Additional content based on the story of the main game in some way (by means of continuation or spin-off) can often be an awkward affair. The problem is that the narrative additions were not originally planned as part of the whole, therefore they can feel superfluous and half-hearted. Indeed, in some cases the extra content does more to undermine the original game than enhance it.
RAAM’s Shadow takes a different approach, telling a story that takes place long before the start of Gears of War 3 – removing any risk of it undermining (or, for that matter, enhancing) the game’s primary story line.
The prequel approach is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Yes, to an extent the writers are free to tell a new mini-story. However, this new story doesn’t feature series protagonist Marcus Fenix.
Lacking Fenix and coming in at about the 3-hour mark, RAAM’s Shadow feels shallow compared to what we’re used to from a Gear’s plot. Whereas the series has relied on the underlining Marcus-looking-for-his-dad element to pull you through the drudgery of constant bickering between Man and Locust, this has no comparable major themes above and beyond those at face value.
The face value themes in this instance are centred around Zelta squad trying to stop Locust General RAAM setting up a stronghold in a friendly city. It’s not exactly original stuff and not one of Zelta squad has anything approaching one percent of Fenix, Cole, Baird, Anya or Dom’s charisma. Sure, the Z-team are likeable enough, but they’re not superstars and the short run time means we never really get to know them properly.
Both Tai and Minh (characters from Gears of War’s past) are included in the squad. However, like with their previous appearances, they’re the most characters here.
As far as the plot is concerned it’s the origin story of Gears of War 3’s ‘Jace’ that’s most intriguing. It’s hardly Shakespeare but the fleshing out of any character’s back-story is welcome and Jace’s is enough to satisfy one’s curiosity.
So, it’s largely down to gameplay alone to make an impact. DLC is the perfect place to test new ideas, so Epic should be applauded for taking the bull by the horns and doing exactly that. The major new addition here comes in the form of sequences in which you play as RAAM himself. Sadly, the moments don’t work and are among the worst of any Gears game.
RAAM is near invincible, refuses to use cover, uses a swarm of Kryll (small flesh eating bats) as a weapon and cannot use ‘traditional’ weapons. Almost everything about him goes against what we know as Gears gameplay. The tried and tested gameplay loop of ‘run to cover > shoot > reload > change position > find new weapon > chainsaw to death > repeat’ is gone.
What it’s replaced with is repetitive, incredibly easy because of RAAM’s enormous quota of health, and undermines the superhuman reputation of the COG army. COG are supposed to be tough and fearless, but as RAAM you kill them so easily they may as well be fish in a barrel.
Of course, playing as RAAM and understanding his power fills the inevitable final confrontation against him with a suitable epic sensibility. Without wanting to give away too much… the showdown doesn’t live up the billing.
When you’re playing as Zelta squad and are back in the saddle of classic Gears game mechanics things are much better. Like Gears 3, you can play in up to four player co-op with any unused character slots filled by the commendable AI.
In particular a chapter set in a construction site stands out, involving battles that take place over various levels of unfinished buildings. The vertical, multi-tiered fights are something new to the series and work rather well. Let’s hope that this is an idea we see in future Gears titles, in whatever they form that may be.
For the price, RAAM’s Shadow is a decent effort that those with an inexhaustible hunger for the franchise will lap up and enjoy as I did. Playing as RAAM is more interesting than it is fun, primarily highlighting what wouldn’t work for future games than what would.
Like almost all DLC it falls well short of mimicking the impact of the original game, but that’s to be expected from a three hour/1200 MS Point experience.