I appreciate that talking about the characterization in mainstream shooter games is like talking about what color flak jacket one should wear while storming a Mafia wedding, but at the same time, I hate to support the argument that a game about action and gameplay focus doesn't also need strong writing. It's true that good gameplay can save a badly-written game, but every now and again you get a game like Portal or Driver: San Francisco that builds upon an innovative mechanical core with good writing, hitting the ball totally out of the park and reminding me what I'm in this business for. With those examples it's disappointing to see games being overly praised for being "good enough".
So, a while back here in Egg & Cress Sandwich-uation I wrote a column explaining the differences between "manly" characters and "macho" characters, reaching the eventual conclusion that the former is a classically heroic but flawed, relatable figure who can get the job done but is also capable of emotion and considering his decisions carefully, while a "macho" character is a scowling slab of processed beef capable only of kill-crazy rage and generic broody angst with no apparent cause. I'd like to return to this subject by closely examining two case studies from very recent gaming history. Namely Resistance 3's Joseph Capelli, and Gears of War 3's Marcus Fenix. There're going to be spoilers here regarding the plots of both games and major characters getting splattered, so consider yourself warned if these titles are still on your to-do list.
Both characters have problems in the way they're written, but Capelli's is a little more mechanical in that for some reason he only really has a character during cutscenes, and during gameplay he keeps silent. I'm tempted to say that that's the case because Half-Life 2's protagonist was silent within gameplay and Resistance 3 was trying to win a bet by seeing how much they could rip off before anyone noticed. But there's really no reason Capelli's characterization couldn't have been filled in with some in-game conversations. In fact, for this reason the story of Resistance 3 seems to be missing a few important chunks.
The cutscenes early on in the game show Capelli starting out on what appears to be a classic Hero's Journey. He's in a comfortable place with his family when the Call To Adventure arrives in the form of that beardy scientist Malikov with news that the planet's going to explode if he doesn't sort out the situation in New York, and he needs Capelli to escort him there. Joseph responds with a textbook Refusal Of The Call before his home situation worsens - and more to the point, his wife nags him - and he leaves with Malikov, nakedly resenting him as he does. But what's missing from the ensuing mid-section of the story is any kind of development in the relationship between Capelli and Malikov. Which is odd, because as the final act begins (here comes that spoiler) Malikov dies a meaningless death at the hands of ignorant humans. Capelli totally goes spare, and is even seen visiting the scientist's grave in the closing credits, despite the fact that he and Malikov hadn't had any scenes together since the aforementioned naked resentment. They'd only interacted in gameplay, when Capelli was silent and Malikov was usually locking himself in a cupboard, ordering Joseph to go risk his life clearing the way ahead. I didn't see any reason Capelli couldn't have had some answering dialogues within gameplay to show him warming up to the old goat.