Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Gears of War was one of the most important and critically-acclaimed new IPs on the Xbox 360... and with true Microsoft exclusives slowly grinding into a bottleneck, Gears of War 2 needs to deliver. After years of desperate defence and retreat, the Coalition of Ordered Governments are finally ready to bring the fight to the Locust's home turf; which means that Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad are headed deeper underground to cut the head from the alien menace once and for all. There's a lot riding on this one- and I'm not going to sugar coat it. In technical terms, harnessing the entire lexicon provided by the ancient and venerable English language, Gears of War 2 is kickass.
It's an interactive summer blockbuster that chainsaws the pants off of everything that Michael Bay's put out there; delivering big budget thrills that simply don't leave you room to catch your breath. One moment you'll be desperately defending a hospital against marauding locusts... and before you know it, Fenix and Co are hurtling through the Earth in a subterranean drop pod or boosting a massive tank over improbably large chasms. And just when you think that things are slacking off, then you'll cut the heart out of a worm that's could comfortably swallow Greater London. Everything about Gears 2 is gleefully, ridiculously, wonderfully and unashamedly OTT- and makes it as fun to watch as it is to play. This is also partly due to the fact that the improved Unreal engine delivers some of the finest console graphics of this current generation.
In terms of gameplay, Gears 2 provides a natural evolution of its predecessor. You'll still use a combination of cover tactics and intelligent flanking to best your enemies, but a new control scheme (that I heartily recommend you adopt) makes everything a lot crisper and sharper this time around. A new selection of weapons (such as a vicious automatic pistol, poison grenades and a hilariously powerful mortar) epic additions to your arsenal Some of the old classics have been retooled, including an scoped Hammerburst and sticky grenades that can be attached to walls and enemies. And of course, the Lancer's still around to deliver mid-range domination and brutal, beautiful chainsaw takedowns.
Speaking of takedowns, I do need to expand on the new executions. I love me some filthy ultraviolence from time to time- and Gears of War 2 introduces a new downed but not out mechanic that shakes things up even further. Enemies can be brought to their knees and revived by their allies... but instead of just putting them out of their misery, you've got the choice of curb stomps, quick executions or a lengthy cinematic coup-de-grace that'll force you to look at your guns in an entirely different way. Did you know that the Longshot sniper rifle has a handy backup use as a golf club, for example?
You've got all this new gear for a reason. Enemies attack in greater numbers and increased intelligence (especially on tougher difficulty levels)- and some new arrivals will put you through your places. Kantus priests can resurrect their allies, voracious Bloodmounts elevate their riders even as they void your cover and several new boomer variants wield a selection of horrific mounted guns. Killing them grants you access to the mulcher- a delicious mini turret that provides the user with cover whilst raining death onto the... sorry, I'm back on the boomsticks again. Focus, Jon.
The pacing is much more varied than last time around. As well as a greater mix of open environments and tight arenas, Gears 2 throws a number of unfamiliar and thoroughly enjoyable new gameplay experiences at the player. You can almost hear Cliffy B and the Epic dev team excitedly high fiving, fist-pounding and chest bumping with each new addition to the franchise.
Bored of sticking to cover? Fine, why not protect a massive landcrawler from grappling boarders and ravaging Brumaks! Corridor-crawling getting you down? Okay then, get in a tank and rag it across an icefield while artillery pounds the ground from underneath you! Bored of keeping your boots on terra firma? Cool, let's get you airborne...on a Reaver! Yeeeah, boi!
Okay, so my mental image of the Epic offices are clearly embarrassingly unrealistic, but you get the idea.
The campaign does choke every once in a while. A frankly ill-advised timed obstacle section inside a massive oesophagus provides several scoops of frustration thanks to the clunky Roadie Run mechanic; and an odd horror-themed level slows things down to an unsatisfying crawl. A couple of weak attempts at boss battles also let the side down. What's more, some deeply personal and emotional plot lines occasionally leap into the spotlight. These moments are surprisingly tender and well-handled, but they feel disjointed and inappropriate considering the fist-pumping testosterone-fueled background. Oh, and don't expect any closure. Gears 2 bring up myriad new questions without providing any answers whatsoever. Vexing.
So, the singleplayer is undeniably good fun... but that's only half of the package. Gears of War multiplayer revolved around small teams and intimate maps- and though the scale has slightly increased, it's pretty much the same fare this time around. Five-player matches and new gametypes slightly increase the size of the battles (including a hilarious new capture the flag variant that replaces a cloth on a pole with an ornery shotgun toting outcasts)... but unfortunately, Gears 2 also includes all the nasty niggles that crippled the original- plus a whole lot more.
I've seen host advantage. Massive crippling lag. Poorly implemented matchmaking. Bad weapon balance. More glitches than I could comfortably handle. It's especially infuriating because the multiplayer is actually a lot of fun, but is effectively neutered by some easily-correctible technical issues. Epic had better get on the case and get this sorted. Now.
Update: The recent patches have sharpened up most of GOW2's multiplayer problems. It's still not perfect, but at least it's consistently playable.
Luckily, Gears 2 comes with a multiplayer ace that's sure to become a staple of the genre. Horde Mode allows four Gears to team up and work together to defeat increasingly-difficult waves of enemies, using an addictive scoring mechanic and lives system to keep track of player progress. The improved AI makes for a tense and unpredictable experience that demands close team tactics and a fair amount of trust to succeed. Friends will be made and lost forever on the Horde maps, mark my words.
- Sharp, varied combat with some amazing kills
- More fun than most blockbuster movies... even to watch
- Probably some of the best graphics to ever grace a home console.
- Terrible boss 'battles'
- No answers... just many more questions
- Glitchy, embarrassing multiplayer. Fix it, Epic! Fix it!
The Short Version: Gears 2 is brash, unashamedly OTT, vulgar and beautiful; delivering blockbuster thrills that don't let up for the duration. You'll laugh, you'll cry... and you'll find it difficult to resist being swept up in the rampant spectacle of it all. Occasionally ropey design choices and a staggering selection of technical multiplayer issues sometimes rear their ugly heads- but if you own a 360, consider this a killer app.