Destructoid review: Gears of War 2

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)
Developed by Epic Games
Published by Microsoft Game Studios
Released on November 7, 2008

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.

Score: 9 

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.

Gears 2 brings something much more spectacular to the table — a decent presentation, which is something the previous Gears was sorely lacking. The conflict is immediately framed by the opening cut-scene as a last-ditch effort for the humans of planet Sera to defeat the occupying underground force, the Locust. The scale of the game is dictated quickly, as players are shown a massive Locust force moving to the surface of the planet, eager to destroy the human civilization. Instead of playing defense, the humans are taking the fight straight to the shafts and temples of the Locusts’ underground world. Along the way, players will kill familiar enemies, control unfamiliar “vehicles,” and actually feel somewhat drawn in by a storyline that suffices for a shooter.

The story shrivels quickly outside of mission parameters. This time around, Epic decided to attempt to get players invested in protagonist Marcus Fenix and his buddies, particularly Dom. Dom has turned what was a throwaway comment in the first game into a new motivation to kill the Locust horde — and it isn’t because they are threatening human habitation. It’s because his wife is missing and he supposes that the villains have something to do with it. He carries around a cute little picture and often appears teary-eyed when another piece of the puzzle is delivered to him over the course of the game. The scenes in which Dom expresses his desire to find his wife are always laughable and are out of context with the machismo-laden game. The characters in Gears are overblown, ridiculously frenzied soldiers who scream and rage on a consistent basis. Dom’s emotional appeals are easily lost, not to mention worthless when the conflict is considered as a whole.

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.

Thankfully, the gameplay is more engaging than the story. The foundation is built upon sliding into cover, popping up when a hail of bullets from confrontation lessens and taking careful aim. Barriers are always available and shredding opponents is consistently a satisfactory experience. The confrontations in this Gears are decidedly more vast, and thus, a ton of bullets are going to fly. The tightening and application of the cover mechanics fit the larger conflicts perfectly. Even better, the weapons are much more accurate and certainly more useful. This is the first game I’ve ever played where I feel like every weapon is as good as the other. Certainly weapons like the Hammer of Dawn have especially good uses outside of typical battle, but there isn’t any reason to avoid a single weapon in the game.

Movement in battle is confined to floating between barriers and rolling around the battlefield to get close to an enemy. Fenix is a heavy man (if the bulging trashcan armor is any indication), and it obviously affects his potential to move quickly or with any sort of grace. Couple the lumbering protagonist with a particularly swift enemy and you’ll encounter one of the few problems in the game. When outside of a barrier, it can be difficult to maneuver back to a blockade, especially with a fast enemy with instant-kill properties following close behind. Fortunately, and unlike in the previous game, Fenix won’t get hung up on too many foreign barriers. Partially, this is due to better level design. While things are always hopelessly confined, the cover objects are spaced out much better.

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 one thing that brings the campaign down is the lackluster AI. Enemies will occasionally stumble around the level, making poor choices or forgetting to shoot at all. They’re incredibly adept at picking up brethren who need reviving (you can now crawl like a baby when downed), but fail when given a challenge outside of humping a barrier. Dom is apparently retarded, and will often fail to help in the single-player campaign. Most deaths could be avoided if Dom was willing to actually help instead of cry about his wife, but this is alleviated by playing the campaign in cooperative mode, where a player can harness Dom’s emotional might against the Locust horde. Cooperative mode functions spectacularly and latency is minimal at best. The pick-a-path objectives are still present, and it’s still great fun to snipe across a level for your pal while he’s on one side of the map, and for him to help you with your little mini objective. Players can also choose individual difficulties, and surprisingly, it works. The real campaign experience is inside of the cooperative play, but the single-player is still fascinating, exciting, and redeeming.

It’s hard not to mention how spectacularly everything is presented. A cut-scene that conveys scale and intensity prefaces practically every fight. Every level is wonderfully realized and well-designed around the mission parameters. The game excels atmospherically, and constantly builds upon itself from the beginning stirrings of helplessness to the epic conclusion of total control. The visuals are much improved and easily some of the best to ever grace a console. While the palette is still decidedly dark, there are sections of the game that are bright and vibrant. Character models look spectacular, and little touches like lip-syncing function well. The music in the game captures the essence of each moment without overdoing it, and the sound of firearms is deeply satisfying. Most importantly, Baird is still awesome and definitely funny.

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.

Gears of War 2 is a game that actually accomplishes what most sequels strive to do, which is to be better than their predecessors in every way possible. Gears 2 is a thrilling experience that does all the right things. It has an engaging shooting mechanic, excellent presentation, and a hard-hitting demeanor that both excites and delivers. The multiplayer mode will easily keep you engaged for many months to come. The only things that really halts this game’s momentum are the AI bugs and lackluster story. But those things really wash away when confronted with the total package that is this game.

Score: 9

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.)

Jim Sterling