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Marcus Fenix and the COGs return to the Xbox 360, but is the sequel bigger, badder, and more badass...
- Richer storyline.
- Expanded multiplayer.
- Horde. Horde. Horde.
- Some minor glitches.
Having settled itself in as one of the most important franchises on Xbox 360, with over 6 million copies of the debut instalment sold, Gears of War finally returns two years on to continue the fight between humanity and the Locust Horde. Announced at the start of the year by Cliff Bleszinski alongside a raft of improvements to Unreal Engine 3, Gears of War 2 promises to deliver an emotionally depth storyline and a 'bigger, badder, and more badass' experience than its predecessor. Throw in new multiplayer modes including the 'last stand' scenario of Horde, and on face value, Gears 2 looks set to smash through the boundaries laid down by the 2006 original.
But in reality, does it really deliver? TVG returns to the embattled planet of Sera to discover the fate of Marcus Fenix, and the rest of those Gears of War...
A Rendezvous With Death.
Set months after the events of first title, when Fenix and the team detonated a lightmass bomb in a bid to destroy the Locust once and for all, Gears of War 2 throws gamers into a Sera on the brink. Somewhat obviously, the bomb hasn't annihilated the subterranean menace; in fact their forces have turned up the heat a notch or two, developing the ability to sink entire cities. With the city of Jacinto, and the existence of humanity, now under threat, Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta squad are tasked with securing the future of mankind. So no pressure then.
Enlisting the services of comic book writer Joshua Ortega to develop and broaden the story, Gears of War 2 is a far cry from the corridor-trawling experience of the first game. We're not going to talk about it here, other than say it's a much more rounded, longer, and engaging narrative that takes the light foundations of Gears 1 and just runs with it. The addition of more meaningful collectibles this time around, which hint at further background stories, also adds depth to the game. Aside from the storyline, Gears of War 2 is a much more visually epic affair, with a sense of scale rarely travelled to by its predecessor. Of course, Gears of War 2 (much like the original) is a showcase for Unreal Engine 3, with all of the improvements unveiled at this year's GDC – including the improved lighting, destructibility, and crowding - on view. And all that helps with creating the epic experience fans of the franchise demanded of it.
Naturally, everything core to Gears makes a return here, so gamers will find themselves in familiar territory with the 'roadie run', chainsaw melees, executions, and 'active reloads' all present and correct. However, all have been built on, tweaked, and improved along the way. Many of the features making up Gears 2 have of course made their way onto preview and interviews in the months leading up to release, but what's important to know is that they really do work well to enhance the experience. The addition of duelling chainsaws, for instance, throws in a second mini-game that (like active reloads before it) bolts on an extra nugget of playability. It also acts almost like an eye-blink, a momentary change in gameplay before the fire-fights continue. Using downed opponents as 'meat shields' is another additional feature that gives players the edge (for a limited time), but only if they're quick with the pistol! Locust 'boomshields' can also get planted into the ground, creating portable cover positions. So far as executions are concerned, players can now do quick and extended varieties based on whatever weapons players have in their grasp – although a face first curb stomp will no doubt prove be just as popular.
Fans of any shooter franchise would expect new weapons, and Gears 2 naturally doesn't disappoint, with flame-throwers and a new 'Hammershot' assault rifle just a couple that join the ranks of the Lancer, shotgun, and Boomshot. Heavy weapons also make an appearance, with the Gatling gun-inspired 'Mulcher' sending out a massive rounds of bullets that can tear up Locusts in seconds, and the Mortar adding a slightly trickier ranged option. Both slow down the movement of the carrier however, and neither are best for close quarters attacks.
Surpassing the sole driving sequences of the original, Gears of War 2 has a variety of breaks in the roadie running, duck 'n' cover gameplay that is the very essence of the franchise. Beginning with the much publicised ride on a Derrick Transport during the early part of the game, and taking it to the logical conclusion of using even Locust vehicles (and by vehicles, we mean giant scaly creatures with big teeth – yes, Reavers and Brumaks) during some set piece sequences, it does seem like Gears 2 gives gamers everything they wanted to see and experience this time around.
I have a rendezvous with death...
Despite the changes and additions, it's also worth pointing out that Epic has trimmed off some of the fat of the original, removing periphery features that were never fully developed properly the first time around. The lightmass bomb may not have eliminated the Locust threat, but in the wider story of the game, it did decimate the Kryll nesting grounds – you don't have to worry about stepping into the shadows this time. That said, the rather scientifically improbable weather of Sera does do a similar job; razor hail may have a cutting edge effect on Fenix and the rest of Delta, but it does look like rain from the 32-bit era.
Cut too is the rather light squad system; instead, the studio has made great strides in the developing the AI of the characters. The irritating petulance of Delta Squad's AI in the original, where Dom and Cole would all too often run into a hail of gun fire, is very much a thing of past – the rest of the team have such a sense of self-preservation that it actually looks like they've had military training this time! The ability to crawl for a limited time when you've been shot down also means that the AI will try and come to revive Marcus or Dom if it's safe to do so. That said, there were a couple of rare occasions where Dom refused to revive Marcus, even when we were crawling around his feet. That's not a show of battle-hardened friendship – that's just callous! The use of the Hammer of Dawn weapon, the laser-targeted weapons satellite, has also been toned down in the campaign – though its effect remains as devastating.
For all its improvements, there are some niggles in Gears of War 2 that make you wish Epic had just an extra few days to work out. Most of these, like a flickering ammo bar, will surely get patched up very soon, whilst others like the occasional lapses in the AI of Dom, Cole, and Baird, will probably be here to stay. There are also a couple of other silly lapses that could slightly blemish what is otherwise an astonishing gaming experience; one sequence in particular, where Marcus tells Dom to hold fire and wait for a Locust patrol to pass, falls on its face if players decide to take them down before the line is spoken...but is still said regardless that the patrol is now in a bloodied mess.
A Higher Gear?
The campaign of Gears of War 1 was only half the story; the multiplayer and co-op continues to played to this day on Xbox Live, and is still ranked as one of the most popular title on the service. Co-op if course continues in Gears 2, improved with a really solid 'drop in/drop out' component, but the multiplayer has also been expanded to deliver an online experience that will no doubt challenge Call of Duty 4 for the top spot.
In addition to new maps, set across the locations of Gears of War 2, Epic has also thrown in a couple of new game modes to expand the longevity of the game, and increased the number of players from eight to ten. Joining the likes of War Zone and Execution, is Submission – the Gears equivalent of Capture the Flag. But before you roll your eyes (we know what you're like), the variant is very much unique...because the 'flag' can kill you. In a rather humorous move, the flag is the Stranded character of Franklin. Armed with a shotgun, players on both sides have to shoot him down before picking up 'meat flag' and returning him to their respective bases. Surprisingly frantic, with Locust and COGs finding themselves literally fighting to control the flag, Epic has put its own touch to Submission, making an age-old gametype feel very fresh. Five two-man teams get to go ahead in 'Wingman', essentially a variant of Execution, and we can expect there to be plenty of top buddy teams doing the rounds post-launch.
And then there's Horde.
A five-player mode that's essentially the Gears of War 2 equivalent of Custer's Last Stand, Horde sees players go up against 50 waves of increasingly difficult and foreboding Locust. With only one life per wave, Horde is increasingly fast paced and frantic, with scant ammo in the map creating real backs-to-the-wall gameplay. Points based, making Horde more of an arcade shooter, the mode requires a lot of communication between players if they're to succeed, and is already looking like a sure fire hit come launch day.
Community elements have also been added, with a photo mode added to the War Journal containing all the collectibles of the campaign. The ability to upload the pics online are a feature that continues on from the likes of Halo 3 and Forza Motorsport 2. Finally, in a rather appreciated move, Gears 2 also comes packaged with a code to download five maps from the original title, all visually updated with the improved UE3. A free download from the Marketplace, the 'Flashback Pack' brings the best of Gears 1 multiplayer to the sequel...to Epic, we say thanks.
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