Gears of War 2 has weakened the punch, but it can still kill you.
Gears of War was one of the first Xbox 360 title to truly blow away the competition. The Unreal Engine 3 was an unmatched beast that nobody could compete with, and in terms of sheer entertainment and production values, Gears of War was a mind numbing and visceral experience. Gears of War 2, arriving two years later had some lofty expectations to live up to, some big shoes to fill. However, in those two years, developers have had the opportunity to truly understand this generation of consoles. What this has ultimately led to are higher standards for HD gaming. Games looking great is only one part of the equation now, and because of this, Gears of War 2 doesn't strike the same chord that the original did.
6 months after the events of the first game, humanity has been backed into a dark corner by the invading Locust. As Delta squad leader Marcus Fenix you attempt to put an end to the attacks. The game's story actually takes a focus to Dom's search for his beloved wife, Maria, and the game pulls no punches in this. The story is very straightforward and easy to follow, much like a summer action flick. Even yet, the final chapters adds some nice depth to the universe, and you'll find yourself interested, if not always attached.
Gears of War 2's gameplay doesn't stray too far from the first. In fact, the game feels frighteningly similar in that regard. The cover system still feels just as nuanced as ever, the weapons all have a good feel to them, and pulling off chainsaw kills are just as brutal. Gears of War 2 instead refines the best elements of the first game. The controls have been refined a little bit, so you won't find yourself attaching onto walls you didn't want to. While the game still utilizes the A button a little too much, it does a good job of feeling intuitive enough.
The cover-shooter mechanic has carried over extremely well. To get through most battles, you're going to want to find yourself taking cover on 5-foot high walls (which are all over the place), and popping out to pick off enemies who show their hideous faces. The weapons all have a very light feel to them, which works very well considering how many enemies you'll face at a time, and being able to switch between them as quickly as you need helps a great deal.
And then you can chainsaw the bloody hell out of people.
The action itself is thoroughly entertaining, but there are more than a few issues that crop up quite often. For starters, the level design is sometimes a little too linear, which definitely hampers the larger scale that the game is trying to pull off. You'll oftentimes feel like you're just going from medium sized area to another over and over. The landscape isn't too interesting in particular, with some levels just being completely flat, and even barren. It seems like some of the levels are carbon copies of each other, just with different skins. The chest high walls are still in place, the enemies haven't really changed, and you'll usually have the same weapon you had before.
Another issue I found with the game is the AI on both sides of the ball. The men of Delta squad perform very inconsistently. One fight, they'll all die again and again, fail to tag enemies with bullets, or get in the line of fire. Other times, they'll completely mop the floor with Locust, only to stand in tandem at the end of the hallway, blocking your path, causing you to reload from a checkpoint. The Locust also suffer from multiple personality syndrome. Sometimes, they'll lay back and try to play the game how you do, and other times, they'll get stuck in animation routines and run around in circles, completely oblivious to what's going on. These AI issues don't break the game, but they definitely stand out.
While the variety in the level design sometimes feels redundant, the art definitely changes things up constantly. In other words, Gears of War 2 is a real treat to look at. Environments can be lush, dark, or in between, drooping with detail. The framerate generally keeps smooth, character models are good looking, lighting is excellent, and blood splatter and fire effects are thoroughly impressive. It's without a doubt one of the best looking games on Xbox 360. The fact that I said "one of" will definitely disappoint a few.
The sound design is also pretty good. Voice acting is well done despite a lame script, and the musical score is generally exciting. Sound effects aren't as incredible as they should be, but they get the job done.
The campaign is a real blast to play, particularly because of how enjoyable the combat is. While it may get repetitious, it never lets up. It's one fireworks show after another. You'll see a real variety of environments and enemies, and by the end of the experience, you'll be satisfied. Just don't expect anything mind blowing.
Cooperative play has also been enhanced. It's drop in/drop out, and players can have different difficulties on. For example, if you're playing with your 13 year old brother, he can be on normal, and you on insane, and the two of you still have a good time. While the lack of 4 player coop is disappointing, what's here is here to stay, and it's awesome.
Multiplayer is actually extremely disappointing. Not only does it lack any real incentive to play, dubbing itself unrewarding, but it's so unbalanced and infuriating, that it's barely worth a look, only to those who can overlook its balancing issues. The map design simply doesn't work for the kind of game Gears of War 2 is. Mostly, matches consist of gamers rolling around making themselves impossible to hit (considering how many bullets they take to down), only to blast you with a shotgun. It seems like they can kill you with one hit, but you'll be blasting away at them for seconds to no avail. Sometimes you'll spawn, run across the map, and get downed by an enemy you did not see at all. The difference between first person and third person online shooters really shows in Gears of War 2's multiplayer, and they aren't pretty.
On top of that, the servers themselves are nearly broken. Gears 2 tries to match players of similar skill together, and because of this, it can take an average of 10-15 minutes just to find a match. There are connection issues rampant, lag comes into effect, and the end result just isn't very pretty.
Don't fear, however. These multiplayer maps and Xbox Live connectivity are not to go to waste. Horde mode is an absolute blast. Not only is it incredibly addictive and rewarding, but it's a very collaborative experience that is really fun with friends. Up to 5 players face 50 waves of enemies on any of the maps, on any difficulty, and every 10 waves, the enemies get tougher. What this boils down to is 5 people looking out for each others' survival, and it is incredible fun, and is the reason to play Gears of War 2 online.
Gears of War 2 has a lot of problems. It doesn't shock as much as Gears 1 did, it has AI problems, it's unbalanced and repetitive, but it's still bloody, addictive, and entertaining. It's certainly worth a look for any Xbox 360 shooter fan. Just don't expect too many online frags.