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Monday, April 11, 2011

Gears of War 2 (9.3/10)


"They do not understand. They do not know why we wage this war… why we will fight and fight and fight… until we win, or we die… and we are not dead yet."

These words were uttered by the Locust Queen at the very end of the original Gears of War after Marcus and Dom detonated the Lightmass bomb... the bomb may have decimated the the Locust horde, but it did not destroy them utterly. In the highly anticipated sequel Delta squad fights their way deep underground into the very heart of the Locust empire to find out why...

The second chapter in the Gears of War saga (which now includes both comics, and full length novels which I have yet to pick up but am looking forward to reading) continues chronicling the exploits of Delta squad as they fight along with the rest of humanity against the subterranean menace that are the Locust. Set six months after the successful deployment of the Lightmass bomb, the Locust return seemingly thriving and stronger than ever. Somehow the Locust are sinking entire cities! They are, however, seemingly more desperate in their efforts. So the humans, equally desperate, decide to take the fight to the Locust in a massive counteroffensive aiming to hit them where they live… deep underground in hope of finding their stronghold and cut off the head of the proverbial beast so that the body might die.

There are some truly memorable moments in Gears of War 2. I don’t want to spoil them for you, suffice it to say several of the set pieces are jaw dropping in both scale and function. The narrative takes some interesting (and unexpected) turns (there are several "Huh?" moments and some glaring plot holes), but let's just say it poses as many questions as it answers. The problem is that while several of these scenes merit discussion, I can't even begin to talk about them (both the good bits and the bad) without giving too much away.

This time around the story is much more Dom-centric as we learn more about his search for his missing wife, Maria (careful observers will remember his search being alluded to as he asked around among the Stranded). While it’s certainly poignant, I felt it was a tad overdone. This sort of melodrama adds a lot in the way of character development and motivation but for me it seems out of place in such a bawdy, action-focused game. The analogous ‘summer popcorn flick’ that it is, Gears 2 would have been fine without this emotional, albeit well done, baggage.

The gameplay is essentially the same with the main focus being on third person cover based shooting sequences with the odd vehicle section tossed in. However, there are a few noticeable additions such as: chainsaw battles (if your opponent is also wielding a Lancer), new variations on curb stomps (which are endlessly entertaining and beautifully brutal), the ability to use a wounded Locust as a human shield (which I just found amusing) and heavy weapons (the 'Mulcher' machine gun is well good, but the mortar gun is just frickin’ awesome).

Another addition to Gears 2 that I liked was rather than just searching for nondescript collectible cog tags, this time those collectible items actually have descriptions that help fill out the back story and the Gears of War milieu in general. There are 41 pieces of intel to find including things like the aforementioned cog tags (although now they have an accompanying story about the person which is usually pretty tragic) to a Locust calendar… actually most of the Locust intel is pretty clever as it serves to explain more about the species, right down to their mythology.

Gears of War was a stunning achievement from a graphical standpoint showing off the power of the new generation of consoles and wowing audiences (me included) the world over. The sequel builds upon this foundation with even sharper environments and greater depth. There are still some texture loading issues, but the sheer scope of their creation allows that to be forgiven. The animations are not only more varied this time around, but more fluid and precise as well.

The sound work lives up to the precedent of its predecessor as well, with all the actors returning (gotta love Cole-train, especially his eloquent discourse towards the end of the game… I’ll leave that for you to enjoy;^). The wonderful sound and weapon effects are just as good, as are the hair-rising-on-the-back-of-your-neck aural cues of the Locust. Gotta love those Wretches. My only complaint is that the end song doesn’t have quite the same… panache, as the original.

One thing I found a bit bizarre was in the original Gears of War the final boss fight was quite difficult, yet in the sequel it’s almost like they took that to heart too much, and made the final confrontation almost laughably easy. It’s almost like the developers just couldn’t make up their minds so went completely to the other end of the spectrum.

My biggest joys with Gears of War come from sitting on the couch with a good friend and a couple of beers, chainsawing and curb-stomping Locust to our hearts content. While I don't usually play online multiplayer, I do want to mention the ‘Horde’ mode. This is basically a multiplayer map where you (and a friend) face wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies. It’s a clever addition that serves to lengthen the time you’ll spend playing the game. There’s not much point beyond seeing how long you can survive but it’s a nice distraction and we’ve seen other developers include similar mechanics in their games as well since Gears 2 set the bar.

I’m struggling to score Gears of War 2. In many ways it’s a better game than the original; more well rounded in combat and environments, plenty of new enemies and weapons. In other ways it’s more of the same with probably the best action cover system available and familiar faces and foes. Then there is the story, which for me took a step back. While I appreciate what the good people at Epic were trying to do with Dom’s arc, I felt like it wasn’t… necessary. Trying to inject such drama into what has always been the video game equivalent of a Schwarzenegger film just seems tacky. Don't get me wrong, his search for Maria did affect me, especially the first time I played the game, but subsequent playthroughs have left me wondering if such personal motivations were requisite.

So in the end, I've decided to score Gears of War 2 the same as the original. I love them both equally despite a few flaws. With the third and final chapter on the horizon I’m sure I’ll be playing them both again soon just to get ready! This is, hands down, one for my favorite series. With such a solid foundation I can’t wait to see how the story of Delta squad comes to an end.


Score = 9.3 / 10

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