I recently finished Gears of War 3, Cliffy B.'s pathos-laden finale to his wildly popular, testosterone-driven sci-fi shooter series, and all in all I came away from the experience pleased with what I saw. Gears 3 mostly delivers what fans want and expect—lots of melodramatic theatrics from men who look like they never met a steroid they didn't love, plenty of shooting and bromance, and countless opportunities to chop through enemies with a chainsaw attached to a machine gun.
While it's hardly high art, Gears 3 generally manages to craft a satisfying enough experience—except in one regard. For some odd reason Epic Games made the strange decision to saddle Marcus not just with his usual team of cohorts (Dom, Baird, and The Cole Train), but to also add in some new characters as well. The additions of female characters Anya and Sam to the mix works out well enough, but the decision to add Jace Stratton to the team is a disaster.
Jace first turned up in Gears 2, and apparently someone liked the character a lot—because he's all over the place in Gears 3, filling a valuable spot in Marcus' team for a significant portion of the adventure. This is unfortunate, because he's the worst character in all of Gears of War.
To be fair, there's nothing egregiously wrong with Jace—he's just another AI-controlled squadmate on a team of AI-controlled squadmates. However, whenever he actually opens his mouth to speak everything immediately goes downhill. While no one will argue that the characters in the Gears trilogy are deep (at least not with a straight face, anyway), they're well-suited for the world Epic has created. Sure, it's hard to believe that Baird is both good with a gun and a brainiac, but hey—at least he's funny. Marcus, Dom, and Augustus Cole are basically archetypes (or in Cole's case, dangerously close to caricature and stereotype), but it works. Gears is about shooting things in the face from behind cover—not about deep characters.
However, even by those standards, Jace is a failure. In a game of larger than life male personalities, he's surprisingly meek. When he does speak, it's usually to offer some bullshit platitude like "remind me to never get on one of these things again" when Marcus and company fight monsters from a submarine's torpedo turret. Because of this, Jace is annoying. That I had to spend a large portion of Gears 3 listening to this lunkhead (and reviving him—he dies a lot. I eventually stopped reviving him hoping maybe he'd just die and I could soldier on with a three member unit, but no such luck…) kinda ruined what should have been a special series of moments. The last installment of a trilogy's story isn't the place to try shoehorning in a bunch of new supporting characters and sidekicks—particularly when it keeps me from spending time with characters like Baird—you know, the ones I've actually come to know and like over the past couple of games.
While I will always question the wisdom of adding new characters to a story that's supposed to be wrapping up—particularly when those new characters take valuable time away from the ones we've spent the bulk of the narrative journey with—I could live with Jace if he weren't so pointless. Anya's switch to the frontlines works because we know her already. Sam's addition isn't particularly bothersome because she brings a new dynamic to the group. Jace, meanwhile, offers nothing. Even the argument that he's the "token black guy" doesn't work—the game already has an African-American filling that role in Cole. Jace is redundant and unnecessary even in the terms of quasi-political correctness.
Spoilers—for real, skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know about the end of the third Gears game.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why Epic would do this—why after building up Cole and Baird and even Carmine to the point where we think of them as family, they'd force them to the periphery for an entirely new character—and a lame one at that. I suspected, somewhat cynically, that maybe Jace was going to be the key to a Gears follow up or sidestory—that maybe the end of this game would see Marcus dead, having made some kind of noble sacrifice to defeat the Lambent and Locust once and for all. That isn't the case, though—Marcus is alive and well when Gears 3 rolls the credits. He's battle-scarred, weary, and humbled by what this battle has cost him, but he's still alive—and should Epic ever decide to go for it, ready for another tour of duty. I suppose we could see some sort of "sidestory" with Jace (who, apparently, is a bit of a focal point in the comics. I don't read those, because there's nothing more annoyingly dorky than being the guy who points out "but in the novelization/graphic novel/anime this happened…"), but really, after spending just a portion of Gears 3 with him, there's no way I want to play a game where he's the focal point.
End of Spoilers
The thing is, Jace could have worked. The two other "new" characters Epic throws into Gears of War 3 never seem to detract from the overall story—only Jace. The reason is pretty obvious: in a game that isn't exactly renowned for its writing in the first place, Jace is even more poorly written and conceived than his counterparts. It's damn near tragic that gamers are literally forced into spending a large chunk of Gears 3's solo campaign stuck with this guy while more important and memorable characters like Cole, Baird, and Carmine sit on the sidelines. Sure, ultimately Gears 3 is Marcus and Dom's story—and those guys get their big moments and plenty of screen time—but why replace longstanding supporting characters with new ones in what is supposed to be the epic conclusion of a three part story? Ultimately, Jace isn't important enough (or terrible enough) to ruin Gears of War 3—but it's certainly not for a lack of trying.