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Gears of War 2 review (Xbox 360) November 12, 2008

Posted by Mike in Console, Games, gaming, Reviews.


Cliff Bleszinski (née: ‘B’) may have spent much of the year talking about how Gears of War 2 has problems with its bottom, but the only piles on display here are the ‘of setpieces’ variety. Immensely loud and dumb the series remains, but when playing it is so much fun, who needs Proust?

It comes as no surprise that big unit sales for Gears 1 ensured that the Lightmass bomb unleashed against the Locust at the end of the first game didn’t succeed in wiping them out, proving once again that capitalism is the real adversary in videogame plotland. Marcus Fenix (sic) and his lovelorn sidekick Dom are therefore tasked with blowing shit up to save humanity. It’s our last stand… again, and you have to go deep into the enemy’s lair to set off a big bomb… again. Yes, the sophisticated tunnel mapping you went to so much trouble gathering in Gears 1 managed to completely miss the existence of a massive underground Locust city. Should have called Ordnance Survey.

New to the experience is an attempt at proper story pathos, which works intermittently, although the themes of love and loss fight against the casual uberviolence present in the game. This isn’t helped by the script being fairly rubbish (although sometimes you’re convinced that it knows it) despite the presence of a well-known comic book writer on scribe duties, and the voice acting is solid but occasionally overwrought (Dom’s big ‘moment’ is visually superb, but partially ruined by the actor’s OTT line delivery and few real story consequences). Turn off the subtitles and your brain on entry, and everything seems better. Don’t think. Just shoot.

The trademark use of cover, pop and shoot in the game’s firefights is all present and correct, but what’s surprising this time around is the amount of variety to break up the classic Gears gameplay. For every familiar courtyard encounter with a group of enemies, there’s an on-rails vehicle section with crazy amounts of explosions going on all around you, a new environmental hazard that forces you to adopt a newer, riskier strategy to keep going forwards, a thrilling boat trip, a sinking city, a massive boss battle, using the enemy’s own forces against them in a bravura fireworks display – there’s rarely a dull moment.

New weapons fit into the series well – the flamethrower being a particular visual highlight – and, thankfully, any that seem overpowered at first glance come with a crippling movement speed modifier or an aiming disadvantage that doesn’t throw off the delicate balancing on display. Portable cover proves to be an inspired new feature too, with the use of metal shields from certain downed enemies (at the cost of using better guns while you’re walking around with them) providing another option to get close to a group of entrenched nasties, without making everything too easy. The Locust sport well-integrated new forces, including the Warg-like Bloodmounts; the massive, shield-carrying Maulers; and the intensely irritating, exploding Tickers. There’s more to the game than before, then, but the additions work without adversely affecting gameplay. It’s all rather splendid.

Graphically, the ‘destroyed beauty’ angle of the first game has been dialled down somewhat in favour of elaborate underground areas, enemy temples, and spectacular outdoor vistas. It’s a different aesthetic: one moment more colourful than the original game, the next even gloomier. The design work remains impressive, and there are several sequences that showcase the major advances made to the Unreal Engine 3 in the intervening period. True, the infamous ‘Meat Cubes’, Hordes and environmental destruction don’t show up as much as we perhaps expected after their unveiling at GDC, but everything’s a clear level up from Gears 1.

The same applies to the music too, the volume of which badly needs to be turned up from its default setting. Whether the atmospheric pieces present in the lead-up to the next encounter, or the pulse-pounding score during frenetic battles, it genuinely adds to the experience, along with the general sound mix for the meaty effects.

Longer than the original game’s campaign, Gears 2 certainly gives you your money’s worth in single player alone, and the different difficulty settings, as well as extremely solid online co-op support, encourage replayability. The online setup rivals Halo 3’s integration, with your friends list always available on the controller’s left bumper in the menus, meaning that you don’t have to go through the slow Xbox Guide functions to invite people into a game.

Online multiplayer is potentially fantastic but currently a mixed bag due to matchmaking issues. The new objective gametypes (Gears-tailored variants on the standard King of the Hill, Domination and Capture the Flag) are excellent, the play is virtually lag-free through decent connections, and the maps are generally well designed, with many of the complaints from Gears 1 (e.g. shotgun spamming) eliminated. The problem with online at the moment is that it can take upwards of five minutes to find a game, which is a serious drawback, particularly when you consider that you’re thrown back to the menus at the end of a match. Private matches are unaffected by this, of course, and the ability to form a party of five (no Neve Campbell included, unfortunately) to move around ranked games will come into its own as soon as a patch for the matchmaking issues is forthcoming.

Now for the really good stuff. The co-operative Horde mode, where up to five human players face off against waves of Locust, is one of the most exciting and addictive game modes I’ve ever played. It’s incredibly tense, with the limited ammo and race for decent cover points against the aggressive enemy AI bringing to mind Michael Caine battling against all odds in a bastardised alien version of Zulu. Starting off easily enough, with low-powered enemies and slow Butchers proving to be easy cannon fodder in the early waves, you’ll soon be screaming in panic as multiple Bloodmounts leap over your security cordon and groups of Maulers assault your position en masse, while your carefully prepared defence plans disintegrate into chaos. The difficulty escalates to a peak in every tenth wave, with the overall strength of every enemy in the Horde then increasing, ready for the next ten to begin. When you consider that there are fifty waves, with the same difficulty levels available as in the campaign mode, and all the multiplayer maps to choose from, Horde is almost endlessly replayable, and the undisputed highlight of the game.

Regardless of its minor issues, Gears 2 is a triumph. With the door for a further sequel left not so much open as clean blown off its hinges at the game’s climax, it’s difficult to see how the series can possibly top this instalment in the current console generation. Other devs would be well advised to consult CliffsNotes before bothering with a further preponderance of third-person, second best imitators, however, as Gears 2 has emerged in the rude health of a vintage Bruckheimer blockbuster, and is by some distance the standout entry of its genre.



1. collarz - January 6, 2009

We are looking for great games writers like yourself!


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