Review by megametroid

"Gears of War 2 destroys your highest expectations in a storm of blood and bullets."

I remember seeing the first Gears of War in action a few years back, and I remember being completely blown away by the graphics, art design, and pure brutality of it all. That game is what made me decide to blow 400 bucks on an Xbox 360; it was the first really "next-gen" game that I had seen yet. Now, two years later, the sequel has finally has hit the shelves, and I would go and spend all of that money again to play it if I had to. Onward to the review.

Graphics / Art Design

The Unreal Tournament 3 engine is in it's most advanced and possibly final form with this game, and it couldn't look better. Gears of War has always been considered a high water mark when it comes to breathtaking visuals, and Gears 2 certainly raises that mark considerably. At a glance, the game looks roughly the same as the first, with the same 'roided up art style and similar environments in the first few levels. But new lighting and shadow effects contribute to make the game look much softer and more organic than the first, which now seems slightly mechanical and cold by comparison. The environments in particular are the stars of the show, in my opinion. The opening chapters of the game take place in dilapidated cities, similar to that of the first game. But as soon as you leave the surface and hit the Locust where they live, underground, the environmental design quality quickly flips from good to spectacular. The Locust's networks of caves and tunnels are more like something you would expect to see in a Metroid Prime game rather than in a shooter like Gears: strange glowing plants and mushrooms cover the scenery, and the occasional skittering wildlife serves to remind you that this is a living, breathing world. Beyond the environments, the rest of the game still looks as great as ever. Character models are meticulously detailed, and throw off soft, convincing shadows that change and move depending on the lighting conditions. Your main enemy, the Locust Horde, throws plenty of generic alien soldiers at you, which are intimidating, but are nothing compared to some of the larger and more grotesque creatures featured in this game. And finally, Gears' celebrated level of ridiculous gore and brutality has been one-upped by it's sequel. Plenty of blood flows in this game, and it's all very beautiful in the most disgusting way possible. Destroying a wounded monster's head with a sniper round and watching his guts pour onto the ground has never been so gratifying.

Sound Design

One thing that many games seem to put off as unimportant is good sound design. Audio almost always contributes to the background and ambience of a game no matter what, but when it's good enough to stand out and be noticeable on it's own, you know you've got something special. Gears 2 re-uses many sounds effects from the first game, such as the cries of wounded soldiers and creatures, but the entire soundscape is much more crisp than it used to be. Your weapons in particular are incredibly punchy now, to the point where the guns are fun to fire simply because they sound powerful. The voice acting quality is generally great, with Marcus Fenix delivering a particularly memorable performance throughout the game. The dialogue itself honestly hasn't really changed or improved, there's simply a lot more of it. I'm one that actually enjoyed the stupidly macho action-movie dialogue between your fellow soldiers in the first game, and it returns this time to full effect. My only complaint about the voice acting is that Dom occasionally throws tantrums about not being able to find his wife, and I almost burst out laughing every time. Don't take me wrong, these parts could have been very emotionally effective and disheartening, but the way the actor delivers the lines... I mean, not to nitpick, but it sounds more like a whiny pre-teen brat than a grown man who's probably packing 500-plus pounds in muscle and badass-ery. But it's the only small annoyance in the game's otherwise-great audio presentation.

Story

Well, I'll start off by saying that, looking back on the first Gears of War, it seems like nothing really happened in that game's campaign compared to this one. Gears 2 increases the scale and intensity level exponentially from the first game, and it's all for the better. The Lightmass Bomb from the end of the first game didn't quite kill off the Locust, predictably. It actually didn't really hurt them at all, looking at how many of them are left in this episode. The whole goal of most of the game is to stop the Locust from sinking the city of Jacinto, which is humanity's last remaining stronghold. Marcus and company are also tasked with finding the center of Locust operations, finding the Locust Queen, and hopefully destroying them. Along the way, you'll go through several plot twists and turns, some of which are very engaging, but never expanded upon. There's one section in particular which reveals some rather shocking information that hints at something much larger going on behind the scenes, but this sequence is seemingly forgotten and never referenced throughout the rest of the game. Overall though, the plot is satisfying and engaging enough to make you want to keep playing, even if it doesn't expand on new plotlines as much as it should. It's just a pity to know that now we'll have to wait another few years for the inevitable Gears 3 to find out what exactly is going on.

Gameplay

Ah, yes. The most important part of any game is, well, the game itself. I'm happy to report that Gears of War 2 remains nearly identical to it's predecessor's gameplay style at the core, while adding enough interesting new weapons, situations, and options to make it seem new and fresh again. For the uninitiated, Gears of War holds an incredibly unique gameplay style, one that mixes fast-paced shooting action with the tactical movement of games such as Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon. The gameplay revolves around taking cover behind whatever barriers or objects are available, moving around and flanking enemy groups, and popping up out of cover to fire when the time is right. The end result is a sublime mixture of bloody, in-your-face battlefield intensity and intelligent strategy and teamwork. Your weapons are the usual generic assortment of machine guns, sniper rifles, grenades, and shotguns, but Gears' special level of gore and brutality separates it from the rest of the pack. The greatest example of this is your Lancer assault rifle, probably the most iconic symbol of the Gears of War series. The rifle itself is a standard automatic bullet hose, but the gun also possesses a nasty chainsaw bayonet on it's underside that you'll no doubt use to shred hundreds of enemy Locust throughout the game. This kind of over-the-top and ridiculously awesome detail is typical of what to expect from Gears. There are several new weapons worth mentioning in the game though, particularly the heavy weapons, a mortar and a chaingun aptly named the Mulcher. A new flamethrower also makes an appearance, and surprise, surprise, it's actually worth using. Besides the new weapons, there are also new ways of using your equipment to attack and defend yourself. Grenades can now be stuck to walls and objects to serve as proximity mines, a very useful ability when you're too busy running from a ten-foot tall tentacled Reaver to return fire with one of your guns. There are several new ways of taking cover on the move now, all of which are fun and useful in their own way. Taking human (Locust) shields is a very viable defensive option in Gears 2, unlike in most shooters where it's there simply to make you feel badass. Overall, Gears of War 2 incorporates many new gameplay features that are fun and useful without feeling gimmicky, which is quite a feat to pull off.

Multiplayer

To put it simply, the campaign is good enough to merit 60 dollars on it's own if you're into single player, but Gears 2's multiplayer options push it into must-buy territory. The game features AI bots for offline multiplayer, which is always welcome for people without a high-speed connection (myself included). Two player splitscreen is available for all game modes including campaign, which is another huge plus for people who can only play offline. The multiplayer game itself plays identically to single player, and features several different game modes to choose from. Of particular note is the new Horde mode, which is like an old-school style survival mode in which five Gears can take on increasingly difficult waves of Locust. This mode is incredibly simple, yet surprisingly intense and addicting. Personally, I don't think Gears of War 2's multiplayer is varied or customizable enough to keep my attention for very long compared to Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4, but it's certainly a fun diversion, and fully featured enough to warrant a play.

Overall Value

Gears of War 2 is worth buying for the campaign alone, which continues to throw new, unexpected and sometimes-shocking situations at you up until the very end, and presents a compelling and interesting story to drive the missions forward. The multiplayer game shines and is just about all it can be, and the fact that Epic included bots and split-screen support for offline play is a testament to how much they care about player satisfaction. Overall, Gears of War 2 isn't exactly the most innovative or revolutionary game ever made, but it doesn't have to be when it holds such an amazing breadth of content and quality gameplay. Games like this are the very reason that I own a next-generation console, and if you have an Xbox 360 and are at all interested in shooters you simply need to play this game. We rarely see sequels of this caliber anymore.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 11/10/08

Game Release: Gears of War 2 (US, 11/07/08)


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