Review by Evil Dave

"A bigger and better Gears of War in virtually every way."

In the brief span of two years, Gears of War has gone from a gaming unknown to one of the most recognizable franchises in the industry. The series, which began its life as an experiment hatched from the minds responsible for the twitch-centric Unreal series, became the first breakout hit of the current console generation virtually overnight when it launched in November 2006. In lashing tight, cover-driven shooter gameplay to the over-the-top violence so familiar to followers of developer Epic Games, GOW struck a chord with a broad swath of the gaming populace. Within weeks, it had set records for sales and online users that stood well beyond the game's initial release window.

Now, as with all good things in the videogame industry, a sequel to that original juggernaut has landed on the XBox 360. Gears of War 2 has been described as the ‘bigger, meaner brother' of the first game, and on closer inspection this characterization is verifiably truthful. Everything that players loved about the primogenitor has been expanded, fortified, and thoroughly tweaked in GOW2, and a great deal of content has been added to supplement what was already an impressive package. The result of these efforts is a game that can be wholeheartedly recommended to anyone who even remotely enjoys playing mature shooters and is literally looking for plenty of ‘bang' for their gaming dollars.

GOW2 returns gamers into the shoes of the loveable meathead Marcus Fenix, who alongside his pal Dominic Santiago saved humanity (or a city, or some other nonsense) last time around. The narrative exposition in Gears of War was a mostly ancillary affair, opting for testosterone-addled banter in lieu of actual plot development. Thankfully, GOW2 attempts to flesh out the world around its protagonists, and it mostly manages to do a solid job of manufacturing motivation for the men of Delta Squad. The game even tries its hand at a couple of emotionally wrenching scenes, with decidedly mixed results – the script treats its playground of death cavalierly one moment, only to expect players to feel the hurt of a character's loss the next. Rather than a sci-fi epic, players should at best expect a decently constructed tale that gets out of the way of the explosions and gore.

And gore there will be. For those players who somehow missed Gears of War, the basic premise of that seminal title was cover – as in, find it and maneuver yourself behind it or get pulverized into bits. Marcus and his loyal squadmates are tasked with bounding from cover to cover, taking potshots at their foes in the Locust horde as they advance towards an array of objectives that never really stray from the tried-and-true ‘kill everyone, then move forward' ethos of the first title. Running around outside of cover is still a sure way to a checkpoint reload, so players are expected to get accustomed to the cover mechanics very quickly.

GOW2 doesn't really expand on the series' cover precept, preferring instead to build up the game around the mechanic. Leading the charge amongst those expansions are the game's battlefield environments. A number of the environments players will traverse are a great deal more open-ended than anything appearing in the previous Gears of War, and these expansive vistas allow for a semblance of freedom in tactics that incorporates a smidgen of strategy into players' movement decisions. Of course, there are still plenty of corridors to crawl and caves to clear, too, and the claustrophobic combat of these segments works well in juxtaposition with the more open levels. Rounding out the proceedings are a few boss encounters. These battles tend to require creative use of your armaments to best, and they end up being both memorable and exhilarating.

No matter what the scenario, combat in GOW2 is a viscerally enjoyable experience. All the stalwart weapons from the initial release return for another glorious exposition, and each and every tool in your arsenal feels crafted to perfection. The old toys have been rendered new again thanks to the clever additions of processes like Lancer chainsaw duels or more brutal weapons-based executions. New weapon additions are similarly memorable – progression through the campaign can almost be designated by the appearance of new, cooler weaponry that players will be eager to give a try. Rounding out players' repertory are a slew of neat little touches that can become quite helpful in the midst of a firefight, like the ability to take downed enemies as living shields or the now-famous active reloading feature.

Of course, the campaign isn't entirely without warts. Each of the five acts includes at least one chapter that features some sort of diversionary activity, ranging from a tank-based vehicular level to a romp through Locust turf on the back of a Brumak. A couple of these segments are genuinely exciting – the Brumak is an absolute death-dealing machine – but others deaden the pace of the game, and can feel like needless divergences from the core gameplay. Then there are your buddies in Delta Squad – the oft-suicidal teammate A.I. that everyone loved to hate in the original title rears its head at times this go-around, although these occasions have now been minimized by reducing your squad size more often.

The only other significant hitch in GOW2's gameplay is a legacy control issue from the first game. For some reason, the A button is still assigned three separate functions (stick to cover, jump, and roadie run) simultaneously, and concomitantly players will frequently find Marcus performing the incorrect action when the button is pressed. With practice such instances can be minimized, but for a triple-A title like this one such a glaring flaw is inexcusable. At least the game doesn't penalize players too harshly for death – checkpoints are generally numerous and convenient, and except for the Insane difficulty level enemies go down relatively quickly. Still, cheap deaths stemming from control malfunctions can grate over the approximately ten-hour campaign.

Luckily for players, then, that there is out-of-the-box support for as robust a co-op suite as was present in the primary Gears. As a single-player game, GOW2 is unquestionably quite agreeable; however, it's clearly built to be played cooperatively, and it succeeds spectacularly in this regard. Local, LAN, and both public and private co-op pairings are all available (with drop-in/drop-out fluidity for each), so setting up a game is quick and painless. Once you've got yourself set up, having a real human being in place of the braindead A.I. is a real treat – all manner of inchoate tactics suddenly become viable, as the game's more open-ended areas allow for actual suppression and flanking of enemies. It goes without saying the cooperative play is the way to experience the campaign.

Due to a sheer stroke of brilliance, cooperative play is now also an available manner of playing GOW2's multiplayer mode. ‘Wingman,' in which teams of two players each compete in a deathmatch-type point grab, is one of the new additions to the multiplayer offerings. It also happens to be perhaps the best, as it functions as a cooperative experience that provides near-limitless replayability. Also making their debut are ‘Guardian' (an updated ‘Assassination'), ‘Submission' (capture-the-flag, with a belligerent NPC as the flag), and ‘King of the Hill.' Between this impressive array of addendums and the returning original modes, the huge spectrum of options available for competitive play are practically begging to soak up hours of players' free time – and with ten players now allowed in each match (with bots available to fill free slots), the accommodations are especially inviting.

And then there's Horde mode. While not technically a competitive mode, Horde manages to capture the intensity of the competitive facets, and is easily the most impressive innovation in GOW2. It's a very simply idea, really: throw wave after wave of increasingly challenging Horde at a squad of five players to see how long they can keep themselves breathing. In practice, it can be exhilarating to take part in such stands – you'll feel a palpable sense of dread as each of the higher-level waves makes their approach, and the thrill of victory over such odds is as sweet as any experience in the game. Players could easily lose dozens of hours just playing Horde with their buddies, which is no mean feat given the attractiveness of the other game modes.

Rest assured that ‘attractive' is in fact the mot juste for GOW2. From environments to effects to characters, every nook and cranny of the game has a polished look that accentuates the gameplay beautifully. Little touches like a red glow that builds on the barrel of a rifle that's been fired for a few seconds pervade the tableau of combat, bringing a gritty reality to the admittedly fantastical (and sensationally gory) overall motif. The visuals are technically sound, too – you'll only very rarely encounter frame rate stutters, and the texture pop-in that plagues many Unreal Engine III titles only sporadically makes its presence felt.

As with the graphics, GOW sounds fantastic. Haunting melodies make way for adrenaline-pumping tracks in the midst of combat, while the guns, explosives, and NPCs all contribute their own aural contributions to the chaotic soundscape of battle. Some of the voiceover acting during cutscenes is delivered a bit dryly, but the script is often flat-out dumb (“Running away won't help – I'll just shoot you in your asses!”) so it's a forgivable oversight. Mid-mission chatter between your squadmates is a good deal more palatable, as the macho argot of the men of Delta Squad is both believable and occasionally humorous.

Gears of War 2 is an example of a sequel that bests its predecessor in almost every manner possible. Its campaign mode is more accessible and clever, its multiplayer suite is more diverse and engrossing, and its latest addition, Horde, is one of the most addictive cooperative pursuits you'll find in a shooter today. Taken as a whole, it represents an exceptional value that makes it stand out from what is a very crowded holiday gaming market. In short, GOW2 really is bigger and meaner than the first Gears of War – and if you're one of the multitudes that enjoyed that initial release, that's exactly what you want to hear.

Fans of the original Gears of War should not hesitate to purchase a copy of GOW2, as it will easily satisfy their gaming needs for weeks to come. Additionally, any other XBox 360-owning shooter fans who have yet to give the series a try should definitely try their hand with this one. Finally, any gamer that has ever had their interest piqued by the prospect of fighting a bloody, dangerous war against unrelenting foes whilst wielding a chainsaw bayonet will undoubtedly find something worthwhile in this package.

Score: 9/10


Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/21/08

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

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