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Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) artwork

Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) review

"It took me around a week to finish the original Gears of War, while I managed to complete the sequel in less than twenty-four hours. Itís not that I was in any rush to beat Gears of War 2 (I wasnít) or that the sequel is at all shorter than its predecessor (if anything, itís a little longer). The game is so intense, so utterly captivating from title screen to end credits, that I had no choice but to keep playing. Its hold on me was that strong. "

It took me around a week to finish the original Gears of War, while I managed to complete the sequel in less than twenty-four hours. Itís not that I was in any rush to beat Gears of War 2 (I wasnít) or that the sequel is at all shorter than its predecessor (if anything, itís a little longer). The game is so intense, so utterly captivating from title screen to end credits, that I had no choice but to keep playing. Its hold on me was that strong.

Naysayers can write off the brilliant original game for being ďjust another sci-fi shooterĒ all they want, but one needs only to look at such noted non-shooters as Grand Theft Auto IV or Mass Effect to see just how much its patented ďcover systemĒ has influenced the game development industry since. Taking cover is something that players are going to be doing in an intelligent shooter anyway, so itís only logical to incorporate it as a central game mechanic, and simultaneously work said mechanic into the level design itself. Coupled with intelligent AI, Gears is about as strategic a shooter as one is likely to find, with each gunfight playing out as a battle for territory. Given the flexibility of the design and the fact that any particular battle can reach a vast number of potential outcomes, I mean nothing negative when I say that the first Gears felt like the same gunfight over and over again. It was a repetitive game, but it could afford to be repetitive, given how unique each scenario proved to be; its occasional attempts to innovate, either by throwing in half-assed boss battles or an ill-conceived vehicle section, were its only downsides.

But the sequel couldnít have gotten away with simply delivering ďmore of the same,Ē and despite keeping the core control scheme intact, the team at Epic experimented excessively with both the visual themes and design choices exercised in Gears 2. Itís revealed in the gameís second act that the opposing Locust forces are using a gargantuan worm to sink entire cities, and when the team inevitably gets swallowed by the enormous beast, protagonist Marcus decides that this is the one chance they have to actually kill the creature once and for all. It opens for one of the most creative and memorable sequences in the entire game: The innards of the worm are decked with Epicís impressive ďmeat physics,Ē and the journey to the monsterís heart has you dodging digestive teeth, skating past fountains of stomach acid, and wading through pools of blood as the wormís arteries are cut. Itís absolutely disgusting, unlike anything Iíve ever experienced, and totally awesome.

But I donít want get ahead of myself here. Most of the game, in practice, plays just like its predecessor, with the obligatory new weapons, new characters, and a new plot that I donít care about. Each chapter is studded from beginning to end with a hilariously convenient abundance of three-foot barriers, and the relatively rapid rate that enemy gunfire tears Marcus to pieces means players need to make the most of the cover system. For the most part, Gears 2ís strategic gunplay and pop-and-shoot mechanics feel natural enough to become second-hand even if the A button still serves entirely too many functions, occasionally sending the otherwise faultless gameplay for a hiccup. The AI on both sides of the field is competent enough to keep the battles from becoming too one-sided, and the tactical layout of each encounter means that simply being able to aim well isnít good enough.

Epic have realized, as have many other developers, that while killing is fun, excessive gore brings the killing to a far more satisfying level. Added with the big, macho, grunting football scholarship main characters (and their profanity-laden one-liners), Gears 2 in many ways seems calculated from the get-go to satisfy every masculine urge youíve ever had. Of course, thereís that blasted chainsaw bayonet Ė as iconic a presence as ever, the results of its usage are so over-the-top that you donít know whether to chuckle at its ridiculousness or gawk at its awesomeness. But amidst all of this, itís important to remember that the Gears games donít exist merely to cater to a mainstream audience Ė theyíre also smart shooters that rely as much on split-second decisions as they do on raw shooting skills. Thatís the one thing imitators like Dark Sector donít seem to grasp: Itís not enough to implement a workable cover system; youíve got to do something with it. After two years since the first game, itís great to see Epic roll back onto the scene and remind us who still does it the best.

That said, Gears 2ís campaign plays out like a collection new ideas, and not all of them work. The vehicle segments in particular reek of current-gen formulaic trends where every game wants to be Halo Ė but, as Halo demonstrated, the only way to successfully incorporate vehicles into a shooterís design is to make them a constant presence so as to not disrupt the flow of the campaignís pace, which will never happen in Gears, since what makes the series unique in the first place are its on-foot mechanics. There are three vehicle-based chapters in Gears 2, and while they meet with wavering degrees of success, all of them feel out-of-place, like last-minute attempts to spice up a design that is already varied enough. They have their share of memorable moments Ė like when youíve got to drive a requisite Warthog clone over a frozen lake while distant Locust mortar fire punches holes in the ice Ė but for the most part, theyíre unnecessary.

A good compromise comes in a chapter called ďRolling Thunder,Ē in which Marcus finds himself on the platform of a massive mining rig turned armored war machine Ė one of many, all advancing into Locust territory. The ensuing battle is perhaps the most singularly epic and large-scale sequence the series has yet seen, and itís a great way to introduce the vehicle gimmick into the Gears design without compromising the signature cover-based gameplay the series is known for.

Most of Epicís experimentation meets with similar success. The chapter immediately afterwards has Marcus and his team on the ground, guiding said rig through a pitch-black tunnel: Heís armed with a shotgun, and faced against a horde of ďtickers,Ē little biological landmines that move fast and attack in swarms. A later level has Marcus breaking into a scientific research facility by outsmarting the complex defense system; thereís even a wonderful fake-out moment that follows in which Epic pretends to introduce a mindless Flood-like enemy into the mix, only to trash the idea five minutes later (and you just can chainsaw your way through that sequence, anyway). Another instance demonstrates the dangers of extreme weather conditions, as your team moves through outdoor environments in the middle of a ďrazor hailĒ storm, jumping from one shelter to another to avoid the jagged shards of ice raining down from above. Itís a wonderfully intense and consistently surprising experience.

One of Epicís biggest gambles is in the implementation of ďmobile coverĒ in certain cases throughout the campaign. The bulk of the second act is set underground, in which your primary source of cover is found by using designated fruits to lure rock worms from one location to another, and then remaining safe from gunfire behind them. Further on down the road, youíll storm the absolutely dazzling Locust base, which utilizes retractable barriers that sprout from the floor, opening for some of the most intriguingly structured gunfights Iíve witnessed. Certain enemies carry shields that can be picked up and planted in the ground. All of these are wonderful additions that really add to the depth of the already exceptional Gears gunplay.

But as satisfied as I was with Gears 2ís solo run, itís the additions to the multiplayer that really steal the show. Much of Gears 2ís hype has gone into its new Horde mode, which pits up to five players against increasingly larger and more powerful waves of Locust. It sounds like a generic endurance-style match, and at a glance I wasnít impressed.

Having wasted countless hours with the mode, I now see that itís the peak of the Gears experience. Given its strategic nature and emphasis on teamwork, this is a shooter that is best played with other people Ė but itís more fun to work with them than against them. For a long time, co-op mode was the answer, and Gears 2 certainly delivers in that regard, but Horde mode sheds the excess fat of the campaign (like the cutscenes and transitional segments) that gets in the way of a straightforward multiplayer experience. This is as enjoyable as the series has ever been, and probably as fun as it ever will be.

I suppose itís disappointing that, given how well-produced Gears 2 is (the graphics are phenomenal and the score sets the tone perfectly), the story is still pretty lackluster, even with the additional subplot of Domís missing wife meant to make us feel more for these characters. This time, the plot does actually GO somewhere, but the groan-inducing voiceovers make me indifferent to the characters and their conflicts. But whatever. As long as the Gears franchise remains as intelligent and satisfying as this, it can afford to have a stale plot.

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (March 14, 2009)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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