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.With this tightening of gameplay a few of the first game’s staples have been downsized or omitted. You won’t be sealing many Locust emergence holes with well placed grenades, a concept that was thrilling but frustrating in Gears 1. I wish they would have streamlined that idea to make it easier to pull off, instead of barely putting it in the sequel.
On the other hand the boss fights are weird, creative and spectacular, a big improvement over the couple of Berserker battles in the first game. The big monsters from Gears 1, like the Corpsers, Reavers and Brumaks are now semi-regular enemies. The Brumak was only glimpsed in the Gears 1 for the 360, and the PC port featured it as a huge boss in the added chapter; in Gears 2 you’ll be fighting them on multiple occasions, and even riding one near the game’s climax. These big bruisers are joined by new regular enemy groups like the chaingun-wielding Grinders and the well armored Maulers. Both of these guys are as tough and dangerous as Gears 1’s Boomers, and you’ll regularly battle several of them simultaneously.
New enemies means new, better ways to kill them. Gears 2 features an expanded arsenal that adds a flamethrower, chaingun, mortar, Locust pistol and two new types of grenades. Nearly all of the original weapons are still included and many of the new ones must be hauled separately, like the turrets in Halo 3, but the tactical options have been expanded as a result. Scripted events occasionally force you to use the new weapons but thankfully these guns aren’t one-off gimmicks, and when used well they can be devastating in any situation. Gears 2 also introduces vehicular sequences that are again heavily scripted, but when you’re driving a tank over a frozen lake and the Locusts are blasting holes in it, you probably won’t care.
The enemy and team AI have seen some improvements as well. I was surprised on more than one occasion by a Locust flanking me and sticking a chainsaw into my back; in turn, the trickier enemy teamwork makes it more satisfying to lay the smackdown on them. Enemies can be incapacitated in story mode now, which brings the finishing moves from Gears 1 multiplayer into the main game. You can curb stomp or execute downed, crawling enemies, or haul them up in the well-publicized meat shield position. The Locusts can do the same to you, however, and both your teammates and the enemy AI are capable of reviving fallen comrades. This also leads to the epic chainsaw duels, which aren’t as plentiful in solo mode as I would have liked. These balances make the story mode a much more even-sided struggle, where the enemy is capable of nearly everything you and your buddies can do. That said, Gears is still a game best played in co-op, either online or splitscreen.
Speaking of which, Epic took note of Gears 1’s multiplayer weaknesses and dramatically improved the mode for the sequel. Cooperative mode returns with the aforementioned gameplay and AI improvements, and it’s still really the only way the story should be played. In normal multiplayer the total number of players has been increased from eight to ten, with the option of adding bots as well. There are three new game modes to play, and Epic has tweaked the old modes; for example, Assassination is now called Guardian, and a team can keep playing even after their leader has died, they just can’t respawn. The new Wingman mode splits players into teams of two, drawing parallels to story co-op. Submission is capture the flag, but the “flag” is an armed neutral character that you must subdue and drag back to your base, meat-shield style. It was rather embarrassing the first time I snuck up on the flag and he filled my teeth with buckshot before I could get a round off.
The most significant multiplayer addition is Horde mode. Horde is an endurance test that harkens back to grueling arcade classics, by pitting up to five human players against waves of Locust bots. The enemies span the entire roster of regular units, from the simple drone to flametroopers and Maulers. After every ten waves the horde gets stronger, tougher, and more dangerous as their weapons deal more damage. At the end of a wave all killed team members respawn, but as the waves wear on, teamwork becomes indispensable and being the last surviving team member is tantamount to suicide.
Horde can be played on any regular map and allows access to all weapons from the story mode, although many of them must be looted from enemy corpses. Horde is relentlessly addictive, brutally hard and the best new feature in Gears 2; it makes the multiplayer mode feel like an individual legitimate game rather than an obligatory add-on.Epic rounded out Gears 2 with a production values update. This might seem a little unnecessary considering how good Gears 1 looked, but Epic has indeed pushed the visuals a little farther. The most noticeable improvement is the large amount of high-dynamic-range effects, but there have been poly-count increases in the map architecture, and the facial animation is markedly better. Epic certainly knows how to optimize their Unreal 3 engine to the 360 hardware; every surface is pixel-shaded and while there is still some texture pop-in, it’s far less common than it was in Gears 1 and not nearly as bad as it was in Bioshock.
On the audio side of things the musical score has been broadened in scope to fit the bigger battles and higher stakes of the game. There is also a wider variety of music, compared to the somewhat homogenous orchestral sound of the first game. John Di Maggio and the rest of the cast offer superb voice acting, and make the most of the less-than-stellar script.
Gears of War 2 amounts to a wide range of obvious and not-so-obvious improvements. There haven’t been too many radical, game-changing additions but the experience feels far more complete now. It’s a tighter, more robust game that feels comfortable in its own grungy COG armor, and every aspect is a lot of fun to play. In a way, I feel like Epic has taken the basic Gears formula about as far as it can go, and I’m not sure how engaging a third (but inevitable) installment can be. They’ll have to introduce a few big, genre-breaking innovations, instead of the numerous little ones they put into Gears 2. For now, though, Gears 2 is one of the best shooters of this holiday season and the definition of a sequel done right.