Review by myHOTTERgf

"Gears 1.5? Screw off! It's more like Gears 2.5!"

It seems like the most important question to answer, the thing that most gamers who played the first Gears of War and are looking forward to this sequel like the Xbox 360 gaming event of 2008 that it is, is simple. Is Gears of War 2 better than the original? The short answer is: yes. The longer answer is “hell to the yes”. But the really long answer is what follows.

Gears of War 2 improves the already amazing experience Epic Games brought to us in Gears of War in just about every way imaginable. The single player campaign is longer and more satisfying, it terms of story as well as gameplay. To say the multiplayer is better is an understatement, since the multiplayer experience of the first game was probably its weakest point. Multiplayer in Gears of War 2 is far more complete, and far better executed. The many other facets of Gears of War 2, which I'll go into, all make for an amazingly complete and satisfying product.

This brings up another potential question. Does Gears of War 2 elevate the franchise to the level of Xbox 360 flagship title, unseating the reigning champion Halo as the game that most symbolizes and represents the entire platform. This question may only seem important to message board denizens who like to argue stuff like that. And while those kinds of debates are ultimately silly, if anyone asks this reviewer if Marcus Fenix is the new Master Chief I'll have to say yes. It really does deserve its place at the top.

Now we start discussing why. Why is Gears of War 2 so great? How is it better than the first? Why does it deserve recognition as the ultimate Xbox 360 shooter? Let's start with something that's maybe not as important in the big picture, but is definitely the first thing you will notice about the game. The graphics.

Anyone can see for themselves just how good the game looks. The details on the characters and in the environments has increased significantly. Little details like the glowing tips of over-heating guns and sand falling out of bullet holes in sandbags just show how dedicated the artists and designers at Epic were to making the visuals a complete and utter feast for the eyes. But even the art direction has been taken up a considerable notch or ten. Considering how much more of the world of Sera we're getting to see in this game, that seems important. In Gears of War 2, you'll find out much more about the Locust, in part from getting even deeper under the ground into their lairs. Architecture can really tell you a lot about a people (if you want to call the Locust “people”) and you'll definitely get to see more of their cultural side. In one sense it's significant to understanding their background. In another, it's just plain pretty.

It's amazing to think that all of this was done with the same engine. But that's not quite the same thing as saying it was done with the same technology. Epic Games is not just a game developer, but also an engine developer too. No other design house dedicates as much resources balanced between creating tools and then creating amazing games with those tools as they do. But technology evolves, and the Unreal Engine 3 technology obviously has since the original Gears.

But there are a few downsides. When the game was presented to the media for review over a month ago, one of the things that I and others noticed was an occasional slowness for the textures to load at the beginning of a level. We assumed it was something that would be tuned up before the game's release, but after playing a final boxed copy, the problem popped up again. It's somewhat understandable considering the incredibly high-level lighting effects, normal mapping and physics that are going on, but that and some other occasional glitches make the game look a tad unpolished at times. But it would be a shame to criticize Gears of War 2 deeply for this, considering just how high they're aiming.

So Epic has the graphics down, that's great, and they back it up with some very original artistic content as well. We expect that from them, but when you play the game you'll probably still be surprised. The thing that amazes me is the first time we really saw this game in action was earlier this year, around the time of the Game Developers' Conference. Take a look at that footage and compare it to now, and tell me how they made the game look that much better in less than a year. I'm mystified.

But what's really important to a lot of people is the story and setting. Since this is the second game in the series, Epic has the advantage of having already introduced us to the world of Sera, the Gears and the Locust. We understand that the subterranean Locust will stop at nothing to eradicate the human race, but up until now we weren't sure why. That's not to say that after finishing this game you'll know everything about who the locust are and why they're doing what they're doing. But you'll know so much more, and have your appetite majorly whetted for the next game in the series. I hope that doesn't spoil anything.

In fact plot-wise, Gears of War 2 does what the best sequels are capable of: deepening your interest in the characters, moving the pace of the story along, taking you to places you didn't expect, expanding your knowledge of the universe, throwing twists in to confound us and make us more excited for the third installment, etc. I'm not sure if I'm describing Gears of War 2, The Empire Strikes Back, or both. OK, definitely both.

The investment you feel in the characters in Gears of War 2 is definitely deeper than you felt in the first game, with one major exception. I still don't feel like I know Marcus very well. On one hand, that could be seen as a bad thing, failing to develop your main character. But in another, that may be something really specific to videogames. You don't know much about Gordon Freeman from Half-Life either, do you? Not even what his voice sounds like. That's because you are Gordon Freeman, just like you are Marcus Fenix.

The other characters in the game get more meaty roles though. Dom's search for his missing wife is a major thread of the story, but I don't feel I can say much more about it without revealing some pretty big plot spoilers. Nonetheless, the resolution of that subplot didn't have the effect on me that I think was intended. Call me jaded, but something about it just rang false. You may feel differently when you reach it, and write me letters about being a heartless bastard, but oh well. Despite the story and writing behind Gears of War 2 being light years ahead of the previous game in quality, it never really achieves high art. More like really good genre fiction.

But the characters are still great. The first time you see Cole is genuinely thrilling, like being reunited with an old friend. And his lines throughout are once again awesome and hilarious. There are some great new characters introduced in this game too, especially Dizzy, who's not only a lot of fun to listen to during your scenes together, but also makes for an awesome multiplayer model.

But the real stars of the show here are the Locust. As opposed to the first game which presented a handful of different Locust soldiers with slightly different abilities and looks, Gears of War 2 presents an outright menagerie of beasts to contend with, each with his (or her) own specific skill, unique look and way to defeat. No longer do they seem like a mindless horde with bulletproof skin. Now they throw all kinds of special units at you like the exploding Tickers, fast-moving and though to kill Blood Mounts, Thorian Priests who heal and a whole bunch of different flavors of Boomer. Fighting these Locust in the ways they need to be fought adds many more layers of strategy to the gameplay.

Oh yeah, the gameplay. Some are going to say that it's basically the same as Gears of War, that the “stop and pop” style of running to cover and firing from behind it mixed with up close melee attacks hasn't really changed in any significant way. That may be somewhat true, but would you really want it to? The additions that have been made not only have a significant effect on gameplay, but look really cool and are fun to pull off.

Human shields are awesome, and let you charge headfirst into an otherwise impenetrable hail of fire. Sticking grenades to walls and setting them as traps can change the way you approach certain fights, and have a massive effect on the game's multiplayer modes. New heavy weapons like the Mortar and the Mulcher are not only massively powerful, but extremely satisfying to use. These all may seem like small upgrades, but as the game progresses you'll realize not only how much you have to use them but how much you want to use them.

Because in the early going, Gears of War 2 does feel a lot like the first game. That has to be by design, making it comfortable for experienced gamers to ease back in to the action while not feeling like they're stuck in a training mode. You can still do a training mode at the beginning, but it's optional. The clever part is, it's presented as if you're the one doing the training, once again to not insult the intelligence of experienced Gears players who are just playing through that level to get the achievement.

As the game and the story progress though, you'll feel like you're on exactly the kind of wild ride you were hoping for. You'll be amazed at some of the places this game takes you, and I wouldn't dare ruin the surprise by telling you about them. But there are definitely some surprises, and some levels of the game you would have never imagined. And as satisfying as so much of it is, there are still a couple sections that were less satisfying and felt like a chore.

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you about them, because they've been mentioned before, but there are a couple “on a rail” missions that take you out of the classic Gears gameplay and feel like something you've seen too many times in lesser shooters. The first one where you're riding on Dizzy's platform (from the first video released of the gameplay earlier this year) is pretty fun because you still have options on how you want to do it. But later on there are a couple of them that look cool, but aren't all that fun to play.

The biggest is the Reaver ride. This has been revealed before, so no spoilerfication is being risked here. Basically you're riding on the back of a Reaver being driven by Cole, and you must use the mounted weapons to fight off a boss on another, bigger reaver. It's a classic rail-type mission, with you having limited control over the actual movement of the vehicle you're on (you can dodge) and subsequently you must use the built-in weapons to shoot down incoming missiles and enemies. As a cinematic sequence it's pretty exciting, but as an actual segment of gameplay, not so much. It's not the Gears gameplay that makes the rest of the game so great, and it really sort of takes you out of the action you've been enjoying so far.

This segment is near the end of the game, and there are a couple other similar sequences peppered throughout that I could have definitely done without. After getting through these, my frustration was negatively affecting my opinion of the game for sure. But the makers at Epic seem to realize what they've put you through, and the very end of the game is pretty much a reward for everything you've suffered so far. No spoilers, but the last level is fairly easy and involves a whole lot of killin'.

At the end of the single player you should feel a sense of satisfaction that's rare in games. You should also feel a lot of anticipation building for the next game, which should be the final chapter in this particular trilogy, not that the Gears universe doesn't have a lot to offer. But I for one am definitely pumped about Gears of War 3 and the answers it should provide.

So that's about it… oh wait. Forgot something. Multiplayer. You probably want to know about multiplayer. Considering that multiplayer was the weak link in the first game, Epic had a lot to prove with Gears of War 2. They didn't have to prove that they know multiplayer; these are the same people who brought us the Unreal Tournament series, so it's safe to say they know what they're doing when it comes to playing against other humans. But UT also had awesome A.I.-controlled bots. And now, so does Gears of War 2.

The bots are only available in the Training Grounds mode, but you can play any of the multiplayer modes available within that mode with a full complement of bot players. In fact, Training Grounds is meant for those a little nervous about going online. It's a pressure free environment in which to learn the gameplay concepts behind things like Annex or Submission before you go online and play against the masses. Or it's just a place to go and enjoy yourself and have fun and not have to listen to 12 year olds calling you the n-word.

In addition to the really excellent competitive multiplayer modes (Submission is a personal favorite, though I would love to actually play as the meat flag) and the campaign co-op which has a bunch of achievements tied to it so I hop you have a friend willing to go through the whole thing with you, there is a mode that stands head and shoulders above the other ones. It's the Horde mode and we've talked about it before. Basically it's a round-based co-op game where a team of up to five players team up and take on wave after wave of increasingly difficult Locust attackers on any of the multiplayer maps. It's more fun than regular co-op because you really do have to communicate and plan well with your teammates. Finding different strategies to protect your backside or lay down traps and ambushes is a lot of fun with four other people that know what they're doing. And the way the action ratchets up in later levels really makes you feel as though you've accomplished something by completing the full 50 rounds. But it can definitely be done.

All of the multiplayer, both co-op and competitive, completely makes up for any that was lacking in the first game. For those that thought that Gears just wasn't suited to multiplayer gameplay, that it was too tactical and slow and was better suited to a single player experience, prepare to eat your words. It's fantastic, and rounds out the complete package that is Gears of War 2.

I could go on about other little details of the game that are very pleasing – the war journal that tracks achievements and collectibles, the achievements themselves, the Flashback Map Pack – but you should really go explore those on your own. Gears of War 2 is a must own for every Xbox 360 owner. Despite a few minor missteps in the way the story and action play out, and a few forgivable technical blemishes, Gears of War 2 is about as close as you can get to the perfect gaming package. Now the waiting begins for 3.


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

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


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