Chainsaw kills are just as satisfying as ever . . .
When Gears of War 2 was first announced, I was immediately excited. The first Gears was one of my favorite games of all time and the reason why I bought a 360. Now, over 2 years have passed since the first game and it seems both unexpected and unrealistic that Gears of War 2 could meet such high expectations. Yet, when I finally played the game, not only did it meet my expectations but in fact exceeded them. Gears 2 is not only superior to the original game in almost every way but also a incredible experience that can stand on its own without the need for Gears 1 nostalgia, though certainly for fans of the first game, there will be plenty of that to be felt as well.
As with the first game, the visuals of Gears of War 2 is the first thing that you'll notice. The art design is superb, with not only densely packed and desolated urban environments, but lush underground landscapes and ominous Locust strongholds. The environments are somewhat reminiscent of the first Gears but yet more diverse and in some cases, more colorful, though the game's pallet is still admittedly filled with a lot of grays and browns. Though not the technically best looking game I'm played in recent memory, the Unreal 3.5 engine still shines here with superb lighting and particle effects, detailed textures and the same great character design. And while Gears 2 does look significantly better than the first game, that's only true for the 360 version. For anyone who's ever played Gears of War on the PC, Gears of War 2 only looks marginally better than Gears of War PC version mainly because of the engine updates (including the improved lighting) and updated character models. But the jump is visual quality certainly isn't nearly as large as when comparing the 360 versions. And yes, there is A LOT of blood and gore.
The music, sound effects, and voice acting are also superb with the same great voice talent from the original Gears returning for Gears 2. Hearing Marcus say "Oh Yeah!" or Dom spitting out "Take that Bitches!" is just as chuckle-worthy as ever. The guns, explosions, and ambient noises are also excellent. The convincing weapon effects, enemy growls and that distinctive active-reload sound make for a cacophony of violence and death that immerses you into the game world. In addition, the background music is very atmospheric and certainly helps to set the tone of the single player campaign without ever getting in the way. The slightly melancholic score is perfect match for the somber tone of the story in general.
Visuals and audio aside, the basic game play mechanics of Gears 2 remain largely the same. You still need to move from cover to cover if you expect to survive, especially on the harder difficulties. Locust soldiers are as tough as ever and it'll take a lot of bullets or precisely aimed head shots to take them down. However some new manuvers are added to your arsenal. These include the Chainsaw duel, which happens whenever you try to chainsaw an opponent who is also holding a Lancer. While a purely button-mashing affair, it at least adds some variety to the gameplay and makes multiplayer matches a little more interesting. Other additions include the ability to pin grenades to walls to act as proximity mines and picking up downed opponents to act as "meat shields" (which essentially makes you invincible to incoming fire as long as your "meat shield" lasts).
In addition to the new gameplay mechanics, there are also plenty of new weapons to play with and new enemies to kill. New weapons include the flame thrower, a powerful new burst pistol, and a set of "heavy weapons": the mulcher (basically a chaingun), mortor, and a boomshield. These heavy weapons are more powerful then your convention arsenal but comes as the cost of reduced movement speed. The mortor in particular is lots of fun and can dramatically turn the tide of any battle when used correctly. The boomshield is also very useful as it is essentially mobile cover that you can bring with you anywhere though it does force you to use a pistol unless you plant it on the ground (in which case you can hide behind it like any other form of cover). The new weapon-dependent execution moves are also plenty of fun, especially in multiplayer.
Aside from some new guns to play around with, you'll also face new enemies including the Ticker (a type of Locust mobile bomb), Kantus (Locust priests/monks that can revive fallen Locust soldiers as well as spawn tickers), Bloodmounts (Grenadiers riding bulky foor-legged dog-like Locus), new Drone/Grenadier/Theron Guard variants (including Palace Guards, Flamers, and Bolters), and new Boomer variants such as Grinders (a Boomer with a mauler chaingun) and Maulers (a varient carrying Boomshields and an explosive flail weapon). As a result, many situations require more tactical combat then the first game, especially when playing the harder difficulty settings as the new variety of enemies can't be effectively taken down with just one or two types of weapons. This has the effect of forcing the player to switch between different weapons as well as increasing the amount of tension during any particular battle. The boss battles also require a little more thinking and but don't feel quite so satisfying compared to the regular combat. Thankfully, however, we are spared the annoying and often frustrating Berserker battles in the first game.
The story and singleplay campaign is also much more interesting, emotional, and satisfying this time around. After a short recap of the events of the first game, the story proceeds with the Locust planning to use some giant underground machinery to sink entire cities. Marcus, Dom and the rest of Delta Squad is sent in to prevent this from happening. Though ultimately the there are many questions that the story brings up but never really answers, the ending is relatively satisfying and reveals much more insight into the backstory of Gears than the previous game and leaves us wanting to know more about the world of Sera and the origins of the Locust horde. As the second game is what is supposedly a three-game trilogy, Gears of War 2 doesn't quite hit the traditional low-point that most sequels do but it certainly leaves plenty of questions to be answered in Gears of War 3 (the existence of which is pretty much a certainty at this point)
Like the first Gears however, Gears of War 2 will likely see most of it's play time in the online modes, whether it be Co-op playthroughs of the campaign, competitive versus modes, or the brand new Horde mode. The Campaign Co-op mode is just as fun as ever, with the additional versatility of allowing each player to choose their own difficulty. While this potentially makes the Insane difficulty much more manageable in Co-op mode, it also allows different players of different skill levels to have fun while playing in Co-op mode. The fact that players can leave and join Co-op matches without affecting the host player's game is also a beneficial feature (as compared to the first game in which a game session automatically ends whenever the Co-op play leaves a game). The Horde mode though is ultimately more satisfying an experience then the standard campaign Co-op. Horde allows up to five players (and trust me, you really do need five players, even on "Casual" difficulty) take on up to 50 waves of Locust, with increasing difficulty. While the waves are pretty easy at first, Horde becomes increasingly difficult during the latter waves and probably strategy is necessary to survive all 50 waves. Teamwork is key and when you and your teammates are communicating properly and setting up a proper strategy, Horde can be a real blast, as well as incredibly addictive. (Though a word to the wise: try to play Horde in private matches with your friends rather then playing with a public party. Not only can you control which wave to start on, and which map to play on, you can also restart a wave if you fail, none of which is possible in public Horde session.)
The competitive multiplayer is as good as ever, though I'm not exactly the kind of guy who played a lot of Gears of War versus mode and the same goes for Gears of War 2. However, of the matches that I did play, it felt just as solid as the first game, with most of the same modes with the addition of a couple of new ones (including a capture-the-flag like Submission mode and a 2v2v2v2v2 Wingman mode). The ten shipped maps also provide for plenty of variety whether large or small both in Horde and Versus mulitplayer modes. However, a big problem with public matches in Gears of War 2 is the sometimes incredibly long wait times involved in matchmaking, and the questionable effectiveness of the matchmaking system. One time, our five-player party waited nearly fifteen minutes just to find another team to play with and on top of that was matched against player far above our experience level. Now this is not to say the matchmaking service is broken (as in many cases, I was able to find people to play public Horde sessions in mere seconds), considering so many people are playing this game and considering the robustness of Xbox Live, it would seem that Epic should should have the public matchmaking service down by down. Still aside from the technical issues, there's potentially a lot of fun to be had in competitive mutiplayer, even if it will eventually be populated by people who are really, really good at the game and expect everyone else to be as well (and since the core mechanics of the Versus mode hasn't changed very much from the first Gears, there's already plenty of such individuals playing the game). Finally, there are also five revamped versions of original Gears of War maps that can be downloaded for free by anyone who has purchased a new copy of the game (each new game comes with a code that can be used on the marketplace). These maps looks very similar to the original maps but of course are updated with the Unreal 3.5 engine enhancements.
To Epic's credit, they do include bots in every single multiplayer mode (except for Horde of course) which means that those who don't feel like going online and playing Versus mode against other players (for whatever reason) can have fun with the multiplayer portion of the game. The bots certainly aren't as smart as human players but on the harder difficulties, they can be still be fun to play against even if they are somewhat predictable (like most bots though their problem is that they aren't aggressive enough. As such bot vs. bot battles are often drawn out and take much longer then human vs. human battles). The inclusion of a multiplayer training modes (using bots) is also a welcome addition for those who are new to the game and feel uneasy about jumping straight into the Versus mode.
To be honest, Epic would have just made a few subtle changes to the singplayer campaign and thrown in a few tweaks to the multiplayer and put out Gears of War 1.5 and I probably would have been satisfied by it. Instead, Epic went back to the drawing board and not only corrected what was wrong with the first game but added some great new features, a vastly improved storyline and a very fun multiplayer experience as well. All in all, Gears of War 2 is one of the years finest titles and should not be missed by anyone who remotedly enjoys playing shooters or for that matter games in general.