Gears of War 2

Cliffy B’s grand masterpiece sequel Gears of War 2 is here. Is it the game of the year you’re all expecting it to be?

The humans have managed to push the Locust back and now it’s time for the final charge into the enemy hive to end the war once and for all. It’s a desperate attack on the Hive, a mission that aims to kill the Locust Queen and save the human race.

Sound a little like a Hollywood movie? Make no mistake: Epic have gone out of their way to produce, quite literally, an epic action film in a video game.

So sit back and get ready to enjoy an action-packed blockbuster. There’s a grand battle to be fought around every corner and more blood and guts than an operating theatre. A little love sub-plot sneaks its way into the story – although like a big Hollywood blockbuster, you can guess how it’ll all turn out before the ending anyway.

It’s all about the action here, but even the most critical fans of games with paper-thin plots will have plenty of fun.

Firstly, Gears of War 2 looks absolutely remarkable. The graphics in this game are phenomenal. My only gripe is that they tried to make the environments fit the story too hard, and you’re left with backdrops made from various shades of the same colour. But the occasions when you’re outside, roaming around in a vehicle, are absolutely superb and unmatched by anything on the 360 to date.

GOW2 is an aural feast as well, with the surround sound getting a strong workout from the screams, background noises, the wonderfully moody soundtrack and the general sounds of war. Voice-overs aren’t anything to write home about, but they work for the most part, and the only problem with the delivery comes from the writing.

There’s a semblance of a plot – save the human race – but it’s really the blockbuster action that keeps things going. It’s a movie where you follow a squad of soldiers, not philosophers. But while Epic have ignored the story for the most part, the characters get some development time. Dom, Marcus’ sidekick, is driven by the need to find his wife in the Locust working camps, and Marcus’ dad appears towards the end to compel the player to keep going.

What drives a lot of the action is the large-scale fights, with Locust streaming over the hills, pouring out of bottlenecks and Reavers swarming in the skies. It gives a good sense of the war, instead of a series of small fights that don’t feel like you’re saving the human race. The problem is there’s not enough of them and towards the later stage most of the fighting is in enclosed environments, taking away that epic feeling of battle, fighting for something greater than yourself.

The constant interruptions, especially at the start, will annoy fans of the original though, who were graced with almost no plot and no character development. But it’s a smart move by Epic, because it broadens the game’s fan base without sacrificing the core mechanics. GOW2 offers the same core experience as the original – it just does everything better.

And that’s all Gears of War 2 is at heart – gun fight after gun fight followed by a slightly harder gun fight. You’ll run around a corner, find something to use as cover, pop out, shoot anything with legs and move on. That’s fine, but when its linear as GOW2, then it becomes a problem for me.

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Every now and again you’ll be offered the choice of two paths, but for the severe majority of the time you get one road to follow and that’s it. There’s no exploration, no chances to go around the back, just straight-down-the-line linear shooting. From any developer, I’d expect better level design. Even the original Wolfenstein 3D offered more rooms to explore, things to find.

But that’s the Gears of War experience. Given that the original was such an enormous success, becoming one of the hallmarks of the Xbox 360 along with Halo 3, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and Epic didn’t try to. I just wish they were more adventurous.

Multiplayer has been improved as well, with tweaks here and there although there’s only one mode that really counts: Horde. Horde pits five GOW2 players against 50 waves of Locust as you work together to fight off the zombie-like infestation. It’s insanely addictive and possibly one of the most enjoyable multiplayer experiences I’ve had in a while, minus people leaving the game or being deliberately unhelpful. But get a team of friends together, and Horde will last you years.

All of the multiplayer modes are fun in their own way, but they’re all hampered by the auto-find system which takes forever to get a group of players together. You can be waiting up to five minutes just to get into a game, and longer if people quit midway. But it’s really a small blip on what otherwise works quite well.

Even if Epic didn’t try to break new ground, Gears of War 2 is still the best console shooter I’ve played. Unless you have a burning hatred of tactical combat, Gears of War 2 needs to be sitting under your tree this Christmas.

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Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft
Classification: MA15+
Formats: Xbox 360
URL: Gears of War 2

Reviewed by Alex Walker