Ever since the fist Gears of War curb-stomped its way to the top of the heap, Gears of War 2 has loomed large on the horizon. It's hard to imagine that Epic could drop the ball after birthing what looked like a sure mega franchise. Players were promised Gears 2 would be "bigger, better, and more badass." The final verdict? Done, done, and done.
Six months after Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad defeated the invading Locust horde by detonating a lightmass bomb, the ugly underground dwellers suddenly begin to strike back by sinking entire cities into huge holes. With only one major stronghold left, humanity is forced to go on the offensive, drilling their way underground to rip the Locust a new one.
As a war story, Gears 2 knows what it's doing. A professional writer is on-board this go around, and from time to time it definitely shows. There's a little weirdness, melodrama, and cheese, and "emergence hole" always somehow sounds horribly wrong, but there's also some real human drama packed between powerful set pieces. The path to the finale hits a variety of moods, emotions, and destinations. If you're already invested in the Gears story, you're in for a ride. Even if you're just in it for the blood and glory, you'll still appreciate it.
First on the menu is well-paced campaign that clocks in at just the right length. You can go solo or play with it with a friend--getting a balanced experience even if the two of you are on different difficulty levels. You'll take in impressive sights, frequently change locations, hit a few burly boss battles, and when you start to feel like you've slaughtered enough enemies you'll head toward the finale. It's a fairly epic chunk of gameplay built around impressive set pieces that takes big ideas and does them justice.
Clear times will definitely vary based on skill and difficulty setting, but you can reasonably expect a solid eight hours of play. The number may stretch even more if you're trying to fill out your war journal, but with the overall fast pace and so much good bloody work to be done, the incentive to pick up dinky collectibles is honestly pretty low.
The real multiplayer meat comes in two forms. Horde is the newest concept, as up to five players dig in on one of the game's multiplayer maps to face waves of increasingly difficult enemies. If one man survives, everyone is revived to face the next onslaught. It's repetitive by nature and exposes a few weaknesses in AI, but it earns its place through challenge and teamwork.
The game also includes a wide-ranging assortment of player-versus-player action. Traditional match types are supplemented with new modes, the most interesting being submission, the capture-the-angry-moving-target game formerly known as meat flag, and wingman, an incredibly fun deathmatch variant that divides players into teams of two, preserving some of the chaos of a free-for-all while still giving you somebody to watch your back.
There's a 10-player max for every match type, and bots are also on the menu to fill any empty slots. The sheer bulk of content available is a great quality on its own, but it's the gameplay that makes it all worthwhile.
The original Gears of War had a signature feel, and Gears 2 doesn't mess with what worked before. Characters have a real feeling of weight and momentum; trucking across open space with the signature roadie run, crashing into cover, firing powerful weapons, and colliding up close and personal for gory chainsaw kills.
Gears 2 is undoubtedly a sequel to the first. If you played the first game, there's nothing here that's earth shattering. It adds some variety and complexity while addressing game balance. Chainsaw duels may essentially be simple, but the stronger button masher will survive. The meat shield mechanic, which lets players pick up a downed enemy to soak up bullets, is a great defensive move, and improvements to the cover system make the game even more playable. No longer will you find yourself latching onto random walls after coming out of a roll. And you can even customize your control scheme to limit mistakes.
Everything about the core gameplay works, but the game makes sure you have a few breaks in between. Riding a beastly vehicle and manning powerful turrets is a big part of the COG job description. Don't be surprised if you end up looking at the standard shooting sequences as a break from it. The different environments substantially change the way you fight and progress.
There are enough different types of enemies so that you'll need to adopt new strategies to deal with them. Fast-moving skittering bombs called Tickers are only one of your new occupational hazards. They're spread out over the campaign, but you can really get familiar with the new faces in horde mode. As for the boss fights, they don't really flow completely with the rest of the game, but they still make a lasting impression.
New heavy weapons are worthwhile and hugely enjoyable, adding punch to an already hard-hitting arsenal. The Lancer is as reliable as ever, but you'll definitely be tempted to try out a chain gun appropriately named the mulcher or invest in learning the difficult-to-use but brutally effective mortar. Grenades as proximity mines add a new strategic dimension to single-player and multiplayer. And portable cover comes in the form of a sturdy shield that's handy in most modes and absolutely essential in horde.
Multiplayer hasn't quite been revolutionized, but it has been significantly improved. Numerous balance tweaks and smart new mechanics help make multiplayer enjoyable and fair. A stopping power feature discourages head-on charges, and being able to crawl when you're downed increases survivability and makes the somewhat risky finishing moves even more important. If you are taken out, a dynamic battle camera lets you snap and save pictures. Even though it's been expanded, the gameplay remains focused and fun.
The destroyed beauty theme of the first Gears carries over to the sequel, but improved effects and an expanded use of colors other than brown reflect a successful effort to show players new sights and, frankly, impress the hell out of them. You'll see some crazy stuff happen in the second chapter of this war, and you'll have to find out for yourself what that repulsive meat cube demo has grown into. Characters again look larger than life, and a little more human than they did before. Gore still looks sick in the best way with a handful of new finishing moves and the already-infamous chainsodomy animation.
The game consistently manages to put impressive, holy crap-worthy stuff on-screen. Your ears get their fair share of candy, too. Voice work is almost always right on and the music is epic, foreboding, and dangerous. You may be able to pick out some problems with the presentation like a rare flat line or blurry texture, but the overall level of quality is absolutely top notch, and a mature content filter that censors blood and swearing might even make it ESRB-friendly. Maybe.
It's not absolutely perfect, it's fairly similar to the first game, and it can be boiled down to a simple war game about killing aliens. But Gears of War 2 delivers on all its promises and accomplishes almost everything a big sequel should--keeping its distinct identity while buffing up in every possible category. Unless you're already a confirmed hater or have absolutely no interest in ripping locust apart with some of gaming's most badass weaponry, don't think twice.