Review: Bigger + badder + more bad-ass = Fun!
Let me state right up front that while I liked the original Gears of War and spent countless hours gibbing my buddies online, I didn't think it was particularly special or memorable. Yes, the graphics were stunning (and still are) and the outrageous chainsaw bayonet will go down in history as the best video game weapon ever, but the paper-thin story, short and somewhat repetitive campaign, tiny 4v4 multiplayer, and a measly three (and virtually identical) multiplayer gamemodes all added up to a package that was a tad underwhelming. I felt the potential for greatness was there but developer Epic dropped the ball by missing some huge opportunities.
I am therefore extremely happy to report that Gears of War 2 not only addresses all of these issues, but blows them out of the water. This is the game the original should have been, and firmly cements the Gears universe alongside Halo as a defining franchise for Microsoft's gaming console.
Unlike the original, Gears 2 has a real story with real meat to it. While this may not be a concern to players who just want to dive into the action, the story gives you a much stronger sense of purpose and pulls you deeper into the experience, making you feel as if you're really fighting for something rather than simply trying to reach the next level. The story centers on Dom's search for his missing wife, complete with some truly gut-wrenching moments that not only tug at your emotions, but also bring some much needed life to the characters. It's a simple story that doesn't rely on surprise plot twists to keep you interested, yet is worthy of a big screen blockbuster.
The single-player campaign is much better; it will only take you about 10-12 hours to complete but feels twice as long as the original, most likely due to the great story elements. Throw in the intense heart-pounding action that Call of Duty vets know so well and you've got an exciting campaign that you will want to start up again the instant it is over (despite the ridiculously lame final boss ?fight?).
The much ballyhooed ?one-button does all? cover/run/dodge system returns but with huge improvements. Unlike the original, you no longer have to worry about walls sucking you in as you run past them or struggling to remove your sticky butt from a wall that refuses to let you go. The system is much better at recognizing when you want cover and when you don't, and it is much easier to remove yourself from cover. There are still times when you stick to cover but it is not nearly as pervasive or annoying as the original.
Also less annoying are the enemies; specifically, those damn wretches. The normal wretches now pause before leaping at you and the hated exploding wretches are thankfully toasted. But don't worry; enemies have not been dumbed down. They are as aggressive and tough as ever, with brand new enemies like the exploding Tickers (which replace the exploding wretches), Bloodmounts (nasty clawed creature that enemies ride like a horse), the mysterious Sires, and the deadly Mauler, who swings an explosive flail that delivers instant death if it hits you. Enemies dive for cover, attempt to flank you and will revive downed teammates. And yes, you will be able to fight the giant Brumack and the flying Reavers.
Speaking of downed enemies, you will notice that they can now crawl away rather than stay in one spot. This small change makes a huge impact on gameplay because you can no longer ignore downed enemies since they will smartly crawl for cover where they can be safely revived. Fortunately, you and your friendly AI squadmates can also crawl to safety as well.
Friendly AI is generally pretty good, aggressively attacking, seeking cover and reviving you if you are downed. Unfortunately, they will often completely ignore you when you are down, even running right past you several times with nary a glance in your direction. This can be frustrating but fortunately, the check points are nicely spaced out so you never have to replay huge portions of the game if you have to restart.
All of your favorite weapons are back, including the beloved chainsaw Lancer, the Torque Bow and the devastating Hammer of Dawn. New weapons include a very cool flame thrower, a chaingun and a poison gas grenade which can be planted on a wall to act as a proximity mine (you can also do this with frag and smoke grenades. Incidentally, smoke grenades now have the ability to stun enemies and disable auto-targeting if they are inside the smoke).
New to the series are Call of Duty-like vehicle missions that let you drive a tank and various Locust ?vehicles.? In fact, one Locust vehicle mission pays homage to old school rail shooters and is frantically fun. But other than this one, the rest of the vehicle missions are actually pretty boring; in fact, the worst is the tank mission in the mountains, which effectively brings the previously fast and furious action to a grinding halt. Kudos to Epic for trying to mix things up but let's hope any vehicle missions in future editions will better emulate the intense face-to-face action on the ground.