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Review – Gears of War 2

posted on December 23rd, 2008 by christian

When the first Gears of War was released, I wrote a little rant about Cliff Blezinski’s introduction to the game found in the instruction book. For a game about large meatheads shooting albino insect meatheads, the intro sounded far too pretentious and lofty. Commenters took me to task, and they convinced me that I was overreacting.

Thankfully, Gears 2 doesn’t put me in the same situation. This time, Cliff’s intro makes no bones about the fact that this game wants to emulate the feeling of “being in a summer blockbuster film” better than any other game out there. Shallow as it may be, knowing a developer’s intent can have a large impact on how I view a game. An over the top setpiece becomes more palatable when I know the creators aren’t presenting it as a work of gaming art.

In order to achieve its goal, Gears 2 features slick new weapons, better firefights, and a lengthier campaign. As a sequel to the best 3rd person shooting since Resident Evil 4, these changes make Gears 2 shine even brighter. But adding more weight to Gears’ already massive frame also makes it slower and dumber than it was before.

Bigger combat somehow led to bigger glitches, and the longer campaign ends up destroying what could have been movie quality pacing. The story also feels compelled to dabble in the same kind of insincere drama that most blockbusters include to trick the viewer into feeling emotionally invested in the last half hour of explosions.

Despite what Cliff’s intro may claim, Gears 2 ends up being the more pretentious of the two games. I understand everything Epic is trying to do with this franchise, but it makes it harder to enjoy the experience when I know that removing (not changing) just a few elements would make this the best action game of its generation.

Gears 2 works exactly like it should. Every aspect of the control scheme works the same as it did before. It takes mere seconds to learn how to use each new weapon and trick (like the chainsaw duels). There is no learning curve for the returning player, no forced tutorials or slow story buildup (the main selling point of the plot – that the Gears soldiers are drilling underground to fight the Locust – occurs after roughly the first half hour of play). It is refreshing to see a game that treats its audience with some respect by allowing us get down to business instead of stringing us along a path we don’t wish to take.

Since Gears 2 allows us to quickly jump into the combat, it doesn’t take too long to notice how it has changed. Battles involve more enemies and more intricate terrain layouts than in the original game. Your teammates have also become more efficient at killing Locusts, who seem to target your AI buddies as much as they do you. The numbers and positions of enemies in each battle are also tuned towards fairness.

The original game had many frustrating setpieces in which Wretches would swarm from any direction, sometimes while gunmen fired upon you from multiple angles. You simply couldn’t keep track of the entire battlefield, and the AI wasn’t smart enough to watch your back or draw enough enemy fire. You would end up in a bout of constant trial and error, hoping that no one would attack you from off screen (and cursing when they did). Battles in Gears 2 feel less like a random victory you pulled out of your ass and more like a coordinated mix of flanking and concentrated fire.

This isn’t necessarily better. If Gears 1 was a little too cheap on Hardcore difficulty, its sequel is a bit too easy. None of its changes are made with the player factored into the equation. Suffice to say that a majority of the game’s sales will be coming from people who enjoyed the original. These folks have gotten better. They know the rules and they know how to be patient. Giving them stronger weapons makes them even deadlier, while more competent allies allow them to move and aim more freely.

As frustrating as Gears 1 could be, there was something to be said about the feeling of chaos and desperation that it conveyed. In the sequel you never get the feeling that Delta Squad will fail. Even at the very end, when the Locusts are throwing the elite of their army at you, you will still feel like the four biggest badasses on the planet.

The only solution to this is to play on Insane mode, but not only is this initially locked, but it suggests that Gears is following the same trend as Halo, where the hardest difficulty is obsessed over by both creator and community, while the rest are ignored.

Furthermore, the improvements to friendly AI are diminished during the endgame. In the final two Acts my partners were unable to kill Locusts with anywhere near the efficiency that they demonstrated earlier, and judging from the amount of blood flying, I could tell they weren’t always missing. The enemy appeared to be more durable, to the point where it took extreme amounts of firepower to bring down. I hope Epic realizes that there are better ways to increase difficulty.

The most important addition of all to Gears of War 2 is Horde mode. This drops players onto a map and pits them against endless waves of Locust troops. It is the combat engine stripped of scripting, story, and anything else. If you are like me, and came to this series to chainsaw people in half, Horde mode is a godsend.

The campaign is enjoyable for a solo and co-op run, but Horde mode is perfect for crusty old gamers like me who want visceral action minus the bro love and dialogue. As much I dislike Epic’s approach to story, I can’t hate them when they whip up something like Horde mode. I got what I wanted, and I think I can be at peace with the Gears franchise.

If there is anything to say about the story in Gears 1, I would state that it proved why game stories are almost universally shitty. Gears 1 didn’t have to be anything more than a tale of “big men fight monsters, save humanity.” Unfortunately, it is unable to tell this simple story without sprinkling in hints of backstory and small attempts at universe building. It brings up events and relationships that we know nothing about, and hints at others that may or may not be fleshed out. It does this because bad writers think they are clever if they create a massive universe, filled with canonical history for fans to chew on, and spread it out over multiple entries that must all be consumed in order to appreciate the work.

This also pleases the marketing department, which wants to milk a popular IP as much as they can. Tired as they may be, Star Wars and Tolkien are still good examples of dropping the player in the middle of a universe without making them feel lost.

The reason I bring any of this up is that Gears 2 is worse. Romance is hinted at without any character development to justify it. Shady political cover ups are alluded to with no evidence as to why or if they even exist. A new diseased is revealed without any information about it (or explanation why no one in Delta Squad catches it). Worse yet, the often mentioned subplot of Dom looking for his wife is infrequently touched upon, and is resolved with a women in refrigerators conclusion.

In the first half, the plot benefits from pacing that almost exactly matches that of a summer blockbuster sequel, while the second half is killed by mimicking Hollywood’s obsession with cramming two stories worth of events into one. This causes it to drag on, which leads to false endings, which leads to boss battles that cannot end with a good, satisfying kill.

Gears 2 decides to constantly dangle the big picture in front of you, yanking it away at the last minute. Next time we come to play, I expect Gears to have broken the picture into several pieces that will manifest as games, comics, tie-in novels and machinima.

The reasons this increase in (bad) story is unfortunate are many. One is that people will still eat it up. I don’t mind that Epic wanted to use a narrative trick that is loathed in the comic book industry. I do mind that gamers will still gobble that story up in their obsession to build up the Gears of War cannon, like it is something that is actually worth the effort. Even the GoW2 Wikipedia entry uses terms and character descriptions I have never heard before.

A bigger problem is that actionbutton.net is correct in saying that this kind of storytelling is necessary. It has to be like this to become the summer blockbuster of games, and it has to be the blockbuster if it is going to sell. Gears could have been made with tons of setpieces to tell the story through gameplay and only two pages worth of script. Yet it would never happen, since no developer would willingly dare do something that would cause IGN to give their story a 4.0/10.0 (it wouldn’t be worth the damage to the Metacritic score).

Worst of all, you cannot ignore the story because it gets in the way of the fun. I want stories to enhance the action, not to take the punch out of the boss fights, or to make me wait through in game dialog before I can let loose. Even if you try to cherry pick what levels you replay so as to avoid the worst ones, you still won’t be able to avoid the Bruckheimer-esque antics. If you ever find yourself playing with someone who wants to watch the cutscenes, kindly point your Lancer their way.

Epic could make a fun game with no story (they already have), but we would condemn them for it. Our perception of what makes a game good (or a good value) have become warped, and this is Epic holding up the mirror.

Buy from Amazon: Gears of War 2

7 Comments

  1. GJ said on December 24, 2008:

    Women in refrigerators is a step in the wrong direction for the franchise. We need women opening refrigerators, in order to bring me a sandwich and a beer.

  2. Tim Madsen said on January 20, 2009:

    These games would be so boring without the cutscenes, you have to watch them or there is no point in playing. There are too few cutscenes and too little dialogue in this game. Well both of them.

  3. jay said on January 20, 2009:

    Once upon a time people played games because they were fun, not because the narrative game them a point.

  4. pat said on January 21, 2009:

    your rose colored glasses do not move me jay. zork is older than you are, so we could as easily say that once upon a time people were driven to play games by narrative.

    i do not personally know the gears series that well, but i have no problem with an action driven game also having a deep plot.

  5. christian said on January 21, 2009:

    While I do not buy into the philosophy that games should ever be like work, there is something to be said about trying to explain Gears as “You are a soldier. Fucking aliens are coming. Go to work or you will not survive”. That is all the explanation I need to proceed to kick some ass.

    As we can see in Gears 2, attempts at creating romance fueled drama is juvenile and gets in the way. Until they can do better, I prefer the series to keep minimal plots.

  6. jay said on January 21, 2009:

    I don’t mind any genre of game having a deep plot. I was reacting to the idea that a game needs a plot or it’s pointless.

  7. Christian said on January 21, 2009:

    I know! I never intended to reply to anyone in specific. This is just talking aloud.

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