It is among the hottest properties in gaming, and one of Xbox Live's most popular titles. The original Gears of War was a worldwide success, even breaking barriers in Japan. It has garnered awards, critical praise, and still remains one of the most-played console titles this generation.
To say anticipation for Gears of War 2 has been huge is to put it mildly indeed. Epic Games' high-profile sequel has been treated with the utmost of reverence from publisher Microsoft and is looking to be one of the most powerful weapons in the Xbox 360's Christmas arsenal. It released worldwide this Friday, and already, Xbox Live's servers are full to the gills with chainsaw deaths and screams of "Revive me!"
So, with a weekend of locust slaughter under our belts, what does the Destructoid review crew make of Epic's latest blockbuster? Join myself and Brad Nicholson for the official Destructoid review of Gears of War 2.
Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360)
Jim "Theron Guards FTW" Sterling:
Gears of War 2 takes us back to the fictional planet of Sera, where Marcus and the rest of the Gears are still locked in a battle for survival against the subterranean Locust Horde. The Lightmass Bomb that Marcus' Delta Squad planted in the first game did not wipe out the Locust, and their attacks have become increasingly bolder. As the Gears prepare to launch an all-out attack on the enemy's home turf, sidekick Dom is getting angsty over his missing wife. What will happen next? Shooting, that's what!
The first thing that has to be said of Gears 2's campaign mode is that, as a sequel, it is structured absolutely perfectly. The story's pacing, and the way characters and events are reintroduced, have been structured so well that you'd be forgiven for thinking you were playing an interactive Hollywood movie. The "sequel" feel of the game has been implemented incredibly well, and as such, playing Gears 2 is like hooking up with an old friend.
The characters are as likable as ever, if a little corny, and there are some genuinely funny moments as well. The attempts at introducing some emotionally engaging stuff can feel a little forced, and at times the Dom/Maria subplot comes off as heavy-handed, but altogether it's a cool story with a few interesting twists.
As for the gameplay, you'll definitely know what you've got if you played the original Gears. It wasn't broken, so Epic hasn't fixed it, instead focusing on creating a better sense of flow to the gameplay and adding bigger and more thrilling setpieces. This they most certainly have done, as this sequel is packed full of incredibly memorable moments that hit at just the right moment, from the huge battle between rival transporters to the incredible Return of the Jedi-style Reaver chase through the forest.
Seemingly in response to criticism that the first game took place in long corridors, Epic has opened up the environments a lot. The game is still very linear, but everything feels a lot bigger and and comparatively open. As a result, battles are fittingly larger in scale and with new enemies like the Grinder and the grounded Reaver, you'll find that the fight is a lot more frantic and action-packed this time around.
With so many memorable moments, GoW 2's campaign can feel like a blood-drenched roller coaster ride. It's true that the core gameplay remains unchanged, and much of the combat is about digging in and firing from behind cover, but the varied environments and new gameplay objectives -- some of which I'd love to spoil but won't -- help keep the core of the game feeling fresh.
That's not to say that the game is complete happiness from start to finish. For one thing, some of the challenge this time around seems far too reliant on trial-and-error gameplay, with a few too many moments benefiting from you dying once or twice before seeing where you went wrong. The challenge is also not helped by the fact that ally AI is absolutely pathetic. At one point, for example, I had been knocked down and needed Dom to revive me -- something that never happened before Dom kept running away. So if you want a competent Dom, make full use of the game's co-op feature.
There is also yet another ill-advised vehicle section midway through the game in which you control a Centaur. Whoever thought having an incredibly unwieldy tank navigating a frozen lake -- that is having holes bombed into it -- was a good idea needs a bit of a slap in the head. There are other "vehicle" sections beyond that, which I won't talk about here since they are best left discovered by the player. Rest assured, however, that they are excellent.
This brings us to the multiplayer, which is where Gears 2 starts to pay for itself. While it won't win any new fans, those who have a penchant for Gears' third-person quasi-tactical shooting will get endless replay value from a whole host of game modes and five-a-side matches. In addition, Epic has added unlockable multiplayer characters that can be earned in the campaign mode to keep people playing.
There are now seven multiplayer modes to choose from, but they all generally focus on players killing each other. The new maps are larger and more varied, helping to promote a more strategic approach to combat, as opposed to the mad shotgun dash that ruined the first game. Speaking of shotguns, they have had their power reduced a lot, which means that you'll see players using a far greater array of weapons this time around, and the combat taking on a far more interesting shape.
Even that old standby, the chainsaw bayonet, has had an element of risk introduced thanks to "chainsaw duels." If two characters have their saws primed, you'll enter a button-mashing duel to see who gets to slice the other one up. While I have severe doubts over whether this works fairly when factoring in broadband connections, I can at least say that it turns the token chainsaw kill into less of a sure thing, and gives everyone a fighting chance.
Much has been made of the new co-op mode, Horde, which pits up to five players against wave after wave of increasingly difficult Locust. From what I have played of Horde, I would rate it good, but not mind-blowing. For me, it certainly has not been the highlight, but its inclusion far from hurts, merely adding a cool new feature to an already stacked menu.
The game is full of more subtle but enhancing tweaks. The ability to pilot a "Ghost Cam" when you die in multiplayer is much appreciated, even if the camera is a little difficult to control. I also really dig that Epic has annexed Valve's Achievement system, with a little notice popping up while you play to chart your Achievement progress as you get ever closer to your goals.
One problem that remains is the online lobby. While it's something of an improvement, you are stuck with a set playlist from which two match types will be selected, and the players need to vote for what gets played. While suitably democratic, it can be difficult to get the games you want. The whole lobby still isn't quite as user-friendly or efficient as one would like, but it will get you into a game eventually.
Graphically, the game isn't hugely more impressive than the first Gears, but the larger environments and more vibrant scenery certainly help. It is somewhat unfair to complain about the game being very gray, since it is a look that Epic popularized rather than copied. The color palette works for what it is intended to convey, and it only serves to help make the brighter stages -- and there are some bright ones -- look ever more striking.
As far as sound goes, the voice actors are all great, delivering their lines with an over-the-top gruffness and some pretty decent comic timing when needed. The Locust sound as vile and disgusting as ever, the sound effects are suitably meaty and the music is ridiculously grandiose.
This game is excellent. No two ways about it. It has its rough patches for sure, but nothing that can take the shine from an incredibly polished product that has been clearly made with love. So many of the big, hyped games have disappointed me this year, and it feels good to play a game that actually lives up to its promise. The game doesn't try and wow you with "innovative" new ideas, nor does it try and redefine what an action game is. It's a big, dumb, gory shooting game.
Scratch that. It's the best big, dumb, gory shooting game.
Brad "It's a fucking party down here" Nicholson:
There’s nothing like popping a grub’s head in the morning. Gears of War 2 is an apt sequel that supersedes everything its predecessor has done. The original Gears was all about visceral, in-your-face combat, juxtaposed with a curious cover mechanic designed to keep players moving from barrier to barrier before ripping their enemies in half with a chainsaw. Gears 2 does all of these things, and for the most part, it does them better.
The other portions of the story are still on shaky ground. Some mission parameters are undefined. Even when the mystery is peeled back, or a brief glimpse is given as to why characters take a certain journey, Epic purposefully pulls the wool over your eyes. It’s painfully obvious that several more sequels are going to be made, as nothing is ever explained past the immediate impact of an event. Gears 2 lacks any sort of closure and it can become frustrating for anyone who enjoys a good story.
Boss battles and vehicle missions are back and only slightly more frustrating than they were before. Each boss fight breaks down to a simple algorithm -- shoot this, cut this, then shoot this again. The thing that saves the monotony of these battles is the superb presentation of, and theatrical buildup to, the event. The vehicle missions are particularly non-traditional, minus the first affair where players will be tasked with navigating a ghetto Warthog around an icy environment. It’s frustrating, but nothing on par with the first game’s excursion with a vehicle. The latter “vehicle” levels are truly a delight, especially the last one. These are experiences that players wouldn’t expect in Gears and are therefore all the more spectacular.
The multiplayer components are rich and deep. Horde mode is easily the best. It pits up to five players against a seemingly endless amount of Locust across 50 rounds of play. Players will find themselves interacting intensely as the waves of enemies appear on each side of the level. The rest of the modes are standard shooter fare with a Gears spin on it. Communication and rolling in groups are a must. Levels are brilliantly designed, but also much more spaced out. There is finally a reason for a person to carry around a Hammerburst. Despite how great the modes are, the game is still very based on supreme connectivity -- even a hint of latency will still give the host a massive advantage.
Overall Score: 9 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)