Gears of War 2 Review

Nate Gillick

After the release and instant success of the original Gears of War, it quickly became apparent that Microsoft wanted to place it next to the Halo franchise as part of a one-two punch to sell as many 360s as they possibly could. Being labeled as a console-selling title puts a lot of pressure on that game to deliver the goods, and it's with that in mind that Cliff Bleszinski promised that Gears of War 2 would be "bigger, better, and more bad-ass" than the original, making it a must-have title for any Xbox 360 owner's library. For the most part, Epic Games has delivered on that promise.

As the curtain opens on Gears 2's campaign, humanity has its back against the wall. The Locust have succeeded in creating enormous emergence holes that can swallow up entire cities, gradually forcing the COG back to Jacinto, their last bastion of hope, which the Locust have not yet been able to sink. With nowhere to retreat to, taking the fight to the heart of Locust civilization seems the only remaining option. The campaign of Gears 2 benefits from substantially better writing than its predecessor, delivering a dark and serious story, filled with both tragedy and humor, that will provide gamers with a much more satisfying emotional rollercoaster ride than the chest-thumping monotone of the original ever could. As long as you're not expecting the narrative to reveal everything, you'll enjoy the ride; even more than first Gears, this story leaves a lot of questions hanging to be answered in a third game.

Skorge drops in to play with Marcus and friends.

Beyond improvements in writing, the action in the campaign has been jacked up to provide much more variety and absolutely epic confrontations. From the city of Jacinto, to forests, snowy mountains, and locations that are too incredible to spoil here, Gears 2 delivers enough variety to keep every chapter feeling fresh and different from what came before. Be prepared for close-quarters brawls; objectives that require players to defend a location against an onslaught; intense and varied vehicle sequences; and absolutely jaw-dropping boss fights. All this action is provided through the most enhanced version of the Unreal Engine 3, providing prettier environments to fight in, and far more enemies on screen than virtually any other shooter out there.

While Epic succeeds brilliantly in making the campaign more impressive than the first, their efforts to make the game longer leave a little to be desired. The story's fourth act is simply incredible, and will keep players on the edge of their seats all the way up to an epic boss fight... and then the final act starts, which simply doesn't come close to being as compelling, and despite a few great sequences, feels like it's largely there to pad the length a bit, and showcase a few necessary events to bring the story to a close. It isn't too much of a letdown, but it felt like Epic played some of their best cards too early, and simply couldn't create a conclusion to match the brilliance of Act IV.

Like the original Gears, this entire campaign can be played cooperatively, either through split-screen play on a single Xbox, through a system link, or over Xbox Live. As long as the host is still maintaining the gaming session, co-op partners can seamlessly drop in or out of a game, with the AI resuming control of Dom after a human player leaves. Unlike the original, players now have the option of individually selecting what difficulty they want to play on, instead of both players being bound to a shared difficulty level. This means that if an experienced player wants to play on the Insane difficulty with a friend who wants to play on Casual, both will be able to play at the level they desire and still play cooperatively, without feeling the experience has been made too easy or too hard by the presence of the other. It's a brilliant setup for making sure any friends who want to play together can, without skill coming between them. Even the achievements have been fixed so both players will earn them, not just whoever plays as Dom. The tactical experience of Gears 2 shines even brighter when it's shared, and two players can work together to take on the enemy, making the co-op campaign a core part of the Gears 2 experience that shouldn't be missed.

Welcome to the underworld.

Besides an improved campaign, by far the most exciting new addition to Gears 2 is Horde Mode, which allows up to five players to cooperatively annihilate increasingly difficult waves of Locust enemies on any of the game's multiplayer maps. Horde has fifty waves of enemies to vanquish on the way to victory, operating on a ten-wave pattern, where after every tenth wave, the enemies will gain a health, damage, or accuracy bonuses, and the pattern resets. Competitive players will love gunning for the world's greatest score on each map, making the most of the scoring system that awards points for enemies killed, as well as a bonus for the number of players alive at the end of a wave, and a multiplier for the enemy difficulty level. Horde also greatly enhances the game's replay value for players who enjoyed the campaign, or co-op play in general, and don't like playing competitive multiplayer as much. Since the difficulty level can be set so players can enjoy Horde as a casual activity for socializing, or an intense challenge to test the limits of a team's skills and cooperation, Horde offers something for everyone, and is a hell of a lot of fun to play.

The multiplayer component of Gears of War features numerous improvements over the original. First, the game now includes the option to include bots in private matches, to fill out a game if teams are uneven, enhance a game by adding more possible targets, or be placed as opponents to a human team, to allow players to practice their tactics against a foe that fights back, before trying them in serious competitive matches against other people. They also provide the possibility of good old "bot-stomping" multiplayer sessions. Bots can also be used offline, allowing players to simulate multiplayer games without any other human teammates, which is great for a little private practice, or people who lack a good internet connection and still want a multiplayer-like experience. Enemy bots are no slouches; they will make good use of cover, flank, go for the power weapons, and everything else you could expect a human opponent to do.

Wingman, Submission, and King of the Hill offer brand-new multiplayer experiences that will help provide the multiplayer game with some more variety. Wingman allows five teams of two players each to go head-to-head in intense battles to earn the most kills and be the last team standing. To make it clear what the teams are, both members of a team spawn with the same character model. Submission brings a twist to the traditional capture-the-flag game type by making the flag a living target that fights back, and will kill you, if you're careless. The "meatflag," as he's commonly called, must be knocked down and then dragged as a human shield back to a capture point on the map to win a round. Last but not least; Assassination from the original game has been reborn as Guardian, where players can respawn as long as their team leader is alive, which makes matches a chess match of sorts of protecting your leader while trying to hunt down theirs, and feels to me like the best multiplayer mode for experiencing the tactical action Gears 2 was designed for. King of the Hill will be instantly familiar to most FPS players, and functions much like Annex, except the hill won't move.

Epic has added party and matchmaking systems to Gears 2 to make it easier to play with friends, as well as play against evenly matched opponents in a lag-free environment. At least, that's what it's supposed to do in theory. While it succeeds brilliantly in making it easy to get a group of friends together to play, getting into a match can be a roll of the dice. Sometimes I've experienced little wait in getting a game going, and other times I'll wait for over five minutes, which seems insane, given how many people are online. The matchmaking system usually succeeds in pairing up teams evenly, though I've been a party to some spectacularly lopsided games, both as winner and loser. While lag hasn't disappeared completely, it's been drastically reduced, to the point that matches suffering lag should be few and far between. Ultimately, the matchmaking system is a huge improvement over the old lobby, though it still has a few kinks that need to be ironed out.

Be prepared to get more personal with reavers.

While the multiplayer experience has been greatly improved, it's not without its problems. Thankfully, the shotgun has been toned down so it's no longer all-powerful, but Epic doesn't seem to have hit the "sweet-spot" with it yet, with it feeling slightly underpowered at the relatively short range of five to ten feet from an opponent. The lancer chainsaw also doesn't always lower when the person holding it gets shot, like it's supposed to. I've even had a match of Wingman where my brother and I spawned as completely different characters, which shouldn't even be possible. I spawned as a Kantus, while he was a Grenadier. This only happened once, so it's hard to gauge how common an error it is. Some maps also suffer from poor spawn point selection, particularly in Wingman, where Jacinto stands out as the worst offender, since it spawns one team almost on top of the mortar, while two teams find themselves in a perfect position to be flanked from two sides unless they're ruthlessly efficient at killing the team that spawns nearest to them.

Problems aren't simply limited to the multiplayer. The ability of squad AI to revive you when you're down is a welcome improvement, but teammates can be criminally stupid in many ways, particularly in the campaign. More than once, Carmine ran ahead beyond multiple Locust enemies only to get gunned down, forcing me to kill multiple enemies in a hurry to get to him, or have to start the checkpoint over. Other times, he simply stood right out in the open, to absorb bullets like a sponge. Why would a sniper ever stand out in the open? I've also encountered instances of enemies teleporting all over the place, multiple times a second, and these enemies are impervious to damage when they do decide to stay put for more than a second. There's also an occasional glitch when skipping cutscenes, where Marcus and Dom will keep reaching for their ear, as if to hear a transmission that isn't there. They'll lower the hand for a second or two, and then it's right back to their ear, which makes fighting impossible, and reloading the checkpoint didn't fix the problem. For a game of Gears 2's stature and expectations, shipping with issues like these isn't acceptable.

Visually, the game has been greatly improved over the original, thanks to advances made to the Unreal Engine 3. Dozens of enemies can appear on-screen simultaneously, and many battle arenas have been made larger and more open, to capitalize on this. Armor and weapons appear smoother and more realistic than they did before, with explosion effects also seeing a noticeable improvement. Sound effects and music remain virtually unchanged from the original Gears of War, but why fix what wasn't broken?

Unique cover options exist underground.

Epic has changed the achievement list around quite a bit, to make it more accessible to the masses. Many achievements can be earned by playing through the campaign, while a good number of others can be earned in any mode, be it campaign, Horde, or multiplayer. Giving players the ability to pursue the achievements in the way that works best for them was a great decision, as was implementing an achievement tracking system that offers periodic progress updates. There's still a few long-term commitment achievements, in the form of "Party Like it's 1999" and "Seriously 2.0," which will take quite a bit of time to earn. It's definitely a well-rounded list of achievements, and quite satisfying to work through.

Ultimately, Gears of War 2 delivers on its promise to be "bigger, better, and more bad-ass," with a greatly improved campaign, and incredible fun provided by Horde. The multiplayer component of the game sees noted improvements in the form of party and matchmaking systems, as well as providing new game types to increase variety. Improvements in the graphics engine, as well as new weapons and executions, also help spice up the game and set it above the original. However, the game remains a couple of paces away from perfect; with periodic glitches, intermittently long wait times in matchmaking, occasionally moronic team AI, and problems with the shotgun and lancer chainsaw in multiplayer. Despite this, Gears 2 offers up more than enough high-quality content to be worth your cash, but be ready to put up with a few grievances.

The audio is virtually the same as the original's, which is for the best. The sounds of weapons fire and exploding heads are great, and the voice acting is very well done, despite some occasionally cheesy lines.

The new-and-improved version of Unreal Engine 3 provides Gears of War 2 with beautiful vistas, superb character models, excellent explosion effects, and dozens of units on the screen at the same time. Gears 2 stands as one of the prettiest games on the Xbox 360.

The smooth controls of the original remain intact, making it incredibly simple to pick up the controller and get immersed in the action. Periodically stupid team AI, glitches, and some issues with the shotgun and chainsaw in multiplayer spoil the fun somewhat.

New weapons and game modes, including the unbelievably awesome Horde Mode, go a long way to making the experience fresh and enhancing the game's replay value. Some time needs to be spent on the matchmaking system, to remove the long waits that occasionally befall players in seeking public matches.

It's a varied list that offers players the freedom to pursue unlocking the achievements however they would like, and the achievement tracking system is fantastic. The points are quite satisfying to earn, and a few long-term achievements will keep fans of the game happily hunting them for quite a while.

Gears of War 2 is a fantastic game, with an epic campaign, incredible Horde co-op experience, and improved multiplayer; all in a package that promises to keep players entertained for dozens, if not hundreds of hours. Several issues keep the game from being all it could be, but it remains a worthy addition to any 360 owner's library.

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