Just over two years ago, I remember standing outside the LA convention center and staring up at Marcus Fenix’ scowling mug. Gears of War was the centerpiece of Microsoft’s E3 presentation that year, and they’d hung a giant banner featuring the game’s cover art outside the entrance to the expo. I recall that I thought it looked like just another grungy action game, and that the chainsaw on Marcus’ gun struck me as somewhat gratuitous.
I didn’t play Gears at E3 that year, in fact I didn’t play it until the PC version was released nearly a year later. That’s when it caught me off guard. I already knew that the visuals were spectacular; it was the gameplay that sucked me in. The simple combination of taking cover, returning fire and advancing made Gears feel more like a war game than the dozens of WW2 titles I’ve played over the years. The graphics and story perfectly conveyed the desperation, brutality and often pointlessness of war. Other aspects of the game—recharging health, comically bulky characters, alien enemies and yes, chainsaw-guns—did make it exaggerated and unrealistic, but the bitter flavor of war was there, and it felt very real. Gears knew what it was: a balls-to-the-wall shooter about a hopeless struggle. There were hints of complexity in the game’s protagonist, Marcus Fenix, but the game never got pretentious and overstepped its bounds like Halo. That mixture, of over-the-top war and a few hidden flecks of subtlety, was highly satisfying. The intriguing story and relentless action left me craving more, and once I finally did play the original Gears on the 360, it felt a little empty compared to the beefed up, improved PC port.
Gears of War 2 takes everything that Epic Games included in the PC version and elevates it by several powers of ten. Looking back, the first game on the 360 feels like an elaborate tech demo, and the PC port an intermediary stepping stone. With the sequel, Epic finally gets room to tell the Gears story and exploit the full potential of the cover based combat they introduced two years ago.
That doesn’t mean you should expect something completely new, though. Gears 2 is very much a sequel, and it begins six months after Marcus and his team detonated the lightmass bomb in the Locusts’ subterranean stronghold. The Locusts are far from exterminated, and have redoubled their efforts in an almost frantic attempt to purge humanity from the surface of Sera. They have found some way to open gigantic sinkholes that devour entire cities, and the remaining humans must launch a blitzkrieg offensive to protect Jacinto, their final city and haven.
In the sequel the uncomfortable fascist undertones are even stronger, with the introduction of the charismatic, dictatorial Chairman Prescott. You still have the sense that you’re fighting for humanity’s survival but some of the prices paid along the way are a little too dear. The analogies to the Iraq war are just a bit more obvious, but vague enough that the Locust war can be compared to any historical struggle where the goal was victory by any means necessary.
Intentionally, Marcus and his buddies Dom, Cole and Baird are still cogs in the machine, but there are a few sentimental touches to remind us that these soldiers are human and struggling with their weariness and sense of futility. Dom’s search for his missing wife Maria, hinted at in the first game, plays a major role in the story, and a few other new characters complete the game’s human element. The dialogue is still pretty campy and generic action movie, but there are a couple tragic scenes that hit home. In any case they’re more evocative than the one-dimensional exchanges between Master Chief and Cortana, two characters I always had a hard time caring about.
A deeper story comes with deeper gameplay, and Epic has done a great job tweaking the combat system they pioneered. Marcus (and every other character, friend or enemy) can take cover behind nearly all of the game’s set pieces, from simple concrete barricades to pilfered enemy shields, and even mobile rockworms that inhabit Sera’s caverns. The cover system in Gears 1 was pretty extensive but there were a few times when I’d try to hide behind something and just end up rolling against it. In the sequel, if it looks like cover it is cover 99% of the time, and a lot of the stuff that doesn’t look like cover is too. This makes for a much more fluid, dynamic battlefield, where advancing feels natural and there are very few hitches that interrupt the action. Combat maneuvers, like rolling, sliding and dodging are easier to execute, and can be interrupted if necessary.
Page 1 of 3