Marcus Fenix and Dom are back in Gears of War 2 and compared to the first game, Gears 2 blows the previous title out of the water. As Cliff Blezinksi was fond of saying, Gears 2 will be bigger and badder, better in every way than Gears of War. He was right as well; I spent some extra time with this game and pushed through the campaign as well as sampling the delights of the many game modes that are available. The story follows on from Gears and puts you right back in the action with some familiar faces and some new blood, from then on in it's a 'balls to the wall' action blockbuster with hordes of Locust to gun down or rip into pieces with the handy Lancer chainsaw blade.
The main campaign's length is probably between 12-15 hours depending on the difficulty level and your gameplay style, it's possible to hammer through it in less but be prepared for some frustration since the Locust AI are good at using teamwork this time around and have some extra tricks up their sleeve. Just like you are capable of beating down an opponent who is 'bleeding out' they can also return the favour with vicious head-stomps and other painful execution moves. They will also attempt to use their own chain-saw blade attacks on you and force you into a chain-blade duel, where you mash a face button to overpower your enemy.
For the second instalment Gears of War 2 brings this and more new tricks to the table with a heavily tweaked cover system and new weapons. There are some gameplay tweaks to come in terms of balance and several of the weapons, whilst looking great, have the feeling that you're really using a popgun against a tank. Overall though it's fairly solid right out of the box and there are five free maps to download from Epic as well.
It's now possible to perform different moves when an enemy is in the 'down but not out' state, and whilst they can now crawl away towards a team member, you can deliver some simple foot to face justice or showboat with a different button. The showboating moves take more time to perform and whilst they look awesome, you're in a vulnerable state from enemy fire all of the time. You can also grab the enemy off the deck and use them as a 'human or inhuman' shield to soak up bullet-fire or just parade around with them like some freakish puppet show.
Grenades can now be tagged onto walls to make impromptu traps for your hapless foes. Gears 2 keeps the same weapon switching mechanic from the first game and whilst it seems tricky to have to switch to grenades to throw them, you soon get used to it again and with a quick tap of the button you can tag a grenade onto a Locust or slam it against a surface where it primes as a proximity explosive. These can be useful to provide a tactical advantage in a combat arena where it's possible to get swarmed from all sides (this happens a lot in Gears 2).
Epic have added a knock-back value to their weapons design as well, so there's stopping power to a lot of the guns, the shotgun especially. This is to cut down on the typical tricks that were prevalent in Gears of War's multiplayer. Unfortunately the Locust AI will use the stopping power of their weapons to prevent you from closing for a melee kill and it seems as if it's nigh on impossible to chain-blade some of them without resorting to flanking moves and so on.
Gears of War 2 is a good looking game, better looking in lots of ways than the previous title. Epic have pulled out the stops with their latest Unreal Warfare Engine iteration and it shows, the shadows are deeper, the lighting is better and the engine can handle structural integrity simulation nicely, allowing the player to blow the hell out of an area and see the visible effects of a pitched battle where pillars of stone crumble slowly under sustained weapons fire, cracking to reveal the metal super-structure underneath.
Epic's architecture and level design for this game is excellent, they have also taken steps to ensure that every battlefield in Gears 2 provides a fresh set of challenges from some amazing boss fights to set pieces where you must hold off wave after wave of advancing Locust. With the new engine it is also possible for Epic to simulate hordes of enemy troops, so Gears 2 has more Locust to blast than before and this time it seems like you really are up against a near-endless army of belligerent alien soldiers who are intent on crushing you beneath their massive boots.
There are some truly awe-inspiring moments in the game in terms of battles, cut-scenes and vistas. I'm not going to say what they are but it's worth playing the campaign to see them. With the Locust AI being better than ever these combats are frustratingly good, as you battle against sniper fire, mammoth new Locust types and incoming mortar shells. On the harder levels it's near-impossible to get through in one piece.
It's not just the single player game that's taken a new coat of paint, Epic have upped the ante on the multi-player, adding scores of new maps, redesigned favourites and allowing a mix of human and AI players across all of the new modes. Horde mode being the brand-new mode that sees you and your team stave off increasingly harder waves of Locust adversaries. Then there's Meatflag, Epic's version of CTF where the Meatflag is armed with a shotgun and you have to capture him, get him to your score zone before the enemy can do the same.
There are many more modes and types to choose from, with an expansive tutorial that lets you get right into the action and learn these game types in bot matches. Epic have once again proven that they are kings of game AI, since the bots from Gears of War 2 are excellent and provide a solid challenge at the higher levels of play. The bots and the new moves, weapons, game types aren't the only thing that's to be commended either. Taking a tip from their previous experiences with Unreal Tournament and Assault style tricks, Epic have made some of their maps with interactive features.
A firm favourite of ours has been Avalanche, where you are safe as long as you listen for the warning klaxon and get under cover before the massive avalanche pounds down on the map and covers everything with ice and snow. Any Cog or Locust caught out in the open is killed and the topography of the level's design is altered, since now the snow provides a thick layer of white to battle on. Weapons that were out of reach are now tantalisingly there for the grabs, the Torque bow sits in the centre just waiting for someone to make a break for it.
With all of this good, some bad did leak in. The game suffered terribly from matchmaking issues with massive wait times for players online. This has been fixed by Epic in a patch over Xbox Live and the game will automatically update when the title is launched. Some of the weapons are a little weak and there are AI issues with Dom in some places within the single-player game, these are however minor issues compared to the matchmaking one that fortunately Epic managed to sort out.
The story from Gears was epic and the story in Gears 2 is even more so, answering questions from the first game and asking even more in this instalment, its great fun and deserves to be on any serious shooter fans shelf. It's great to play on your own or in matches with/against friends, it's even better to play cooperatively through the whole single player campaign or against Bots, online or off, split-screen or not.