I held back talking about the Gears campaign last week since a substantial amount of what I played was on co-op, which technically fell under the multiplayer embargo that expired today. So, without further ado, my real thoughts on Gears of War 2. Gears of War 2 is everything it's supposed to be – the same loud, visceral war epic with a few new weapons, a few new characters and a whole lot more explosions. The plot has just as many cliffhangers as the first one (though it does wrap up the Maria storyline), and the conflict between Locusts and Humans is less resolved at the end of Gears 2 than it was at the end of Gears 1. In short, Gears 2 is The Empire Strikes Back. And I, for one, think that's a good thing.I started out with the campaign. At first I entertained noob notions that I ought to try the Hardcore difficulty and then wisely went with Casual instead. We picked up (sort of) where we left off at the end of Gears – only now we were told during the intro cutscene that we hadn't wiped out the Locusts with the Lightmass bomb and that the only city that hadn't been sunk was Jacinto. The tutorial (which I think you can skip) has you training green recruit Benjamin Carmine who bears a striking resemblance to Metal Gear Solid 4's Akiba in many ways. Training is cut short when Locusts show up and you've got to run and gun through a hospital while waiting for an extraction team to save your ass. Next up was a moving cutscene, complete with cheesy epic music and sprawling scenes of COG forces marching off to war.
Now the gameplay got a little harder. We were set up on transports (Jawa sandcrawler-looking things) and had to defend both our transport and other transports from Locust attacks in the air and on the ground. The best strategy I came up with was manning the transport turret and alternating between mashing the trigger button and mashing the Left Shoulder to cool down the gun. This worked well enough against the swarms of ground forces that overtook one of the other transports out of my turret's range; but it failed miserably when I had to take out the Locust that actually started driving the transport. I was summarily rammed off a bridge and down a cliff to my fiery doom. Luckily, Gears 2 is pretty patient with you if you die and I loaded right back to a checkpoint just before the bridge with barely any downtime to seethe. Getting the message that the game wanted me to complete the level with a dominant strategy (shotgun), I left the turret to get right up against the "bulletproof" windshield of the offending transport and shoot it (and the driver) to high hell. By now I had completely forgot what the plot was and why my unit was out in the middle of nowhere. On cue, a cutscene occurred, telling me I had to go to a specific point on a map so I could be shot down into the earth where we could look for the Locusts that were supposedly digging the ground out from beneath human cities to sink them. At this point, another game journo wanted to jump into my game. I was at an auto-save point, so I quit out and then opened up the options to host a co-op game. (Still had to go through that tedious Xbox Dashboard exercise of accepting a friend request and firing off an invite… hopefully we won't have to suffer that for long.) Instantly, my partner dropped in as Dom and the two of us entered the next level where we were shot down into the earth. I've always liked co-op; I'm what they call a social gamer. So I'm happy that Gears of War 2 improves the co-op from the first one by giving the other guy more to do – more enemies to shoot, an NPC to protect, stuff like that. And whenever we need to take diverging paths (which the game forces you to do about once every other level – otherwise, you're free to go anywhere until a player hits a checkpoint and then you're rubber-banded to the same area), each player gets a different weapon to specialize in. Like the guy who takes the high road gets the sniper rifle while the guy on the low road gets a mortar. I wound up taking a path that provided me with a sniper rifle. Thus, I thought I'd have to provide cover for my co-op buddy who was down below with mulcher – but nope! I had to target weird orange fruits hanging from the ceiling and shoot them down one by one. This brought out an indigenous worm that functioned as living cover for my buddy down below – leaving me free to run ahead and start harrying Locusts holding choke points throughout the cave. I seem to remember the moving cover from the first Gears – I think it was with cars.
We made it to the end of the level where we began to encounter some of that religious junk the Gears 2 plot was peddling in some previews. At the risk of comparing Gears to Halo – I have to ask: what's with shooters and religious organizations? Is it mere coincidence that Halo 2 featured the Arbiter as a primary antagonist and Gears 2 features Skorge, a leader of a Locust religious sect? Whatever – it's not like I thought I'd actually get to see Skorge before the day was out. The campaign mode on Casual takes a pretty solid 8 hours for the average gamer (maybe only 6 if you're a hardcore gamer and you know where you're going); that's five acts with at least five chapters each. Normal mode took one of my fellow journalists about 12 hours (and was nice enough to let me come watch the ending cutscene). And Hardcore mode? We're talking like 20 hours, give or take a few massive coronaries. Anyway, my co-op buddy and I took on the priest-like Locust that was summoning (and healing) more hordes to shoot at us. We ran into some trouble since Carmine was tagging along with Dom – for the most part, Carmine can hold his own, but periodically he'd need babysitting. My co-op buddy thought he was with me, I thought he was with my co-op buddy. So when he went down, neither of us could find him in time to heal him and we lost the level when he bit it. Stupid Carmine. I wish him a horrible death. The next level was really gross. I checked the embargo info and it looks like I'm not supposed to talk about it at all – but seriously. Ew. Moving onto the next level was the greatest joy of my life because we finally got a "story" cutscene that teased us with info about Maria. I've been dying to find out what happened to her since the last game and it looked like I was finally going to get my answer when… A PR rep tapped my shoulder. "We've got an hour left before we throw you out. Did you want to see Horde mode?" What?! It had been five hours already?
I was blown away – I never get that lost in anything but RTS games, simulations games and Zelda. And I hadn't gotten the game over screen more than twice. This magic epiphany of mine is the one you're all hoping your girlfriend has when you play these games in front of her. I can't guarantee that Gears will give it to her the way it did to me, but I think it's a testament to how well made Gears of War 2 is that a non-shooter like me can become so wrapped up in the experience that we forget what makes us not like these games in the first place. Gears of War 2 is out November 7. I'm buying it so I can co-op with Manfriend. P.S. You might have heard that Gears of War 2 was adopting the cover system from Uncharted. I didn't really notice the difference, but I still stuck to things once in a while while. Overall, it was smoother than the first game – but that's what you expect from a sequel, isn't it? P.P.S. Fuck that fucking water boss. You'll know who I'm talking about. *seethes*