Inside Pulse 12

Review: Gears of War 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Gears of War 2
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: 11/07/08


Though I’ve said this before, I feel it bears repeating: I thought the first Gears of War looked stupid, but found it to be one of the best games (at the time) for the 360. It was, essentially, non-stop visceral action, featured an interesting cover mechanic that was fluid and easy to use, and offered a ton of excellent single and multiplayer mayhem in one plastic disc. At the time, it was easily one of the primary reasons to own the 360, and it remains one of the best games on the console. The announcement of a sequel, though expected, was definitely a “WHOO YEAH!” moment, personally, largely because the first game, though fabulous, could have stood some improvement here and there, and it was expected a sequel would do just that.

But then, a funny thing happened in the intervening two years: LOTS of good games came out, both exclusive and otherwise, for Microsoft’s great white hope. When the original Gears came out, it was a stellar effort in a sea of decent, if not great, titles; two years later, it was now one great game in a field of MANY great games, a not insignificant amount of which were console exclusive. A cleaned-up rehash simply wasn’t going to cut it anymore; for Gears of War 2 to really stand out, it needed to have something new, different, and exciting on top of being a cleaner game that was more enjoyable to play. Worse yet, Gears 2 was set to debut in the same period of time as several other heavily anticipated titles, many of which we’ve already reviewed or will be reviewing soon. In short: Epic had their work cut out for them.

Astonishingly, they rose to the task: Gears of War 2, while more than a little similar to its predecessor, offers enough new, awesome stuff to be worth the asking price and then some.

As one would expect, the story of Gears of War 2 pretty much picks up where the first one left off; humanity, despite having made a valiant assault against the forces of death known as the Locust, have made little headway and are once again on the brink of survival unless a last-ditch plan can turn the tide of battle and save the day. You take on the role of Marcus Fenix, and in co-op, Dominic Santiago, as they travel through the ruined world of Sera trying desperately to find some way to put an end to the Locust menace. Marcus and Dom, essentially, make up Delta Squad, a group of soldiers known as COGs (get it, COGs, Gears, oh ho ho ho) who are basically sent to do everything that involves lots of killing done right, and while other people join up with Delta at various points (including series mainstays Cole and Baird, as well as yet another Carmine), but seeing how Marcus and Dom are the franchise focal points, and seeing as how no one stays with their group for any significant amount of time, it stands to reason that they are, in essence, Delta squad. The storyline of this game focuses more directly on the personalities of the characters, as well as Dom’s pursuit of his missing wife Maria, and the game features a significantly larger amount of exposition that helps to detail the motivation of the characters, as opposed to the prior game, which amounted to “Let’s kill all the Locust, oh and by the way, Marcus’ dad was a hero and stuff”. That said, the story isn’t particularly fascinating, either; while it’s not entirely fair to say that it’s BAD, there are three separate parts to the story: the sympathetic “we want you to care about these characters” moments, the “big sci-fi epic detailing humanity’s last stand” parts, and the “foul-mouthed meatheads killing everything they see” bits, which are all of variable quality. Simply put: anything where the characters are acting like meatheads and behaving like war-loving fools is entertaining, anything discussing sci-fi concepts or war tactics ranges from good to mediocre, and anything that involves trying to generate a sympathetic response from the player (IE “war is hell”) is… well, generally unwelcome and not particularly good. Emotional depth is certainly a good thing, but in Gears of War 2 it often comes off as forced, especially when we see perpetual toilet-mouth Marcus Fenix acting like a big old softie at the sight of a dead friend. It’s not that this couldn’t have been done well so much as that it isn’t done well HERE. Ignoring the heart-string tugging, however, the story is otherwise fine and often entertaining, so all in all, it’s not bad.

Visually, well, Gears of War 2 is equally as fantastic looking as its predecessor, though this time around the game makes something of an attempt to not simply be eighteen different shades of gray, which is to its benefit. Otherwise, of the three flaws noted about the prior game (rain collision detection issues, enemy death clipping, and weird blood effects), they’re all IMPROVED in Gears of War 2, if not fixed entirely; blood effects still look like jelly, a bit, though not as bad as they did in the first game, the rain effect has been improved significantly for this game, and enemies generally don’t clip into the battlefield when they die as often as they did in the first game. There are, of course, the odd clipping issues here and there otherwise, and multiplayer games feature all sorts of visual goofs here and there (my favorite being watching a guy chainsaw the air because he chainsawed an enemy AFTER someone else did the same thing), but frankly, the game looks fabulous otherwise; the character models are still top notch, the environments are still amazing, and the special effects are still fabulous across the board, making Gears of War 2 one of the, if not THE, best looking 360 games out today. Aurally, Gears of War 2 is also identical to its predecessor, in that the music is your typical (if generic) classical score, the voice acting is still top-notch, and the sound effects are still powerful and viscerally satisfying.

The gameplay is what made the first game so great, though, so if you missed it, here’s a refresher: The gameplay in Gears of War 2 is, in a word, tight. If you’ve played a shooter in the past few years, you should have a vague idea of what to do when you get into this: left stick moves and strafes, right stick looks around, congratulations, now shoot everything that moves. Gears of War 2, on the surface, is no different: it feels like a shooter, for the most part, which is to say, it feels exactly as it should. The controls feel tight and responsive, everything works as you expect it to, you can aim precisely as in most of these sorts of titles, it’s all very stereotypical, if quite well done. The main thing to understand about Gears 2 is that the cover system makes all of the difference. When you approach things that you can tuck and cover behind, a prompt pops up on-screen telling you as such. Press the button, and your character (usually Marcus) slams up against it, back-first, and peers into whatever direction you desire. Attacking from this position works in one of two ways: if you choose to aim, you pop out from behind cover and aim at the enemy as normal… or you can simply pull the trigger and blind-fire. Blind-fire is a surprisingly interesting concept I can’t really recall seeing in a game previously, and it works as you’d expect… you stick the gun out and shoot in the general direction you’re aiming. This can also be done with grenades, for reference. It’s a surprisingly simple concept that works well, even if you won’t use it much (except to maybe cover someone moving in or to buy a few seconds to catch your breath). The other part of the cover system that’s flat-out cool is how seamless it is to transition from and to cover. If another object is in range that can be used for cover, you simply press towards it and press the button, and your characters simply moves to it. If the object is further away, doing this act makes them dive out and break into a hunched run for the next piece of cover. In short, it FEELS like real combat in style and presentation, which adds to the impressiveness of the experience.

Well, that was edited from two years ago, so obviously these things have been done since, but you get the idea. Anyway, much like the prior game, the combat is mostly tactical in its designs; though you regenerate health when not taking damage, much like… well, most shooters anymore, really… the game makes it a point to pin you down behind cover while fighting six or so enemies at once, which means not making proper use of cover will result in your anatomy being sliced and diced. This is, as you’d expect, a bad thing, which makes using the Cover mechanic key to survival. Other things in the game make a welcome return, from the active reload system (pressing the right bumper at the right time while reloading will expedite the process and, if done really well, add to the damage your weapon does) to seeing a travel path for weapons like the Tork Bow and grenades to reviving downed allies and so on all make their return here, and are as useful and enjoyable as they ever were, which keeps the experience both familiar and enjoyable.

There are, thankfully, a few differences here and there in the game, most of which are for the better. The most notable difference is that the campaign is structured COMPLETELY differently; the first game was about frequent skirmishes against massive hordes of foes with the odd large-scale battle here and there, while Gears of War 2 balances this out a bit better, featuring cover-based battles, pure assault-based killing sprees, involved boss fights, and some surprisingly interesting set pieces (including fighting INSIDE of a giant monster in the grossest-yet-coolest way imaginable) that make the campaign more interesting than its predecessor without being inaccessible to those who liked the original just fine. There are also some new enemies to confront, like Tickers (who are mobile explosives, basically), that make the game a bit more fresh and interesting. Also, the Hammer of Dawn sections of the game are kept to a minimum this time around (and THANK GOD FOR THAT, because they were annoying after the tenth time in the first game), leaving the game to more readily do what it does best: let you kill things. You can also crawl away from bad skirmishes when you get badly injured, allowing CPU or player characters to run up and revive you, which is nice in that it allows you to more readily survive battles that would have destroyed you in the prior game. The game also features a few other odd novelties here and there, like new executions to perform on enemies and the ability to tag-team an enemy with chainsaws, and while these additions don’t completely innovate the game, they’re small touches that make the game more viscerally enjoyable for those of us with an appreciation for the simple-minded pursuit of bashing a bad guy’s brains out.

The multiplayer has also received a few notable upgrades as well. You can still play in the standard online and offline co-op modes, allowing you to play through the single player game with a friend as you deem fit, and there are still a ton of awesome competitive multiplayer modes to goof around with that mimic other, more notable modes in most games (IE Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, and so on). However, the most notable new multiplayer mode is Horde, which is an up to five player co-op mode that allows you and up to four friends to take on waves of increasingly more powerful Locust monsters for high scores and general amusement. Simply put: playing this with friends is an ABSOLUTE RIOT, as I can personally attest (having played it with Matt Yaeger, J. Rose, and Shawn PC prior to writing up this review), especially since 1.) watching one person wipe out the Horde when the rest of the team bites it is fantastic, and 2.) watching the whole team get ripped to shreds is pretty hilarious when you’re laughing about it with friends. The other notable multiplayer mode (well, sort of) is the Practice mode, which allows you to practice online gameplay modes offline to learn the fundamentals of the modes BEFORE jumping online, which, again, is a significant lifesaver for less than skilled players. You can also build your very own multiplayer maps, for those of you who are skilled at this sort of thing, which not only adds to the replay (more maps means more places to die, after all), but gives the truly creative designers a chance to throw something awesome together to keep players interested after the initial buzz dies down. Combine this with the metric ton of multiplayer modes, the multiple difficulty modes for the campaign mode, and the decent amount of unlockables hidden in the game, and it’s easy to see that Gears of War 2 is a superior sequel in almost all respects.

Almost all being the key phrase, of course. The AI problems from the first game (IE enemies not diving for cover when confronted with frag grenades or not covering up properly) make an unwelcome return, and are further amplified by enemies blatantly charging into battle head-on despite it being obvious that yes, they’re going to die painfully, which makes sense when the enemy has covering fire and is trying to get into a better position, but does NOT make sense when the enemy is alone and trying to kill ANYONE, when firing from cover would make more sense. There are only a couple of new guns to play with, also, and while the Lancer is still an awesome gun to play with (thanks to the chainsaw bayonet on the barrel), it’s pretty much the bread and butter gun of the game thanks to Chainsaw duels, where two players will fight with said chainsaw objects; frankly, if you AREN’T carrying a Lancer, you’re pretty much dead, and FORCING the player to carry around one weapon by default isn’t really a viable solution to the “What can we do to make up for the limited gun variety?” quandary. The driving section also makes its triumphant return, THREE TIMES, on three different vehicle-like things, though of the three, only one is particularly exciting, while the other two are either reminiscent of the first game or are a mediocre Panzer Dragoon mock-up. Oh, yes, and while the original Gears was moderately original thanks to its implementation of the gameplay elements, Gears of War 2, while it adds in a few fantastic story missions, a couple of neat gameplay tweaks, and an awesome new multiplayer mode, doesn’t really do anything significantly different from the prior game. Yes, yes, “if it ain’t broke” et cetera, but MORE variety might have been a little nice.

That said, when you can only fill one paragraph with bad things about the game and not a single one of those things ruins the experience, you’ve got a winner on your hands, and Gears of War 2 is most definitely a winner. It takes all of the fast-paced, action-packed fun of the original game and crams in plenty of neat stuff to go along with it, leaving the end result a strong improvement over the original that’s well worth playing, whether you’re new to the franchise or a fan of the first game. The gameplay pacing is significantly improved, the single and multiplayer modes are improved and fleshed out, and in general, Gears of War 2 feels like a strong improvement over the first game. Granted, the story isn’t everything it could (or wants to) be, and the AI issues of the first game are still around this time, and the game isn’t exceptionally original or unique in its overall design or implementation and doesn’t offer all that much new that’s exciting more than functionally expected. That doesn’t make the game any less fun to play than it is, and frankly, seeing as how we play video games to have fun, Gears of War 2 can absolutely take a bow and say “Mission Accomplished”; whether alone or with friends, it’s fantastically fun, and more than likely deserves whatever end of the year nominations it receives.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: UNPARALLELED
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: UNPARALLELED
Replayability: UNPARALLELED
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: UNPARALLELED
Appeal: CLASSIC
Miscellaneous: UNPARALLELED
Final Score: CLASSIC GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
I’m going to repeat myself, once again, from my review of the first Gears of War: Gears of War 2 is one of the best games to come out this year, not just for the 360, but at all. The game looks great, sounds great, plays better than ever, is just as much fun as its predecessor, and manages to avoid becoming stale thanks to some awesome battle sequences that take advantage of the concept combined with some fantastic multiplayer modes that make the game well worth picking up for both new players and old fans alike. No, it’s not the most original thing ever, and yes, it still has AI issues (that are, of course, mitigated by the sheer number and power of the opposing forces, as well as online versus play), but the game does one thing absolutely wonderfully that so many games fail to do: it allows you to have fun playing WITH your friends, not just AGAINST your friends, and it does so in a way that more than justifies the asking price. Shooter haters, of course, will have no use for the game, but for the majority of gamers, Gears of War 2 is not only going to be a great sequel, but a great game, period.