Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: Microsoft Games
Release Date: November 9, 2008
Two years ago, Microsoft and Epic introduced us to the war-torn world of Sera, the unyielding force of destruction known as the Locust, and a ragtag band of warriors known as the Gears. Led by ex-convict Marcus Fenix, the four-man Delta Force cursed its way through the hyper-violent landscape and won a hard-fought victory. The game stood out from the pack thanks to its highly integrated cover system. Rather than simply run-and-gun, like most first- and third-person shooters, Gears of War required players to duck and cover, lest they be torn to a bloody pulp in seconds.
Alas, the respite was not to last, as six months later, the Locust returned with a vengeance. Rather than attack directly, the Locust forces began using a super weapon to sink whole cities and once again, only Delta Force can stand in their way. It's up to Marcus, Dom, Baird and Cole to hit the front lines and take the battle to the Locust before all hell breaks loose and the humans of Sera become extinct.
Sitting down with Gears of War 2 for the first time, we immediately noticed the gore tuning. What's here is just as bloody and foul as before, but Epic has wisely removed the super-annoying half-screen of blood splatter that would obscure your vision every single time you got hit. This time around, you get the gore without the annoyance. Yay.
Controls also feel a bit less cumbersome, most notably in the "stickiness factor" whenever Marcus grazes a wall. Back in the first Gears, Marcus would cling to any cover in sight. Here, you can actually run along a wall without slamming against it. And for those of you who think that mapping the "run" and "cover" functions to the same button just doesn't work, you have the option to choose an alternate control scheme that is similar to the one used in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.
For the purposes of the preview, we were allowed to play through the first act of the game, which has Marcus and Dom training the new guy, a relative of the late, great Carmine and then protecting a caravan as it made its way to Landown. The initial battling started out confined to the interior of a hospital, but quickly opened up and moved outside. Since it's been a while since the release of the first Gears, our initial attempts to defeat the Locust Halo-style failed miserably, but the duck-and-cover nature of Gears gameplay quickly returned. Once we started using the abundant (and we do mean abundant) cover littered around the level, pressing forward with the fight, let alone surviving, became a whole lot easier.
The next sequence had us hopping on board Betty, one of a group of armored loaders in a caravan. Of course, the promised "easy ride" was anything but, with this section of the game was more about testing our reflexes than forcing cover usage. While defending Betty, we didn't move around the world, the world moved around us. This meant shooting down incoming mortars, fending off reaver attacks and preventing Locust boarding parties from getting on the deck. On the easier difficulty levels, you're given a bit of breathing room, but playing on Hardcore, the execution has to be near perfect. If your aim isn't true, you're toast.
After making it to Landown, we had to clear the area of Locust as well as learn how to use the mortar weapon against a pissed-off Brumak — and you folks thought the Berserkers in the original were a challenge. Now you have something to look forward to, and that's only in the first act.
As is par for the course with Gears, the act ended with a challenging firefight before kicking into gear with a cut scene giving us our first glimpse of Skorge, the new Locust "big bad." Looking something like a rasta-Locust with a wicked chainsaw spear, Skorge was a preview of things to come. Thankfully, we didn't have to wait long because the preview gameplay included the first act as well as the first part of Act 5, where we found ourselves in an airborne battle with Skorge himself.
We can't tell you exactly what led up to the moment, but we found our intrepid Delta Team riding two reavers (no, that's not a typo) as Skorge pursued on what looked like a steroid-enhanced super-reaver. Flying across the countryside, we needed to not only dodge Skorge's attacks, but fight off his mount as well. Much like the Betty sequence we mentioned earlier, it made for a nice break from the standard play mechanics and looked pretty impressive. A reaver is pretty fearsome when you're fighting one, so it's nice to have all that firepower under your control.
In addition to the improved controls, Gears of War 2 has also gotten a visual makeover. It's not a massive change, but it's enough to be noticeable, as there are a lot more little details in the background to help bring the world to life.
Delta Team also appears to have spent the time off by training and honing their skills. When playing through the first Gears, it often felt like your teammates were more cannon fodder than anything else, as they were constantly getting shot. Here, your virtual teammates can actually be of use while fighting the Locust. It's a welcome tweak.
Multiplayer was a big part of the original Gears' popularity, and Epic hasn't slacked in that area. We took a look at the standard multiplayer modes, but to be honest, most of our online gaming time was taken up by the new Horde mode. Horde mode sounds simple enough — put five players on a map with wave after wave of attacking Locust that slowly get stronger and stronger, with the goal of surviving the onslaught — but it is much more than the sum of its parts. Let's just say that Horde mode stole the show among the assembled press, with everyone vying for Horde matches. There was much cursing and many a death (lots and lots of deaths, actually), but the teamwork aspect was solidly there, and the claustrophobic maps ensured everyone had to do their part. Letting a teammate die severely impacted the survival chances of the rest of the players. In between waves, dead players automatically respawned, and there was a mad dash for weapons and ammo. Yep, Horde mode purposefully has limited ammo. Trust us. It's a blast.
Among the standard multiplayer modes, the one that stood out most was Submission. Think of it like Capture the Flag, only with a living flag that has a mind (and a gun) of its own. There's nothing more fun than teasing another player because he got killed by the flag. Lose control of the poor sap serving as the flag, and he'll run away. It's a little twist, but it breathes fresh life into an old scenario.
Other new modes include Wingman, which is deathmatch but with teams of two; King of the Hill, which was originally only available in the Windows version of Gears; and Guardian, which is a modified version of Assassination. The goal here is to kill the enemy team's leader before your leader is killed. So long as your leader is alive, you can respawn. Lose your leader, and that's all she wrote. Returning modes include Annex, Execution and Warzone.
In a nod to players who have mastered the first Gears, three multiplayer skins are available via linked Achievements. If you have completed the required Achievements in Gears of War, the skins are unlocked. If not, no skins for you. There is no alternative method of unlocking the characters of Carmine, Minh Young Kim and General RAAM. Other exclusive skins include two golden guns, the Lancer and Hammerburst. They don't have any gameplay advantage, but the golden Lancer denotes players who bought the limited edition of Gears of War 2, while the golden Hammerburst is only available to those who purchase the game at a midnight launch. If you don't buy it on day one, you don't get the golden Hammerburst, so get ready to wait in line.
For the cynical out there, Gears of War 2 is also making a push against game re-sales by including the Flashback Map Pack only with new copies of the game. Similar to the 20 bonus tracks in Rock Band 2, the Flashback Map Pack is included as a download code in the box. It's a one-time use code that grants you five additional multiplayer maps, bringing the total to 15 (the first 10 are included on the disc). Microsoft and Epic both promised us that the Flashback Map Pack will not be made available in any other matter, free or paid. In short, if you buy it used, you miss out on one-third of the multiplayer goodness.
While the content was limited during the Gears of War 2 preview event, what we were able to play certainly looks like more of the original Gears, only better with bigger guns and more blood. If you were hoping for a gameplay revolution, it probably won't be your bag, but if killing Locust with Marcus and Dom sounds like fun, then mark November 7th on your calendar.
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