Anyone who beat the first Gears of War is likely to remember the name RAAM. This lumbering Locust general served as the tough end boss of the game that launched a franchise, and now he’s back as the primary antagonist of the first downloadable campaign for Gears of War 3, RAAM’s Shadow. You alternate between clearing the way for an evacuation as a new squad of Gears and playing as the titular character himself, wreaking havoc on the human soldiers who oppose you. The action is predictably great, with a few chuckles and some novel thrills, but the uneven pacing and disconnected setting make this feel like a step back for the franchise.
Set before the events of Gears of War, RAAM’s Shadow takes place in the city of Ilima. The Locust horde is inking the sky so that its deadly kryll swarms can swoop in and destroy all human life, and the Gears are dispatched to aid in the evacuation. The looming storm swirls ominously, standing in stark contrast to the only partially destroyed cityscape and making a nice backdrop for action. You play as Zeta Squad, a group of four Gears evenly split between familiar faces and newcomers. Minh Young Kim (Gears of War) and Tai Kaliso (Gears of War 2) return with their business-like and quip-happy attitudes, respectively. Joining them is a conscripted Stranded named Michael Barrick, whose gruff and grumbling persona provides some amusement, and Alicia Valera, a soldier whose bland personality adds little to the game. Compared to the rich camaraderie of Delta Squad, Zeta Squad feels flat, and the relatively tame events of RAAM’s Shadow feel inconsequential in the long-running arc of all the previous Gears games. These shortcomings alienate the story from the world you have come to know, which makes RAAM’s Shadow feel disappointingly disconnected.
Of course, the action is the same great combat you’ve come to expect from Gears of War. There’s a good array of weaponry and some tough encounters that hark back to the heyday of big courtyards and emergence holes. These invigorating moments are a lot of fun, but there are some slow sections that keep things from being as exciting as they could be and sap your momentum. A lengthy walk through an abandoned school is intended to be eerie and end with a tense shoot-out, but the atmosphere never takes hold and the encounter at the end is disappointingly easy.
Fortunately, RAAM’s Shadow delivers some solid novelty by letting you play as General RAAM and his burly Locust entourage. RAAM is shrouded in a small kryll swarm that protects him from bullets and obeys his commands, and sending your minions out to shred the Gears that oppose you is gory fun. Getting up close with his nasty knife or wielding the heavy flails of his guards in cooperative play also makes for some satisfyingly squishy moments, but the thrills are short lived. The slowness of the hulking Locust and the relative weakness of your human enemies make these sections feel like unstoppable murder romps rather than actual combat.
Playing cooperatively and upping the difficulty level can make replay somewhat enticing, but it won’t take you more than three hours to see all that RAAM’s Shadow has to offer. It’s good, Gears-y fun with a novel kick, but with the new series standard that was set by Gears of War 3, it’s hard not to be let down by the forgettable new characters and uneven pacing. RAAM’s Shadow feels a bit pricey at 1200 Microsoft points, but those looking for new opportunities to battle in the Locust War will find their fighting fix here.