More ways to kill, more things to kill.
The original Gears of War was a blockbuster hit for Microsoft and Epic in more ways than one. It served as tech demo, showcasing some of the best graphics that the Xbox 360 and the Unreal Engine could muster. It was a fresh take on the first- and third-person shooter genres, with a heavy focus on a cover system and a stop-and-pop gameplay style. It also sold a shitload of copies and became just as synonymous with the Xbox as Halo. For the sequel, Epic returned to the well and delivered a game that is better than the first, but still a step away from flawlessness. It's an evolution in play, but not quite a re-volution.
[image1]Gears of War 2 picks up approximately six months after the events of its predecessor. Delta Squad successfully defeated General RAAM and set off the Lightmass bomb in the Locust tunnels. Unfortunately for you, the bomb didn't vaporize the Locust. No, it just pissed them off more. Now they're back with a vengeance and a sweet super-weapon. Instead of attacking humans on Sera directly, the Locust are simply sinking entire cities. As city after city gets sucked under, the humans retreat to Jacinto, the only metropolis left standing due to its impenetrable bedrock layer. Realizing that this could be their last stand, the military decides to take the fight to the Locust, sending Marcus, Dom, and the rest of Delta Force into the Locust hive itself as a last ditch effort to wipe them all out. Who cares about the odds, eh?
Veterans of the original will feel right at home with Gears of War 2. All of the core gameplay elements have been retained, though there have been a number of minor tweaks. Playing through the game on the hardcore difficulty level, it quickly became obvious that Epic was listening to the complaints voiced about Gears of War.
Number one on the list is the improved A.I.. In the original, your squadmates were dumb. No, strike that. They were really dumb. There was little incentive for players to bother resurrecting downed teammates, who served as little more than cannon fodder. Half the time you'd go help one up, only to see him get immediately shot and start begging for help again. Meanwhile, the remaining Locust all concentrate their fire right on yours truly.
This time around, the difference is like night and day. Playing through the campaign, I not only found my squadmates useful, but I made a conscious effort to keep them alive. Whether I was paired with just one other character or a full squad, it always felt as if they were holding their own. Watching them move on the field of battle, I saw my squadmates flank, selectively move for cover and retreat when necessary. Were they god-like fighters? No way. They certainly died more than once, but then again, so did I.
[image2]A.I. improvements aren't limited to just friendlies. The Locust have also gotten smarter and more effective at fighting. Oddly enough, smarter enemies results in a game that's a lot less frustrating. Why? Because they don't have to cheat to win. In a lot of games, developers confuse challenge with difficulty. Instead of creating an opponent that you need to outsmart to best, they simply buff the enemy and throw him straight at you. Here, the attacking Locust can be seen working methodically forward. Not once in my 16-17 hour campaign playthrough did I ever feel as though a death was "cheap", something I can't say about the original Gears of War.
Visually, Gears of War 2 has also gotten a makeover. The world looks grittier and grimier and the environments have opened up a lot more. Whereas the first tended to focus on in-your-face battles, Gears of War 2 doesn't shy away from outdoor combat or expansive set pieces. There is even one entire level that occurs completely inside a massive enemy, resulting in an environment that is quite literally alive. Smaller tweaks are visible in the natural water movement as well as the new "meat physics" that have been worked into the game. Just grab an enemy and use his sorry ass as a makeshift shield to see it in action.
My personal pet peeve about Gears of War was the hyperactive cover affinity. I can't count how many times I would be hauling ass down a hallway only to get too close to a corner and suddenly find myself stuck up against a wall with someone gleefully filling me with lead. It sucked. I'm happy to say that the cover affinity has been brought down to a much more reasonable level in Gears of War 2. I still hit the occasional moment of unintended cover, but those bits were few and far between.
Technical improvements are all well and good, but when you're playing you don't really want to geek out on graphics or controls. You want to blow shit up. Rest assured, Gears of War 2 delivers. Your arsenal of weapons has been both improved and expanded this time around.
[image3]One of the most satisfying new weapons is the flamethrower. Its range is limited, but it does an excellent job of burning enemies to a crisp in no time. Grenades can now double as proximity mines and a new grenade type has been introduced that sets off a poison gas cloud rather than an explosion.
Chainsaw fans are going to love the new Lancer update. Revving up the weapon is quicker and you can now tear into hapless souls from multiple angles. It's bloody, gory, and horribly satisfying. In multiplayer, two players can also get into a chainsaw battle. When the blades connect, it becomes a mad button mashing challenge. Whoever taps fastest wins. The loser is toast.
Even with the improved weapons, combat in Gears of War 2 is still cover-heavy, though it's no longer restricted to fixed points on the map. Mobile cover options pop up throughout the game, giving you plenty of ways to overcome an obstacle. Some cover options are naturally occurring, such as the rock worms you find in the caverns, while others can be stolen from the Locust like the massive shield you can steal from the Maulers. The shield is impenetrable and can either be carried or planted. Carrying the shield makes you nigh invulnerable (well, from one side at least), but it slows your progress to a crawl.
Unfortunately, there are a few missteps in the campaign mode. The most annoying is the way the difficulty ramps up, or more appropriately, down. For the first three acts, Gears of War 2 slowly gets more and more difficult. It's a solid progression that works well. Then, things inexplicably peak with the boss battle at the end of act three. It is easily the most difficult boss in the game. After that, the difficulty levels off for act four before taking a nosedive in the final act. It's so bad that a five-year-old could beat the final boss blindfolded. After plowing through a challenging game I went into the final fight expecting to get beat down. Before it even started, the boss was dead and achievement notes were popping up like candy. Anti-climatic doesn’t begin to describe the feeling.
[image4]The story behind the campaign mode suffers from a similar issue. Gears of War fans were vocal about the light story in the first game. As a result, Gears of War 2 features a deeper storyline, with plenty of surprises, answers to lingering questions, and new revelations. While some of it is very well-executed, the problem is that very little is resolved. Gears of War 2 spends the first four acts building up the story, teasing you with tantalizing secrets behind the history of the Locust and their relation to the Queen. However, the final act doesn't go about revealing the answers to those questions. Instead, much of the story is simply left hanging. Wrapping up the game, I felt just like I did back in the day walking out of Back to the Future II.
Thankfully, there is a lot more to Gears of War 2 than the single-player campaign. The meat of the game is in multiplayer and it shows. Whereas the campaign was merely an improved version of the first, multiplayer has been given quite a dose of innovation, not the least of which is the new Horde mode.
When I first heard Horde mode described, I thought it sounded kind of lame. Basically. five people team up and face off against wave after wave of attacking Locust. Every 10 waves the Locust get a buff, making them more difficult to fight off. It's an incredibly simple concept, but it taps into the basic arcade-style competitiveness that's been lost in many games of late. And it does so brilliantly.
Because of the way Horde mode ramps up in difficulty, the first few waves are relatively easy. Soon though, you and your erstwhile teammates are forced to stop screwing around and work together. "Shoot the bad guys" isn't exactly a viable plan here. No, in order to survive, we had to communicate on a number of levels. Locust could attack from any direction, so we needed to scout. Dropped weapons would disappear between waves, so if anyone wanted an extra item, say a Mauler's shield, it needed to be in hand before the next wave spawned. And everyone needed to stay within range of a teammate, so that they could be revived if shot. The best way to screw up a Horde match for your friends is to get yourself killed.
Much like Portal, Horde mode could easily stand alone as its own title. It really is that good.
[image5]In case you prefer more traditional fare, Gears of War 2 also offers a full complement of competitive multiplayer modes. Annex, Execution, and Warzone make a return, along with Guardian, which is a modified form of the original's Assassination. In Guardian, everyone has infinite respawns except the team leader. When a team leader dies, everyone loses the ability to respawn.
King of the Hill, which was previously available as a PC exclusive, is here along with two all new modes, Wingman and Submission. Wingman is standard deathmatch but with teams of two, and Submission is a novel take on capture-the-flag. The "twist" in Submission is that the "flag" isn't a flag. It's a human NPC who's loaded with attitude and packing heat. In order to score, you not only need to grab the flag, but you also need to subdue him as he's got no problem taking potshots at either side. More than a few matches I played ended with the flag having more kills than some of the human players.
The only real catch to multiplayer is the way that Microsoft has chosen to distribute the maps. In what I can only surmise is an attempt to prevent the evil forces of GameStop from reselling used copies for profit, only 10 of the 15 multiplayer maps are actually on the disc. The five maps making up the Flashback Map Pack are provided as a Xbox Live download token in the box. According to a Microsoft rep I spoke with, the Flashback Map Pack will NEVER be available for sale separately so the only way to get it is to buy the game new. Once a token is redeemed, it is forever married to the owner's Gamertag so anyone buying Gears of War 2 used is going to miss out on a third of the multiplayer goodness. Suckage.
Ultimately, Gears of War 2 doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does bring a good bit of polish to the concepts that made the first such a success. If you're not a hardcore fan and don't ever plan on going on Live for multiplayer, then consider it a rental. The campaign is short enough to get through in a weekend and there isn't a whole lot of replay in the story mode. If multiplayer is your bag, however, Gears of War 2 is where it's at. Expect to see this one dominating your Live friends list over the next few months.