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Reviewed by Jason Zingale
hen “Gears of War” was released back in 2006, it was hailed as the successor to “Halo.” Of course, despite its obvious similarities to the popular sci-fi shooter, “Gears of War” was much more than just Microsoft’s next killer app. The next- generation of gaming had finally arrived, and along with it, my obsession with Epic’s down and dirty (and oh so bloody) shooter. So when it came time to announce the game’s sequel, the fanboy inside me squealed like a little schoolgirl at lead designer Cliff Bleszinski’s promise that “Gears of War 2” would be “bigger, better and more badass.” The game is indeed all of those things and more, and though it probably won’t be remembered as the best game of the year, “Gears of War 2” still delivers enough blood-soaked, chainsaw-revving action to last the long wait until the series’ forthcoming finale.
Picking up several months after Marcus Fenix and the rest of the Delta Squad seemingly wiped out the Locust army with a lightmass bomb, their underground enemies have returned in full force with a top secret weapon that can sink entire cities. With only one stronghold remaining, the COGs decide to take the fight to the Locust in order to end the war once and for all. With his partner-in-crime, Dom Santiago, by his side, Marcus leads the counterattack underground where they meet up with a few new Gears (including Native American badass Tai and redneck mechanic Dizzy), as well as a few familiar ones (like fan favorites Cole Train and Baird), looking to join the action on the front line. The Locust Queen, meanwhile, has replaced the fallen General RAAM with a new leader – a Locust named Skorge who’s one part Predator and one part Darth Maul – and he's not to be taken lightly.
One of the major complaints of the first “Gears of War” was that the campaign was too short. And it was, which was strange considering it was designed to be the main feature of the game. For “Gears 2,” however, Epic has improved upon this considerably with a longer campaign and a story that's more emotionally invested in its characters. “Gears 1” may have been all about getting you into the fight as soon as possible, but its sequel takes the time to expand on the backstory of the war, not to mention include a subplot involving Dom’s search for his missing wife, Maria. As a result, the final product feels much more cinematic – especially when the characters have complete lines of dialogue as opposed to barbaric grunts.
The core gameplay remains relatively untouched – you still shoot, reload, take cover and roadie run like before – but it’s the minor changes that really enhance the overall experience. For starters, your enemies are just as big and badass as the game itself. While “Gears 1” was mostly populated with generic Drones and the occasional Berserker, “Gears 2” doesn’t hesitate to throw a few Reavers and Brumaks your way in the opening minutes. And as you’ll soon find out, enemies of this magnitude pop up far more often than you might expect. There are also a few new enemies you’ll become acquainted with along the way, including walking landmines called Tickers and a few others that won't be spoiled here. The former, however, are very reminiscent of the little critters from “Cloverfield,” and they even show up in a pitch-dark subway scene almost exactly like the one in the film.
To help you deal with some of the bigger and more difficult enemies are several new weapons, and they’re all unique in their own way. The most highly publicized of the bunch is the Scorcher Flamethrower, and while it is fun to play the role of COG fry cook during the single-player campaign, the weapon is a bit too powerful in multiplayer. The developers have clearly made an attempt to curb the weapon’s strength by making it possible to shoot the gas tanks on the enemy’s back, but more times than not, you’ll be burned to a crisp before you even get a shot off. Other new additions include the Boomshield, a retractable shield that can be used in conjunction with any pistol; the Mulcher, a mountable heavy machine gun; a mortar cannon that does Hammer of Dawn-type damage; and the ink grenade, which shoots out a poisonous cloud that harms anyone who gets stuck inside of it.
Additionally, grenades can be attached to walls like proximity mines (a major advantage considering smoke grenades now stun players), downed enemies can be taken hostage and used as meat shields, and if you yourself have been downed, you can either crawl to safety or detonate a frag grenade as a last-ditch effort. Also new to “Gears 2” are chainsaw duels, which is a major improvement over the seemingly random judgment system from the original game. Now, instead of having the game decide who wins the duel, the players themselves are in control of their own fate. When two players rev up chainsaws at the same time, their weapons interlock in a back and forth battle that requires each person to pound on the B button as fast as they can. As fun as this is, the fact that you can now be injured while in the middle of performing any melee attack will likely prompt players to think twice before choosing their chainsaw over a well-aimed shot to the head.
Along with new enemies and new weapons come new maps, and they’re on full display in the game’s online multiplayer mode, which has smartly increased the number of players on a team from four to five. Unfortunately, while there are 10 new maps to choose from, most of them aren’t nearly as addictive as the ones that appeared in the first game. That probably explains why a free download for five flashback maps (revamped versions of Gridlock, Subway, Canals, Mansion and Tyro Station) have been included in the package, because between levels like the frustrating Hail and uninspired Day One (which is essentially a more detailed version of Raven Down), there aren’t too many memorable maps to choose from.
Thankfully, it’s not as big of an issue due to the plethora of different game types that are available. Classic modes like Warzone, Execution and Annex still make up the core of multiplayer, while the mostly ignored Assassination mode has undergone a bit of a makeover, including a name change to Guardian. Your team will still be assigned a leader, but instead of ending the game when he’s killed, teammates can simply no longer respawn. Other new modes include King of the Hill, where you must capture and hold a single location; Submission, a variation of capture-the-flag where the flag is an armed and dangerous NPC; and Wingman, which breaks the players up into five teams of two that score points with kills and overall wins. The best of the new multiplayer modes, however, is Horde, which pits up to five players against increasingly difficult waves of Locust. As long as there’s still one person alive at the end of each wave, your teammates will respawn, and with 50 waves to get through, Horde will likely become the multiplayer game of choice.
If there are any nagging flaws with multiplayer, it’s in the new “Halo”-esque matchmaking system that teams you with and against players of similar skill. It’s not that the system doesn’t work (in fact, my experiences playing online have never been more evenly matched), but that it takes way too long to find games for you to play. The fact that this was happening during the first few days the game was released is even more worrying, and hopefully, Epic and Microsoft will be able to patch this problem sooner rather than later. Regardless of how this affects your online experience, “Gears of War 2” is still one of the best (if not the best) shooters currently on the market, and while I can’t imagine that the inevitable third installment could be any better, I’m certainly open to being proven wrong. After all, they've done it once before, so who's to say they don't have the ability to wow us all again?