Friday, November 14, 2008

Gears of War 2 Super Review!

I don’t just want you to beat the Locust; I want you to destroy them!

With a resounding battle cry, Gears of War 2 charges into the breach of the holiday battlefield, carving up its competitors with massive swipes of a chainsaw-tipped assault rifle.

The sequel to Epic Game’s seminal 2006 shooter comes with much hype and trepidation. With the promise of being “bigger, badder and more bad-ass”, does Gears of War 2 deliver, or does it fall short of its monstrous expectations?

Fortunately, Gears 2 delivers in spades. Everything that gamers loved about the first Gears is back, improved and polished, while mostly every reviled part of Gears one has been kicked out the door.

Gear’s tried and true methodical cover combat system comes back, and it’s as addictive as ever. Unlike most shooters, taking cover is the only way to survive in Gears. Standing out in the open too long will lead to your body being turned into a pin-cushion for high caliber rounds. Too prevent your character from become religious (“holey” as series protagonist Marcus Fenix aptly puts it) you use the “A” button to slam your character into the nearest object, and hunker down behind it. While you’re in cover, you’re mostly impervious to fire. This fits well within the framework of the game, but it sometimes leads to odd situations. Simple tables can stop rocket-launchers, and if your head, or an enemy’s, is seen poking around a car, then it won’t register hits. Bodies have to be almost fully exposed out of cover for the hit detection to work. This problem doesn’t come up much, but it can be frustrating to pump a whole clip into an enemy with no ill effects.

As far as other controls go, Gears responds quickly and tightly to input. There’s very little lag between pressing a button and getting the desired action, and the controls are mapped out well so you never have any awkward finger movements to get what you want.

The shooting of Gears 2 performs extremely well, thankfully. The aiming is easy to control, and all of the guns feel different without being too off-putting. Even the new “support weapons” like the Mulcher mini-gun and the portable mortar don’t feel out of place.

The sound for the guns has been kicked up a notch, too. The Lancer assault rifle, which sounded very tinny and annoying in the first Gears, now sports the proper sounds of a high-impact weapon. Grenades explode with a satisfying crunch, and revving your chainsaw is enough to give you goose bumps. Even the more disgusting sound effects are well done, and fit well within the context of the game.

Visually, Gears of War continues to outperform a lot of other current generation titles. Epic thankfully moved away from Gears one’s dark and dreary aesthetic, replacing it instead with a varied color palette. The very first level is already a step away from Gears one; set inside a hospital; it shows off the new design direction for Gears. Instead of taking place at dusk or the middle of the night, the level occurs during midday, putting the engine’s lighting hardware to the test. Even later in the game, when you move underground, the game changes locations and feel so often that you don’t get environment fatigue. The only time you might start to get weary of being underground, the game quickly shifts into an airborne chase seen that lifts you out of the caverns and into a late afternoon sky, with a destroyed forest flashing underneath you. It’s a nice, quick change, and again shows off the game’s graphical prowess.

With an improvement in sound, graphics and setting, where else does Gears 2 attempt to improve over the original? Well, if you played Gears one, you might remember the paper-thing abysmal story that seemed shoe-horned in at the last second. Gears 2 tries to make up for this by having a deeper story with more emotional resonance. How do you get sympathy from a game when its main character looks like a red-wood tree with a human face? Simply, you add in new characters, and flesh out some old ones.

Players of Gears one may remember how secondary character Dominic Santiago brought up an ongoing search for his missing wife once every few levels. Well, Gears two brings the twisted path of lovers lost back into the plot so forcefully that at one point you abandon an important mission to help Dom find his wife. In a game where the main method of communication is macho grunts, the sentimental side story doesn’t really feel that out of place.

In terms of the overall story of Gears 2, it definitely feels more complete than the original, but still manages to feel hollow at some points. The major plot twist in the game failed to do anything but illicit an eyebrow raise, and the game’s ending feels sort of flat after the large build up in the third chapter. You can definitely tell that Gears 2 was written by two different people. The writing switches between some intelligent speeches by the leaders of the human side and the Locust faction to some less-than intelligent exchanges between the main characters. The over-all feeling of Gears 2 is that of a summer blockbuster, one that mainly trades intriguing dialogue for explosions and gun fights.

To continue with that analogy, Gears 2 is like a Michael Bay film, it’s often a good idea to turn your brain off for a bit and enjoy the ride. While Gears of War 2 won’t give you a mental workout besides its rather engrossing combat tactics, its overall entertainment value is well worth the price of admission.

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