Xbox 360 Review

Gears of War 2

Chuck Norris in a dinner suit

If, as Epic tells us, Gears of War 2 is the product of a consistent and unified creative direction, then the burning question is what the message of that vision ultimately is. After playing through Gears of War 2, the answer remains elusive. The game, however, is outstanding.

Whilst it's not usually a good idea to buy into developer hype about how their videogame creation is a piece of pure art that's been divinely imbued with a commanding majesty, fathering something so holy it demands players to excuse anything that resembles a bug or gameplay hindrance. You'll usually just end up disappointed. In spite of this, I'm convinced Epic have created exactly something of that magnitude. As much an advert for the Unreal Engine 3 tech as a game, Gears of War 2 is a title so meticulously designed to push graphical boundaries that every object in the game, from scattered paper to entire scenic vistas, must have been carefully and measurably placed to gently eke out the optimum level of performance. Because whilst Gears of War 2 is confident, beautiful and aesthetically diverse it's also extremely competent, never slowing down to a crawl and suffering the kind of slowdown that has a habit of blighting too many games when the action heats up.

It is violent, of course, but the real fear comes from looking at the ruined planet of Sera. For all its glorification and commoditization of people and war, the game is definitely bent towards pacifism. Gears of War 2 is a piece of media befitting its time, and Epic have put together a testosterone-fuelled, macho and chaotic sci-fi war game that feels pressingly modern to current world issues, providing you excuse the giant war machines and football-sized biceps. One of the best things about it is the immense brevity and thrust of the events that are occurring on the screen, as all the components of 2008's most hyped game align and seed a sense of urgency and threat that's virtually unprecedented.

That's not to say the game feels realistic or genuine, because it doesn't. Sera is a noticeably over-the-top planet that serves one cup of hyperbole for every two cups of war. Gears of War 2 feels immediate. Events occur with a bombastic alacrity, and just when you think you're about to settle in one area you've already been pushed into another.

Epic's opus is proof, if any evidence was really necessary, that a game is more than just the sum of its component parts. It's in the combination of each element working together in perfect synergy that Gears of War 2 proves its worth. The sensation of careering from one set-piece to the other, the feeling of getting in a perfect active reload whilst sliding towards a vital piece of cover, the plentiful bits where the on-screen action unfolds exactly like you want it to in your mind: these are the moments that ensure Gears 2 is exemplary. Fan responses to Gears 1 have been received, and Cliff Bleszinski and company have made your bed. You're not expected to lie in it, however, with anything less than an exquisite red (it hides the blood) silk sheet. To use another cliché, Gears of War 2 is like having your cake and eating it.

It's safe to say this is a positive review.

Yet, consider all of this build-up: building on past disappointments, building on promises, building on hope. The story, forcing itself to become such an integral part of the game, ultimately lets you down. The narrative's finale is, at best, loose, sloppy and unrewarding. At worst it's a downright confusing mess. Too many games have struggled to balance a satisfying conclusion with a competent set-up for a sequel, and Gears 2 doesn't fare much better. It's as if the writers got bored and decided they'd clock off two hours early, hastily slapping together any old nonsense they could think of.

How, as gamers, are we supposed to respond to that? Epic are shoving something upon us, telling us from the outset that now we're supposed to care about things like Dom's estranged wife and humanity's quest for survival. They shoehorn the new, improved storyline into the game with about as much tact as a Daily Mail editorial piece on Russell Brand. To their credit, they mostly succeed. Apart from that damn ending, which is roughly on par with a terrible episode of Lost.

The game, too, sags a little bit around the midsection, in a period where Epic seemingly took their design cues from an Indiana Jones movie. For all its visceral charm, being chased by a boulder-like object is not something I ever want to see in a Gears of War game ever again. Although, the fact that this is pretty much the only dirt I can dig up on the campaign mode is a testament to how good the game actually is.

Back to the gameplay, though: it's still a title built for co-op, and for that purpose it doesn't disappoint. There are now even more sections where Marcus and Dom need to split up and cover different routes, and the age-old frustration of the game stopping if one player dies makes a swift return. It's a bit more forgiving this time around, though, and each player can set the difficulty for their solo sections to something a little bit more comfortable if their partner is better or worse than them. It still makes for occasionally painful segments if you're both going for completion on the Insane difficulty, mind.

Gears 2 is a game of plenty, dishing up a bountiful supply of endearing content and asking relatively little from the player in return. And that's how it feels to play it. You can dash straight past the scenic moments. You can even skip the bits where Marcus walks and talks into his earpiece, if you want. There's a lot of content inside the box, and you're left to see and do as much of it as you can be bothered with. And I haven't even touched upon the multiplayer modes. It's consistent, well paced and tactfully executed. Gears of War is basically a product of itself now, a property everyone who has so much as seen a 360 controller is aware of. Even if they haven't, its formula has been extracted and replanted into such a voluminous amount of its fellow contemporaries that its cover-to-cover gameplay now feels commonplace.

And whilst it's entirely linear, the game exhibits a strange, other-worldly sense of taking the player for an unpredictable ride. It's an undeniably exhilarating trip, and one that pushes all the right buttons to induce gaming euphoria. It's more refined than innovative, mind you, but no real innovation should be necessary or demanded in a series that still feels so remarkably fresh.

So just how do you jazz up a game that almost everybody has played? For a start, Epic have gone back to their original promises for the title and thrown in plenty more stuff to shoot. There are now all kinds of Boomers, for example, carrying all sorts of weapons: one variety of them even tries to bludgeon the life out of you. They've introduced the Tickers, too, which are basically walking land mines, and the Kantu, a member of the supporting Locust cast who is a dab hand at reviving his comrades.

There are gameplay elements like the Rockworm, a self-explanatory creature that mixes up the cover system because it's not a static entity. You twist and turn with it, popping up over its impenetrable hide to take pot-shots at enemies. Moments like these add a new dimension to the gameplay, and even though they sound simple and rudimentary on paper it's surprising just how much depth they lend to the experience.

As for new weapons, you've got the Mortar, a devastating artillery weapon that's reminiscent of Enemy Territory in the implicit difficulties of aiming the bloody thing: it doesn't provide any clues of how much power you need to put into your shot. The Boomshield, a portable shield, makes you harder to hit but means you're stuck with one-handed weapons if you're carrying it. Then there's the Scorcher and the Mulcher, a seriously heavy flamethrower and gatling gun, respectively. They're similar to the heavy weapons in Halo 3 because your movement is severely restricted whilst you're trotting around with them. In a fashion similar to the new enemies, the new arsenal sounds less exciting on paper than it is in the game. In reality, though, the weapons provide a surprising amount of joy during the campaign, and they definitely help brighten the multiplayer modes.

Whilst we're at multiplayer, games can now accommodate ten players, which makes your average game more frantic than before. Maps have been made slightly bigger to accommodate the extra people, and playing online is as good as it ever was. The new weapons have helped enliven multiplayer tremendously, essentially revitalising the whole affair.

Getting in a well-placed mortar shot is incredibly satisfying.

Also worth a mention is the new Horde game type, the undisputed star of Gears 2's online modes. You and a group of human buddies get thrown into a relatively small arena and then are forced to work together and kill wave upon increasingly difficult wave of Locust adversaries. It's remarkably difficult after about wave twenty, so it's much more than a temporary little diversion from deathmatch. It feels similar to something like Smash TV, and I predict it will become a serious mainstay of Xbox Live for a long time to come. Because it's brilliant.

The gameplay, then, is fine. Epic are confident with that, I imagine. If Gears 1 was an excuse to show off a beautiful body, then Gears 2 is about exhibiting that bodies' heart and soul. It's still strong, but it's dapper now as well. Like Chuck Norris in a dinner suit.

Interestingly, new copies of the game come with the Flashback map pack: a code for Xbox Live that gives you versions of five of the original's multiplayer maps, those being Canals, Gridlock, Mansion, Subway and Tyro Station. In a period where the games industry is trying to rally against retailers selling pre-owned titles, what better way to deter people from second-hand copies of the game than creating content that will only be applicable to people who buy the game new?

To conclude, then. Reviewing Gears of War 2 feels slightly redundant because it's a game of so much quality and finesse it basically sells itself. And for anyone that slips through the cracks, Microsoft's humungous advertising campaign will surely bring them up to speed. It's not a game that fails to live up to expectations, though, and manages to confidently strut its stuff in the limelight.

I pity the developers that have to release their games around the same period as this, because Gears of War 2 is magnificent.

E3 Trailer