Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Impressions - Gears of War: Aspho Fields

I'm not just a fan of the Gears of War game series, I'm a fan of the fiction behind it. I like the gritty look and sounds and feel of it. It's not pew, it's grind, and a loud, blood-splattery one at that. I knew eventually they'd expand on it in novel form, but my interest really shot through the roof when I read an interview about the then-just-announced author, Karen Traviss. What stood out was an obvious passion for the game universe and thoughts on how hard it must be to field-strip a lancer (cleaning out the chainsaw bayonet must be a bitch).

I got exactly what I wanted and more. What I wanted was gritty realism, frantic brutality and detailing of the world. What was more was the fact that it almost reads like a World War 2 or Vietnam war book. At no point are you allowed to forget that war is hard and if you want to survive it you have to be harder, which is nearly humanly impossible, so either you shed your humanity or suffer the ever escalating and numbing pain of losing everyone and everything you care about.

The book shifts between two time periods. One is set between the first and second game and has to do with the aftermath of the Lightmass Bomb detonation, a supposed lull in Locust activity and the prospect of rebuilding humanity from almost nothing. The other story has to do with Marcus, Dom and Carlos (Dom's older brother) meeting in school, growing up together and becoming Gears. Together they take part in arguably the most important and historic mission of the Pendulum Wars; Operation Leveler at Aspho Point.

The book switches between stories from chapter to chapter, and by learning of one you add depth to the other, and therefore the game. A new character, Bernie Mataki, who's a great addition and really should be in the next game. She was just as hard (maybe harder) as the rest, but she really epitomized the pain and suffering one must endure in war by adding a sort of female reaction. There were some points where she says "sweetheart" when she drops her emotional armour a little, and she almost comes off as a motherly figure when dealing with Carlos and Delta Squad. I loved her sweetheart moments.

I wrote to Karen Traviss about this and my assumption that Bernie was a reflection on her. She corrected me, saying she gets that a lot from male readers because there are not a lot of women writing warfare fiction, but Bernie is not Karen. I'm not sure if that makes me 100% wrong, but in any case I really appreciate the character and what she adds to the story.

There's also the issue of the Stranded. The games are pretty vague about it but the book brings that situation into stark focus. There are some good lessons to be learned from them.

I cried. I won't tell you at what points, but I will tell you I'm not a crier. I have cried before but it's pretty rare. This book may be fiction, but there's a LOT people can learn about what it takes to be a soldier from this book. I actually feel a little shame that I don't have the personal fortitude to serve, which Karen says is unreasonable of me since I'm on the path to becoming a police officer and that's not something many can do.

If I had one negative opinion the book (and I'm struggling to think of one), it is probably the fact that the wide range of weapons in the games was not really utilized. It was mostly about Lancers (and even there we had no chainsaw duels) and sniper rifles. While we did see a rocket launcher and some new vehicles, I wanted a little more. I think the reason was that there was very little combat with the Locust, and even then it was 99% drones, they wouldn't come across the other weapons.

All in all, it's a great book for all the right reasons and more. It's not a video game book, and you need only look at a synopsis of the first game's story for a few minutes to know everything you need to know. I could recommend this book to anyone, and I'm recommending it to you. I originally thought that the book would cover Marcus' Court-Martial and why he was left in the Slab, but after some thought it will probably be in the third game.

A novel is a great holiday gift.


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