When you have the opportunity to review one of the most anticipated video games of the year, especially one that is a sequel to one of the highest rated games of this generation and a personal favourite, its pretty hard to stay objective. But the job demands objectivity, so this reviewer will do his best.
For the sake of the sorry lot of you who haven’t played Gears of War yet, I won’t reveal plot details, but suffice to say that in Gears of War 2 the story picks up where the first game left off. You play Marcus Fenix, member of Delta Squad, an elite section of the human armed forces of the planet Sera, tasked with taking the fight to the heart of vicious, beastly Locusts, who have decimated the human population on Sera and have driven mankind to the brink of extinction. Once again, the player is taken on a rollercoaster ride through the destroyed landscapes of the surface of Sera, vast caverns beneath the surface and strongholds of the Locust.
You are accompanied by your Delta Squad members, with Dom, Baird and Cole reprising their roles and new characters making an appearance to liven up the cast and flesh out the Delta squad backstory. It’s quite an entertaining ride, with the story being much more developed now and the producers have added a generous dollop of cutscenes into the mix along with plenty of in-sequence banter and in game collectibles like diary pages, propaganda leaflets, research notes, etc. to liven up the gritty gameplay. It works well on the story-telling front with all major characters getting adequate camera time and Dom getting an entire side story (the search for his wife, Maria) all of his own to lend an emotional quotient to the otherwise testosterone-fueled jaunt. Metal Gear Solid it is not, but the developers have obviously taken the criticisms of the narrative of the first game to heart and have churned out a well-written script to back up the gameplay this time ’round.
The gameplay mechanics are carried over intact from Gears 1. It’s is an over the shoulder third person shooter and the game plays out in a manner which the developers have termed “cover shooter”. Taking cover is a vital component of the gameplay, so much so that the game has dedicated the “A” button on the controller for taking cover. Holding the “A” button sends the player into a hunched sprint, which is enhanced with a “shaky cam” animation. The paths through the levels are fairly linear, but the game does throw up several opportunities to choose branching paths, which slightly bumps up the replay value. Holding the left trigger [LT] zooms in the perspective into the aim mode which provides a crosshair for sighting purposes and the right trigger [RT] fires the weapon. Weapons can be fired without aiming and blind fire is also available which is a fun to look at, but pretty much useless mechanic given the quality of the AI, especially at higher difficulty levels.
All the weapons from the first game make a comeback, including the Hall of Fame inductee – Lancer, with its attached chainsaw, the over powered shotgun, the standard and magnum pistols, the frag grenade, the sniper rifle, the Torque Bow, and the fan favourite Hammer of Dawn. Several new weapons have been added, including a wonderful new assault rifle called Hammerburst, the Gorgon pistol, and the poisonous Ink Grenades. Finishing moves on downed enemies have new animations depending on the weapon equipped and downed enemies can now be held in front of you like a living shield in a mechanic aptly named “Meatshield”. Once they have outlived their usefulness, a quick tap of the button snaps their necks and tosses them aside. The infamous reverse chainsaw technique is also included and is extremely satisfying to pull off on an enemy.
Speaking of AI, there is a noticeable improvement this time in the enemy AI. They are aggressive, they’re effective dodgers of incoming fire and the scripted flanking manoeuvres add tension to several of the key battle set pieces. New enemy characters make a bow including the Tickers which are basically mobile land mines, the irritatingly agile Kantus, the fast and deadly Bloodmounts, the minigun wielding Grinders, the shield and mace wielding Maulers, Flaming Boomers and Sires. Enemy grunts are generally more effective at wielding sniper rifles and Lancers so you can expect to see some terrific chainsaw duels in the game. Sadly, friendly AI is not up to scratch and on many occasions, I found myself downed and begging for revival while my AI controlled team mates happily pranced around my withering form, enacting a grisly version of Swan Lake.
Level design is hugely improved over the first game with very little repetition and lots of multi-level battle arenas which allow for some strategic decisions in tackling the game’s numerous firefights. The generous sprinkling of ladders, stairs and lifts break up the flat game terrain and lend a genuine feel of exploration to the missions. And commenting on level design, I must put in a few words on the boss fights. Hands down, Gears of War 2 has one of the biggest bosses ever seen in a videogame, and rather than putting the player head to head against the boss, the developers took a far more interesting route to beating the boss which, in the opinion of this reviewer, is a very welcome touch. The other boss battles are also awe-inspiring, but take a far more traditional “lather-rinse-repeat” approach.
No question about it, Gears of War 2 is the best-looking game to hit the Xbox 360 and one of the best looking games of all time. Textures are sharper, there are a lot more particles flying around, cover is destructible, there are tons more enemies on screen at a single time, draw distances are vast, and there is very little visible aliasing. There is a pleasantly shocking consistency to the graphical quality of the game and you never get the impression of compromise at any point in the experience. The levels are painstakingly rendered and I guarantee that your jaw will hit the floor the first time you come across a sunken city in the game. It’s not just the graphical quality, but also the inspired art design that Epic Games have churned out for the sequel that bodes very well for the inevitable third game in the series. The colour palette seems to have been spruced up. Although its still predominantly brown, grey, yellow and red, there seems to be more variations in the shades of these colours used throughout the game that give it a fresher, more vibrant look. Its also quite obvious that the devs at Epic have spent a lot of time with the Xbox 360’s hardware specs because in spite of the vastly upgraded graphics of Gears 2, the frame rate is rock solid throughout and even during cutscenes (which was a major complaint in the first game).
Tip: Turn down the brightness level of your TV / monitor by a little bit. Most of us tend to keep our displays close to max brightness and I’ve noticed that lowering the brightness level for Gears 2 seems to enhance the visual effect the colour variations.
Technical hitches are still present thanks to the Unreal Engine III that forms the base of the game. Texture pop-in was evident on numerous occasions, albeit far less bothersome than in the first game. The draw distances are quite extensive but it gives rise to some artefacts like shimmering textures which disappear as you draw nearer.
This is a game that delivers an immensely satisfying aural experience. From the weapon sound effects to the rousing background score, Gears 2 is an audiophile’s delight and will flex the sinews of your audio setup. If you have a 5.1-capable audio receiver with a matching speaker setup (like this reviewer), you are in for a treat. Some of the set pieces have your squad flanked by the Locust forces and you are faced with bullets, boomshots and torque arrows whizzing in from all directions, coupled with the roars of a Brumak or a Reaver and the squeal of a Kantus. The overall experience can be overwhelming and is a treat to your ears. Voice acting can be hammy at times, but the actors have done a great job overall and I don’t think any actor could have done justice to Marcus Fenix other than John Di Maggio.
The entire campaign in Gears 2 can be completed by two players playing cooperatively either split-screen or over Xbox LIVE. The host controls Marcus while the other player controls Dom. A lot more attention has been paid to the second player in co-op thanks to Dom’s side quest and this makes it a lot more fun. Online multiplayer modes have been beefed up with the addition of Wingman and Meatflag in addition to all the modes from the first game. Versus matches now feature 5-on-5 matches allowing more buddies in on the action in a match. But all this is overshadowed by the creation of a brand new multiplayer mode called “Horde”. Up to 5 players can team up and cooperatively take on wave after wave of increasingly tough Locusts on a set of maps. After repeatedly playing this mode over the last few days, I can honestly say that this mode is going to dominate Gears 2 online play for quite some time to come. It’s just so much fun.
Side note: This reviewer had the privilege of gaining early access to the New Xbox Experience. After playing through the Act 1 and a few Horde matches from the game disc, it was installed on the hard drive and a second playthrough of Act 1 and Horde was initiated. There is a significant improvement in load times and texture pop-in is virtually eliminated in all but the most demanding of scenes. This is a huge benefit and NXE gets a double thumbs up from this reviewer for this.
Cliff Blezinski, the lead designer of Gears of War over at Epic Games has been quoted and mocked for his infamous “Bigger, better and more badass” line. But if there ever was redemption to be found in the delivery of a game to the hands of rabid fans, Gears 2 has done it. With Improved graphics, more weapons, superb set pieces, gigantic bosses, new multiplayer, and a slightly longer campaign, Gears 2 delivers on several fronts and stands out in a year filled with top notch game releases, with more to come. It is a superb game and a worthy addition to a gamer’s collection. If there ever was a game that captures everything that the Xbox 360 stood for, it has to be Gears of War 2. Move over Master Chief, you got served.
IndianVideoGamer Verdict: 9/10 (Buy)