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Xbox 360 Review: Gears of War 2

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The first Gears of War was somewhat of a surprise hit. Helped by its cutting-edge graphics, smart advertising campaign, and somewhat innovative cover system it went on to sell 5 million copies. It was the Xbox 360’s first true “killer app”. It was one of the reasons I purchased my system a year ago, though I have never quite got around to playing the game.

Gears of War 2 is released to much higher expectations and more robust competition. Fable 2, Fallout 3, Call of Duty: World at War, and more that were all released recently. Despite all this, Gears 2 sold a reported 2 million copies its release weekend and garnered nearly universal high review scores. Still, is it worth your time in this crowded holiday season? The short answer is yes.

The story continues to follow the fight on planet Sera between humans and the alien race the Locust. You take control of Marcus Fenix, a soldier in the human COG army and the leader of Delta squad. Marcus and the Delta squad are charged with entering the Locust nest and killing the Locust Queen. Along the way Marcus helps his friend and squad mate Dom Santiago search for his captured wife. The story in any shooter is cursory, but this one nicely frames the epic battles you partake in.

This is the best looking game I have ever played on the 360. The cutscenes are gorgeous and big in scope. The character models are both cartoony and realistic at the same time. This allows the character to be expressive without looking too creepy. The backgrounds are crisp and clear, and have a slightly more varied color palette than the typical shooter. Never during the single player campaign did I see any digital artifacting, blurred edges, or drawing pop-in. An added benefit is that the game loads fast and the pre-loading between checkpoints is seamless.

The first game was known for its “stop-and-pop” cover system. That may have been novel two years ago; now it seems every game has some cover mechanic. Still, the system in Gears 2 feels great. Running from cover to cover is much easier in this game than in many others.

The game’s controls work flawlessly, I never felt frustrated by them. The button-mapping is intuitive and easy to pick up whether you have played other shooters or not. Some may be put off by the amount of hits it takes to down an enemy or the game’s slower pace compared to other space marine games. I personally find the more deliberate game play much more enjoyable than some of the current “twitch” shooters, but that is purely personal preference.

I encountered a few bugs with the games A.I. Occasionally your squad will get stuck behind walls and not advance to the next objective.  You have to forge own ahead yourself, which usually results in quick death. Thankfully though, the squad always seems to get unstuck after you re-spawn.

The sound in the game is top notch. Your squad mates and enemies are talking all the time, whether it be taunting or yelling out strategy. The sound effects are well placed in surround sound speakers and give you a good sense of where you are. The music is well-matched to the mood and energy of each scene.

I only have a few complaints. If your squad mates’ volume and speaker placement was more dynamic it would be easier to find them when they are downed. The game has three sliders for the audio: sound effects, music, and voice. Turning down the sound effects and turning up the voice is necessary to hear over the constant gunfire. However, this causes your enemies voices to be harshly loud at times.

There is so much right and so much wrong with the online component of the game. The actual playing online is great: it is the setup that is horrendous. In all the matches I have played online I have never encountered any lag. The graphics almost always look as good as they do in single player. A few times I played on maps that looked washed out.

There is a cooperative nature to every match type. I think this goes along way to the reduced amount of name calling and griefing that happens online compared to other games. Horde mode is particularly fun because of this. In this mode, a team of humans face against waves and waves of computer controlled Locust. You are forced to work with someone else instead of compete against them.

Actually getting online and enjoying a match is a different story. It typically takes about two and half minutes to sign in, find a match, and have the pregame lobby start. During the first week of play, almost every time I signed in, the search was restarted several times.

The online text is so uninformative that I am not exactly sure how the online matches work. Each online mode appears to be a playlist of different game types. For example, the Elimination Mode includes Warzone, Execution and Guardian. In the first pregame lobby, everyone votes on what match type they want to play and on which map. You then play enough rounds of that mode on that map, until one team has reached the required amount of wins. For some reason you cannot quit between rounds, unless you exit back to the 360 dashboard. And no one can join between rounds either. In the majority of sets I have played, it started out 5 versus 5 and then ended up 5 versus 3 because people dropped. If it gets below a certain number of players the set is simply dropped, even if the needed amount of wins is not reached. At least I think that is has been happening; the game gives you no text information as to why you are booted back to the online menu. It would be nice to be able to pop on for a single round of a chosen game type but that does not seem to be possible.

While you may not be spending much time playing this game online, there are still other reasons to replay it. You can play through the whole game cooperatively with another player. That person can join you at the start of any session and can play on any difficulty. So you could boot up the last chapter playing on Hardcore and have your wife join you on Casual. I have played through the first chapter cooperatively and it is a blast. Because you always have at least one other team member with you, the co-op does not feel tacked on.

You can also go back through alone on a harder difficulty and try to get more achievement points. The missions are well-designed and varied enough that this is much realer possibility than in other shooters.

While this game may have its online issues, nearly everything else about it is flawless. If you are a shooter fan, you must play this game. The controls, graphics, and immersive experience are all nearly pitch-perfect. Offline, the game is always a fun experience, and all the modes are worthy of replay. I would recommend clearing out some play time for this game this year.

Gears of War 2 is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language


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About Mark Kalriess