Like clockwork

The Gears of War keep turning
By MITCH KRPATA  |  December 2, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Gears of War 2

Gears of War 2 | For Xbox 360 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Epic Games | Published by Microsoft Game Studios
When Cliff Bleszinski, the lead designer of Gears of War 2, assured fans that his new game would be in every way "bigger, better, and more bad-ass" than the original, maybe someone should have stopped to ask whether bigger really would be better for this series. After all, the original Gears of War was a lean, mean shooter pared down to the essentials. It grabbed you by the throat and yanked you — sometimes reluctantly — through one withering firefight after another, in a brief but tautly constructed campaign. It was a masterpiece.

And Gears of War 2? It's faithful enough to the original that it's still well worth playing. The campaign offers varied environments: through a verdant forest, up a frozen mountainside, and, of course, into the hellish subterranean home of your Locust foe. Although the game retains some of the monochromatic look of its predecessor, the artists at Epic have mixed a little more color into the palette; the results are stunning. And though the storyline still seems silly and the dialogue remains lunkheaded, Gears 2 has the benefit of an actual plot — including one emotional scene in which bro-mance is the only thing that can save a widower from total despair.

But the "bigger and more bad-ass" portions of the campaign are actually examples of design decisions that deviate from Gears' core strength: its duck-and-cover shooting system. To be sure, the cover mechanics are still the meat of Gears 2. Each level is dotted with fallen columns, burned-out cars, and other environmental obstacles that are your only protection from a hail of enemy gunfire. At its best, the game drops you and your squadmates into loud, frantic battles in which you're hopelessly outnumbered and death seems seconds away.

But Gears 2 also tethers you to turrets for long stretches of gameplay, forcing you into on-rails shooting sequences that, though produced well enough, lack the immediacy of the on-foot gunfights. There's a long and not particularly noteworthy trip behind the wheel of an armored vehicle — doesn't every game do something like this? Even a truly memorable sequence inside the belly of a massive worm focuses on awkward platforming instead of on the head-in-the-dirt shooting Gears does so well. Granted, the ensuing boss battle, in which you must saw through the arteries protruding from a massive, beating heart, wins points for audacity.

Where the campaign falters, a new multi-player mode called "Horde" steps in to save the day. It's nothing but Gears of War doing what Gears of War does best. As many as five players take on increasingly difficult waves of enemies, one after another, up to 50 enemy attacks in all. In between waves there's a short pause so everybody can rearm. All of the game's enemy types make an appearance, from Tickers, little land mines with legs, to the hulking and overpowered Boomers. Sounds simple, and it is, but teaming up to hold a small level against tough, devious foes is Gears in its purest form: tense, unforgiving, and brutal.

The only drawback to Horde mode is in the matchmaking system over Xbox Live. For whatever reason, finding four teammates at random takes several minutes, during which time the system seems to keep resetting. Surely the servers aren't empty. Perhaps Gears' ballyhoo'd "TrueSkill" matchmaking system, which attempts to put players of similar ability together, is to blame. Not that it matters, really, because Horde is impossible to beat. As it should be.

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