GEARS OF WARS 2 (2008) – EPIC GAMES
In my recent review of the original Gears Of War, I noted on how it breathed new life into the shooting genre with its blend of science fiction and cover mechanics. Being as well received as it was, a sequel from Epic Games was inevitable, and come Christmas 2008, we had the game in the form of Gears Of War 2. Rather than just give us the first game with a lick of paint, Epic Games went all out to create one of the most bombastic games of this generation, and delivered more blood and guts than you could shake a stick at. Underneath that crimson shower however; is Gears 2 a worthy successor?
Storywise, Gears 2 follows on just a few short months after the events of the first game. Having deployed the Lightmass Bomb at the end of the first game, the Coalition Of Ordered Governments – the COG – are now defending themselves furiously from a mass attack by the Locust, who are trying to sink every human city on Sera. With the last bastion of humanity, Jacinto, now facing a similar threat, the COG has ordered its troops underground to the Locust strongholds in a bid to end the war. Again you take control of Marcus Fenix as he travels underground with the rest of Delta Squad to lay some serious pain on the Locust army. There are also some other story threads to follow, as Dominic Santiago searches for his missing wife Maria and the rest of humanity attempts to deal with a new disease caused by vaporised Immulsion.
Whereas the majority of Gears 1 was a visceral, in-your-face kind of affair following men doing manly things, Gears 2 tries to offer a more emotional set of events, with a few huge set pieces linking them all together. On your travels you will be defending a fleet of tanks from Reavers, travelling inside of an enormous rockworm to perform some emergency open heart surgery and fighting a Leviathan on a tiny wooden raft amongst other things – all in a days work for a Gear. Overall it all meshes together reasonably well; there are plenty of new and unexpected experiences to be had while playing through the game and the big set pieces are handled flawlessly, although at times Dom’s search for his wife is treated in quite a ham fisted manner and seems a bit forced. What really disappoints me with Gears 2 is the final boss – whereas General RAAM was a tough bastard to kill at the end of Gears 1 (following a terrific train sequence), the ending here requires you to lock on and fire. A really anti-climatic ending to say the least. Still, if you like your gun fire loud, your violence in bucket loads and Cole Train in fine OTT form, then there is plenty to take out of Gears Of War 2.
Having enjoyed so much success with the gameplay mechanics in Gears 1, Epic Games would have been fools to wipe the slate clean. What you get with Gears Of War 2 as a result is a very fine game engine, with a few new welcome additions thrown into the mix. All the things that you knew and loved from the first game are still very much present here; you play from the third person perspective, and getting into cover to defend yourself is still the first order of business. You can still perform active reloads for increased damage, and the crimson omen health system is still in effect. It’s the new additions that really make themselves noticed this time around though – for example, instead of dying straight out, players will now bleed out, allowing them to crawl away from danger and be revived by team mates if they can get there in time. Grenades can now be tagged to walls, and enemies who blindly walk into their proximity will find themselves caught up in a explosion. Downed enemies can either be executed (with more than just a curb stomp this time – for example, players can use the sharp blades of a Torque Bow to sever ones head from ones neck), or be picked up and used as a ‘meatshield’, taking damage instead of the player who can shoot with one handed pistols. Players can engage in chainsaw duels, which involves bashing the B button and hoping not to get chopped to bits. And along with these new mechanics, there are five new weapons to play around with, including a flamethrower, poisonous ink grenades, and a mortar – all of which are as destructive as they sound.
My personal favourite addition to the game revolves around the co-operative aspect of the game though. Co-op campaigns still involve Marcus and Dom (although you can choose who is who this time around), but whereas before you were forced to play at the host’s difficulty level, this time the game will allow you to pick different levels of AI difficulty; meaning one person can blast through on Casual difficulty while a player can sit back and pick off enemies on Insanity difficulty. It makes the game much simpler in co-op, and removes many of the frustrations of having both players die repeatedly. Don’t’ get drawn into a false sense of security though, as Insanity is even tougher this time around and will have you ripping your hair out once again.
Epic Games also made a huge effort to expand the multiplayer modes in Gears 2. Games can now be played with five a side teams, and the entire interface was upgraded to work on a matchmaking system closer to that of Halo 3. The classic game modes of Team Deathmatch, King Of The Hill and Annex are all present, and are joined by three new game modes: Guardian (a modified version of Assassination), Wingman (pitting five teams of two against each other) and Submission (where teams must capture a Stranded as a meatshield and take them back to their base for points). 10 maps were included on disc, with several pieces of DLC being available later on for more maps and exclusive weapons. The thing is with multiplayer on this game, and this is a purely personal opinion – I could never get into it. I found it to be far too punishing on the less skilled players like myself, who would get killed very early on and be forced to just sit around and watch the rest of the action unfold. Not having respawns, especially after playing Halo 3 so much the previous year before its release, just put me off completely. The multiplayer also suffers from its fair share of glitches, which Epic have eventually patched quite thoroughly. They also introduced an experience system in 2009 that rewarded players EXP in matches….but it takes so much experience to get anywhere that only the truly dedicated and cheaters ever got anyway near Level 100, and Epic had to introduce ridiculous multiplier weekends to help boost people up. Don’t get me wrong, its far from a bad multiplayer – but I just couldn’t get into it, and it never had the staying power to ever think of dislodging the likes of Halo 3 and Call Of Duty 4 from the top of the Xbox Live charts.
The gem in the rough for Gears Of War 2 however is Horde mode, which I did get involved in quite heavily. The premise is simple enough; you and up to four other player pick a map, and then have to fight through 50 waves of increasingly powerful enemies. It starts off quite easily as the game throws Tickers and Wretches at you, but the difficulty soon ratchets up when you get to fighting Boomers and Bloodmounts. Every 10 waves the Horde gets stronger as well, making it even more of a challenge. Promoting good teamwork and being a good way to level up, Horde quickly became the most popular thing that Gears 2 had to offer, and helped spark off the modern ‘survival mode’ craze along with Call Of Duty: World At War’s zombies mode. Even Bungie bought into the craze with ODST introducing its variant in the form of Firefight. In fact this mode was the one thing keeping me interested in Gears 2 well into this year.
From a visual point of view, Gears 2 is nothing short of outstanding. While the first game wasn’t exactly a bad looking game, this somehow improves on it further still; faces are much more detailed, animations and explosions are much smoother, and not being locked into an urban setting for 80% of the game allows the Unreal Engine to show what it can do. The underground Locust hives are very dark, but have the grim and foreboding look that one would expect from them, while the abandoned facility you explore about half way through the game is creepy as hell. The level of detail is admirable, even down to the little traces of smoke that follow your bullets in the air, and kept Epic at the forefront of getting the best out of an Xbox 360’s hardware. On the sound front, it’s a bit of a letdown in places; on the good side, we have another excellently delivered script by the cast, with Baird and Cole on top form once again, but once again the soundtrack doesn’t exactly stand out over the sound of gunfire – its just there. Also, a lot of the lines used in combat are the exact same as they were in the first game; a bit of variation would have been welcomed.
In the grand scale of things, Gears 2 can rightfully call itself a worthy successor to the first game. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel by any means, but it does just enough with the new additions and Horde mode to push itself to a higher score than the original. Is it the best game in the series? Well, you’’ just have to wait for my review of Gears Of War 3 to find out….