The original Gears of War was about laying the foundation and setting the stage for a massive struggle between man and monster. It introduced us to a planet named Sera and a band of warriors who will stop at nothing to preserve their people and make their home world safe yet again. Standing in their way are the Locust, a race of subterranean aliens hell bent on bringing down the Coalition of Ordered Governments and crippling the human race.
Now we're entering the second chapter in the universe Epic Games created. The events of the first ended with Marcus and Dom delivering the Lightmass Bomb into The Hollow after killing General Raam. Sadly the bomb had about the same effect as sticking a bull in the ass with an ice pick. The Locust only doubled their efforts and have been sinking cities on Sera ever since. Now only one remains: the city of Jacinto whose foundation is thick enough to keep the Locust at bay. But not for long. The Locust are poised to crush Jacinto just as they have every other city. Soon humanity's struggle will be over, all hope extinguished.
But not yet.
Yes, Gears of War 2 is indeed more impactful than the first. Cliff Bleszinski, Rod Ferguson and company tried their best to create a deeper and more involved storyline with the second game in the series and for the most part they succeeded. In some areas flawlessly so. For example, one of my concerns when hearing of the new additions -- Tai Kaliso, Dizzy Wallin and Anthony Carmine – was that they would take focus off of the main focus of Dom and Marcus. After all, we've seen series add characters that are either focused on too heavily or are just plain uninteresting. Without spoiling anything, Epic did a wonderful job of keeping the focus where it belongs while still giving the new characters meaningful roles that not only enhance the drama but also evolve the motivations of the Locust.
There's no question that storyline plays a much more important role than it did in the first game. Characters are more emotional, more is revealed about the Locust and where they come from (as well as a look at the Locust Queen), and there are also plenty of new story threads that are opened up. Some of which are wrapped up in the end, most of which are not.
The focus of the story is Dom's search for his wife, Maria. It's important to note that while Marcus Fenix is still the main character of Gears of War, hearing him say some of the emotionally charged lines that come out of Dom's mouth would have been just plain strange. It was a good decision to go with a character who not only has a normal speaking voice, but whose personality is more conducive to being naturally emotional. That having been said, there are plenty of moments when you'll crack a wry smile at what you just heard on-screen. The writing is much improved -- as is evidenced by Prescott's introductory speech after the first chapter -- but that doesn't stop the voice actors from sounding extremely cheesy at times. Still, I bought into Dom's search for his wife -- and the Gears Universe as a whole -- for the second game.
But those not looking for a story intensive experience might be a bit turned off by the increased number of cutscenes and dramatic outbursts. There's certainly more to watch than in the first game, nothing like a Metal Gear Solid title, but there are frequent breaks in the action that rely on the player investing in the characters in order to hit home.
Fleshing out the Gears of War universe goes much deeper than simply expanding the scale of emotions and unearthing some back story for the Locust horde. Instead Epic took things further by expanding the all-important scope and scale of the action. It's there that Gears of War 2 separates itself from other videogames.
Players are fighting in a massive planet-wide war and in Gears of War 2 you feel the importance of your actions in a big way. The battles are massive and enemies that only made brief appearances prior are now being thrown at the player in droves. Brumaks and Corpsers are dispatched with ease and even the common courtyard battles are bigger and a bit more intense than before. Some of that is to do with the new enemies – including the likes of Raam's replacement, Skorge – and their number on-screen being much greater than in the first, sometimes stretching into the hundreds.
Click to watch clips of the campaign in HD.
Luckily all of the skirmishes aren't designed in the mold of Gears of War 1. Gears 2 does a wonderful job of differentiating its levels and keeping things as fresh as possible without ever deviating from what we all love about Gears. There are vehicular levels, each with its own mode of transport; there are also ice levels, water levels and even one that goes out of its way to show off the new meat physics. Despite all that, seeing the lair of the Locust is the level that takes the cake. The color palette changes throughout, the gameplay stays varied and it's made all the better by the fact that the campaign is a good two or three hours longer than the original's.
But all is not well with the structure of the campaign mode. The first four acts are wonderful and exciting and the fifth act is too, up until the last few chapters. The last boss is a complete joke and the ending feels just a tad too abrupt. I'm not talking Halo 2 style cliffhanger or anything, but the climax to the storyline and the action happen just a bit too early. Also, I still would have liked to have a few more of the plot threads tied up before the curtain closed.
Luckily the core gameplay that pleased and excited so many in 2006 has remained largely intact, with every change bringing improvements to the system. The coveted A button is still the catch-all for most actions but it now functions with better responsiveness and is much more intuitive when it comes to predicting when and where you're trying to enter into cover.
There are also plenty of new moves that blend seamlessly into the already established foundation. It would have been a disservice to exclude new executions from the list of additions so Epic did their best to come with some of the squishiest, gushiest and most disgusting moves possible. Different weapons now have different finishers, as well as different active reload benefits, and Marcus and company have new abilities like taking downed enemies as meat shields and utilizing new, bigger weapons than were available before.
Mobile cover is another new advent to the world of Gears. There are three main types: the Rockworm, the Boomshield which can be carried and planted, and the retractable cover that makes an appearance later in the Locust lair. The Rockworm is probably the most unnatural feeling of these new forms of cover, but it's still an interesting creature to see. The Boomshield will be used the most and is great when you're stomping towards an enemy who can only continue to futilely try and shoot through the metallic cover. Moving between pieces of the environment is also much more fluid than it was before. You can interrupt SWAT turns and other moves if things get a bit hairy. In the end there no real are any earth shattering changes to the cover, but the alterations that have been made make total sense and fit right in with the rest of Gears 2.
There are also a few smaller changes like having more environmental interactions with the chainsaw and giving the player more organic choices when it comes to which path to take. There are a few instances were two paths are presented without requiring players to press the Left and Right Trigger to choose which way to go (though those moments are also present). Instead you make your choice simply by going in that direction. There are also more boss fights this time around and, disregarding the disappointing final encounter, these battles are an excellent addition. The battle against Skorge is well done with a bit of old school flair and there's a boss that will remind many of something seen in Resident Evil 4. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that it's pretty damn cool.
The Brumak and Reaver riding levels that everyone is probably wondering about also perform fairly well. The Reaver level is an on-rails stage that feels similar to Rogue Squadron or Panzer Dragoon. You can move around the screen a bit, but your main course is guided. The Brumak level also houses some impressive destruction and could be representative of what's be possible once Unreal Engine 4 rolls around.
Sadly the improvements that have been made to Unreal Engine 3 don't exactly pan out in the way that I would have liked. If you remember the GDC demo, you know there are a handful of additions to what is being called Unreal Engine 3.5 by some. First, the destructible cover. Pretty much everything that you can take cover behind can be deformed in some way. It's a nice visual dressing but doesn't impact gameplay at all. It would be nice if you could take away cover from players (ala Battlefield 3) so that the strategy of Gears changed a bit, but sadly that isn't the case.
Other additions include better "meat and water physics" as well as the ability to put hundreds of enemies on-screen at once. Oddly enough there are levels and portions of levels that feel like they were designed only to showcase these features. It keeps them from feeling a part of the core gameplay and instead they seem like accoutrements to their specialized stages and are forgotten for the rest of the game.
Driving all of the insanity -- all of the bullets, all of the chunks of meat and all of the blood that flies into the camera -- is Unreal Engine 3. It looks spectacular at times. Every environment has its own look and feel, though some are admittedly better than others. Watching enemies blow apart into chunks of flesh, meat and bone is very cool, especially when you see it happen on some of the massive enemies in Gears 2.
The framerate does a good job at staying solid, though it does dip in one particular section when the environmental destruction is simply too much for the engine to handle. There's also the infamous texture problems that happen with UE3. It doesn't interfere with the gameplay in the slightest, and the texture pop-in has been replaced with an effect-style fade-in that is much less abrasive, but the fact that you have to watch textures load in is still a bummer.
Another thing to note, and it's actually one of the biggest, yet most subtle changes to Gears, is the music. Steve Jablonsky (Transformers, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was brought in to replace the original's score and what he came up with is very conducive to the feel of the game. It approaches Hollywood quality and though it never quite reaches it, the action still pumps and the emotions flow on each and every note. In other words, turn up the volume.
The characters, when not delivering long, fairly well-written monologues, actually have some funny quips. You'll hear Marcus dropping f-bombs at his pals in battle or Dizzy spinning some hilarious zinger. But still, the voice acting usually treads just above mediocrity. The sound effects ring true with every shotgun blast, just as you'd expect. For a real workout of your sound system, have a friend grab a Mulcher and you get behind a Boomshield and listen to those hundreds of bullets crash against the metal surface one at a time.
The campaign mode in Gears of War 2 is, in a single word, fantastic. I'm a big proponent of a strong narrative to push an action game forward and draw the player in and, for me, Gears 2 delivered that. The characters, while not extensively deep, expose the environments and situations around them very nicely. The second game, does a wonderful job of sidestepping what I call "Halo 2 syndrome" and doesn't delve into uninteresting beliefs of the Locusts or the COG. Instead we get some nice twists and turns that will hopefully play out in unpredictable ways. Oh, and while I've said it several times before, stay until after the credits. It almost makes the disappointing ending acceptable.
The co-op campaign is very similar to the campaign, but you get the added human component for strategy purposes. It feels just as natural as you remember; online or playing split-screen. One distinct change to the co-op is that each player can set their own difficulty level. It doesn't actually change the way the enemies react to you, but instead your health bar and the damage you dole out have been beefed up, thus easing the experience. The co-op features the same branching paths mechanic that was in the first, and they perform as you'd expect. I'd personally like to see the design take a totally organic route (something I mentioned earlier) as some of these situations do feel forced.
Luckily you won't be crying out for friends to play with at every turn as the artificial intelligence is very good for the most part. Annoyingly so at times. There were several moments during my twelve hour campaign run when I'd down a Drone, only to see him crawl behind cover and watch his buddy maneuver into position to help him back up. Likewise, your AI-controlled buddies will help you up unless you're playing on Hardcore or Insane (which any skilled player should). There are also the rare moments when the AI doesn't quite work. Occasionally guys will think they're behind cover while you're planting hundreds of bullets into their exposed shoulder. Still, more often than not the improvements to the AI are quite evident.
Those who played the first Gears will remember that there AI squad mates used to have some simple controls to move them around the battlefield. Those have been completely removed and you likely won't miss them in the slightest. You no longer feel like you have to babysit the rest of your COG friends as their health bars have been intentionally beefed up so they can take a beating in battle and come back for more.
Everyone played Gears of War 1 knows that the campaign is a window dressing to the world of multiplayer. While that's less the case this time (the campaign has plenty of substance) the world of Xbox Live will certainly be buzzing with Gears 2 for months and years to come thanks to the impressive package that comes on the disc.
For starters, there are fifteen maps; five of which are downloadable remakes from Gears 1. The recreations are familiar territory but feature some nicer lighting and an overall smoother look than the original articles. The other ten newly created works range from the awesome Avalanche and Hail with their environmental hazards to the more traditional Jacinto and Pavillion maps. Ruins has some cool retractable cover that changes things ever so slightly.
What everyone really wants to know about is how the game plays online. That's where Gears of War 2 took a bit of a stumble for me. Not as much as the first game's host advantage epidemic or buggy gameplay, but there are certainly remnants of that slightly defunct base. I encountered a hint of host advantage and considerable lag every so often, which was disappointing.
I've also seen around five or six bugs. The most interesting of which saw one player model floating in the air while still alive and invisible to everyone except those who were already dead and were watching through the ghost cam. Needless to say that round ended in a stalemate. I've also seen upside down enemies in Horde, my player model sliding around (not user controlled), and shots not registering properly.
It's important to keep in mind that I was playing on my home connection which is typically solid and I was playing on servers that were largely devoid of players. That could have either been causing the lag because the matchmaking had to search far and wide for players or it could be a sign that the lag will actually get worse once millions of gamers join up online. There's really no way to tell for sure but the fact that I had those problems are disconcerting.
When the game was running smoothly I've been able to have some great encounters. The five-on-five gameplay heightens the intensity ever so slightly and the matches are more fun because of it. The new weapons like the grenades that can be turned into proximity mines and the big guns help make it feel nice and different while still retaining the core stop-and-pop gameplay.
The matchmaking for Gears of War 2 is totally different from what was available in Gears 1 and works very well. Players are matched according to their rank and, once matched, must then vote on the gametype and then the map. There are two choices for each and your options depend on which playlist you select initially. The playlist selections are a little odd. I had hoped for an option to just play the new modes, while there are mixes that are close, none provides exactly that.
That's too bad because the new modes really are what you'll be playing for the most part in Gears of War 2. Submission and Guardian are my two personal favorites but the list of new modes also includes Wingman and King of the Hill which was previously only available on PC. Submission places an AI-controlled Stranded character in the middle of the map. He's the flag. It's your job to get his shotgun-touting ass back to the capture point. And he's not exactly friendly. It's a wonderfully creative mode that is made all the better by giving the AI his very own line of statistics. Guardian is a bit more traditional and ups the intensity of a standard deathmatch by giving one player control over the rest of the team's ability to respawn. If he's alive, you can come back from the dead. If he dies, then you're on your last life. It's very interesting to see how strategy changes when the two VIPs start dropping. The new modes, coupled with the older content, come together for one hell of a good time.
For as good as the whole competitive multiplayer portion of Gears 2 is, it's slightly overshadowed by the new cooperative Horde mode. Horde is a non-stop adrenaline rush that throws upwards of thirty enemies at you, the exact number of which is dependent of how many of the five possible player slots you fill. There are 50 waves to storm through and the enemies level up damage, health and accuracy every ten waves. It runs fairly well; I only ran into one bug and I've invested well over ten hours into Horde.
Horde mode is an unbelievably simple and addictive mode that lets you compete not only against swarms of different enemies but also against your friends. Each map has its own leaderboard and you'll probably need to get through all 50 waves without your entire team dying to even come close to being at the top. My only complaint with Horde mode is that the mix of enemies is the same for every ten waves. Meaning that Wave 11 contains the same enemies as Wave 21 and 31, they're just tougher later on. Oh, and where are the Reavers and Brumaks?
If you havent figured it out by now, Gears of War 2 has non-stop action, fresh gameplay, varied environments, an engrossing storyline, multiplayer that will have people busy for years to come, and some of the nastiest and coolest kills I've seen in a videogame. It has its flaws when it comes to the technical side of multiplayer and the last act of the campaign and the voice acting might turn some off. Still, none of that comes close to holding back Gears of War 2 from its destiny: being one of the best games available on the Xbox 360.