Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gears of War 2 - The Gears Keep Turning

Well, it's been about nine months since I first played Gears of War, but I have good reason. After the first game I was ready to play the next entry, but I didn't really have a way to obtain it when I wanted. Fortunately I was able to get a copy of it for my birthday last month and was then able to start and finish it. As a side note, I was going to try and review Otomedius Excellent (you know, the one shmup that all American reviewers hate for no particular reason), but I quickly realized that I wasn't the right kind of person to grant it a proper review (and no, it had nothing to do with that game's anime art style or the clothing decisions of the characters), so I almost immediately swapped it out for this. Anyway, Gears of War 2 is the 2008 sequel to Gears of War, developed by Epic Games. Though four years is a pretty short time frame, or the internet equivalent of eons, it serves as proof that the game has aged gracefully in that time.

As always, I begin with the story (you know, the thing no one seems to pay attention to in shooters anymore). Months after the ending of the first game, COG learns that the lightmass bomb they detonated failed to produce the intended result, with the Locust now returning stronger than ever. As cities continue to sink into the depths of the planet Sera, Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad are sent into Locust territory to find a way to destroy them once and for all. During this journey, Dominic "Dom" Santiago embarks on a personal quest to find his wife Maria, who had been taken by the Locust horde long ago.

This is the basic idea of the storyline, but its execution is done much better than in the original. No longer does it feel like a bunch of events strung together by a loose plot thread. Now there is sense of urgency, a true sense of war on a much larger scale than what they had shown before. The conflict is also more personal, adding an extra layer to an already deeper story. I personally felt myself becoming more attached to the universe of Gears of War thanks to the true magnitude of the story finally becoming more realized and fleshed out. Dom is also seen as a much deeper character and the heightened emotions of the Delta Squad teammates lets you get to know a bit more about their camaraderie on the battlefield, their real strength when they work together. Plus, the revelation of what exactly happens to Maria Santiago is a truly heartbreaking moment, especially when it's revealed just what the Locust do with the humans they capture.

However, the campaign, which I played on the new Normal difficulty setting, is not without its faults. For one thing, the (strongest) villain Skorge's boss fight, while difficult, is nowhere near as difficult as General RAAM  (not that this lowered difficulty is inherently a bad thing) and he can only be damaged through the newly introduced chainsaw dueling feature, which makes him out to be a rather gimmicky boss. Then there's the final boss, which I won't spoil the identity of, that literally dies in seconds, so it felt rather anticlimactic. The sequence of events that happen up until this point however is nothing short of awesome.

To switch over to gameplay for a bit, there are some improvements to the systems introduced in the first game. While the cover system remains largely the same, it is now possible to pick up downed enemies and use them as meat shields to act as bullet sponges for longer lasting survival. I didn't use this feature too often, but it really came in handy when I needed cover in a pinch (and of course didn't already kill someone). Another feature that's really cool is the aforementioned ability to initiate chainsaw duels between enemies that also posses a Lancer. In a chainsaw duel, the chainsaw bayonets clash until someone gives up and dies. To ensure your own survival in this situation, you must rapidly pound B to overpower your opponent. While this didn't occur too often, I did find this feature to be a great addition, since it takes more advantage of the series' signature weapon.

While these are both fun new abilities, there is something very worth mentioning as far as new battlefield additions go: weapons. The already existing weapons seemed to have some tweaks done to make them more balanced (no longer will I lean on the shooter strategy of "pick the shotgun and win"), but brand new ones are introduced, and I love almost all of them. Two of these will lower walking speed while in use, but they come with some serious firepower in return. The chain gun can be used as a cover mount and the mortar cannon can rain death from above; I liked using the former more, but only because at times it seemed a little difficult to determine the correct distance with the latter. The flamethrower allows one to attack multiple enemies at once, which gave me a sense of power while using it, and the Gorgon pistol, which fires in bursts of four shots at a time, was actually good enough for me that I would always take that over the regular pistol whenever possible. The last one is the ink grenade, which is a grenade that emits a poison cloud instead of an explosion, but it just wasn't the weapon for me. In fact, I couldn't really tell the difference while playing (does it have anything to do with me playing on a standard def television?).

Then there are the enemies themselves: The Locust. There are some new locust types to keep things interesting and the firefights long. While I don't quite remember the names of the new additions off the top of my head, except for the infected Lambent Locust I do remember that they showcased the new weapons to a sometimes brutal degree, which made them fun to overcome. However, I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say that only one new type particularly pissed me off: Tickers. They make a sound that eventually becomes annoying and they move too fast for proper aiming. Plus, they explode.

The level design in the campaign was very good. Checkpoints are well located, for the most part anyway, and the environments are all unique from each other. Sections would sometimes come with a unique environmental challenge, including one where Marcus has to dodge razorhail, hail that is presumably as sharp as razors, while moving through a train yard with plenty of open sections. It is challenges like these that really spice up the events and help make the game more memorable in its ability to do so. What helps are the improved graphics, which help to truly capture the feel of each environment and display its full nature, including a stretch that takes place in an realm that is completely organic.

While I haven't really played the online multiplayer, since I actually play games for their stories, I did actually try out the new Horde Mode, a wave based survival mode that pits the player against up to 50 different groups of Locust on several maps. The challenge is certainly present, especially if you go it alone, but the result is no less enjoyable (except for those pesky Tickers). I liked playing through Horde Mode for a bit and wonder now just how much better it is when playing with friends. However, I do have a complaint about the lack of a local multiplayer option for this mode, since I believe that more games should be able to do that.

As a sequel, Gears of War 2 is proof that what started in the original can indeed get better as it goes on. The story is better written and its most awesome moments make it unforgettable, there is more variety in combat and Horde mode is an excellent addition to the franchise (which would then be included in every shooter ever made). Though the bosses end up being underwhelming, the strengths totally outweigh the weaknesses. I can't wait to play the next installment and in the mean time would highly recommend what is definitely a future classic for the Xbox 360; It's one of the best I've played so far.

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