When the Locust emerged from the ground on November 12th, 2006 to ravage the surface of the planet Sera, so too did Gears of War emerge as a mega franchise for the Xbox 360. Less than two years later, we’re already being treated to a sequel. When Gears of War 2 was announced, Epic Games lead designer Cliff Bleszinski proclaimed it would be “bigger, better, more badass”. Now that the wait is over, does Gears of War 2 live up to that billing or does it sink under the weight of hefty expectations?
Gears of War 2 picks up six months after Gears of War, opening with a cinematic that doubles as a “Previously on Gears of War” segment and a rally cry for the Locust. Voiced over by the Locust Queen, she proclaims that not only have the Locust endured the detonation of the Lightmass Bomb, but they’ve prospered and are renewed in their efforts to eradicate the human race. The Locust is in possession of a super weapon capable of sinking whole cities, and mankind is down to its last refuges.
After a quick intro level through a hospital that allows players to get re-adjusted to the controls, cover system and combat, Marcus and the rest of Delta Squad are assigned to protect a caravan headed to the Locust-infested city of Landown, and as they depart mankind gets it’s turn to rally the troops. As the opening credits start to roll, a second cinematic sees Chairman Prescott delivering an inspirational speech of his own, announcing that if humanity wants to win this war against the Locust there is but one course of action left…to attack! This 30-minute opening stretch is designed to get the blood pumping and the trigger finger itching, while laying the groundwork for mankind’s last stand, and is executed perfectly so. In fact, the story arc as a whole is much more relevant this time around. Players will meet memorable new characters, gain a greater knowledge of the game universe, including the history and motivations of the Locust, and glimpse an emotional side of Dom as he searches for his missing wife Maria, one of several sub-plots introduced during the campaign. By the end Gears of War 2 raises more questions than it answers but that’s not such a bad thing. It just means the more likelihood of a third installment.
The campaign in Gears of War 2 is not only significantly longer than the original game – clocking in at around 9 hours – it’s also considerably larger in scope. In retrospect, the encounters in Gears of War seem tiny in comparison to the massive battles in Gears of War 2, and there’s no better example than the aforementioned second mission of the campaign, a semi on-rails level aboard a Derrick where you’ll mount a turret and shoot down enemy mortars, mow down at least a hundred Locust, and take down not one but several Reavers and Brumaks, all in a race with a Locust-hijacked Derrick to reach a narrow bridge and avoid a looming gorge. It’s an exhilarating ride unlike anything found in the previous Gears of War and when you consider you’re already encountering enemies that were boss characters in the original game, you can expect that the battles will only get bigger, and the enemies and bosses more bad ass from here.
Combat in Gears of War 2 is just as brutal and visceral as ever, with a few new tricks up its sleeve. The cover system returns, even better now that you don’t feel so much stuck to a surface when you dig in behind it. To provide a little variety on the often-used cover mechanic, during the campaign you’ll come across moving and retractable cover that literally changes the battlefield on the fly. You’ll have more options when you come across a downed enemy. Along with the tried and true curb stomp, players can pick up downed enemies and use them as meat shields, or trigger a weapon-specific execution. There are 11 executions, one for each weapon in the game, and they range from a simple beat down with the Lancer Assault Rifle to some real nasty finishers while yielding the Torque Bow or Sniper Rifle. And of course, as I’m sure you’ve all seen or read, Gears of War 2 features chainsaw duels, the winner of which is the person who presses the B button the most times during the brief stalemate.
On the topic of weapons, Gears of War 2 expands the arsenal of gear. In addition to the usual suspects like the Lancer, Shotgun and Torque Bow, new weapons include the Gorgon Pistol, a semi-automatic pistol ideal for use when holding a shield, living or otherwise; the Mulcher, a high-caliber machine gun; the Boomshield, a shield acquired from fallen Maulers that can be used to provide cover in the midst of battle; and my new favorite weapon, the Scorcher Flamethrower. There’s also a new explosive in the form of an ink grenade, which poisons the area in which it’s thrown, making it hazardous for a short time.
“Maulers?” you ask. Yes, Maulers, as well as Grinders, Butchers and Flames, are members of the Boomer family, and are new additions to the roster of enemies in Gears of War 2. These large, powerful creatures are armed with Mulchers, Flamethrowers, Boomshields and Flails, presenting tough, new challenges on the battlefield. Joining them are Bloodmounts, Kantus and Tickers. Bloodmounts are beasts ridden by Locust Elites. Bloodmounts run on their hands and attack with their feet, which might sound odd but looks really cool. If you kill its rider, the Bloodmount will shake its dead body off his back, scratch off his muzzle and charge after you, making for an intense encounter. Kantus, on the other hand, are priests that prefer to hang back behind the frontlines. Although they’re capable of focusing sonic attacks against you, the Kantus’ true danger lies in their ability to revive fallen bretheren from afar. Last but not least, Tickers are like Lambent Wretches from the original Gears of War, smaller explosive creatures that you don’t want getting too close to you. Tickers can be useful in combat though if you can shoot them while they’re near opposing enemies.
Gears of War 2 runs on an enhanced version of the Unreal Engine 3 and suffice to say, it looks phenomenal. The environments are considerably larger and more varied yet not an ounce of detail is sacrificed. Wooden and concrete structures are now destructible, and they don’t so much blast apart as they do slowly break or chip away, which is a nice effect. The underground levels aren’t nearly as dull this time around. Plant and insect life help give these areas more color and when you eventually reach the Locust Ruins, you’ll find the structures amazing to look upon. The character models, both new and old, continue to be one of the game’s visual achievements. In certain levels there are literally dozens of enemies onscreen at once and only one time, towards the end of the game, did I notice any slowdown. What I did notice though, were textures taking a moment to fade in when a level first loads. It’s nothing big, but certainly noticeable. Audio is equally special. The voice acting is stellar throughout. The scene where Delta Squad is reunited with Cole is one of my favorites. Cole provides great humor in even the darkest of corridors. The sound effects are excellent as well. The audio cue when a Ticker is getting ready to explode is one of the highlights. The new Boomer types all have neat little quips that they say, like the Flame units bellowing, “Burn ‘em,” just before firing up their Flamethrower. And last but not least, composer Steve Jablonsky provides a strong soundtrack.
Gears of War was a huge hit on Xbox Live and Gears of War 2 should be no different, upping the ante in every regard beginning with support for up to 10 players competitively. Multiplayer modes Warzone, Execution, Annex, Assassination and the formerly PC exclusive King of the Hill, are joined by three new modes: Submission, Guardian and Wingman. Submission is the most interesting of the new recruits, a variation on the Capture the Flag theme only the flag is an AI-controlled bot, armed with a shotgun and no desire to be captured (wouldn’t it be cool if someone was assigned to be the living flag?). Gears of War 2 ships with 10 multiplayer maps – 8 new arenas and 2 returning favorites – but the Flashback Map Pack promises to add 5 classic Gears of War maps to the mix free of charge at launch. Last but not least, as a way to ease new players into competitive multiplayer, Gears of War 2 offers a Training Grounds, an interactive instruction outlining the objectives of each of the competitive multiplayer modes, complete with AI-controlled bots.
For those who prefer co-operative multiplayer, Gears of War 2 allows up to two players to run through the entire campaign, just like the original. As a new helpful addition, each player can select their own difficulty setting. So for instance if you have a buddy who is new to first-person shooters, they can play on “casual” while you play on the “hardcore” setting. To make up for the discrepancy in difficulty, the “hardcore” player will deal less damage with their weapons and absorb less damage before going down. That’s not all co-op fans have to look forward to. The crown jewel comes in the form of a new co-op mode entitled Horde. In this mode, up to five players team up to see how long they can survive through wave after wave of Locust Horde, up to a total of 50 waves. As teams clear each tenth wave, the enemies gain accuracy, weapon damage and armor bonuses so by the time you reach the final 10 waves, each enemy will be two and a half times more resilient, powerful and accurate. Suffice to say this is a very tough mode to complete on any difficulty setting, but if you die you don’t necessarily have to start from the beginning again; you can continue from the last wave you completed if you want. Ultimately I have little doubt Horde will be the most frequented new multiplayer lobby in Gears of War 2.
Is there anything to complain about in Gears of War 2? There’s the aforementioned texture issue, and the fact most of the sub-plots are left with loose ends. The final boss battle, if you can call it that, is underwhelming, and there’s a level midway through the game that takes place inside the belly of a beast, quite literally, that I felt brought the action to a bit of a crawl. It’s not nearly enough to detract from the overall experience though.
Bigger, better, more badass? Yes, yes, and hell yes! Gears of War 2 delivers on every one of its promises, combining a rich and intimate story, brutal, visceral combat, incredible graphics, outstanding audio design, a strong soundtrack, and a robust multiplayer suite. Quite simply, Gears of War 2 is one of the best games you’ll play on your Xbox 360 this or any year.