Cliff Bleszinski and the Gears of War series are among [the more rabid] PlayStation fanboys' most loved things to hate. The game has copped a serious shellacking from angry Sony allegiances, and not at all rightly so. Having not only played through the whole game, but also given the privilege of meeting Mr Bleszinksi, I can tell you I not only get
Gears of War, but respect what it is he and his team at Epic have set out to do - create an epically fun game that feels like an interactive summer Blockbuster.
Gears of War 2 is not
Gears of War 1.5 (as the aforementioned GoW player haters would have you believe), it is very much a worthy sequel that more than addresses a number of issues found with the first title.
It fleshes out the story in what could have been a cheesy attempt to make us feel for the Delta Squad characters (and more specifically, Dom and the new rookie recruit, Carmine), but thankfully after a few false starts manages to right itself and tell a decent story that, while much more important this time around, still doesn't detract from the all-important Gears of War factor: Its intensely fun action.
That said; don't go expecting a life-changing experience here. It might not be Gears 1.5, but GoW 2 still borrows foundation very heavily from the first outing. What makes this interesting though is the first hour or so with the game is actually among the weakest and gives no real indication of the awesome stuff to come.
It's also important I point out my review method for Gears of War 2 came in the form of playing through the entire campaign cooperatively, and that beforehand, I had played through a number of earlier chapters alone. The difference in enjoyment is sizeable and definitely leaves the final review score kind of up in the air depending on how you intend to play (in all seriousness as a single-player game I'd score it 8.9).
The bottom line is, while it might have been introduced as an awesome bonus feature in the first game, Gears of War 2 just feels
like it has
to be played with a friend to get the most out of what Epic have crafted here.
A couple of things happen in the early chapters of Gears of War 2 that seem to undermine efforts laid in the first game. To begin with, the ever-menacing and scary Brumacs are out in force, but are also incredibly easy for you to lay waste to, as are the flying Reavers. In fact, it's not until you come across your first new enemy, the Ticker (a scurrying little Locust critter armed with a mine that explodes once it's upon you) any real form of challenge presents itself (and these guys aren't too hard anyway). Equally, by the time you're ready to take your first split pathway (remember: Press LT to go left or RT to go right), the game is just so easy you don't really even feel threatened about splitting up from your partner.
So, after only a short while with the game it's already a bit *too
* easy, and the threatening elements from the original Gears of War are no longer a real threat. Thankfully when all seems lost in the face of grandiose on-rails action sequences in favour of gameplay-driven bottlenecks and intense shoot-outs, Gears of War 2 comes full circle and things begin to rest in a comfortable zone; one we all most definitely know, but one we all equally love.
Suddenly you're alone with Dom, fighting hordes of Locusts with a few new weapons and moves, and while I definitely gave a lot of these trial, I still fell back to my old favourites: the Lancer, Sniper Rifle and Curb Stomp.
There are most definitely a host of new weapons to toy with, such as poisonous gas grenades, mortars, flame-throwers and more, but a lot of the older weapons have returned also (you'll even eventually come across the Hammer of Dawn), which is a good thing. Equally, as touted in a number of gameplay videos we have hosted, you can now pick up shields or even grab enemies to use as meat shields.
It's a cool feature but I actually found it to be extremely arbitrary. You can use them to move towards enemies, but have to do so with a single-handed weapon drawn, and we all know most of these weapons aren't worth worrying about so it just seems like a futile exercise (and usually it's far more fun to just perform a Curb Stomp).
Don't get me wrong, it's super fun snapping a Grub's neck, but feels more like a waste of time, really (especially when there are bloodier ways to lay waste to these Xenocidal monstrosities).
For the most part, engaging the enemy is exactly the same. You take cover behind objects and can blind-fire or pop-up out of safety, take aim and shoot. You throw frags the same and can take out baddies through awesome melee attacks such as the Lancer saw. Running is the same, which means it carries with it the same issue of clipping the edge of any potential cover to have your sprint brought to an abrupt halt. This wouldn't be so bad if I wasn't trying to escape one of the new Seran dangers revealed here: Razor-hail (exactly as it sounds).
With that revelation comes information the game does a lot to maintain the areas where you barely ever need to draw a weapon (remember the Kryll sequences from the first game; moving from lit area to lit area?). As mentioned above, there's a whole sequence set in and around a creepy laboratory that sees you having to avoid getting drenched in hail as sharp and dangerous as razor blades (hence the clever name "Razor-Hail").
It's a clever way to force you along the game's straight-forward path of progression, and also points out there's definitely a bigger need for convenient narrative like this (as opposed to invisible walls and the like).
Speaking of progression, Epic do a pretty good job of mixing up the pacing in Gears of War 2. As I mentioned earlier, the intro is a bit of a mixed bag, but once the pacing settles in, the game tends to offer a fairly diverse set of tools for you to play with. There are vehicular moments that range from awesome to really bad, but once you know what to expect they're easily digestible.
But it's the awesome bottlenecks that rear their head every few minutes that take the cake here. Whether it's fighting some of the new nasties on offer (of whom we want spoil for you), learning something new story-wise or just riding on the back of a big vehicle or monster, Gears of War 2 does "epic" very well.
It's also really very stunning. The engine has clearly been overhauled, and some of the environments you're going to come across later in the game (no spoilers here) are absolutely breath-taking. It's not necessarily as much of a leap as the first game was but it will definitely sate graphics whores, especially given the age of the 360 now.
In the sound department too, there's plenty of awesomeness. Marcus Fenix does say some stupid stuff like "... more like 10 shitloads", as well as other brainless quips, but for the most part the voice-acting is good, and the same chemistry found with all the members of Delta Squad in the first game rings true here once again.
On top of the single-player and co-op stuff, there's also the usual multiplayer (of which we haven't had much of a chance to check out, unfortunately), alongside the new Horde mode which sees you facing off against swarm after swarm of Locusts. Each swarm becomes progressively worse with more and more enemies coming at you with every new wave - only much, much harder. The idea here is to just last as long as you can, which is a pretty neat addition, considering you can play this on your own as well.
As far as visceral, cerebral gaming goes, Gears of War 2 doesn't know the meaning of the words. But as far as action and blockbuster scope go, Gears of War 2 is to gaming what Jerry Bruckheimer is to action movies.
The pacing is pretty awesome throughout once you get into it, and the boss-battles this time around are pretty inventive and memorable. The game still suffers from a few problems from the first game (control issues, too many on-rails moments etc), but these can be overlooked in the face of mindless fun. It's also a title I can't stress enough that needs to be played with a friend cooperatively.
There's fun to be had here on your own, but there's nothing better than competing with a friend to reach a downed Grub for some Curb Stomping action.