Gears of War 2
The original Gears of War profiled itself as an epic action game that unraveled itself much like the well known blockbuster movies that end up in theatres every summer. Plenty of action, big explosions and enough comic relief are injected into the experience to cover up the lack of true story. And the end the ride follows a whopping finale that leaves everyone behind with a tingling sensation of joy. As it goes with successful Hollywood products, a sequel follows within the next few years. Gears of War 2 was born.
With a sequel to a big action vehicle you can go two ways in my opinion. You either turn it all around like X-Men 2 and try to replace some of the action by a storyline and character depth or you just go bigger, harder and faster like Bad Boys 2. While the first option holds the risk that you lose a part of your target audience if it’s not done right, the latter one puts you at risk of delivering a moldy retelling of the original story in a slightly different setting. With Gears 2 Epic Games tried to have a bit of both worlds. They tried to be Terminator 2, the mother of all action sequels.
The well known dodge-and-shoot gameplay that defined the original was spiced up with more and bigger weapons, locations and enemies. Where the first Gears was one big jigsaw puzzle of locations to clear out, this time the battles are set in large scale environments that are connected by smaller sections, cut-scenes or seamlessly integrated boss fights. Although everything is “bigger”, the work it involves to get past them is “smaller”. In fact it was sometimes quite striking how simplistic and straight forward some of the shootouts were. Luckily the excellent pace from the first game was kept so that it never got boring. In fact, the more you do it, the more you crave for it and the many confrontations with the Locust keep reinventing themselves by adding defining factors other than the obvious shooting.
Whether these additional factors are falling buildings, 360 degrees of attacking Locust or attracting a worm so you can use it as cover, the many shootouts still define the core of this game and they are brutal fun with the emphasis on brutal. Cutting a Locust in two with your chainsaw equipped machinegun never gets old. I can literally do that for hours and hours. It’s a pity that the large environments often don’t add more to the fight than some safe sniping spots and a huge “wow” factor. They do however provide an excellent opportunity to prepare a boss fight right under your nose as you are still fighting off the cavalry. While the integration of those various bosses deserves an award on itself for placement and excellent timing, the fights themselves are way too easy. Even on “hardcore” they require little skill other than hiding, surviving attack waves and the ability to use loads of firepower. But again, as long as they are fun it’s fine by me. And I can tell you that fragging a huge Brumak after it has been trying to pulverize you for 5 minutes is tons of fun. Not only are some of these bosses really huge, they have enough firepower to turn you into dust, so hiding and running for your life is advised. Next to the bosses getting bigger and meaner, the “regular” bad guys come in larger numbers and with a nicely balanced arsenal of killing equipment that has your name on it. Every now and then the environment can be used to take out an obstacle or, when you are not paying attention, it can be your own demise.
So we’ve covered the bigger and harder, but where does the game try to turn things around and change its formula. Well the first thing you will notice is that there is an actual story now. We start out with Marcus and Dom being told that the Lightmass Bomb, humanity’s answer to the Locust in Gears 1, didn’t have the effect they hoped for. The locust forces are back and humanity is making a last stand in its capital, Jacinto. Desperation is growing strong and once they realize that their last stronghold might soon fall, the decision is made to use the best defense known to humans, the offensive. You are sent down to “The Hollow”, the source of all Locust, on an all-or-nothing offense. This starts the biggest part of the story that covers most of the middle segment of the game.
While the main storyline succeeds brilliantly in sketching the epic feeling of what you, as Marcus and company, are trying to achieve, it’s the addition of love interests and small timeouts taken from the story to go into detail on the characters and their emotions that are disappointingly predictably and cheesy. The story is presented in beautiful cut-scenes and well timed communications with the command center. Sadly enough the amount of melodramatic scenes and obvious plot twists rather make a mess of the story than aiding it in becoming truly captive. But having finished the game I can only say that even though not the greatest telling of a tale in history, it just works well enough for me and it is certainly an improvement over the original. The story is also much longer than the first which is positive because the length of the original Gears game was an often criticized point. The darker tone of desperation and the attempt to go deeper into the characters also makes it so that the game seems to take itself a bit too serious at times, despite of the one-liners and comic remarks made by Marcus and the squad.
The deepening of the story isn’t the only change made to the game though. There are some nice gameplay additions like switches that erect walls to hide behind or that sink them into the ground again exposing you or your enemy to a massive spray of bullets. These erecting pillars need to be used very carefully and with a good sense of timing because they work in two directions. If you are too soon it could be the Locust closing in on you instead of the other way around. Same goes for the worms that you can lure to provide movable cover.
Another change made to the game is the way they “break” the many shootout scenes. When you have cleared a few areas in the same setting or chapter, a change between zones needs to be made and that is often done by a scene that requires a vehicle. Attacking or fleeing, you get to ride some awesome rigs, both human and Locust. While some of them are truly great and challenging, others are frustrating and too much of a change from what some might expect from Gears of War gameplay. Without ruining the story I can say that the last time you get to ride something, it will be legendary.
The last addition made to the game was bigger weapons. While they are fun in the campaign mode, they are rarely decisive. The flamethrower was fun for killing some beefed up vermin, but you can’t use it much during gunfire battles. The mortars are awesome and nice to kill some bigger punks but you can’t take them with you because they slow you down. Usually when you need one, they are provided at the spot. However, in multiplayer they are an addition that can make or break your squad and it must be said, they are perfectly balanced.
Speaking of multiplayer, this is where the game really shines. Next to most of the modes from Gears 1, there are plenty of new ones. Some are a bit weird but others are really great.
The weirdest of them all is “Submission”. Basically you need to knock down an NPC, take it hostage and drag it to a circle on the map keeping it alive for 15 seconds. Slowed down by your package and both opposing teams and your NPC’s shooting back at you this mode is a real chaotic hoot.
“King of the hill” is taken from the Gears 1 PC port and you need to take control of one place on the map. As long as you are in control, you cannot respawn so one can forget about dominating the entire map. Timing is of the essence in this mode.
“Guardian” is some sort of follow-the-leader with a twist. As long as the leader, chosen at random each round, is alive you keep respawning. Once dead it’s plain team survivor. Being the leader is really scaring at times as both teams can see you on the HUD. Not for the paranoid of nature.
One of the more popular modes, “wingman”, is fairly new to Gears but in fact is nothing more than 5 versus 5 team survivor like counter-strike has given us on the PC. A great and proven game type but it can lead to a lot of spectating whilst the last two players are camping.
The greatest new mode is “Horde”. Look at it as a co-op arcade experience. You and your team are to survive 50 levels of Locust waves coming at you. Once you unlock a level, you can always retry from that level on. With maximum 5 players you need to work together to even survive the first 20. Each wave the difficulty is raised and not only in numbers and types of enemies, the enemy also adapts to your way of playing it seems (could be my imagination). This is really fun with a couple of friends in a private game (where you can choose difficulty) and really adds a lot to the co-op experience.
You can also play the campaign in co-op mode and I must say that me and the misses enjoyed it a lot. This is one of the better local multiplayer shooting games on the 360.
So where does this leave us? Gears 2 aimed high and when I read the first reactions after the release I thought Epic Games really nailed it. After playing it myself for hours I must revise my initial thoughts… at least a bit. While they took the multiplayer department from Gears 1 and turned it into what is undoubtedly the best multiplayer shooter on any console at this point, Epic Games did not succeed to deliver what many hoped for in the campaign. Don’t get me wrong, Gears of War 2 raises the bar for action shooters and will be hard to match but it does not seem impossible. By any standard this is a great game but it had the opportunity to be a brilliant one that would have known no equal for years to come.