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.
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