Gears of War 2 Review

By Nick Breckon, Nov 07, 2008 7:28am PST When it comes to action movie sequels, the best tend to take the original formula and twist it enough to keep the concept fresh. Whether it's Terminator 2, Aliens or The Dark Knight, great sequels build on the previous work, rather than treading over tired ground.

Gears of War 2 tries to be Aliens. It tries to be The Empire Strikes Back. In terms of plot, it certainly follows the Empire mold, taking a basic good vs. evil premise and heading down a darker, more winding path. And in terms of gameplay, it definitely goes the Aliens route, turning up the action and introducing plenty of new material.

Many reviews have called Gears of War 2 a perfect game. As a big fan of the original Gears, I'd love nothing more than to entirely agree. I will say that for the most part, I enjoyed the new campaign. And I wholeheartedly endorse the multiplayer component, which is simply an outstanding value that should justify a purchase for any established fan.

But to help the people on the fence, who may not have enjoyed the first game but are considering a purchase this time, I also have to be honest: from where I'm sitting, some of this new single-player material falls surprisingly flat.

Gears of War 2's setpiece sequences and giant boss fights may be "bigger" in the sense that the technology allows for a larger scale, but when it comes to the actual gameplay, they are often simplistic, smaller chores. Though the backgrounds may be deeper this time around, the action itself can be disappointingly shallow in places. And the story of Gears 2, never the strongest aspect of the series, is a mishmash of long, melodramatic scenes and painfully predictable turns.

The game begins with grunt stars Dom and Marcus learning that the Lightmass Bomb, the Gears' answer to the evil Locust horde in the previous title, wasn't quite the final solution the good guys were looking for. The Locust have stepped up their attacks on human cities, with only the capital of Jacinto standing strong. Eventually, the Gears decide that their last option is a direct assault on the underground home of the Locust, leading to a massive invasion that spans across the middle section of the game.

From a pure level design perspective, there are many shining moments to be found in Gears 2. The sense of pacing that made the original Gears such a stand-out title is rarely lost in the sequel. In particular, the entire last act of the game is an outstanding roller coaster ride, and well worth reaching--especially with a co-op buddy.

And it will take a while to reach, as Epic has unquestionably topped the original Gears in terms of the single-player content. This is not a perfect work, or a lazy sequel--it is a solid game, which both improves on the original and introduces a few new faults.

Reaver Regret
On the gameplay side, Gears 2 is distinguished from its predecessor more by its larger setpieces than new small-scale combat scenarios. Mostly these setpieces come in the form of assaults or escapes, and mostly they involve riding something, be it a tank or a Brumak.

One prime example is the Reaver-riding escape from the catacombs, which amounts to a rail-shooter minigame and boss battle. Dodging missiles and memorizing the boss' pattern is the extent of the exercise. It looks great on screen, but it has nothing to do with what I enjoy about Gears of War gameplay.

Another sequence involved a ride in a buggy-like tank across a snow-covered plain. While refreshing at first, the novelty soon wore off as I found myself gliding over icy lakes, having to guess where giant patches of ice might crack and send my ride into the water. Of course, these holes in the ice are scripted to crack at the last second, forcing the player to slowly creep across the slippery surface and hope the game doesn't send you back to the last checkpoint.

Along these lines, there is an entire chapter of the game devoted to platform-esque block dodging, with almost no shooting whatsoever. From a presentational standpoint the level is fantastic, but after a while the gameplay becomes painfully repetitive.

With one notable exception--the Brumak ride was well done--nearly every time I said to myself, "This plays entirely different from what I would expect in a Gears of War sequel," was a moment that I would have rather been taking cover behind another pillar. Don't get me wrong: it's not that these moments ruin the game. They simply represent much of the "new" in Gears 2, and much of it results in wasted opportunities.

But typical Gears combat is modified by a few new additions. Players will discover rock-like inchworms inside the Locust catacombs, which can be lured forward and used as mobile cover--though their paths are largely scripted. There are also new pillars that can pop up out of the ground, requiring careful timing as you advance on the Locust.

There are of course new weapons and combat flourishes. The most notable of the new arms are the giant, beastly ones: the flamethrower, mortar and massive Rippper chaingun. While the latter two are fun distractions in single-player, they make more of an impact on multiplayer, where the slowing down of your character must be weighed against the massive firepower.

And multiplayer is where this sequel really shines.

Modal Expansion
The cadre of multiplayer gametypes has been bolstered by four new modes, all incredibly strong. When combined with four hold-overs from the original Gears, you have a very impressive multiplayer component with few rivals. (Check out my guide/impressions of the Gears 2 multiplayer modes.)

Particularly notable is the new Horde mode, where five players must cooperative to defeat wave after wave of AI enemies. It's one of those old-school comp-stomp modes, with up to 50 increasingly-difficult stages for players to clear. The game keeps track of what levels you've cleared, allowing you to, for instance, pick back up on the 34th stage of Normal difficulty. It's a fantastic mode, and maybe the single most exciting element of this very large package.

Many multiplayer weaknesses identified in the original Gears have also been fixed. Players now have the option of entering a free-roaming death cam, rather than the annoying fixed cameras of the original game. As dying can often mean a bit of a wait in some modes, a new distraction has been added for the dead in the photo mode, which allows waiting players to snap shots that are automatically rated for violent content a la Dead Rising.

Multiplayer gamers will also now have the option of forming groups, easily moving from server to server without having to re-invite eachother. A new "What's up" feature also makes it incredibly easy to see which of your friends is currently playing Gears 2, ensuring quick and pain-free grouping.

Fragging With Emotion
After speaking with lead designer Cliff Bleszinski, I know how important it was to him for the narrative of Gears 2 to resonate with players. It is a much more complex, dramatic tale. At the very least, I give the team credit for trying to do something new here. But it just didn't work for me.

Rather than taking a more subtle, measured approach, Epic has convoluted things to the point of annoyance. Predictable twists are nothing new for videogames, but the characters in Gears are so shallow that these dull dramatic high-points often seem downright comedic. It all ends up resembling The Matrix Reloaded more than Aliens--by the end, I just didn't care who or what I was fighting for.

I could handle the over-the-top nature of the original Gears when it was handled with a light tone, but Gears 2 often takes itself too seriously, heading more into the territory of a mediocre comic book. Unable to delve into specific plot points for fear of dreaded spoilers, I can only throw up my hands, recognize that the story of these games is not for me, point to a recent opinion piece by EA designer Brice Morrison, and skip the cutscenes.

So where does all this leave us? I can confidently say that fans of the first Gears will eat this game up. Its faults are clearly visible, and disappointing to me in some respect, but I'll be buying the game along with everyone else--mostly to enjoy the vastly improved multiplayer modes.

However, a listener to a podcast I co-host recently wrote in asking me whether he should pick up Gears of War 2 if he didn't enjoy the first game. I didn't really get to sufficiently answer his question during the podcast, so here goes:

Probably not.

An Xbox 360 exclusive, Gears of War 2 is now available.

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  • I'm on the last act, and so far this game has been phenomenal.

    The sheer level design in its own right is tremendous. While I was a fan with Gears 1, I never finished the single player due to being bored with the lack of level variety it offered. With Gears 2, every level is different, every sequence is different. Graphics are still by far the best offering on the 360.

    It's really hard to describe until you play it. It's definitely an on-rail shooter but there is never a dull moment. I played multiplayer for a bit, but I know that it will be solid without even giving it much time. Pick it up for sure.