The original Gears Of War was the first game that made me realise that every video game from now on should have a gun with a chainsaw attached to it. Even PacMan.
Now that the sequel is out, let me make this point abundantly clear, Gears of War "1.5" this game is not. Gears of War 2 is well and truly here and I can happily say it exceeds expectations. It's not perfect (technically speaking) but gameplay in this game is an improvement over the first game in so many ways. Let's start with the story.
Relax, I'm not going to give any spoilers away. What I will say is that Gears of War 2 has a much deeper, richer story in store for those who experience it. The characters have more depth and are explored more comprehensively. The scope of the war (yes, it is a war this time, not just a few battles) is much larger. You will fight bigger groups of enemies, much bigger monsters and a larger variety of very cool and interesting foes.
It's also great to get back into the Gears world, which is far more complex this time. The first time you get the four main characters from the first game together I couldn't help but hear the song "The Boys Are Back In Town" playing in the back of my mind.
In typical franchise fashion, the game ends with a few things left to be explored in the sequel (stay till after the credits... it's juicy) but this is a very satisfying story. We learn more about the overall war going on, the locust, the characters we know and some new ones too. The pacing is fantastic, there is a great variety of high action levels, along with quieter levels, creepy levels, boss fights, and even some decent vehicle action. Everything just flows much better, and you travel from one gorgeous and interesting environment to the next.
Speaking of the environments, Gears of War 2 has even more variety than the last game. It all feels a lot more organic. Yes, you will see more destroyed beauty as cities crumble around you, but there is a lot more nature in this game. You spend more time underground or outside, and in some other very interesting locations - but that's for you to find out!
The graphics are amazing, from the details all around the level, to the great colour palette used. Yes, this game is still very grey and brown, but they have added more colour in subtle ways and it really makes the world more pleasant to go through. Or rather, blast and cut your way through.
All the old guns are back and reporting for duty, and they brought along some new recruits. There are a few heavy weapons, such as a chain gun that makes you somewhat of a mobile turret. Another favourite (but difficult to control) is a mini artillery launcher that allows your to rain fire down on your enemies (or yourself, if you really don't know how to use the gun). There's just a much larger variety to fight with here, and it all seems very well balanced for different circumstances and play styles.
This is a good thing, especially for multiplayer which was extremely strong in the first game. Here too, Gears of War 2 has improved in many ways. Firstly, they've added the option of having bots, which allows you to get some good practice in by yourself (or if you don't have an internet connection). There are ten new maps, as well as five re-designed versions of old maps. An interesting twist is some of the new maps have random environmental hazards that affect the game, and in turn, the strategy you need to adopt to succeed. For example, on one stage, after a few minutes a random avalanche takes place in the centre of the map that not only will kill anyone in its way, but also alters the layout of the level afterwards.
The number of players has gone up from eight to ten, which I know doesn't sound like much but believe me it makes a difference. There are a lot of little touches Epic have added to improve the game, for example shooting someone can slow them down now, so there's no more running up to someone with a shotgun for a quick kill. This single change promotes the original idea of stop-and-pop action in multiplayer. Also, when two guys go at each other with a chainsaw at the same time they enter in a chainsaw duel, which requires them to tap the B button. Whoever does it the fastest wins - an interesting twist.
There are also new modes, such as "Submission", which is basically a new take on capture the flag, where the flag is a living, shotgun totting AI character that both teams have to down and then carry to a designated spot. Or "Guardian", which is basically team deathmatch, except each team has a leader and as long as the leader is alive the rest of the team respawns. A favourite of mine is "Wingman", which does a great job of getting the chaos of free-for-all deathmatches but with that added Gears co-op twist, because it's you and a team-mate against four other teams all trying to survive.
The champion of multiplayer however is the new "Horde" mode. This is awesome! It allows for up to five players to team up against wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies. It's extremely challenging and oh so much fun! Finding a good team will be key to going far, and working together to survive is paramount.
Unfortunately there are some technical issues, far more than in the original game. Competitive multiplayer at the moment is often very laggy. This may however be because the game was not released when I was online, and therefore finding a lot of random players with untrustworthy connections - time will tell. Beyond that there are a few choppy levels in the single player; this is understandable though, considering how much is going on in this stage and it never was enough to ruin the experience. The worst bug I found however was one that forced me to restart at the beginning of a chapter (not the most recent checkpoint, but the start of the whole chapter!) in order to continue.
Also you'll occasionally get characters floating in mid-air and odd things like that. It is disappointing that a game as big as Gears of War 2 can be so technically flawed, but hopefully they can fix it with a quick/early patch and we can put it all behind us. It's nothing that ruins the game (I probably was going to play that chapter again anyway, it was awesome!) but it still can break the emergence a little.
As I said earlier, Gears of War 2 improves on the first one in every way. The story is bigger and better told; the action is heavier and even more exciting. The controls are a lot tighter. While you still use the A button for everything (running, diving, sticking to cover etc) it just feels a lot more polished, and you won't find yourself accidentally getting stuck to cover anywhere as often as you would have in the first game. Epic really outdid themselves and delivered a better experience than the first game managed, which is no small feat considering the first was a pretty wicked experience in itself.
Playing co-op with a friend is, as always, the best way to go and Horde mode will keep you busy for an extremely long time to come. It is a great feeling to get this excited about a franchise all over again and I can't wait to see what they do with Gears of War 3!
Want more? We have a bunch of videos for Gears of War 2 over at GP Downloads.