Gears of War 2 Review: Bigger, Better and More... Poignant

Gears of War hit a lot of high notes when it was released in November 2006, but despite all of the high scores and hoopla surrounding its release, the game missed out on plenty of fantastic potential.

There was that short, rather unsatisfying story, the shallow, almost stereotypical characters, the paltry eight-person multiplayer engagements. With Gears of War 2, Epic Games promises a title that is bigger, better and more badass than the first. Does that mean we can expect some story to go along with all of those chainsaw kills and blood baths or will plot continue to be superfluous as the franchise marches ever onward toward its culminating third game.

Hit the jump to find out.

Loved
Tight Pacing, Eclectic Maps: With 29 chapters spread out over five acts, Gears of War 2 has plenty of room to stretch its legs. Fortunately, it takes advantage of that. Instead of forcing gamers to slog their way through endless subterranean and oppressively dark settings, the game delivers fragfests in Alpine forests, dilapidated hospitals, across the expanse of a massive city. And the key encounters among that collection of maps are tightly paced, managing to maintain your interest no matter where you are.

Epic Battles: One of the problems the original Gears faced was that players never got a proper sense of scale for their encounters. Instead of feeling like part of a world-wide effort to save humanity, it felt more like a handful of guys taking on a bunch of Locust. This time around Epic Games goes out of its way to remind the gamer not only what's at stake, but just how large the effort is. There are times when the ragged landscape fills with a sea of Locust, when enemies are in the sky, on the hills and swarming up from underground. I just wish they happened more often.

Single Player Tweaks: The original Gears brought a lot of refinement to the shooter genre. This time around the changes aren't as evident, but still make for a much deeper experience. For instance you can now crawl around after getting knocked to the verge of death, seeking someone to revive you. (On the harder levels, you just die.) There are also a number of new ways to take out a downed enemy, including using them as a "meat shield." I found the tweak that has the biggest impact on the single-player experience is the Locusts' new found ability to revive one another. Now you aren't the only one crawling around looking for a little help. And if you don't take care of these stragglers they'll come back to take you out.

Vehicles of Mass Destruction: I'm not a big fan of vehicles in shooters, especially vehicle levels. I find that they tend to ruin the experience, stripping away the tactical nuance found in most shooters and replacing it with a rail-shooter aesthetic. Fortunately, Epic Games avoided that trap in their vehicles. Instead they use these few levels to help move players across expansive terrain and with perhaps one exception, they're as nuanced and fun to play as the feet on the ground levels. Oh, and riding a Brumak into battle: Tons of fun.

Character Development: In general I don't play shooters to get all touchy-feely. I really don't care who lives and dies in these games, and trying to get me to do so inevitably irritates more than it evokes. But when it works, it works well. In the case of Gears 2, the game tiptoes around the over-the-top emotional string tugs but still delivers enough emotional punches to make me worry over Fenix and his pals.

Horde: This new multiplayer mode is a lot more addictive than it sounds. You drop a bunch of players, up to five of them, into a map and then fill it with an increasingly large batch of Locust until everyone dies. There's something terrifically satisfying about hunkering down with a group of pals trying to stave off wave after wave of Locust in a struggle to survive 50 waves of Locust.

Multiplayer Mayhem: Horde isn't the only change made to Gears of War 2's multiplayer. This time around, Epic Games tried to achieve the same reach in their multiplayer modes as they sought in their single player campaign. The game includes seven versus modes, more than double the amount that shipped with the original title. You can also now play with up to nine others, either real players or bots. And if you're more into Co-Op, the co-op campaign mode now allows the two gamers to play on different difficulty settings in the same game.

Hated
Pain in Your Ear: I get that I'm a cog in a much larger military machine and that on occasion I'm going to need to report back to folks. But does that mean I can't do simple things like reload my weapon or pick up ammo while I'm talking into my earpiece. Let's hope the Locust don't attack while Fenix is chewing a stick of gum.

Story Arc: Epic nailed the character development of Gears of War 2, but the story, not so much. There were plenty of things I learned, plenty of interesting developments and twists that unraveled as I made my way through the nine hour or so campaign. But a lot of that either came out of left field or was left dangling when the surprisingly abrupt, incredibly flat ending hit me in the face. Of course there's going to be a sequel, but I think the story arc needs to be more of an actual arc and less of a bumpy ride to be satisfying across all three games.

Normal Is a Bit Casual: It's funny that the developers felt that the needed to add another easy setting to the game because they thought casual was a bit too hard. I thought it was a bit too easy in the first game and this time around, playing at normal, I only died a handful of times, almost always because of bad vehicular mishaps or wrong turns. Playing through the campaign on Insane now finally gives me the challenge I was looking for.

Gears of War 2 is a satisfying middle child for what I can only expect will be the Gears trilogy. It ups the gameplay, tweaks the mechanics and finally digs into that deep potential, delivered in sweeping scale and backdrops, through a plot that both intrigues gamer and fills out the title's many interesting characters. I only wish the game's sense of purpose and pacing continued until the very end of this latest game, rather than drying up a few chapters early.

Does Gears of War 2 reinvent the genre or even the franchise? No, but it doesn't need to. Instead it works on expanding it's polish and it's scope to include not only the gameplay mechanics, but the story, the settings and the characters. And I think that's plenty.

Gears of War 2 was developed by Epic Games, published by Microsoft Games Studio and released on Nov. 7 for Xbox 360. Retails for $59.99 USD. Completed single-player campaign alone, tested campaign coop, Horde and other multiplayer modes.

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