The original Gears of War was one of the most popular games of 2006, helping to solidify the Xbox 360's place in the console market. Since then, it's sold about 5 million copies. When word leaked out that a sequel was in the works, many wondered if Epic Games could reach the bar set by the first game. As it turns out, they could. Gears of War 2 will feel very familiar to those who have played its predecessor. Games often have a way of reinventing themselves as sequels come and go, but Epic stuck to the basics of what had already worked so well, and simply set about improving, polishing, and fleshing out the Gears world as much as they could. Read on for the rest of the review.
- Title: Gears of War 2
- Developer: Epic Games
- Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
- System: Xbox 360
- Reviewer: Soulskill
- Score: 9/10
In the first game, humans on a planet called Sera were locked in a struggle against the Locust Horde — a group of misshapen humanoids and their monstrous pets and cohorts. The game's main character, Marcus Fenix, led a group of soldiers known as Delta Squad into the depths of the planet, where they left a very large bomb to try to demolish the source of the Locusts. As we learn in Gears of War 2, that didn't quite work out. The Locust Horde is back, literally digging humanity's last remaining cities out from underneath. Delta Squad's job is to head back into the caves and tunnels of the Locust stronghold and find a way to put a stop to it.
The game is played in third-person mode, usually looking over Fenix's shoulder as he moves throughout the world. Its focus for combat is on the cover system made popular by the first game. Get near a wall and tap a button, and you'll spin around and put your back to it. Using the aiming trigger, you'll peek past the corner, with a cross-hair showing where your bullets will go. You can take cover behind a large variety of objects; tables, half-walls, overturned cars, even mortally wounded enemies. It's very advantageous to take cover; the damage you sustain out in the open is often far too much for a "run-and-gun" style. Some types of cover are better than others; it's pretty funny to blast apart a rickety wooden table with your shotgun, leaving the enemy who was behind it scrambling to get away. You also get a selection of moves you can do from your covered position. You can hop over small barriers, dive from side to side, and shuffle quickly to another covered spot. The AI uses cover as well, and does so realistically for the most part. Enemies lose track of you if you're sneaky, and your teammates don't (typically) get themselves killed easily.
Weaponry in the game is varied and interesting. You have your standard shooter-game implements — handguns, machine guns, shotgun, sniper rifle — and then some flashier hardware as well — flamethrower, grenade launcher, mortar launcher, chain gun. You're also frequently given special weapons to use that are mounted to a platform or vehicle. Turrets, cannons, and volleys of rockets all make an appearance, and they're all quite fun to use. You also have your trusty chainsaw. In most games, a melee weapon is an afterthought; something to use when you've run out of ammo, but nothing more. Gears of War 2 gives you many opportunities to use your chainsaw, and occasionally for very impressive results. The selection of guns for typical room-to-room use is quite good. You can almost always use whichever gun feels best for the task at hand. Between that and the frequency with which special weapon missions are interspersed throughout the game, you really won't have a chance to get tired of a particular style of fighting.
Gears of War 2 maintains a strong focus on changing things up for the player. You'll very rarely find yourself fighting the same enemies for very long, or even fighting in the same way. It's clear that Epic consciously went about stitching together the levels in a way that wouldn't leave the player bored. You'll fight some grunts, then some more impressive enemies, then hop in a vehicle and defend it, or sometimes assault something that's in your way. You'll defend a base with a turret by shooting down incoming mortars, you'll split up the team and take turns covering each other as you move through separate areas, and one section of the game is almost like a platformer. Without spoiling too much, it isn't enemies within the level that are working to send you to your death, but rather the level itself. Even when you're digging out Locust forces room-by-room, you can count on seeing many variations of the "trying-to-kill-you" theme. As drones try to snipe you from cover, Tickers — dog-sized suicide bombers — and packs of scrambling Wretches will swarm toward you. Every so often you'll encounter shield-toting, mace-swinging Maulers, or the tough, ninja-like Kantus. You'll frequently get a chance to engage the large, impressive heavy-hitters of the Gears world — Brumak, Reavers, and Corpsers.
The game's story is more fleshed-out this time around, but not overly so. The cinematics and smaller cutscenes are to-the-point, and are often capped with a Keanu-Reaves-like "Whoa.." moment. In one section, you're driving through a dark, icy cave, trying to avoid notice. When you're faced with no option but to drive off a cliff, the screen goes dark as you land and the vehicle's power fails. As a member of your squad works frantically to get it started again, nasty things roar and rumble at you in the dark, setting up a rather tense situation when your lighting is restored. Other scenes are character-driven; the world is ending, and Epic doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to the atrocities of war. Torture, suicide, euthanasia — this is not a game for young kids. The cutscenes set up enough interest and emotional investment to make you want to grab a rifle and head toward the next objective without taking momentum from the actual fighting; it often seems like you're playing a story that ranges from cool to impressive to downright brutal.
Fighting often seems intense and hectic; Epic isn't above giving you a ton of things to shoot at, but your comrades are reasonably competent, and can be trusted to handle their share of the fight. Several times you'll rush to defend something and end up needing to man one of the aforementioned turrets to shoot down incoming bombs or flying enemies. The turrets are somewhat harder to succeed with, mainly because your targets are usually dodging and weaving through the air, and it can take some practice to keep up with them. You'll also get to fight battles at high speeds on various vehicles, and on... well, on things that aren't strictly vehicles. Things that don't necessarily want you riding them. The game does well at setting up situations where you think, "Man, I wish I could use that," and then actually letting you do it later on.
The levels themselves flow well; you naturally look and go where you're supposed to go, without being obviously herded along. As I mentioned earlier, there are several places where you split up the team, and get to choose one path over another. It's entertaining in the Solo campaign, but even more so in Co-op. You usually have some way to affect the other path, either via objects in the environment, throwing down cover fire, or perhaps lending a helping hand grenade to disperse some enemies who are focused on your partner. The levels look amazing; they use expansive backdrops to feel like really epic spaces, and the art really contributes to the atmosphere of the game. They look much bigger than they are, but you'll still be surprised at how far you can explore them sometimes. Particular events or "gimmicks" tend to be over quickly, like with the "platformer" level I mentioned earlier. You do something enough for it to be entertaining, but not enough to become tedious. This goes back to the game's theme of keeping things moving along, always changing. Gears of War 2 is also filled with a bunch of nice touches — at one point you're trapped in a building that's fallen on its side, and started burning. You head for the elevator, which just barely still works... sideways. As you slide past other burning floors, you get glimpses of various beasts trapped and struggling to get out.
Gears of War 2 does have its annoyances. When you deal a ton of damage to an enemy, he'll drop to the ground, mortally wounded, and start dragging himself away. If one of his teammates reaches him in time, they can heal him, and bring him back into the fight. Unfortunately, with the cover system in this game, it's quite common to make an enemy fall, but have no way to finish him off before he gets revived. It can be frustrating to have this happen several times in a row. The nature of the cover system also impedes movement at times, causing you to become briefly stuck in a place you don't want to be, or to leave cover in a manner other than what you intended. It can be bothersome at times, but I don't know how they could avoid it, especially in the more cramped spaces. There are also times in the game where you simply have too much to shoot at, or the things you need to kill are moving too quickly. I could swear one of the levels near the end took pity on me, after a few tries, by having the incoming Reavers land and stand still so I could mow them down with my turret.
The multi-player aspect of the game shines as well. Going through the campaign on Co-op is a lot of fun, since many of the levels were designed with a second player in mind. You can also have multiple saved campaigns now, which facilitates the occasional game with a friend, or a quick couple of levels at a party. There's also the "Horde" multi-player setting, which is even better for group play. Up to five players cooperate to fight wave after wave of enemies. Each wave gets stronger, and there are 50 in total. They get quite difficult after a while. Tougher enemies start joining the drones, and all enemies start gaining health and doing more damage. You'll have to start managing your ammo, and work with your teammates to keep from getting picked apart one-by-one. If you quit for a while, you can easily return to the wave at which you left off, which is nice for regular group play.
More familiar multi-player modes are available as well. In "Execution," you can only mortally wound enemies with your weapons. To kill them, you need to run up and administer a fairly gruesome killing blow by hand. In "Submission," a character is labeled the "meatflag." Your goal is to mortally wound him, then use him as a human shield while you drag him to a particular spot on the map. There's also "Wingman," where you fight in five teams of two, and of course, "King of the Hill." Other modes include your typical deathmatches. The updated UI and the camera functions are a big improvement over the first game. All of these modes have bot support, which is great for playing alone or in small groups.
Gears of War 2 retains its character as a testosterone-filled action hero game. It reminded me a bit of the movie 300; I get the feeling that the developers routinely went over a design and asked "How can we make this more over-the-top?" The dialogue contributes to that quite a bit. It's harsh, filled with swearing and macho one-liners. Augustus Cole a.k.a. Cole Train is back, and he's just as hilarious as ever. The cutscenes occasionally show members of Delta Squad doing some ridiculously cool stunt that would be right at home in a Mission: Impossible or James Bond movie. And, as I mentioned earlier, you get to interact with some huge, intimidating friends and foes, which lends to the game's epic feel. It's definitely a better, more polished version of the original game, which is really what we were hoping for.