With its first sequel, the Gears of War franchise has suddenly become this generation’s version of the DOOM franchise. That’s a big compliment, especially coming from someone who (like many) found himself slightly disappointed with id Software’s claustrophobic take on their saga of the doomed Space Marine. Developer Epic makes no such concessions in the GoW mold, and like DOOM 2 does little to innovate its genre-defining first game and instead focuses on beefing up what made the original work so well. Naturally, those who loved the first Gears will probably find themselves in heaven with Gears of War 2, while those who scratched their heads may as well keep scratching…
Fundamentally, the core gameplay of Gears 2 remains relatively untouched from the first game, which means it’s still an excellent piece of engineering. Thanks to a mechanic that borrows (liberally) from both Kill.Switch and Resident Evil 4, developer Epic wisely sticks to what made Gears 1 so successful and builds upon it. While the lack of innovation may disappoint those looking for an entirely different experience, so thoroughly have many essential mechanics have been shined and polished to near-perfection. Aiming feels tighter, covering is more responsive, and few acts of random violence are as satisfying as a chainsaw duel that leaves enemies with a pretty severe splitting headache.
If there’s any fault I can find with the new gameplay additions, its how useless they feel in the scope of things. You can easily finish the campaign without ever using an enemy’s corpse as a meat-shield, and while its neat to be able to tap the A button to crawl towards comrades for revival, often their AI is so stupid that you’ll die a lonely man before they lend a hand. None of the new tweaks feel as balanced as the core elements, although its fun to peg off fallen Locust scum before they (like you) can crawl to comrades for help.
Also worth mentioning is how insanely fun riding a giant and destructive Brumak is; if I can suggest a spin-off Brumak Riding game as you’ll have an instant best-seller on your hands. Trust me.
Perhaps the single-most improved element over the original would be the structure of the narrative and plot – although considering how poor Gears 1 story was, that’s hardly a challenge. While Fenix and his crew remain somewhat interesting, I’d wager not too many fans will remember his motivation or actions, outside of dismembering and destroying waves of Locust and saving the world. Well, the sequel tells a significantly better – if melodramatic – tale of revenge and destiny that hits all the right buttons, of perseverance and survival. All the stuff that any good middle-chapter of a trilogy needs to be successful, much like Star Wars.
If anything, its a bit too much like Star Wars. Shades of George Lucas epic permeate nearly every core of Gears 2, from the main character’s significant daddy issues, to lovelorn soldiers, and even a rather blatant Darth Maul rip-off, complete with double-ended staff. Heck, there’s even a battle to escape a giant worm (see below). Considering how much this franchise ‘borrows’ from others, I chalked this up to creative usage, until I read that much of the story and plot was penned by comicbook guy Josh Ortega, who has extensively worked on Star Wars-related properties and comics. Draw your own conclusions…
Sadly, if you’re looking for an exhausted review of the new online gameplay modes and options, you won’t find it here. Frankly, I was never that big a fan of the original’s online modes, having found the bulk of them too slow and far less interesting than they could have been. Before you shout ‘sacrilege!’, keep in mind that you can bet I’ll be returning to Gears 2 sublime and excellent cooperative modes, which claim to allow different players the option to play on different difficulty levels. Having already finished the main campaign, I applaud Epic for implementing such a diverse multiplayer experience, and few games have made me want to play with a buddy as this one have.
But considering how popular the original Gears was with Xbox Live players, there’s no reason to think Gears 2 will be any less omnipresent on the service. In gathering a consensus of whether or not the sequel’s online is better than the first, practically everyone I’ve asked (whose opinions I trust) gave an almost universal approval. Make of that what you will.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better looking game on the Xbox 360 (or any other console), although proper viewing on a semi-decent HDTV will be required to really get the most out of how much love Epic has clearly put in here. A modified version of the popular Unreal Engine 3 may be powering the goods, but technology alone isn’t what makes Gears 2 so eyeball-scorching. Every environment is so detailed, yet so silky smooth I literally felt spoiled and at times overwhelmed at how brilliant the art direction was. Graphics are about so much more than just polygons and effects, and practically every pixel onscreen is brimming with a type of careful detail and specific purpose that saying this is the best-looking game ever made wouldn’t be much of a stretch.
One particular level, which has Delta Squad trapped inside a gigantic living worm, definitely qualifies as one of the most original and flat-out thrilling pieces of imagination ever offered in an action game. The choice to largely disregard battling and focus on surviving the annelid’s disgusting and slimy digestive track was a stroke of genius, and will hopefully come up as a colorful conversation piece whenever Gears 2 comes up.
Likewise, the game’s audio is nearly as thrilling, with a blistering (if derivative) score by videogame and film composer Steve Jablonsky (Transformers). Familiar themes from the first game pop up; his work with famed action-directors has clearly paid off, delivering an explosive accompaniment to the visceral action on-screen. While nothing particularly stands out, it all sounded quite epic and kept me sufficiently motivated to keep plowing through wave after wave of Locust scum.
Joe DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama) returns to voice Marcus Fenix, and fans are better for it. He’s a perfect match for the incredibly butch COG Delta Squad, even if some of his dialog is unintentionally silly. Likewise returning is fan-favorite Augustus Cole aka The Cole Train!! Voiced once again by Lester Speight, he’s the epitome of every black stereotype the gaming industry thrives on, yet remains the funniest part of the game. Much appreciated work, guys.
Evolved gameplay, better narrative, and pacing in my opinion help make Gears of War 2 superior to the original – but its a subtle superior. This is refined, competent game design all-around, and what it lacks in innovation is more than made up for in sheer execution. Now if only Microsoft (and their developers) would stop trying to squeeze Star Wars-type mythologies from these space-adventures, we’d finally get that much closer to defining the purely interactive epic these guys have yet to make. While I’m begging favors, how about better attention to both the second halves and final bosses as well, which after experiencing brilliant openers and jaw-dropping monster battles, come off a bit lazy and less realized than the rest of the game. As it stands now, Gears 2 is in line for not just best action game on the platform, but perhaps this generation.