create one of the most blissfully superb videogames ever created.  So removing the "play" aspect of the game is going to unbalance things. Hence the comic, although perfectly decent as an Expanded Universe work, can't ever match up to Gears Of War - the Videogame Experience.  But as the fact it's nicely drawn and decently captures the feel of the game is at least a nice bonus for fans of the series. Shame they cocked up the next book though, but that's (possibly) a story for another day...


  1. The humans colonised the Locusts' planet, and they have Rape Farms? Yeah, I kinda want the Locusts to win.

    Also, after what Lily's lived through there's no way she's going to be in reality the embodiment of innocence and optimism that the dude wants her to be. In reality she'll be a skinny little hard-as-nails cynical centenarian in the body of a kid. War does that to kids.

    I wouldn't trust the Gears. Never trust a bloke whose biceps are bigger than his head.

  2. The humans and Locust actually share a planet, but the game storyline is frustrating unclear how much blame the humans share for forcing the Locust above ground. I should stress though, the Rape Farms were written about in one book and comic, are very controversial with fandom and were actually deliberately written out of the game canon with the third game. I take the games as my prime canon and anything I like from the EU is a bonus. Sortof like TV Doctor Who versus the books and Big Finish CD's.

    I trust Marcus and his bro's everytime though. Those guys go through hell. I think they've earned my trust.

  3. I don't trust them, but I trust your judgement, so I'll trust them if you trust them.