Like Agent Smith in The Matrix, the truly terrifying baddies from the original have been relegated to chumps in the sequel, forced to attack in swarms lest they be steamrollered by Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, played here by Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago. It’s a great way of demonstrating just how the war has changed and how the ante has been upped, not just for humanity but for the Gears of War franchise itself. Every fight, from the very first minute of the game onward, is bigger than anything you saw in the original, and the pacing is solid enough that you’ll rarely be doing one thing for so long that you’ll become bored.
So why the bloat? While you’ll rarely be doing one thing for so long that you’ll get bored, environment fatigue sets in now and again. Even when you’re pressing into the latter stages of Act Four’s caverns and Gears kicks into all-out shootout mode, it’s possible Epic have given you too much of a good thing; one wave of Locusts is good, two waves are better; but that tenth wave in those same old caverns, you could have done without. Gears 2 is longer, and bloated, sure, but Gears was shorter and even more artificially bloated. It had fewer good ideas in its five hours than Gears 2 does in its eight. The unnecessary padding is a trait both share, perhaps in equal measure, but the extended length of Gears 2 means there’s more good gaming on the disc, and the girth here means the good gaming is even better than the best bits of Gears of War.
The story too is stronger than the original, and doesn’t lapse into Metal Gear Solid cut-scene-pocalypse to hammer home its point. You’ll already have taken all that claptrap about the narrative being ‘richer’ and ‘emotionally affecting’ with a sumo-sized pinch of salt, but Gears 2 does a much better job with its characters. Baird is more whiny without being annoying, Cole is still a three hundred pound five year-old, and Dom’s story – which occupies a colossal chunk of the plot – is actually handled well, and climaxes in a fashion which, while not ‘emotionally affecting’, is credible and treated delicately by the guns/chainsaws/tanks men at Epic.
Like Gears of War, there are aspects of the story that are poorly explained, and elements which are needlessly labored. You’ll visit locations which are largely irrelevant to the progression of the plot, and have deus ex machina to thank for a number of twists. When the story finally reaches its conclusion, it goes out with a literal, if not a metaphorical, bang. Like the original Gears, the final boss fight is as climactic as reaching the top of Everest only to find McDonalds have opened up a branch on the summit and there’s already an acne-ridden youth waiting for your order.
Gears of War 2 is the better game, but the original looks not nearly so sparkly in 2008’s harsh light. Gears of War was a graphical – if not a gameplay – revolution; Gears 2 is a graphical and a gameplay evolution, but only a minor one in both regards. Epic have done nothing more than exactly what you should have expected of them, which makes Gears 2 a welcome return of an old friend. The game sits right in the middle of the conflict between ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and ‘change or die’. You can hardly be upset by a shooter so strong and superior to its predecessor.
Nov 3, 2008