Exactly two years after its predecessor’s release, Gears of War 2 was unleashed upon the gaming world. Amongst Halo-esque hype, Epic Games promised their sequel to one of Xbox 360’s most successful titles would be “bigger, better and more badass”. Did they deliver? The answer is a resounding yes.
Gears of War 2 takes place six months after the events of the original Gears. The Lightmass bomb that Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad detonated was not the successful strike against the Locust they had hoped for. The war between COG soldiers and the Locust Horde is quite literally tearing the planet Sera apart. The Locust is sinking entire cities and has set their sites on the last human stronghold, Jacintha. Humankind and their civilization are on the verge of extinction. The war cannot continue, and so, with one last united push, the humans decide the only option left is to go on the offensive and strike at the Locust heart underground. Marcus Fenix, Dominic Santiago and thousands of others begin this last desperate act for hope and life. This truly is war.
One of the weaker elements plaguing the first Gears of War along with countless other action shooters is the story. The narrative of Delta Squad and the Locust War definitely has some unique facets, but nothing is really fleshed out and fully developed. Given its jaw dropping action and graphics, few seemed to care at the time of its release.
For the sequel, gamers wanted a deeper story with more character development. Who, and why were these COG soldiers on the forefront of this fight, and who or what was the catalyst that caused Emergence Day. In scope and scale, the story in Gears of War 2 is bigger in every way from the original. That does not necessarily mean that there is “more” story per se. I found few questions from Gears of War answered, and even more questions were posed during the new campaign.
The increased depth of story and character development comes through the tones and atmosphere portrayed throughout each Act. No longer is Delta Squad fighting alone in abandoned courtyards and backstreets. They are fighting alongside hundreds of fellow soldiers in a common cause. Desperation hangs thick over their heads as this is their one last shot at ending this war. You’re surrounded by battles claiming the lives of friends and allies. You’re rescuing comrades, or being rescued. Gears of War 2 truly feels as if the world around you is at war, and Marcus and his squad are part of something bigger.
One significant story that runs parallel to Marcus’s role in this war is that of Dom’s search for his missing wife Maria. For the life of me, I can’t remember any mention of her in Gears of War, but this added storyline for Dom puts a compelling human touch on the characters and the war. We realize Marcus, Dom and Delta are not merely mindless brutes, but humans fighting for something. The outcome for this side story is actually one of the more emotionally poignant scenes in recent video game memory, all highlighted by an amazing score piece.
At first glance, it is easy to dismiss Gears of War 2’s graphics as more of the same considering it is using the identical Unreal 3 engine now over two-years old. After ten minutes or less, there is little doubt Gears of War 2’s visual aesthetics are not only vastly superior to the original game, but set a new bar for high definition gaming graphics on consoles as well.
The first notable difference is in the color palette. The Gears palette is no longer pigeonholed into drab grays and browns. Color is everywhere, and rightfully so when visiting a living, breathing world. From lush autumn forests to gothic cities, to snow capped mountains and the underground Locust civilization, Gears of War 2 showcases it all.
Lighting, textures and particle effects have all been upgraded creating some of the most awe inspiring environments I have ever seen in a video game to date. Every Act and every environment is an assault on the senses. Smoke drifts throughout the levels and fires are burning everywhere complete with heat hazes and floating sparks. Buildings collapse to the ground and burn before your very eyes. Reavers drop from the air to crawl over the landscape like some terrifying War of the Worlds creature alongside dozens of Brumaks and countless Grubs.
All of this occurs in real-time, and all with near perfect frame rates and anti-aliasing. The environments are dirty, grimy and crumbling with an unrivaled sense of realism. When you reach the “Inner Hollow,” the first underground Act, you will be awestruck. Mist curls on the ground, mushrooms eerily glow in the dark gloom and bats fly in the background and water pools at your feet. Epic Games offers zero disappointment and has created an amazing visual experience.
The sound effects and score in Gears of War 2 have also received a nice auditory update to showcase on your surround system. Over 90% of the sound effects such as the weapons have been re-recorded resulting in a clear and expansive mix. During gameplay, background and foreground sounds are near constant. Everything from crackling fire to dripping water to chainsaws doing what they do best, it is all crystal clear and highlighted by a surprisingly good score from Steve Jablonsky.
Those familiar with Gear’s core gameplay and cover system won’t find any drastic changes. Controls are noticeable tighter and more responsive. No more roadie-running and sticking to unwanted cover. Every movement is smooth and well polished.
Those movements translate into more refined, realistic and immersive gameplay when coupled with drastically improved Locust and Delta Squad AI. Friends and foes alike will take cover, advance their position, revive fallen comrades and even attempt to flank the enemy.
One odd AI issue did rear its ugly head during my first campaign play through, though not during a second run. After Act 4 began, the NPC teammate Dom became completely unresponsive. For nearly half of the Act, I was totally abandoned by my supposed best friend. Dom would not follow Marcus, engage the enemy or come to the aid of fallen squad members to revive them. He simply walked around the environments. It was quite frustrating. But as mentioned, I encountered no such issue during my second play through and it seems to have been a rare isolated gameplay hiccup.
Gears of War 2’s online multiplayer options continue the trend of presenting themselves as “bigger” than its predecessor. Co-op campaigning is still an absolute blast to play with friends, but the new modes like Horde are what Gears of War 2 is going to be remembered for. Horde allows five teammates to choose a map where they must band together to face off against fifty increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Communication and teamwork are crucial components of success during this mode, especially if you ever hope to make it past wave 20. Horde is a truly cooperative gaming experience that should not be missed. If you think fifty waves are not enough, then you have not tried it on insane difficulty yet.
We waited two years for Gears of War 2 and it is worth every minute of that wait. Killer visuals, amazing sound, compelling story, tight-polished game play, expansive online play; this is a showcase title. My only disappointment is in knowing Gears of War 3 may take even longer to come to fruition.
– Jason Krahn