- Review Price: £35.73
The original Gears of War is two years old, but even today it stands up to pretty much any Xbox 360 game available. So visually stunning, and genuinely adrenaline fuelled was Gears, that it simply took console gaming to another level, while also confirming that Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 didn’t so much live up to the hype, but actually rose above it. With all this in mind, I have to say that I was a little nervous about the prospect of a sequel; after all, it’s a rare thing for a truly great movie to spawn a good, let alone great sequel. However, I needn’t have worried, because Epic has worked that kind of Irvin Kershner magic that every sequel strives for.
In fact Gears of War 2 plays out very much like Kershner’s masterpiece, creating a world that’s more real, more intense and far more dark than it was the first time around. The characters have been given more depth too, while the storyline is driven on significantly, and just as with Kershner’s near perfect Star Wars sequel, important questions are explored and answered, but ultimately, you’re left with new, far more compelling questions at the end of it. Yes, Epic has got that “difficult second album/movie/game” problem well and truly nailed. So, if you’re wondering whether to buy Gears of War 2, I can wholeheartedly recommend that you do.
Of course many of you will want to know why I’m recommending this game so early on in the review, and the answer to that is easy. Much as I want you to read the next few pages, if you do so, that’s time that could have been spent playing Gears 2, and that’s a very real consideration, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. But if you want reasons, I’ll give them to you – in spades!
Visually, Gears 2 sets new standards, on the Xbox 360 or any other console for that matter. Believe me when I say that the screen shots don’t do this game justice, and that it is simply breathtaking to look at – which, in itself is no mean feat, considering how great the first game looked. This time around though, Epic has been far more adventurous with the environment, with many scenes played out in external locations, complete with impressively long draw distances. In fact, even though much of the campaign takes place underground, the sheer scale of the caverns that you explore allows for the action to stretch far into the distance.
But it’s not just how far into the distance that the world is rendered, it’s also the level of detail that Epic has created in that world. The textures and lighting are both of the highest quality, and I found myself questioning how Epic managed to squeeze so much out of the Xbox 360 on several occasions. It’s the amount of action going on that really shows how accomplished Epic has become on Microsoft’s hardware though. I’ve never seen so many enemies, so many bullets flying, so many missiles launching and so many explosions going on at once in a console game. The highlight comes towards the end of the campaign where you’re riding a massive locust beast (a Brumak), and blasting anything in your path. At any one time during this section there are literally scores of enemy troops firing at you, as well as Reavers flying around, launching missiles at you. Not only does this section of the game look amazing, but it also plays superbly, without a hint of slowdown or pop up.
And to make things even harder on the poor Xbox 360, Epic has thrown environmental damage into Gears 2 as well. So as well as all those troops, missiles, bullets, Reavers and other creatures to worry about, the physics engine is also having to calculate how all this carnage is damaging the environment, then that damage has to be rendered. To say that Gears 2 is a technical accomplishment is a serious understatement!
That environmental damage really adds to the gameplay too. As in the original game, working with cover is the key to survival – running headlong into enemy troops will result in short, sharp death. But whereas in the first game, you knew that you were safe as long as you stayed behind cover, this time around, that cover can literally be blown to pieces. Thankfully you can do the same to your enemies, so if you know there’s a locust hiding behind a concrete block, you can literally shoot the corner off it and get a clear headshot. The more powerful the weapon, the more damage it can do to the environment, and the more likely it is to be able to shoot your enemies even when they’re behind cover.
You get new weapons to play with too, with my personal favourite being the flame thrower – when you’ve got wretches coming at you from all angles, there’s nothing like a bit fire to thin the herd. Obviously the flame thrower is a close range weapon, but there are a couple of great long range affairs thrown in too, like the wall mountable minigun and the mortar. The latter is particularly useful when you’ve got a host of locusts hiding behind cover – get your range right and you’ll be raining down pain on all your foes. The new weapons just enhance the need to get your weapon tactics right, with only two slots at your disposal, along with your pistol and grenades. Making sure that you have the right tool for the job takes a lot of forethought.
I met Cliff Bleszinski last month, and he was keen to point out that the campaign mode of Gears 2 is longer than the first game, and having stayed up until 5am to finish the game I can testify to that. The storyline is arguably even more compelling than the original game though, driving you on from one adrenaline fuelled fire fight to the next. Dom is still looking for his lost wife, Marcus still has father issues and the true nature of the locusts, and their need to conquer the surface of the planet comes to light. Like all great second chapters, Gears 2 sets the scene for the third release perfectly, but unlike the woefully short Halo 2 campaign, you don’t feel short changed at the end.
Bleszinski also assured me the Dom wouldn’t be quite so useless this time around, and again, he wasn’t lying. Not only does Dom not just wander around getting killed, and thus making you fail your mission, he has now become a genuinely useful NPC. There were many points throughout the campaign that Dom came to my rescue and revived me when I was down, thus saving me the frustration of having to reload my last checkpoint and play through a chunk of the level again. Dom’s new found intelligence is coupled with a far greater role in the story too, with Marcus agreeing to go off mission, in order to help Dom find Maria.
Of course if you really want Dom to show some intelligence, you can get one of your friends to play his part. In Gears 2, you can play through the entire campaign in co-op mode, either using split screen, over a LAN or via Xbox Live. And because co-op mode allows a drop in/drop out model, you can fire up a game and then have someone join you over Live at any point. Playing co-op makes the already fantastic campaign even better, and Epic has made sure that there’s plenty of opportunity to employ some proper team work. There are several points in the game where Marcus and Dom split up, but rather than taking separate, unrelated paths, these instances usually involve one player having to cover/backup/clear the way for the other.
Since I’ve touched on the multiplayer side of Gears 2 I’ll carry on by saying that once again this sequel has bettered its predecessor. And considering how much fun the multiplayer side of Gears was, that’s another impressive achievement. Once again, Epic has strived to improve and innovate and now the multiplayer matches can have up to ten players, instead of eight. Of course there’s the usual team deathmatch and capture the flag type scenarios, but Wingman is probably the most original – players team up in pairs and strive to wipe out the other pairs, while ensuring that they look after their partner or “wingman”.
But for me, the real highlight of the multiplayer line up is Horde. I really can see myself rounding up a few mates online (yes I do mean you, Hugo and Andy) and playing this until the early hours of the morning. In Horde five Human players are pitted against wave after wave of locusts, with each wave getting progressively harder. There are 50 waves to get through, and once you make it into double figures, things start to get pretty tough. Although five total strangers can have a lot of fun playing Horde, you really do need to work like a team to survive the later waves, which means a group of players who know each other will definitely have the edge.
So, is Gears of War 2 perfect? No, not quite. For one there’s a bit too much reliance on vehicle sections for my liking. That’s not to say that the vehicle dynamics are done badly, just that the game loses some of its immersive nature once you’re driving a tank or flying a Reaver. And if I’m honest, the only times I found myself really frustrated by the game was when I was in a vehicle – I’m not sure who thought that driving a tank over a frozen lake while the enemy fires missiles at the ice would be fun, but I can assure them that it’s not.
Then there’s the slight over-reliance on cover dynamics, which was there in the first Gears. Put simply, if there’s even a chance of a fire fight breaking out, there will always be a plentiful amount of cover to duck behind, something that I’m almost certain doesn’t happen in a real war. In fact, it gets to the point that if you walk into a room and notice strategically placed blocks, you instantly know that you’re about to be attacked.
And there’s Skorge – the tough as nails, killer locust that appears to be the personal bodyguard of the Queen. He first makes an appearance at the end of the first act, and makes a definite impression. Unfortunately, when you do finally face him towards the end, it’s something of an anticlimax – I won’t explain why, because I don’t want to spoil the story, but after the battle with Ramm at the end of the first game, I expected slightly more from Skorge.
But are these issues going to stop me playing through the campaign again on the higher difficulty levels? Not a chance! Gears of War 2 is one of the best games I’ve played in years, and even as I write this review I’m thinking about heading back into my living room and starting a new co-op campaign.
I’m sure that Epic has already been beavering away on the third game, and for me, it can’t come too soon. I just wonder whether it will launch with a subtitle of “Saving Private Carmine” – if you’ve played both games, you’ll know what I mean.
As sequels go, Gears of War 2 is up there with the best. In fact as games go, it’s flying pretty high. Graphically it’s in a league of its own, while the physics and AI are also first rate. Both the single player campaign and the generous multiplayer modes mean you’ll be playing this one for some time. It may not have the depth of Fallout 3, the emotional involvement of Bioshock, or the epic grandeur of Fable II, but if you’re looking for a pure adrenaline rush on a truly massive scale, there’s nothing better.