Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) review
"The gunplay is brutal. But it's also masterfully paced, broken up every so often by a spectacular set-piece or a superb on-rails vehicular section. Combat is as effortlessly brilliant as before, with the landmark cover-system playing a predictably huge role. Particularly on higher difficulty levels, failure to fully utilise the conveniently-positioned walls and boxes that litter Gears 2's battlegrounds results in bloody death, so a more strategic approach is often necessary. Nothing too strategic, mind. You wouldn't want to tax your brain too much, after all."
I'm 5'6" with long hair, so this is pretty escapist for me. I'm also a writer and a musician, and I can't imagine Marcus Fenix's street cred would fair particularly well if he took up these pastimes. This is about as masculine a role as I'll ever be able to play, so snapping into Fenix's world of dispassionate killing and gruff sincerity was always going to be a big step. The manliest person I know is a big stocky beast of a bloke, the sort of person you'd run a mile from in a dark alley, but even he writes poetry in his downtime. This is a league above.
Somewhere beneath the ludicrously scaled armour and grim expressions, however, is a love story. It's Gears of War 2's attempt to tone down the over-compensatory masculinity and inject a spark of actual human sentiment into its workings, but, given the relentless gun-fodder and three-packs-a-day voiceovers that comprise the rest of the game, it's hard not to feel it's a little out of place. It's also clumsily executed, revolving around the search for a woman we've never met and have no emotional investment in, other than to be drawn into bitterness by best pal Dom's incessant moaning about her. It is his wife, to be fair. But I didn't know men this manly actually cared about their women. I thought they just slapped them about and told them to do the washing up.
Ultimately, then, this gets lost beneath the real point of Gears of War 2: killing baddies. Killing lots of baddies.
The gunplay is brutal. But it's also masterfully paced, broken up every so often by a spectacular set-piece or a superb on-rails vehicular section. Combat is as effortlessly brilliant as before, with the landmark cover-system playing a predictably huge role. Particularly on higher difficulty levels, failure to fully utilise the conveniently-positioned walls and boxes that litter Gears 2's battlegrounds results in bloody death, so a more strategic approach is often necessary. Nothing too strategic, mind. You wouldn't want to tax your brain too much, after all.
The mindless violence plays out in a series of crisply-rendered, albiet somewhat grey, environments, ranging from a hospital, to a cave, to a mountainous outdoor region, to a spooky laboratory complex and just about every other hackneyed action game locale you can think of. The variety is nice, but a little more inspiration and creativity would have gone a long way. It's shamelessly next-gen, but playing Gears of War 2 often feels like playing some sort of medley of early-naughties shoot-em-ups, only with the visual detail cranked up and the blistering combat perfected to a frankly ridiculous degree. Did I mention that you spend a lot of time shooting stuff, and that it's brilliant? Just thought I'd make sure.
The main problem I have with the Gears 2 solo campaign is that - clichť time - it's infinitely stylish yet utterly insubstantial. I'm not even particularly bothered that it's over in a measily six hours, but it would be nice if, during that time, there was something to actually engage with, beyond the obsessive-compulsive need to KILL EVERYTHING IN SIGHT in each big room or big courtyard or big cavern. Maybe I'm being overly critical. I wasn't expecting Planescape: Torment, after all, and it was certainly never intending to appeal to those who require an intricate story and rounded characters to explore. Still, if you want to create something of an immersive experience - and, let's face it, which next-gen game doesn't? - you need to allow for some form of identification with the protagonist. The characters of Gears 2 are either completely vacuous, or so unfeasibly burly and grimly dislikeable that it's almost impossible to connect. The best action games grab me and violently throw me into the very world I'm exploring. Throughout Gears of War 2, as much fun as I was having, I remained very firmly on the sofa.
Maybe multiplayer was always the focus. It's certainly highly enjoyable, with a nice range of game modes and total carnage at every turn. It is a bit overly trigger-happy, even compared to the main game, with the usual reliance on cover being somewhat undermined by the fact that human players are generally that bit smarter than their AI counterparts. As a result, it's often easier to simply charge at the opposition with the chainsaw gun, playing a bizarre game of chicken and laughing maniacally while blood sprays across the screen like jam splurting out of a donut. Horde mode is particularly excellent, though. A Left 4 Dead-style four-player survival session, Horde throws reams of enemy forces in your direction, the aim of the game being to simply hold out until the end. It obviously lacks the dynamic of Valve's ingenius multiplayer FPS, but it's still exciting, tense and spectacularly good fun.
That's a good summary of Gears of War 2, actually. There wasn't a single moment when I wasn't enjoying myself, and that definitely has to count for something. But beneath the flashy set-pieces and beautifully balanced combat, there's not a lot to separate it from the pack, and certainly nothing to really affect its audience on anything but a purely visceral level. Depending on your leanings, this may be the deal-breaker. But as a straight-up next-gen blastathon, it doesn't come more polished or perfected than this.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (January 30, 2009)
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