Gears of War was the first system seller for the 360 and quite possibly the first title that convinced many at Gamestyle Towers that they had made the right choice. Two years on, the hotly-anticipated sequel is finally released, with a promise of being “bigger, better and more badass,” and delivering on it.
The story starts off six months after the previous game, and predictably the Lightmass bomb that was launched has failed to kill the Locust and they’re now out in even greater numbers and power too, with a weapon that is capable of sinking entire cities in to the planet. Even Jacinto, the last human stronghold, is threatened. It’s up to the testosterone fuelled Delta Squad to help humanity win the war or be wiped out. And this time it actually feels like you’re part of a bigger military machine. In the original Gears of War, Marcus, Dom, Cole and the ever cynical Baird always seemed to be four guys taking on the Locust horde by themselves. In Gears of War 2, while Delta Squad do once again play the pivotal role, there’s a much larger scale to the battles and the sense that you’re not fighting alone. The second chapter of the game has you defending a convoy of military muscle to a drop zone (a more literal description than you might think) and you see dozens of COG machines duking it out with what feels like hundreds of Locust ground troops, as they storm with their own more organic means of warfare (i.e. Brumaks and Corpsers). It also helps that there has been some actual effort put in to the story this time as well. Oh, it’s never going to win any prizes but it’s far more developed than the first game and actually tries to explain what you’re doing this time around. The sub-plot with Dom’s search for his wife also adds a little bit of personal drama to the story, which might seem a bit odd in a game that gives you an achievement for executing an opponent in eleven different ways, but it works.
The story also sums up the driving force behind the excellent gameplay rather succinctly. Without giving away spoilers, there’s a scene where Marcus tells Dom he’s thought of a way to sneak in to a Locust stronghold, while standing over a fallen enemy and holding its helmet. Dom essentially tells Marcus to cram it and goes in guns blazing, with Marcus following behind with nary a word of protest. Subtlty isn’t Gears 2’s strong point, and when you blow the head off a Drone sniper at 300 feet, and see the screen covered in blood when you chainsaw a Theron Guard from behind, you’ll be glad of it.
However, it isn’t a mindless shooter either, as once again the cover system (whereby you either take cover or die trying) returns. While subtlty doesn’t dictate the gameplay, it does go towards the controls somewhat. Most combat actions, such as taking cover, running, vaulting over obstacles and such, are handled by the A button. In Gears 1 it worked, but every so often you’d roll when you wanted to do a SWAT turn, which which never seems to happen any more in Gears 2. There have also been improvements to the arsenal; the Lancer now feels like a powerful automatic rifle with a new meatier sound, and there are new heavy weapons as well, such as the Mulcher (essentially a Troika machine gun you can barely carry) and the difficult-to-master but satisfying-to-use Mortar launcher. In fact, everything has been improved, from sound design to script and especially the graphics, echoing a more organic feel to the first game’s industrial feel. Nowhere does it feel like there has been changes made for the sake of it, and in fact those changes even extend to taking away things that appear in the first game. You no longer have the limited squad commands from Gears 1, probably because nobody ever used them. Besides, when you can play the entire campaign with a friend in co-op and shout at them to provide cover, who needs to command the AI?
Multiplayer returns triumphantly, featuring some new modes and maps, and some old ones as well. Technically, the game ships with ten multiplayer maps, but included in every new copy of the game is a free content download code for five re-enginnered maps from the original game. This seems like nothing but a cheap ploy to stop people buying the game second hand, but considering, at the time of writing, the game has sold 2 million copies, nobody seems to mind.
Old game type favourites return, and again, it is all team-based. Annex, Execution and King of the Hill return, along with the reworked Guardian (formerly Assassination) mode where if the ‘Leader’ of the team is killed, the team lose their respawing ability. Joining them are Wingman mode, where up to five teams of two battle for dominance; and Submission, a twisted take on capture the flag with an AI-controlled shotgun-wielding NPC, who must first be dropped to their knees before being carried like a human shield (a feature for the single player also) to your base. The best new multiplayer mode, however, is Horde. A fantastic mode where five team-mates take on wave after wave of Locust enemies, with each successive wave getting tougher and newer enemies arriving at all times. Death means you can’t respawn until the end of the wave, but as long as one player survives, everyone respawns for the next turn. As the difficulty increases, so does the desperation, as your friends fall around you and you try to get that last mortar-launching drone at the end of the map.
Gears of War 2 is, simply put, an improvement in every aspect. It’s not clever or subtle in the way of many games, but it’s big, loud, excessively violent and, all in all, down right dumb fun.