When you think of action games and Microsoft, two titles immediately come to mind: Bungie's Halo series and Epic's Gears of War. Coming on the heels of Epic's popular Unreal Tournament franchise (and partially serving as a demo of the latest version of the Unreal Engine), the original Gears of War was a stellar success. It not only moved games, but it also moved consoles. With Gears of War 2, Epic has attempted to recapture the same level of success by producing a game better than its predecessor. On a technical level, the team has succeeded, although as a whole, Gears of War 2 isn't quite the gameplay revolution that its predecessor was when it debuted.
If you checked out our preview last month, then you're already familiar with some of the visual upgrades and welcome control tweaks that make an appearance in Gears of War 2. Gone are the unnecessarily huge splashes of red that obscure half the screen when you're hit, the controls have been tweaked so you don't cling to walls like glue, and your squad is now somewhat effective as a fighting force when compared to the cannon fodder services they performed on the first outing. It's this last improvement that really makes a difference.
Instead of ignoring your squad, which was a common tactic in the original, you can actually use them to your advantage in Gears of War 2. In some levels, you'll want to set up a distraction so you can flank, while in other areas, you'll simply appreciate the extra firepower. Either way, your sqaudmates are usually around long enough to actually assist. No, they aren't invulnerable and do still get shot, but the calls of "Help me!" are now the exception rather than the rule. Whereas reviving an ally used to be a waste of time that made you unnecessarily vulnerable, it's now an actual asset.
All of the core elements are similar in scope, with Gears of War 2 preserving its predecessor's pacing. Exploring through each act, you'll have a short segment of quiet exploration, followed by an intense period of combat. This then repeats as you progress through the story. It's a great way to ensure that the player doesn't get bogged down while at the same time allowing for the game to be enjoyed in bite-sized chunks. There's no need to plow through it if you don't want to.
Visually, Gears of War 2 is certainly a step up. Everything you see is sharper, grimier and more detailed, with the cityscapes and vehicles benefitting the most. Creature design continues along the same lines, though we do get to see new Locusts as well as interact with enemies that were more or less teasers in the first. Aurally, Gears of War 2 is also up to task, with excellent environmental sound effects and voice acting that tops the first. The star of the show is Lester Speight, who serves as the voice of Augustus "Cole Train" Cole. A former football player, Cole is packed with attitude and runs his mouth as often as he fires his gun. Needless to say, the vast majority of Cole's lines had us rolling with laughter.
With the polished controls, fighting through Gears of War 2 is like listening to a symphony of violence. Movement is tight and crisp. Popping in and out of cover is a lot more responsive this time through. Enemies react intelligently to your advances. You'll find them taking cover as well as using flanking tactics when appropriate. The AI is by no means perfect, but it does an excellent job of being challenging rather than simply being hard. This is a key point of differentiation that really stands out on the higher difficultly levels. Playing through the entire single-player experience on hardcore took us about 17 hours. While there were plenty of deaths mixed in there, the vast majority of them felt like honest mistakes. There was never a sense of, "Hey, the game is cheating."
Where the single-player campaign starts to falter is in the difficultly curve. For the first three acts, the difficultly ramps up on a fairly solid rate, though it oddly peaks at the end of the third act. We don't want to spoil the details, but the battle with the boss in the third act is easily the most difficult fight in the game. The fourth act keeps a fairly level difficultly, though it was the fifth and final act that really confused us. Rather than push even higher, much of the fifth act felt like a joyride, with the game-ending boss battle serving as one of the most anti-climatic moments in gaming. Here we were, completely pumped up and ready for one hell of a battle as combat started, but before we even knew what was happening, the boss was dead and Achievement points were popping up on the screen like candy.
Likewise, the story driving Gears of War 2 also stumbles. In the early sections of the game, the plot is well-woven, and it takes the time to answer questions from the original game as well as introduce new threads. Some characters live and others die, and there's no real foreshadowing when it happens, so it has something of an effect. The story authors deserve kudos for this. Unfortunately, as the plot moves forward, many of the more intriguing threads are simply left hanging, with no wrap-up.
Finishing the single-player campaign felt just like walking out of a showing of "Back to the Future 2" or "The Matrix Reloaded." Despite the fact that neither Epic nor Microsoft has officially confirmed a Gears of War 3, what's here is undeniably the second installment in a trilogy, and the answers won't be coming for awhile. With such a strong buildup in the first half of the game, having an open ending was a letdown.
If Gears of War 2 relied only on its single-player component, it would be a short, but intense, experience. Thankfully, Epic has seen fit to revamp the multiplayer experience, which is where the game really hits its stride and leaps well ahead of the first Gears of War. This is also were most players are likely to spend the majority of their time.
Kicking off the multiplayer experience is Horde mode. This throwback to old-school, arcade-style play has garnered a lot of buzz in the press over the past few months, and with good reason. It's horribly addicting, incredibly fun and just might be the best part of the whole Gears of War 2 experience.
Horde mode pits five human players against wave after wave of oncoming Locusts. After every 10 waves, the attacking Locusts get a stat boost, making the onslaught that much more intense. Survival requires a fast trigger finger, but it also requires a great deal of teamwork. Everyone playing has to communicate well and often. If your teammates get spread out across the map, you're dead. If you don't identify and eliminate immediate threats, you're dead. If you don't quickly revive a downed teammate and let him die, you're dead. Even the best Gears players won't be able to survive here if they don't know how to talk to one another. Unless everyone happens to be playing in the same room, you absolutely need to use a headset for this one.
The more traditional multiplayer modes include returning favorites from Gears of Wars (Annex, Execution and Warzone) as well as new modes for Gears of War 2. New modes include:
- Guardian: This plays as a modified form of the original's Assassination and has you defending your team leader. To win, you must eliminate the opposing team. Kill the leader, and the other team loses the ability to respawn.
- King of the Hill: Originally a PC exclusive, this mode has a team holding a capture point in order to score points. You can only kill enemies at close range or with one-shot kills. The catch? The team in control of the capture point cannot respawn, but the enemy team can.
- Submission: Perhaps second only to Horde mode, Submission is like capture-the-flag, only the flag is an NPC armed with a shotgun ? a pissed off, trigger-happy NPC. To score, you need to subdue the NPC and get him back to the scoring ring. It is entirely possible for "the flag" to have more kills than the human players on the map. If this happens to you, expect your friends to laugh profusely.
- Wingman: This all-new mode is basically deathmatch with teams of two. Supporting up to 10 players total, Wingman puts a new twist on an old standby simply because there's always someone watching your back. It might sound dull, but it's a lot more enjoyable in practice.
In addition to the game modes, the new party system is also worth mentioning. This allows you to gather a group of friends in either full or partial teams and hop from match to match without having to continually regroup. Combine this with the in-game "What's Up" feature to see all your friends, and you've got a slick method of grouping up. It's subtle, but much appreciated. Other new bits include the ability to play against bots while you learn the new multiplayer modes, a much-improved ghost camera for checking out the action after dying and an in-game camera that allows players to take screenshots and upload those images to GearsofWar.com.
There are 15 maps included when you buy Gears of War 2, but only 10 are actually on the game disc. The remaining five maps make up the Flashback Map Pack, which consists of reworked multiplayer maps from the original Gears of War. The Flashback Map Pack is provided as an Xbox Live token in the game box and has to be downloaded. Why not just include it on the disc, you ask? Call it the first salvo in the battle against game resales.
The Flashback Map Pack is only available in new copies of Gears of War 2. It will not be sold separately in any way, shape or form. Once the code is redeemed, it is tied to a specific Xbox Live account as well. In short, anyone who buys the used game misses out on one-third of the multiplayer goodness, with no way to get them. Given that multiplayer is such a big portion of the game, we're guessing that used copies won't be that desirable. It's something to be aware of, in case you're thinking about trying to save a few bucks.
Just in case competitive multiplayer isn't your bag, Gears of War 2 also has full support for co-op play during the campaign. Anything you can play in the single-player mode, you can also go through with a friend. In a nod to players of mixed skill levels, the two co-op players can play on different difficulty levels. Essentially, it serves as a handicap so that a really awesome player and a so-so player can enjoy the game together, without one having to carry the other or the novice player always dying.
In the end, Gears of War 2 achieves exactly what it sets out to do: make a better Gears of War. It's an accomplishment worthy of praise, but knowing what Epic is capable of, we really wish they would have pushed the envelope a bit more on the campaign mode. The multiplayer is a nice step forward and nearly worth the price of admission on its own, but the campaign ultimately feels like more of the same, just prettier and shinier. If you loved the original, you're going to eat this one up, but if Gears of War wasn't quite your bag, the sequel isn't going to win you over.
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