Review by Archvelius

Reviewed: 12/23/08

Perfection on the other side of a Patch


The original Gears of War was what sealed my decision to buy a 360 instead of a PS3. It was innovative to an extreme, and frankly, blew me away. Learning the controls and familiarizing myself with the game’s quirks was half the fun – for years after the release, I still had tons of fun online. When I heard Gears 2 was in the making, I immediately reserved it. It was advertised as bigger, better, and lacking its predecessor’s main flaws: namely, the dreaded Host Advantage and numerous, irritating glitches.

Though Epic Studios delivered on its promises in part, in many ways this sequel not only fails to improve upon the original, but is actually worse.

“So sexy it hurts”
are an undeniable improvement. Although it’s hard to tell unless you have the original on hand, the visuals are markedly better. Character models are more detailed, lighting is more sophisticated, and environments are even more beautifully rendered. The game is visually stunning, in both polygonal detail and environmental variety. The physics system is great; falling trees bounce and sway realistically, blood splatters believably (if in somewhat unrealistic quantities), grenades bounce and slide predictably, and the flailing limbs the recently exploded sail through the air in satisfyingly languid arcs. It’s a pleasure even to watch – though playing is much to be preferred.

“300 with a touch more plot”
The story itself isn’t too complicated. It’s longer than the first Gears, and a bit more cinematic. There’s more character development, and a few more major players. Where the first Gears got by on simply fleshing out the world the Gears occupy, this one delves into the horrors of war against the backdrop of the characters themselves, taking on a darker, more mature tone. The physical movement of the characters is played through, but pretty much everything outside of Gears shooting Locust relies heavily on cutscenes. Though they’re very well-done both visually and in terms of dialogue and audio effects – as close to movie-quality as you’ll find in a video game – the cutscenes involve little interaction and no choice (apart from the occasional “right or left?” decision). They’re often a bit on the lengthy side, and the fact that your character walks at snails pace and can’t interact during them is just as annoying as it was in the original (maybe a little more so – on one level, my partner hit a cutscene while I was rolling through a trap, and I was obliterated as a result.) While it’s clear that the lulls in the action serve a very good purpose, I wish the writers had been better about breaking these non-interactive segments of the game up, or the designers better about making the cutscenes more interactive, the story less linear. In any case, the single player campaign is a blast to play through, especially with a friend. Minor complaints aside, I enjoyed the ride.

“Out with the old, in with the new.”
GAMEPLAY (Weapons, Mechanics, and Combat)
is similar to the first, with an expanded arsenal including poisonous grenades, a burst fire pistol, a flamethrower, an retractable riot-shield, and the addition of heavy weaponry: mobile turrets and mortar launchers. Grenades can be planted in walls and cover as proximity mines and downed players may be taken as human shields, absorbing frontal damage and concussive force, while those lucky enough to be holding a grenade when downed may opt to detonate said grenade as the enemy swoops in for the kill. Perspective is still third person, although from-the-hip shooting aims a little differently. Thankfully, targeting sensitivity has been expanded as well. Although players are still only given a choice between “low,” “medium,” and “high,” a distinction is made between “looking,” “targeting,” and “zooming.” What this basically means is that players can now snipe effectively while keeping themselves competitive (read: fast) close-range. Mobility is slightly improved as well – with players able to roll into a roadie run in any direction – and plays a slightly tweaked, if equally important role in gameplay. In an arguable improvement, staggering is much more noticeable: limiting the effectiveness of players who once relied on closing in on their opponents in a calculatedly erratic charge and outmaneuvering them in close quarters.

Those carrying heavy weapons move slowly and are unable to roll (though players may slide with the chain gun.) Those with human shields are similarly impaired, and those with “Boomshields” may run, but suffer a penalty to their speed and are unable to take cover. The brand-new additions to the combat system are well thought-out and work well. Almost every weapon is designed with specific weaknesses that can be exploited to counteract the advantages it provides, making matches decidedly more strategic. However, tweaks to existing features leave something to be desired.

Epic did some tinkering with existing weapons. Although most of this tinkering is founded in good intentions, about half of it will disappoint veterans of the series, and combinations of these tweaks make for some really frustrating moments – especially in online play. Online, players now have a choice between the Hammerburst and the Lancer as their chosen primary weapon, though everyone still begins the match with a shotgun, a snub pistol, and a smoke grenade. However, smart players will pretend they didn’t have a choice. Not only has the Hammerburst been downgraded (it technically can do more damage than the Lancer but the recoil is unmanageable at range and both blind-fire and shooting from the hip are now very unreliable) but the chainsaw on the Lancer has been vastly overpowered – the “rev time” needed to instantly saw an enemy in two is ½ a second, tops, in addition to being much harder to interrupt with bullets and still automatically trumping any other form of melee.

Supposedly Epic did this deliberately to make the game easier for new players to pick up and play, but the result feels like an exploit. Adding insult to injury, rolling is now faster than simply roadie-running, and running with the chainsaw revved is faster than running backwards while firing. I can’t count the number of times a player has simply rolled towards me, jogged right through the stream of my fire and cut me in half. The advertised “chainsaw duels” are little more than button mashing competitions won as much by luck in latency as any skill… if mashing “B” can be called skill. A “duel” implies something more involving than button-mashing, and could have at least involved the joysticks or something. Furthermore, though these “duels” technically counteract some of the chainsaw’s newfound supremacy, they also render the Hammerburst virtually pointless. Epic might as well have removed it from the game. Finally, since smoke grenades now deliver a concussive blast that knocks enemies down, some players avoid combat entirely by smoking their enemies, then blindly rushing in to chainsaw them as they regain their footing.

The changes made to other weaponry are less offensive. The shotgun’s damage has been significantly reduced, and will seldom blow enemies in half. On the plus side it’s a bit more effective at medium range. It usually disrupts a Sniper- (or Torque Bow- or Boomshot-) wielding enemy’s aim enough to escape death in firefights mutually outside of cover, but no longer functions reliably as a deterrent to rushing enemies. It takes some getting used to, but is almost as effective a weapon as it used to be, if used appropriately. Those fond of pistols will be pleased to know that the Boltok has been improved significantly – in skilled hands (and from cover especially) it’s easily more effective than the standard primary weapons at close-medium range. Online, the Boomshot now comes with 3 rounds in it, instead of 2, and the Hammer of Dawn has a limited charge before it stops working.

GAMEPLAY (Offline vs. Online)
Although I have major beef with the newly godlike chainsaw, the gameplay in Gears 2 is very solid. Levels are well-designed, weapons are (mostly) well balanced, and the controls are usually accurately responsive. Occasionally your character will interact with an obstacle or cover in a way it shouldn’t, but these problems are fairly infrequent. The campaign is great, and the ability to play splitscreen, online or off, is fantastic. This time around, teams consist of 5 players, and there’s a much wider variety of game types, in addition to all the old classics. The two most drastically different new game modes are undoubtedly Horde and Wingman. The former pits a team of five against 50 waves of progressively nastier locust in an all-out co-op survival match, while Wingman pits five two-man teams against each other in a uniquely challenging death match. It all sounds great in theory, and is actually pretty fun in offline bot matches. However, once online, problems begin to emerge.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. It’s not that Gears 2 isn’t any fun at all online, but the game suffers from the lack of dedicated servers. In an effort to rid Gears players of the dreaded “host advantage” once and for all, Epic completely revamped the interface for starting games online. Instead of having players host games, with those who didn’t want to host simply browsing a list of available games and joining whichever game they pleased, Epic decided to do a half-assed job of hosting themselves. While it’s still possible to start a locally hosted (or “private”) match, it now requires a lot more friends to be online and playing gears, because nobody else can (or will) join the “private” match.

Public matches are far worse. From what I can tell, Epic either has no dedicated hosting, or decided to simply randomly assign a host in every game. Playing gears publicly is an infuriatingly arduous process, and ultimately, a crapshoot. Unless you form a public party (which, again, requires you have friends playing at the time) you’ll have to wait anywhere from 3-5 or 5-10 minutes (seriously) for the matchmaking system to find a game and get started. When one team wins, you get to start all over again. Generally, the ratio of wait-time to play-time using Gears 2’s matchmaking system is 1:2 or 1:3. It’s aggravating to drop $60 bucks on a game, only to spend almost as much time staring at your TV screen as you do actually playing the game. And this is after Epic supposedly fixed the problem.

Furthermore, the people you’re partied up with are partied with you primarily based on their ranking relative to yours. The ranking system is never really explained, but isn’t specific or scaled enough to accurately measure a player’s skill anyway. Basically, it comes down to a rough estimate of who plays gears the most. What doesn’t seem to be taken into account during matchmaking is the latency of both your teammates and the members of the other team. I don’t think I’m the only one who would rather get totally dominated in a good, fair, lag-free match than struggle as much against a crappy connection as against a (supposedly) similarly skilled team.

Unfortunately lag is very common in Gears 2. About every other game I play, my character moves in a choppy way or gets slain in a firefight he clearly should have won on my screen. Maybe 1 out of 5 matches I play in, my character teleports, picks things up seconds after the fact and yards away from the actual pickup, or is so laggy that even chainsawing doesn’t work. Furthermore, even in relatively good games I have problems. Although the following is less common, (I only personally know one other person it happens to) I occasionally spawn in with no weapon in-hand from everyone else’s view. I’m unusually fast when this happens, but can’t shoot (though it looks like I am on my screen, my clip never empties), pick anything up, interact with obstacles (read: hop over cover) or attack in any way. Unfortunately, I can still get shot, and generally do.

I played the first Gears of War for years after its release. The story got old fairly quickly, but continually honing my skills against human players just never got old. Sadly, I’m beginning to doubt whether I’ll be doing the same with Gears II. The gameplay is just as good, but the online hosting and matchmaking system sucks. I waited quite awhile to write this review, because I was hoping Epic would patch the problem away, or at least make a noticeable improvement. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, and with Christmas looming, I want potential buyers to be aware of what they’re getting into. Gears 2 is a great game, but unless you’ve got a sizable chunk of your friends list already playing it, I’d be careful about making the purchase. Already, its fallen from the most played game on Xbox Live to the 4rth most played, and unless Epic fixes the problem, I don’t anticipate it rising back up the ranks.

Gears of War is a great game, I just don’t know if it will have the staying power its predecessor did. With a horribly implemented matchmaking system and gameplay designed to level the playing field between Veterans and New Players, the series’ fans are moving on at a faster rate than people are buying the game. On the other hand, the game is undeniably great from every other perspective. Graphics are stunning, the story is extremely well-done, and the gameplay is frantic, exciting, and challenging. Furthermore, online play is much more reliable once a player establishes some friends. Buyers then, should simply be aware of the flaws in the online mode, and prepared to either give up on Gears quickly or put some serious time into the sad task of cultivating a circle of Xbox Live “friends.”

Graphics: 10/10
Story: 8/10
Gameplay: (offline) 9/10 (online) 6/10
Replayability: 7/10

Overall: 8/10

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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