November 30, 2008

Review: Gears of War 2

Grizzled hero Marcus Fenix takes his chain-sawing Lancer rifle to the monstrous Locusts again. Gears of War 2 continues the epic sci-fi story of a squad of soldiers fighting to preserve humanity against the onslaught of a genocidal horde that emerged from the ground.

Game type: Third-person shooter.

Maker: Published by Microsoft Game Studios, developed by Epic Games, Inc.

Platforms: Xbox 360.

Hits: Gears of War 2 tells a grand, grim story, with the fate of humanity itself riding on the burly, armored shoulders of Marcus Fenix. The largeness of many of the environments and foes, even though much of the story takes place underground, makes you feel swept up in huge events.

The boss fights in the original Gears were crazy hard, to the point of maddening. Gears 2 is better because it ratchets back the difficulty a little bit, so you can enjoy the challenge more and savor the story without beating your head against a wall.

Everybody knows that Gears 2 includes blood-splattering, intense combat action, but the personal drama of the characters' stories pulls you into it. One cutscene in particular is the most painfully emotional moment I've ever felt in a video game. My son and I played the campaign in split-screen co-op (which is another great feature), and that scene left us both in a stunned, lingering silence. If you've played the game, you probably know what I'm talking about, but I don't want to give it away if you haven't seen it yet. I'd love to talk about it in more detail, to deconstruct the moment like I'd discuss a compelling, layered scene in a movie, but I hate spoilers. The fact that a video game even has a moment like that is very telling, though.

Misses: The cover system, which makes you stick to door facings and other obstacles, can make you fumble around like your boot laces are tied together sometimes while you're under fire. It slows you down so much that I often avoid using it, preferring to sidestep quickly with my shot lined up. You also can't jump over anything unless you first take cover.

The chainsaw looks really cool, but even though Gears has a third-person viewpoint, it's hard to see what's happening in close quarters with the camera leaping around your shoulders. I have terrible luck with the Lancer's chain saw. I never can get it to rev up and cut when I want it to, and I'll end up standing there with it idling like I'm taking a break from cutting firewood while a Locust eviscerates me. Why is this so hard? Do I have to keep revving? Do I rev it twice, or just hold down the melee button? I did better just shooting them, which disappointed me. I had really wanted to wail on them with the chain saw.

The online multiplayer is fun when you finally start playing, but the matchmaking process for every session took way too long and made me wonder if it was worth the wait. (On Thursday, Epic posted a note that they have patched the game to help with this wait issue, so I'm eager to play this weekend to see if they've fixed it.)

Content Rating: Mature for gore and strong language, but both can be toggled off in the game settings.

Recommendation: Gears of War 2 is one of the very best shooters for the Xbox 360. The ponderous, heavily armored Gears characters give the game a very different feel from the leaping of Halo 3 or the twitch action of the Call of Duty series. It's a great shooter, if you like shooters. But behind the angry buzz of the chain saws, and beneath the battle-beaten armor, Gears of War 2 has a real heart, and that's what makes it so good.

Grade: A


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