Gears of War 2 Review

Do violent video games make kids exhibit aggressive behavior? If it means I get to play games with this level of quality, I’m more than willing to jeopardize society’s future. The chainsaw bayonet is back, bringing with it everyone’s favorite steroid fueled, not-quite-space-marines, the Cogs.

Sequels can be tough. On one hand, developers can’t deviate too far from the game play that made the original game successful. On the other, if not enough is added or changed consumers are quick to dismiss the game as a cash-in, sometimes giving it a tired and no longer witty “1.5” label. (If you’re still using this expression then find a fire and jump in.) Gears of War 2 is the example of what a sequel should aspire to be. The big boys at Epic have analyzed 2006’s hit, removed the junk, and expanded upon what made the original a success. While it’s not flawless, the package as a whole is pretty damn great.

The “story” picks up where it left off. The light mass thingy went off, people are sick and dying, the locust are fighting, they’re ugly so you know they’re bad, and word is they eat shit and die pretty good. Scratch that: they die in a multitude of gloriously bloody ways. And that’s really all that matters. The action set pieces have been exponentially increased in size and scale, creating epic moments where the player feels empowered. The bosses from the first game? Yeah, they’re nothing but cannon fodder. Those that played the PC version had the pleasure of fighting the series’ first Brumak. Well, they’re just another common enemy now, introduced and killed multiple times in Act One.

There are a number of new enemy types, each unique in their own way. Small kamikaze exploding Locust, giant machete wielders, Locusts that rush in carrying flame throwers and some that carry chain-guns – the enemy types keep things dynamic and interesting. Reavers – the flying tentacle beasts that exploded in mid air – now land and are more mobile than ever. The constant barrage and introduction of new opponent types keep things fresh and interesting.

A common complaint with the first Gears was lack of variety in the scenery. Wisely, things are constantly moving in this sequel. Snowy mountains, green forests, dark underground caves help things feel new and interesting. There’s also a chapter that takes place entirely in…well, spoilers might not be appropriate just yet. Not only are the locals constantly changing, but the scenery is very dynamic. Not dynamic in the sense that they’re interactive (although chunks of concrete and rock can be chipped away with gunfire), but that something is usually moving. Enemies will be battling in the distance, buildings will fall and crumble – the scope of the battle has increased, and Marcus and Dom are just a small part of it.

The campaign isn’t flawless. Vehicle segments return and provide some of the most frustrating segments. Driving a giant unresponsive ATV across a frozen lake, while the ice cracks and gives way cause some controller throwing fits. Towards the latter part of the campaign the Cogs take control and fly Reavers, which leads to a very Panzer Dragoon-esque sequence. These are scripted moments which will test the ability to memorize patterns, as well as patience. Also, the campaign lacks any real memorable boss battle. The final boss is a joke and incredibly unsatisfying – which is a shame, because the sequence leading up to it is quite entertaining.

The advertisements and publicity claiming that the story is deep and moving are utter bull. Yes, there are more cut scenes and there is more dialogue, but at times the character’s reasoning for being in a certain local is not entirely clear. The main plot is to kill the Locust and save the city of Jacinto, but the side story – the one involving Dom and his girl Maria – receives more attention. Fine, so what, this isn’t Shakespeare – or even Dr. Seuss – just point the gun at something bad and kill. That works. What doesn’t, and is incredibly infuriating, is how certain plot “twists” and “reveals” are handled. A certain character makes a return, and gives a crucial bit of information. Marcus will turn to his pal Dom and ask “What was he doing here?” Dom’s answer: “It doesn’t matter anymore.” At another point, when a new enemy is introduced, this scene repeats itself. Dom asks:”What is it?” Marcus’ answer: “As long as it can eat shit and die I don’t care”. Neither of these topics were ever explained or hinted at again. Clearly at some point this game had a story and things were explained. Too bad they were left on the editing floor. It’s almost insulting that those penning and editing the plot feel that players are satisfied with paper thin dialogue and unanswered questions.

When the decently lengthy campaign is finished, Horde and a variety of multiplayer modes are left to choose from. The much advertised Horde mode, where up to 5 players can tackle wave after wave of locusts, requires communication and planning. Enemy numbers and types will gradually increase in difficulty, and will gain different stat bonuses (increased damage, accuracy, health) after each 10 waves. This mode is essentially the campaign without the semblance of story. No nonsense action. That being said, once finished I question how many people will want to run the roughly 3 hour gauntlet again.
Gears’ multiplayer had surprising longevity, and a handful of new modes help flesh out the options. Wingman, where five teams of two, battle it out on one of the included 10 maps (15 if bought new, in what is undoubtedly the most community splintering marketing move ever). A variant of capture the flag has been included, only the flag is an AI character that can fight back. In order to move the flag he must first be downed and then used as a human shield, and then painstakingly slowly moved across the map. Returning favorites like Execution and Warzone, and the later added Annex help keep things interesting. Thankfully a party system has been added, so playing with friends is no longer the headache it once was. And for those without friends, AI bots can now be used for single player multiplayer matches.

Those that played the first Gears online know what a buggy mess it was. Sadly, some glitches are already starting to pop up. Collision detection, wall jumping, and players being able to hover in mid-air are all problems that will hopefully be fixed with upcoming patches. Sadly host advantage is very much a reality. Power weapons such as the boom shot and shotgun still suffer from bullet lag, making the host shotgun a very unbalanced weapon. Chainsaw duels, while very cinematic in single player, become a battle of “may the best connection win”. At least the lancer, pistol and hammer burst aren’t victim of bullet lag (they instead do “damage lag”, where the damage dealt to the player is registered a half second later).

Gears of War 2 is quite a package and one of the best titles released this year, or on the Xbox 360 in general. The campaign’s delivery is incredible, and despite its flaws the multiplayer offers a wide selection of options and relatively stable game play. Fans of the first already own it, and those that are even remotely interested owe it to themselves to try it out.

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