Gears of War 2
Developer: Epic
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1-2, 2-10 online co-op & multiplayer
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When producing the sequel to a highly-rated game, and the second game in what is sure to be at least a trilogy, you’d better get things right, or the memory of the first game will be sullied, and the third game might become unviable...

So it’s just as well that developers Epic love their franchise enough to listen to both people who loved the first Gears, and also to those who weren’t so enamoured. What they’ve done here is improve the already solid Gears cover ‘n shoot gameplay in virtually every respect, and that’s no easy feat.

Gears has an 18 certificate and is violent – ultraviolent in fact, and even its blood and gore effects look a lot more realistic than before, with more realistic blood splatters, splashes and lots and lots of body parts strewn around after a typical battle. Gears 2’s gameplay is all about cover-shooting and flanking, but will from time to time have you charging at the plentiful and vicious Locust enemy with pure bloodlust in your heart. This bloodlust is aided and abetted by a set of weapons that allows for all kinds of combat, from distant sniping and even mortar fire, to up-close-and-personal hand-to-hand melee attacks. Melee attacks can be done with any weapon, but the best are done with the butt of the Gear’s standard weapon (the Lancer) which sports its own chainsaw attachment. The deaths you can cause with it are even more gruesome than before, but strangely this attack can still be interrupted if you’re shot, and this can be extremely annoying – I’d have thought Epic would have removed that. They have added some realistic new impact reactions to being hit however, which means that you can slow an oncoming enemy down by emptying a clip into it, even if it’s too big and ugly (or too well-armoured) to be taken down with just one clip. Reloading still has to be timed well (with 2 presses of RB) or your weapon will ’jam’ – a bad thing when a butcher Boomer is charging at you, massive cleaver in hand. The cover mode tap (tap ‘A’ near anything that looks like cover) seems to work almost perfectly, and jumping obstacles (mantling) seems a bit snappier than before.

One of Gears 2’s new features is the way that (as previously) sometimes you won’t be killed outright, but now instead of just lying there waiting to be revived or bleed out you will be able to crawl to cover or back to a squad mate to get healed. The enemy can do the same, but if you come across a crawling, wounded enemy you can either finish them off with weapon fire, a skull-mashing ‘kerb stomp’ (‘X’ button), an ‘extended death’ (‘Y’) or a quick kill with a melee attack (‘B’), or alternatively jerk them to their feet and use them as a “meat shield” (‘A‘). It’s a very cool feature but I found that I had to force myself to do it, the Locust (or ‘Grubs’ as the Gears call them) are such an odious enemy that you usually want them dead as quickly and as messily as possible, and their own kind will still shoot at you with their biggest, nastiest weapons anyway.

As in Gears 1, 2 is divided into several acts and chapters, and each chapter has several restart points, so you’ll never have to replay too much of the same bit again if you die – unless you raise the difficulty from the default ‘Casual’ setting to ‘Hardcore’ or ‘Insane’, in which case you’ll most likely die - a lot. The co-op mode is as good as ever, whether you play split screen or online and the multiplayer game that only allowed for 2-8 players in Gears 1 now allows up to 10 players in some of the most manic, yet strangely tactical multiplayer matches you’ll ever see. Whatever the game mode you must play as part of the team, soloists may as well look elsewhere for their shooter fix. Gears 2 certainly gives a decent choice of multiplayer modes as well;
Warzone – Classic Gears, a straight team deathmatch, no respawns until the end of the round.
Submission - Capture the flag with a twist: the flag is a Stranded human that you must overpower (they’ll be shooting at you and the Locust team) and drag them back (with the human shield move) to your home zone.
Wingman - Up to five teams of pairs battle it out, dare I say it - Army of Two-style.
Execution - Same as Warzone but when an opponent is knocked down they must be finished off with an execution or one-shot kill.
Guardian - One player from each team is randomly selected as the leader and must stay alive as long as possible. The team loses the ability to respawn once the leader is dead.
King of the Hill - Capture the zone and defend it long enough to collect the winning number of points.
Annex - Basically it’s King of the Hill again, but the zone doesn’t stay active for as long and moves around the map.

There’s also a new mode called ‘Horde’ that allows up to 5 players to form a team against an ever-increasing horde of AI-controlled Locust enemies. Fallen players respawn at the end of a successful round, but if the entire team of five gets wiped out then it’s game over. Horde is like Custer’s Last Stand and the Alamo all rolled into one, and great fun, particularly with good mates. You really have to try this.

Gears 2 even lets you set up a multiplayer game with up to 9 AI bots, and you can raise or lower the AI’s intelligence level to simulate playing against either n00bs, or seriously deadly enemies. It’s a great way of learning the game modes and familiarizing yourself with the maps, and is likely to sway a lot of doubters into trying the multiplayer games for real. It’s also yet more evidence that Epic listen to Gears’ fans. 15 maps (including 5 redesigned “favourites” from Gears 1) give some varied settings, but there’s still no vehicle integration into the multiplayer meaning it’s all very ‘up-close and personal’, and won’t suit everyone’s tastes.

Gears 2’s story is spectacular, more epic and varied than Gears 1 in every way, and expands our knowledge of the two main characters Marcus & Dom. It comes to a satisfying yet cliff hanging (both figuratively and literally) conclusion that suggests that a sequel is probably already at least at the storyboard stage, and I’ll bet it’ll appear on an Xbox near you within 2 years. Levels rarely feel 'samey' and there’s thrilling ‘Centaur’ 4WD tank-driving level (the Centaur reminds me of an old Dreamcast game called Red Dogg) that is vastly superior to the 'Krill' driving level in Gears 1. There are even a few levels where you control massive Locust-enslaved creatures. One kicks Golden Axe: Beast Rider firmly in the nuts and shows it how it should have been done, as you ride a massive umm... well I don’t really know what the heck it is, but it’s called a ‘Brumak’ and it’s the size of my house. Another wonderful level sees you aboard a flying creature called a Reaver that offers great homage to Sega’s good old Panzer Dragoon series, there are a small number of “boss” battles, and they’re hard but fair, and most importantly consistent with the rest of the game. The action is never less than compelling and spectacular. The only thing I was feeling a slightly less than impressed about was a general lack of interactive and destructible scenery compared to a couple of other recent shooters, and then I came back to the surface and there's a memorable shootout outside a grand building with all the decorative handrails getting blasted away to smithereens of dust and chunks of stone that the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) would have been proud of...

You never fight alone in Gears 2 and the game supplies some good AI that always makes you believe that you have someone along to help, almost all of the time. But just occasionally you’ll be fighting and notice Dom or one of the others (Cole, Baby Carmine or Tai) just covering up and taking a break. It doesn’t happen often but can be annoying if you feel outnumbered or get downed and need healing, and they’re hunkered down safely behind a rock somewhere, presumably twiddling their thumbs. The game still has some irritating times when Marcus (and Dom) talk to control through their headset, these might have seemed like a cool idea the first time they occurred but now they just seem to be too frequent, are too intrusive and may have been better left in a cutscene, they just seem to delay the action. Adding to the niggles there are still a few issues with both the cover mode not letting you cover on every surface that it appears you should be able to, and some collision detection/aiming/line of sight problems whereby you can’t hit an enemy that you clearly should be able to.

But rare gripes aside, Gears 2 is an epic adventure that I reckon you’ll play through at least twice, the co-op game is even better than before aided by some tremendous level design that doesn't rely on the split routes of Gears 1 to make you cooperate. With its new modes the multiplayer will probably tempt you to try them too, even if like many (including myself) you have doubts about a third-person game's viability as a fast-paced multiplayer game. Gears 2 will change that way of thinking for good.

Best Bits

- Some truly great set pieces & boss battles
- Feels and looks more cinematic in every way
- Intense, blood-splattered action never lets up
- Some cool new weapons
- Co-op is even better than before
- New multiplayer modes and AI bots too
Worst Bits

- Same old annoying narrative bits occasionally hold up the action
- Admittedly rare, there are still some issues with the cover mode and aiming

by: Masonic Dragicoot

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