The fact I have described anything even remotely close to an FPS as ‘brilliant’ and even voted it as my ‘game of the year’ for 2008, at least when forced into a small selection picklist on a few websites, is really remarkable. Obviously given a free choice of game of the year, there would be quite a few titles I’d pick over this, a large number of those talked about on this blog for example. But yes, Gears of War 2 is, a brilliant game. There, I said it. 😉
It really picks up everything that Gears 1 did so well, and builds on it further. Sadly though, it still really lacks in a few important areas.
The main one you notice at first is the storyline. And I’d better warn you here that there will be a few SPOILERS in this post. Whilst it started to get me really intrigued for a while, I began to expect long before the end of the game that I was in for nothing more than a huge letdown.. and in that regard it didn’t dissapoint. The attempt at a more serious and detailed plot than Gears 1 really falls extremely flat. It seems to have been written in an incredibly lazy fashion, not really making any sense when analysed and simply setting up numerous ‘hooks’ that they can oh-so-cleverly link to in any fashion in later games, when really its abundantly clear they are making it up as they go along.
It lurches along so randomly and nonsensically that you get the distinct impression that it’s all just a vague excuse to move you onto the next marvellous section of gameplay, which of course, it is. And I have to say, as an agoner, I’m completely fine with that. But don’t expect the plot to offer any more than a thin veneer of relevance to spread on your gameplay slice when you play Gears 2. I think the self-made comparison to a “blockbuster action movie” for the game is a fairly accurate one. The plot’s about as atrocious as your average stock action film, although the fact it is supposed to be a linked series of games does heighten the disappointment in some ways. As ups55 said to me “I really hope they stop at a third game”. The trouble is, the actual explanation of their story seems to be crawling at such a pace that it felt at the end of the game, you feel like you’ll be waiting for Gears of War 5 before you get any answers at all. This leaves you feeling very empty. As J. Michael Straczynski has said, you can only dangle the “mystery carrot” in a plotline for so long before an audience becomes weary of it, yet Gears of War seems determined to stretch the ‘revelation payoff’ far, far into the future (in a galaxy far far away?). Most likely because they haven’t even decided what the ‘revelation’ will even be yet. For example, maybe Kerrigan.. sorry, I mean the Locust Queen, is getting it on with Adam Fenix in an attempt to breed the perfect hybrid Xel’Naga? Who knows… and after Gears 2, I’d be tempted to ask ‘who cares?’ anyway. Recent comments show I am probably correct though and they are determined to ‘leave us dangling’ for a long time, as Epic intend Gears to go on for another 10 years, well, maybe.
To be positive though, the best part for me, was not the much hyped Dom & Maria sections, but actually, Tai’s death. This was the one part of the game that actually shocked and even moved me slightly. The whole Maria segment was foreshadowed so much that it was practically ruined. And why weren’t Marcus and Dom even interested in trying to rescue anyone else? I remember myself and Navan laughing about this at the time, commentating the game with “oh well, sod you then!” as we ignored yet another bunch of Zerg.. sorry, I mean Locust, hostages, in the search for the all-important Ave-Maria. Also, whilst it worked on some level as a tragedy, it wasn’t anywhere near as moving as anything in Lost Odyssey which showed me just how good game writing can get. Picking on this section isn’t even really fair though, if you analyse any segment of the game’s plot it really breaks down quickly. For example I’ve recently been playing through again, on Insane difficulty, the Black Mesa Facility section, sorry, I mean the New Hope Facility section. What does this entire section add to the story? – actually very little. There’s another ‘oooh look there’s some kind of conspiracy going on here’ point delivered in a particularly obvious slap-like manner to the players face, just in case there was anyone dumb enough not to have noticed already, and it also gets them en-route to Mount Doom, sorry I mean, Mount Kadar. But what it really adds to the game are some nice tense gameplay moments with the calmness of the facility and the later Sire attacks. Although it has to be said the Sires are so laughably easy for two competent chainsaw wielders this is one place where the disconnect between the gameplay and the mood ruins the attempted atmosphere – a common problem I have with many games that are supposedly ‘atmospheric’ incidentally. In fact if anything could make me sick of the wonderful chainsaw effects in Gears of War, it would be this segment.
Picking plot holes in the game is so laughably ‘Too Easy’ as Geese Howard would say, but I do want to mention perhaps the worst one of all – the sudden ‘turning’ of the Lambent Flood, turning the fight into a three way battle. Sorry, I meant the Lambent Locusts of course. But go back and play Gears of War 1, and notice those Lambent wretches clearly fighting alongside General RAAM & the flying Locusts in the last few levels… Hmmm, they really seem to be in some bitter civil war there don’t they. Or perhaps they just thought of adding this ‘amazing twist’ in at a later point? Naaah.. couldn’t be. 😉
But when you get down to it, the important part is how good and varied the gameplay is throughout the campaign. I’ve played through most levels of it 3 or 4 times now and it still hasn’t gotten boring and I’m still keen to play more. That really is excellent for a game of this ilk, as I virtually never play even twice through any kind of on-rails level to level game like this. Perhaps it’s just the lure of those Achievements, but I really don’t think so – I just can ‘t deny the sheer unadulterated fun of it all.
What’s also nice is that whilst it has clear difficulty spikes, they generally feel reasonably fair, and are spread out throughout the game, rather than being a pure ‘ramp up’. In fact its noticeable that the game really doesn’t get harder from Act to Act, which is actually best in my opinion if you want to encourage repeated play. I’ve heard some moaning about the difficulty in Gears 2, in particular the amount of ‘instant deaths’ that can occur, and some whines about the checkpointing. Now I can really understand these issues, as my own frustration barrier is generally reasonably low in a game like this, and certain sections on Gears 2 have really pushed it to the extreme, it’s always been pitched at close to the right level for me. Hard enough to frustrate, but also always doable so that I feel like progress is being made. Although I have noticed on a number of sections my emotion upon completing them has switched to actual relief rather than one of fiero. A sign that shows they are right on the borderline for me, almost inducing a fear of failure – but this is on “Insane” difficulty. But what also makes it work so well for me is the addition of a co-op partner to get me through these kind of frustrating segments in the gameplay. A problem shared is a problem halved really seems to work for me. I feel I would have gotten overly frustrated and bored a number of times in Gears 2 if I hadn’t been playing it with a co-op partner, even where the addition of that partner is actually making the section harder to complete.
In fact it’s the excellent integration of co-op that really makes Gears shine for me. Playing through the same level as a different character adds a huge amount to the gameplay as well. For example, having played as the ‘gunner’ in the co-op driving sections, it gave me an amazing perspective on what not to do, when I was assigned the drivers role. Also the co-operation sometimes needed to heal a ‘bleeding out’ downed teammate is really fun in the heat of battle.
It’s also good to note that the game was entirely bug free… 😛
And I certainly didn’t notice any hilarious problems myself… 😛
For The Swarm
The Horde mode is also a brilliantly fun addition to Gears 2. Whilst I feel its one that’s relatively short lived and I don’t think I’ll go back to it once I’ve achieved certain goals on it I want to do with the right group of friends, I am incredibly glad it’s there as it offers so much for co-op online play with more than 2 people. The level of co-operation needed is it’s double-edged sword though. I find playing with a random pick-up group utterly impossible and boring in the extreme, as people refuse to work together, leave enemies alive to collect ammo, “score rush” and other stupid and pointless antics.
Multiplayer Versus seems to be another matter entirely. I cannot seem to get into this at all. The staggering improvements made to the gameplay simply by putting the game in a third-person perspective rather than the irrevocably flawed first-person view actually seem to collapse in upon themselves when playing at the blistering pace of versus battles. The weapons, health system, dashing and rolling, taking cover.. nothing seems to be balanced well for multiplayer. In fact I think Gears 2 online multiplayer is a great example of Rob Pardo of Blozzard’s point that games need to be designed from the ground up as multiplayer ‘versus’ games if they are really to work for this kind of competition. That said, I am aware Epic are still working on yet more patches to get this part of the game up to par, so hopefully they can be successful with this too. It certainly has a lot of potential.
Now at this point I’m noticing I haven’t really worked in a reference to anything really obscure, like some German industrial band or something, as is common for my blog posts. But the really cool thing about Gears of War 2, is that it’s already done it for me, with the incredible Chairman Painbastard :O