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Old 02-17-2009, 10:43 AM   #1
UltimoCroft
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Please rate this review -- Gears of War 2

HIGH: Punching the snot out of a downed Locust enemy.
LOW: Too much dark brown, gray and gloomy environments.
WTF: What, I get to ride this thing?!

"Brainless big muscle men shooting generic monsters that gush out blood like Niagara Falls, constantly running and gunning through dark gloomy environments. - 6/10."
It's so tempting to just leave it at that with Gears of War 2, and it was pretty much the same with the original game too. See, Gears of War 2 represents everything I hate about gaming today, in that it is unapologetically thick, devoid of much intelligence and filled with over-the-top guns and explosions, yet it sells like hot-cakes while innovative and superbly designed games fall flat. But even so, while GoW2 utilises features that are currently blocking creativity from being in the spot-light, it is the actual use of these features that make GoW2 a rare beast.

See, the guns, explosions and gore in Gears 2 is actually, well, rather good. Try as I might, not even I can avoid donning a satisfying grin after unleashing a barrage of fists on a downed Locust grunt. The gameplay is so well refined in the game that all principles and preconceptions are left at the door when playing GoW2. There's no doubt that Epic Games truly know how to keep a game enjoyable and satisfying, especially where guns and bullets are involved.

The combat feels just as solid and weighty as it did the first game, and trying to get that perfect reload is as engrossing as ever. As expected new weapons/items make an appearance to mix it up a little, and - as expected - they all perform great. I was especially impressed with the use of shields that can be used to guard you against on-coming fire while still allowing you to aim your side-arm -- it can even be used as a make-shift point of cover if you choose to dig it into the ground. Old favourites like the Torque Bow and Sniper Rifle return, and the balance between weapons seems to be spot-on.

But Epic have also been somewhat clever too; they know that keeping the story in Gears 2 straightforward and simple is what keeps the people exchanging their cash for the game. It's obvious to me that Epic have the talent to push the story and characters beyond the illusion we see of brain-dead muscle men shooting things, with the dialogue often being more intellectually subtle and insightful than most would initially think. The original Gears walked this path too, but the story in that game really was kept to an absolute minimum.

Even so, Epic accepted criticism thrown at lack of story in the original game (a criticism they could have easily ignored; the majority of players more interested in shooting things to care) and have upped the cinematic level a bit. It's still not something that will push the boundaries of your emotions, with Dom's search for his wife seeming forced, and the reason for the Locust's invasion not elevating your determination beyond what it already was. But still, that the developers have at least taken on board criticism, and attempted to improve upon it is a good start, but I won't go holding my breath for any arousal to my brain cells come Gears of War 3.

Another area of criticism that was often levelled at the first Gears was that the level design always seemed to make use of the same colour style of brown and gray, for the most part. Of course, the world within Gears is a war-torn constant battle-zone, so the dark and gloomy get-up is understandable, but after a few hours fighting in dark caves or gray streets it soon delves into unimaginative and repetitive design territory. Unfortunately, while there are brief glimpses of exotic locations in vehicle sections, GoW2 sticks to the same design mentality, which is a huge shame.

What makes the sting particularly potent is that the visuals on display are an excellent technical achievement, and so sticking to the same uninspired environments is like having a Ferrari but only driving it around the block, instead of the country road up ahead. That said, even with the poor design choices, Gears 2 is the best example of what a game should look like when fully utilising the Unreal engine; the character models are magnificently detailed, and everything around the player looks gritty and authentic, even when there are dozens of explosions, bullets and enemies on screen at once. Even the texture issues that are noticeable in other games using the Unreal engine are better dealt with here, since low-to-high resolution textures actually fade in, rather than just abruptly popping up. Obviously, no texture issues at all would be preferable, but using a more natural way of dealing with them is a step in the right direction.

The visual feast is especially impressive on encounters with some of the larger enemies in the game, ranging from the nasty looking Brumaks to an under-water beast that has a mouth big enough to engulf an entire platoon of people. The game tries to make sure that you encounter every type of enemy you gaze upon, with even the opportunity to ride a couple of them at certain points during the campaign. Unlike Gears 1 - where not having the opportunity to slay a Brumak felt disappointing - you'll feel like you have done everything worth doing by the finish.

After beating the campaign mode in single player or with a friend in split-screen/online you'll likely turn your attention to multi-player. The good news here is that there are two important improvements over the original game, the first is that there are now AI opponents to use to fill out player counts, and the second is the inclusion of a mode called 'Horde'.

Horde mode is basically a game where the player(s) (can be played cooperatively with upto 4 people) must survive an oncoming wave of Locust with a maximum of 50 waves. Altering the map and AI difficulty can make this mode immensely tense and fun, with the emphasis on team-work. For the ultimate challenge try ramping the difficulty up to max and then attempting the mode on a close-quarters map where nervous pacing and frantic screaming during a Locust ambush soon ensure. It's tremendous fun.

Conclusion

With Gears of War 2 it ultimately feels like Epic have attempted to make sure that there is no chance of fans feeling the need to complain about anything. They've attempted to flesh the story out more; added more variation to the campaign; increased the use of vehicles and made them fun to use; added a cluster of new and enjoyable-to-use weapons; and included new multi-player modes along with AI controlled opponents for offline players/practice. All that on-top of general improvements like updated visuals, new gameplay functions (I haven't even mentioned chain-saw duals, or new beat-down animations) and an all round aura of improvement surely mean that they have achieved this goal, as I can't see any Gears of War 1 fan not being at least satisfied with this game.

On the other hand, while significant improvements have undoubtedly been made, Epic are still restricting Gears of War from being anything extraordinary as long as they stick to the same formula. Yes, that formula is impressive enough with the confines of Gears, and in comparison to some other shooters, but there's not enough weight behind the plot or the characters for it to be taken seriously on that front, nor is the pretence that the game is brainless when it can clearly be so much more. The decision to still stick with the uninspired environment design also does the game no favours, although out of the biggest issues this is the most easily dealt with in the next game.

So, for what it is, Gears of War 2 offers a hugely enjoyable and satisfying way to spend your free time, and if the original game tickled your fancy then this will tickle it even more. But also, like the original game, Gears of War 2 isn't going to change the world of gaming, as much as I'm sure people would like to believe. - 8/10

Disclosures: This game was obtained via purchase from a game-store website. X-Box 360 version reviewed and completed once. Roughly 6-8 hours played campaign offline, around 5 hours for other gameplay modes (on-going).

Parents: This game contains strong violence and strong language. Comes with 18 age rating.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Sub-titles are available for all dialogue and cut-scenes.
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