With over two years of development time, unbridled hype from producer Cliff Bleszinski, and a number of zeroes usually associated with Hollywood blockbusters attached to the budget, expectations were high for a bigger and better sequel. After all, the original was a massive hit on the 360 and the cover-and-shoot core mechanic made a refreshing change from the glut of first-person-shooters that threatened to drown the console in a sea of gaming excrement; for the most part, Epic have succeeded in making a worthy successor to Gears of War.
Playing like a console version of a Michael Bay SF film, Gears of War 2 sees you assuming control of Marcus Fenix again in the war against the Locust. Following the events of the first game, the attempt to wipe out the alien Locust horde has failed and the remaining COG forces are under siege in Jacinto, the last human stronghold. Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad are ordered to mount a major offensive to take the battle to the Locust and… wait, who plays these games for the story? The important questions are these: is it still all grey, is the friendly AI better, is chainsawing enemies in half just as fun as it was before, and did anyone fix those irritating-to-the-point-of-controller-defenestration multiplayer glitches? (No, mostly, yes, yes, yes).
One of the major criticisms levelled at the original game was that it was too grey. Grey streets, grey skies, grey caverns, grey character models, grey everything, and when compared to the positively psychedelic Halo 3, Gears of War looked very drab indeed. This is not a criticism that can be applied to the sequel. The graphics are simply astounding, featuring sprawling gothic palaces, epic outdoor landscapes full of autumnal colours, and underground lakes of the almost fluorescent yellow Immulsion fuel. It’s one of those games where you can spend an age wandering around, staring in awe at the attention to detail, which is a good thing because in the early stages of the game you’ll find yourself in a number of situations where there is simply nothing to shoot at.
In Epic’s efforts change the game’s linear progression of walking-bit-shooting-bit-walking-bit-on-rails-bit-walking-bit-shooting-bit-repeat-until-abrupt-end-boss, they seem to have missed the point that the game was all about those confined, shoot-outs where you had to advance from cover to cover, flank and create cross-fires, and not the set-pieces. The opening hospital siege nails the feel of the first game perfectly, as does the final two acts, but in between the pace goes up and down like yo-yo. Those colourful wide landscapes? Wide and colourful they may be, but they are part of a long on-rails level where every so often you get to shoot things whilst marvelling at all the pretty. The vehicle section is better than the original’s – for one you can move and shoot at the same time – but goes on forever, there are too many on-rails sequences, and the final boss makes Raam look like a masterpiece of game design.
Luckily it’s not all bad. On the friendly AI front, there has been a vast improvement. In the original’s Kryll levels, where one had to stay in lighted areas to avoid being killed, computer-controlled Dom would invariably wander into a dark area and get torn to shreds, necessitating a restart and some choice curses at the appalling AI. Alternatively, in certain pitched battles, your entire team would get downed in the first ten seconds leaving you to finish off all the bad guys. Dom now takes cover properly and is capable of proper support. In fact, he’s so much better that if you hang around for too long admiring the scenery, Dom will mop up for you. This is good, because he’s no longer a complete liability, but also bad as it occasionally feels like the AI is doing all the work and you’re just standing around for show. Don’t worry though, there are still moments of complete ineptitude where Dom will get stuck in cover or refuse to budge, leaving you to struggle on alone to the next checkpoint. Huzzah!
Whilst not exactly an essential part of the original game, the ability to chainsaw an enemy in half was hilarious. It’s still just as fun as it’s always been, though now when two Lancer-wielding characters going for a chainsaw kill at the same time, they will clash in a duel and have to hammer the B button until one wins. Or you can cheat and get a teammate to chainsaw your opponent in the back which will automatically win the duel, compared to before when you’d have to wait until you’d been sawn in half before your teammate could engage. Not only are you able to chainsaw someone from behind (starting from the groin up!), there is now a whole series of unique executions. Instead of simply curb-stomping a downed enemy, you can now punch their face in, kick their head off, or use specific execution weapons which have their own animations (it’s a crying shame that Epic took out what would would been the ultimate in humiliation – ripping the enemy’s arm off and beating him to death with it). Hmm. This is probably the point where one should be made aware that this game features graphic violence and bad language, and is thus unsuitable for minors. Just so you know.
Alternatively, you can pick up a downed enemy and use him as a “meatshield”, wielding a pistol in your other hand. This is the first of many additions to your armoury. Others include the Mulcher heavy machine gun, a flame-thrower (more fun to use than its Halo 3 equivalent), the Boomshield (a metal shield carried by melee Boomers that can be planted in the ground to serve as cover) and the mortar, which rains parabolic-instant-death from the sky. There’s also the ink grenade which can be used to make an area of cover unusable, and all grenade types can now be tagged to walls to act like claymore mines.
The original game had multi-player added as an afterthought, but proved so popular with gamers that Epic resolved to patch as many glitches as possible. However, a number remained unresolved and all of these appear to have been fixed for the sequel. The “shotgun roll”, where rolling effectively makes you impervious to gunfire, is out, and the horrific advantage enjoyed by a match’s host has been mitigated. Unfortunately,the new weapons that work perfectly well in single-player unbalance multi-player quite badly. The mulcher is able to mow down entire teams with ease, and the mortar is as powerful as the Hammer of Dawn but without the warning beeps telling you to dodge or get under cover. Being able to grenade tag walls is fine in principle, except this can be mercilessly exploited by teams placing grenades on the inner doorway of a room with one entrance and just waiting for the opposing team to rush in [there was also the joy of smoke grenades knocking you over but this was later taken out]. It’s an incredibly unsportsmanlike way of playing, but years of Live experience have taught me that no one plays fair unless forced to do so.
Making criteria for the new achievements applicable across any game type is a good thing as it will remove the tendency for idiots in ranked (now referred to as “public”) matches to screw their team over. However it does give lazy people the opportunity to rack up most of them by setting up matches with the newly included bot players. Bot difficulty can be set between the game’s standard difficulty levels of Casual, Normal, Hardcore and Insane, and are useful for training or for a quick match, but the AI is….variable to say the least. A hardcore bot will be stupid enough to stand out in the razorhail on the Hail level and effectively commit suicide, whereas a bot on Insane might do exactly the same one round and in the next take out the last two members of a team using only a pistol. AI has a long way to go before it can offer the same challenge as a human player, but it’s getting there. Slowly.
Game type-wise, the existing complement of Warzone, Execution and Annex gets three new additions. The first is Submission (or Meatflag), which is similar to a standard capture-the-flag type game – two teams have to compete for a single flag and bring the flag back to their base. Except the flag is a computer-controlled human who must be downed before he can be picked up as a meatshield and carried to your base. Next is Wingman, where five teams of two compete to be the first to fifteen kills and is about as chaotic as you imagine it would be. Then Guardian, a kind of VIP-type game where one member of the team is the leader and must be executed by the opposition to win the round, and finally, the simply awesome Horde mode.
Horde mode is a co-operative multi-player game where you and up to four friends take on up to fifty waves of increasingly difficult Locust. A common tactic is to find a spot with few access points that be easily defended, then settle in and let them come. Initially, you can flank enemies and make runs for ammunition and weapons easily, but on later waves, breaking off from the group is suicidal. The tension slowly mounts up as ammunition becomes scarce and you have to weigh up the risks of making a run for ammo run or a dropped weapon for a better chance at surviving the next wave. Horde mode can be played on any of the multi-player maps and at any of the game’s five difficulty settings. Getting to Wave 50 on Normal alone will take some seriously co-ordinated effort (and possibly an exploit or two of the map’s layout), so it’s a crying shame that the achievement for surviving all fifty waves can be gained on any difficulty and no such achievement exists for the Insane level (it would have been ridiculous though. To give you an idea, I assembled a crack team of skilled players to give wave 50 on Insane a go and we lasted all of 38 seconds with zero kills. On our second attempt, we managed to inflict some damage before being wiped out again). When the single-player campaign has been done to death and playing randoms on Xbox Live becomes tiresome, Horde mode will keep you coming back for more.
If that wasn’t enough for you, downloadable content is available right now in the form of updates of the most popular multiplayer maps of the original, with the added bonus of being absolutely free. Even if you weren’t a fan of the original, Gears Of War 2 gets far more right than it gets wrong, and Horde mode alone constitutes one of the best multiplayer experiences you’ll have this year. A worthy sequel to the original and one of the best games released this year.
This review first appeared in slightly different form on the Herts & Essex Observer website (December 2008)