canuckeh's Gears of War 2 (Limited Collector's Edition) (Xbox 360) review

The normal man's Gears.

Gears of War 2: The more heterosexual Gear-named franchise.

Story : Surprise Surprise, it’s humans versus aliens! Or mutants, or some kind of grotesque monster that happens to speak English and have mastery over human guns. This new game’s plot elements include one squadmate’s missing wife, a city that is supposedly humanity’s last refuge, another enemy leader whom ranks above the enemy you killed in the first game that you mistook for the leader of the group of monsters you thought you rendered extinct in the first game, and a plot twist that feels a bit too blatantly ripped out of the Halo games. There are a handful of groan-inducing elements too, such as the cowardly teammate whose voicework would’ve fit in perfectly in an episode of Scooby Doo, and the preachy, bizarre computer AI character that’s trying really hard to be mimic the artificial intelligence characters from Portal and Halo, but the story as a whole suffices without being too offensive. For what its worth, despite being the middle chapter of a planned trilogy, the game doesn’t end on a cheap cliffhanger like oh so many other games seem to be nowadays, and protagonist Marcus Felix and his main squadmates from the first game, once reunited, are appealing enough to give the otherwise dull world some personality. I guess to sum it up, as good as a game about four guys single-handedly gunning down an army of enemies can get.

The storyline is the weakest link of Gears of War 2, or at least the link that’s the least-thickest in a twenty-ton chain strong enough to imprison Godzilla. This game is a beast alright. This is your big-budget game equivalent of a summer blockbuster, with all of the cutting edge graphic technologies, physics engines, sweeping orchestral musical scores and end-of-humanity themes that you normally equate with high profile shooting games. It’s the proverbial pissing contest, where all the major game companies (or at least the ones that made PC games back when making big-budget PC games was a profitable business) compete to make the prettiest shooter of them all. However, Gears of War 2 is also a smart beast, one that knows that there’s more to a game than a press release bragging about how many enemies you can fit on-screen or how this game is the first to feature “meat physics.”

In this regard, it bears mention that single player campaign (which can be played co-operatively with a buddy, online or off), is particularly strong. Unlike the Halo games, or any number of other major shooters, you never feel like you’re merely walking from one corridor to another, fighting one respawning wave of enemies after another. Rather, the game does a surprisingly strong job of throwing one unique scenario after another, all the while finding small and subtle ways to mix up the standard gunfights. Considering how the core gameplay mechanics consist of hiding behind something, poking your head out and shooting back, it’s amazing how this never actually gets old. There’s a potent variety of enemies to hack up with your chainsaw-gun Lancer, and a healthy variety of weapons to use in the event that your Lancer runs out of ammo. Just be sure to never drop that Lancer, ever, or even toy with the idea, or else you are going to either run into a wall that needs to be chainsawed-down or enemies that, after the first game, have learned about the tactical advantage of guns with chainsaw bayonets and intend to use them on you.

Throw in plenty of cinematic moments (usually consisting of something blowing up) and you have a story mode that extends well beyond the typical “showcase of things you can do in multiplayer” campaign that most shooters feature, though the game does introduce its share of new features. Gears of War 2 doesn’t reinvent the formula of the first game, but elaborates on it enough to make going back to the first game an awkward experience. Like in multiplayer, an ally can revive you should you approach near-death, and the enemies can do the same, throwing you in some tense situations where you’ll be crawling, begging for help, and developing a new appreciation for Dom. There are vehicle sequences that don’t feel tacked on, Halo 3’s utility weapons like the giant chaingun, chainsaw duels and a litany of other new features that you’ll barely notice but appreciate once you see them. The game doesn’t rewrite the formula of the first Gears, but being as there has been a surprisingly low number of games trying to rip off Gears of War, there’s nothing about this game that feels stale, other than the concept of muscular men in giant, armoured suits shooting down monster invaders.

Speaking of trends, Gears of War 2 does follow what appears to be an emerging new trend in gaming; the multiplayer mode where people mindlessly battle waves of respawning enemies. Horde mode actually works out to be a pretty fun diversion, to tell the truth. Granted, I could just be saying that because of all the multiplayer modes, this is the one that’s the easiest to start up a session with.

The game borrows its matchmaking concept from Halo 2 and 3, where you choose what style of gameplay type you play through and the game looks for allies and opponents of similar skill level. However, the matchmaking in Gears 2 is surprisingly slow, and I often found myself just sitting there, waiting for minutes on end as a game kept looking for an opponent group, only to stop because a member of my group left in frustration and thus needed to be replaced. Now, once you actually start a game, then the game starts to pick up. While the entire multiplayer game is team-based and you don’t necessarily need good allies to thrive, you will feel it if your opponent’s team is a more well-oiled machine.

The game’s matchmaking seems to prefer committed gamers looking to spend all-nighters bulking their ranking and trying to unlock the game’s obscenely demanding achievements than someone who wants to play a game for a few minutes. You can’t leave a game unless you boot out of Gears of War 2 or turn off the system, and likewise, people can’t hop into a game in progress; if you want to play, you’re going to wait for the matchmaker to find ten other players and you guys are going to play together, whether your team is good or not. I know that people who quit games because they’re losing are hated by all, but I’m not one to play a multiplayer session for hours on end, and there’s this thing called real life that’ll sometimes call me and interrupt my gameplay session. Do the developers at Epic know about this life thing?

But that said, Gears of War 2 is visceral, exciting, enjoyable, a shooter that finds a way to stand out from the crowd. If the multiplayer process was a bit more gentle and B. Carmine wasn’t so much of a tool then I’d feel a bit more inclined to rate the game a little higher, but I doubt either of which will keep the 15-28 year old male demographic away from thinking that this is the greatest game ever made, or at least until Gears 3 or the next big shooter comes out. I’ll attest to being a jaded snob that needs a bit more than bleeding-edge graphics to get excited about a shooting game, but at least Gears of War 2 does just enough for me to not label it as another flash in the pan.

Pros : In the absence of having something less rational to say here, I’ll go so far as to claim that this one game’s campaign is better than the combined Halo trilogy.

Cons : As visually impressive as the final sequence is, it’s far too easy for my tastes. Call me old-school, but I like it when a final boss puts up the toughest fight out of all the obstacles the player has faced in the game, not the easiest.

4 stars

Okay, the game does leave a few loose ends, and there’s a bit of a cliffhanger after the credits, but you can practically guess how it’ll all unfold in the next game.

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