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Gears of War 2

7 Nov 2008  by   Paul Younger
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“Bigger, better and more badass” was the promise from Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski (or Dude Huge if you’re a fan of ludicrous monikers) when talking about Gears of War 2. Expansion, rather than reinvention, was the aim and the good news is that Epic has crafted a sequel that surpasses the original in every way.The opening section of Gears 2, however, is very much more of the same. Tasked with clearing out a hospital we’re back in familiar territory as we’re eased back into the cover/combat mechanic that defined the original. This is no run and gun affair and a tactical approach is essential to survival in the Gears universe.  Cover is king and you’ll need to move carefully through the well-designed battlegrounds in order to triumph over the Locust hordes.However, the pace soon begins to pick up as Marcus Fenix and co board the Derrick transports and make their way across war-torn Sera. The outdoor environments look stunning and it becomes clear that scale plays a much larger part in Gears of War 2. As you traverse the countryside, dodging airborne Locust attacks and artillery, for the first time in Gears, you get a real sense of being a small player in a larger battle. The enemies you face also reflect the developer’s “bigger is better” ethos.
The Brumak we saw, but sadly didn’t get to fight, in the first game is back but, amazingly, pales in comparison to some of the truly monstrous foes you will encounter (more on these later).There’s also a wider variety of standard enemies in Gears 2 and you’ll need to contend with a whole host of new Locust nasties. Mounted enemy troops and the airborne Reavers are particularly challenging and can take an awful lot of punishment. Luckily, Epic has kindly provided some nice new toys for you to play with.  You’ll have a range of new heavy weapons at your disposal, from the minigun-style Mulcher to the devastating mortars and flamethrower, but they don’t pack the same jaw-shattering punch as the Hammer of Dawn (which makes an understated return). Some of the standard weapons have also been overhauled and the Lancer rifle, especially, feels a lot more powerful this time around. Again, it’s subtle enhancement rather than innovation but it works very well.The game’s narrative follows the same formula and is a significant improvement from its predecessor.  As expected the story focuses on humanity’s increasingly futile struggle against the Locust Horde, but also includes a sub-plot which follows Dom’s search for his missing wife, Maria. The most interesting addition to the narrative, however, is the intriguing layer of moral ambiguity which casts doubt on the wisdom of humanity’s effort to finish off the Locust.But, this being Gears, don’t go expecting too much from the story. It’s still riddled with clichés, WWE-style machismo  and some cringeworthy dialogue (usually spewing forth from the profoundly irritating Cole).  Epic has clearly listened to criticism of the first game and, accordingly, has tried to add more depth to Gears’ storyline. Amidst all the testosterone-fuelled bravado, you’ll encounter a few “emotive” moments which aim to flesh out the characters but unfortunately come across as a little hackneyed. Whilst the narrative definitely feels like the centrepiece of a trilogy, throwing up more questions than answers, it is undoubtedly an improvement and it’s clear Epic has put a lot of thought into linking the storyline to level design, resulting in some well-designed sections.That’s not to say that Gears 2’s ten hour campaign is enthralling in its entirety. There is a definite lull midway through the game as Marcus and co find themselves exploring dark, claustrophobic environments with less in the way of action than one might have hoped.  These sections are intended to create a sense of ominous tension but they rely too much on simplistic lever puzzles and you’ll find yourself itching for another big gunfight. Even the much-hyped level that no-one’s allowed to talk about fails to lift the game out of this lull. Taking on the Locust’s most powerful weapon should have been more bombastic and, whilst the idea behind the design is clever, it’s just not much fun. It’s an excuse to show off some stunning visual effects but the gameplay in this section feels too much like filler. That’s about as much as we can say about it other than it involves shooting what appears to be a series of angry red bumholes.  Seriously.However, it’s easy to forgive the midgame lull once you encounter the utterly superb final third of the game. The pace picks up dramatically and the aforementioned sense of scale takes the game to truly cinematic levels. The boss battles are fantastically designed (with the disappointing exception of the final one) and there are even some engaging vehicle stages. Vehicles have never been the game’s strong point, but the sections in which you commandeer Locust transports are surprisingly exciting, with one resulting in a thrilling airborne boss battle.
{PAGE TITLE=Page 2}Gears is at its best when you’re outside as you feel part of a larger conflict, and the claustrophobic indoor levels unfortunately highlight just how linear the game is in places. For a game with such slick presentation and intuitive gameplay, it is genuinely disappointing when you encounter invisible walls or knee-high obstacles that you inexplicably can’t vault over. A little more freedom in the level design could elevate Epic’s shooter high above the competition and it would be nice to feel like you weren’t being ushered through the game with doors slamming behind you.Despite an awful lot of tweaking, there are also still a few control issues at the heart of the game. Whilst the cover system works better than anything else on the 360, there are still moments when you’ll find yourself sticking to scenery when you intended to sprint past it. These aren’t as frequent in the first game but can be problematic when precision is called for. But, in general, the controls have been improved and feel slick and responsive.The AI has also been enhanced, although it was always one of Gears’ strongest points. The enemy AI is as impressive as ever and, if anything, the Locust are even more aggressive than in the first game. Whilst some will be content to pop at you from behind cover, others will actively flank you and the more powerful beasts might just charge terrifyingly straight towards you.  Fail to finish off a downed enemy and his Locust comrades will revive him, like your team-mates do for you. Friendly AI has also undergone some surgery and has improved dramatically. Whilst too much of the first game was spent reviving Dom, he now has some game and can hold his own in most scenarios. Teammates aren’t ineffectual bullet magnets – they play as big a part in the battles as you do and you’ll quickly realise this as the cold wave of vulnerability descends upon you in the infrequent lone wolf sections.Of course, friendly AI will never be as good as a human buddy and Gears of War2 was clearly designed with co-operative play in mind. The levels, on the whole, are perfectly laid out for co-ordinated tactical assaults and the most impressive aspect of the co-op game is in the way it demands teamwork. Having played the entire campaign in co-op, at no point did we stop talking. Every single battle required detailed communication, if only to keep track of the aggressive enemy AI. It’s a superb experience in co-op and one which is currently without equal on next-gen consoles. Too often co-op modes seem like an afterthought, tagged on to increase a game’s appeal and longevity but thankfully this is not the case with Gears 2. You definitely get a sense that this is a game that was designed for co-op.So “bigger, better and more badass” was the promise but is that what Gears of War 2 provides? Undoubtedly. Epic’s sequel may not pack the initial “wow” factor of the original, but it is a better game in every way. The scale of the action has been magnified and, whilst the pace does drop a little in the middle,  it’s impossible to leave the game without wanting to replay the bombastic, action-packed set pieces. Knowing the Gears saga is unfinished, it’s hard to imagine how Epic can improve on this.

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