There’s a moment at the end of the second act of Gears of War 2 where, all of a sudden, the infamous Unreal Engine 3 ‘Meatcube’ demo makes sense. At that point, you’ll realize why Epic thought it so important to show Marcus Fenix blasting around a giant hunk of meat at the Games Developers Conference, and just why getting those wibbly-wobbly meat physics right were so important. Maybe at that point you’ll wonder whether the new power of Unreal Engine 3 is behind the design for Gears 2, or whether the design of Gears 2 is what made Epic evolve Unreal Engine 3, but whether the chicken or the egg came first, it’s clear throughout that there’s new technology behind the game.
The meaty climax to Act 2 is an obvious demonstration of the engine’s new power, but the signs are there throughout – meaty chunks can be shot out of the bigger Locusts, water and blood flows and pools more realistically, the environment splinters and shreds under sustained fire, and every act has at least one epic battle against swarms of Locusts. It’s all technology shown off at GDC 2008 and it has made Gears 2 a very different game.
In truth, nobody wanted Gears 2 to be a whole new world. Gears of War worked. The cover system worked, the guns worked, the linear stages worked, the roadie run worked, and the chainsaw on the end of the Lancer worked. Gears was never broken, and Epic have elected not to fix it, but that’s not to say the new tech hasn’t led to some new ideas. Gears 2 is a natural evolution, perfecting the systems which almost worked, scrapping the systems which never worked, and adding new systems – all of which work brilliantly.
What’s most surprising isn’t the things Epic decided had been ‘wrong’ in the original and ‘fixed’ in the sequel; it’s in the things that were almost right in Gears, and have been perfected in Gears 2. Suddenly, your AI partners are worth keeping alive – standing and fighting like men rather than collapsing and dying immediately upon glimpsing an enemy, and coming to your aid while you’re down. The roadie run is more precise – you’ll stick to the wrong cover less and snap to the right cover more. That cover system too, is better – you’ll snap in and out more fluidly and can take advantage of the environmental damage to whittle your enemy’s cover away and nail a crafty headshot. The same applies to the executions; it was always fun to stamp and squash a head, and Epic have spent the last 24 months perfecting the meaty squish with their updated engine, adding new animations and options for ways to dispose of (or make use of) a downed foe.
It was in its feel that Gears excelled, and here, again, Gears 2 turns the screw even tighter. Every weapon, explosion, squash, and squish looks and sounds better than the original; the Longshot sounds sharper and nastier, the Hammerburst louder and heavier; and the Lancer’s chainsaw is rougher than ever. Changes to the feedback have come with changes to weapons, too. So much of Gears 2 is fought over greater ranges than the original that many weapons have received accuracy upgrades, and the Hammerburst’s been redesigned from scratch as a powerful ranged alternative to the Lancer. Those and the other small upgrades immediately make the mechanics of Gears 2 more satisfying than Gears. Apply all of those upgrades to the original game, and you’d have yourself a better game, but Gears 2’s new Campaign is – we were promised – ‘bigger, better and more badass’. It’s a phrase Cliff Bleszinski must regret uttering, because there’s a fourth alliterative ‘B’ to stick on the end – bloated.
Gears 2 is considerably longer than its predecessor. A good thing, since Gears was long on action but short on hours. Every act of Gears 2 is bigger and – more important than being ‘badass’ – broader than the first game. You’ll begin Act One battling through a hospital, before boarding a troop transport and traveling through forests and mountains; the journey takes you to a mountain town, a darkened tunnel, and underground, into Locust territory.
Every act plays out in a similar way – just when you’ve settled into a routine, Gears 2 throws something new at you. Sure, you’re still ducking, covering, and shooting, but the locations change, the bad guys change, and the game throws out set-pieces like confetti. Every few stages there’ll be a moment when you leap behind the wheel of a vehicle, hide behind a piece of unique-to-that-area movable cover, fight an army of distant Locusts with a handheld mortar launcher, or actually use stealth to navigate a dangerous underground cavern. If Gears has one problem it’s those caverns. While Gears 2’s underground is much more varied, beautiful, cavernous, and better designed than the original, it’s also home to what feels like half your time in the game. It looks utterly spectacular, and it’s only when you’re outdoors with the sun overhead you can really appreciate just how far Epic have come since the original.
When you hit the first sunken city in Gears 2, you’ll get that same feeling in your guts you felt from the first stages of the original; that sense that you’ve never seen a game looking quite so good before, and that recurring question in the back of your mind – “just how are they doing this?” Fires burn everywhere, smoke billows all around, and buildings tower hundreds of feet overhead. With their new tech, Epic have mastered environments which are (or at least present the illusion that they are) absolutely colossal, and it makes for a more interesting world to go to war in. Every stage has multiple routes – nothing dramatic; just the occasional diverging path; some forced, using the LT/RT split technique from the original, and others no more than a choice of routes around a building. It makes Gears’ world a world rather than a series of boxes floating in space without detracting from what makes Gears... Gears. You’re always moving forward, and always under constant attack.
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