Looking for a game you can play with your friends? We’ve dispatched our crack team of editors to sort through six of this holiday’s top games and deliver a verdict on the season’s best co-op offerings. For this feature we focused on high-profile shooters and action games, because it doesn’t really make sense to compare Animal Crossing or LittleBigPlanet to Gears of War or Call of Duty. (Sorry, no music games either - we know you rock on drums.) Through our series of post-game roundtable discussions, you’ll discover if Horde is really better than Nazi Zombies, which game we surprisingly enjoyed, and which one is horribly broken. And don’t miss the untainted, unbiased final verdict, rendered by the one editor who played all six games!
The Players: Charlie, Chris, Shane, Joe
Basic Intel: Gears of War 2 features 2-player campaign co-op and a 5-player survival mode dubbed Horde. Gears 2 is exclusive to the Xbox 360. It was developed by Epic Games for Microsoft.
Joe: Our topic is GEARS OF AWESOME 2 cooperative play.
Charlie: WHERE'S MY WIFE
Joe: Lets talk first about the Horde, as that is the hot new shit they've added to the mix: 5 players vs a neverending stream of Locust. Aside from Horde being the only multiplayer lobby that actually works, ahem... I find it the most engaging.
Charlie: I've always found Gears of War 2's multiplayer extremely intense, but at the same time, EXTREMELY STRESSFUL.
Joe: But as the HORDE ramps up, it gets exceedingly frantic.
Charlie: Well, I think Horde is just as intense as the usual Gears 2 multiplayer, but not as stressful. You're not competing against a bunch of preteen boys who have every strategic element memorized. They know exactly when to use the shotgun versus the lancer, exactly how much to lead with the sniper, exactly when to hold down the melee chainsaw button. With Horde, those annoying little brats on your side, working for a common goal!
Above: Two Dizzies are better than one
Joe: Stressful is watching your teammates getting crushed by Grinders while you sit on a ledge with a sniper rifle. If they go down, who's got your back??! But because your teammates can revive you, the struggle against insurmountable odds gets dragged out and intensifies. To me, that's more fun/stressful than vanilla multiplayer where you get killed and then have to sit it out.
Charlie: You know what Horde reminds me of? Helm's Deep.
Charlie: Anyway, back to my nerdtastic point... no matter what map you choose, you invevitably end up in some kind of lined formation, defending some crucial safe place. You're shouting orders... covering men as they run forward to forage for supplies... but if you lose that stronghold, that strategic "high ground," it's all over.
Joe: Yes the key to success is to find those defensible map points and hole up with the powerful weapons – heavy guns at the choke points, sniper and Torque Bow up high providing cover.
Charlie: The layout and topography of each map changes those areas you end up defending. I love finding a building with a limited number of doors and using the Boomers' shields to block them... then you get a real castle siege
Joe: The best spots have a fallback or another way out so you don’t get cornered, but those can also be weak points in your defensive line. Proximity mines are crucial for keeping Locust off your back and serving as an early warning system when your position is being flanked. They've definitely done a great job of balancing the maps, weapons and enemy types for maximum effect.
Charlie: The pacing of Horde is done really well.... pulling you in with a few Locust, upping the ante with a Boomer or two... and by Waves 40-50, you're fighting unending armies of Locust, Kantus, Blood Mounts, Boomers, Maulers, etc etc.
Above: Covering fire! Man Down!! OH SHIIIIIIIIT!!!!!!!
Joe: The early stages are just a chainsaw free-for-all, teamwork doesn’t even really matter much till wave 6 or 7. That’s the point where the Locust start setting up sniper positions, flanking, and working together tactically. But by then, you’re invested in your teammates and the experience.
Charlie: I just wish they'd gotten some Brumaks, or at least Reavers, in there for the later waves.
Joe: Those two-legged beasties, Blood Mounts, aren’t very big but they’re fast and a bit overpowered. They’ll tear up your squad in no time. I’d be afraid that those huge enemies like Brumaks or Reavers would unbalance it too much. They'd have to really dumb down the foot soldiers, since their AI works so well. One last thing about Horde: it really feels like a solid extension of the Gears world, rather than a tacked-on “bonus mode.” It’s a heroic last stand as a tiny group of humans fight to stave off immanent death; it fits nicely into the Gears mythos.
Above: Stickin’ together is what good waffles do…
Charlie: How about campaign co-op?
Shane: Campaign is a strange bird. On the one hand, I really dig it as I do other co-op campaign modes where you really need to rely on your partner and can shout things to him, take different paths, provide cover fire but once you get into the stuff, right, the stuff that's a break from normal gears action, that's where it gets a little funky and almost like you have no room for failure. It goes beyond missing a sniper shot, but that stuff inside the giant worm can easily cause a one-hit death.
Joe: Usually campaign co-op is easier because your friend is better than some dumbass AI. So you're saying Gears 2’s campaign is actually harder in coop?
Shane: I think it can be yeah. There's lots of room for one-hit deaths or something that relies so heavily on cooperative action. Take the tank level.
Joe: Please, take the tank level. I hated that mission.
Shane: A seemingly arduous slog through wasteland including terrible ice driving segments and that whack-a-mole Corpser segment. It's so easy to accidentally screw up one thing and put two people back at a checkpoint a few minutes earlier, listening to the same goddamn Marcus/Baird dialogue, or just retrying that terrible, “On Frozen Pond” nonsense. Or the segment earlier in the game where you walk together while holding the bomb between you.
Joe: Is it specifically the co-op's fault though? I think the same criticisms apply to the single player experience.
Shane: Here's my point: I think the criticisms can totally be applied to the single player, they're just magnified in co-op because now you have two people simultaneously griping about shit, which just amps up your hatred. It’s two chances to make a dumb mistake instead of one. But other than that, the rest is incredibly fucking solid.
Joe: A fair point. Were there places where you found the 2nd player was actually helpful?
Shane: Oh yeah, for most of the game its great cover/fire/advance action, like having the second guy taking out the advancing Boomers, while I snipe the Kantu priest. It’s just those segments where Gears 2 deviates too much from the "Gears formula", everything feels slightly wonky...not broken, just screwed up.
Above: Easier with a friend
Joe: And in the places where you split up, if your teammate can’t get his half of the goal accomplished, you’re hosed. Since you’re in different areas, you can’t revive each other.
Charlie: It sounds like you guys are complaining about your friends, not Gears of War 2's co-op. I've played the first half of the game with a friend and didn't experience any problems. We die on occasion, but it's MORE fun to die with a friend than alone.
Shane: No, I'm complaining out how the game is designed with a friend. Some parts, like the tank or carrying the bomb together, just controlled terribly.
Joe: How could they have made the campaign coop more enjoyable? Better vehicular play? Maybe each guy gets a motorcycle with a chaingun sidecar... oh, and NO EFFING ICE!
Shane: Ice has never been fun in any game.
Joe: Super Mario 2 is the exception that proves the rule.
Shane: I think more solid cover fire sections rather than deviating too much from the core Gears experience. Some of the “forced cooperation” parts looked cool, but they felt too much like busywork.
Joe: One man in a chopper covering one on the ground would be dope. Remember the area where you advance through the town, then get your first chance to use the mortar, right before Dizzy and Tai take on Skorge? What if one of you got to swoop in with a King Raven and cover the other dood as he advanced and held the rig??
Above: Why not put a man in the chopper?
Shane: That woulda been cool.
Charlie: To me, Gears has always felt as if it was designed from the beginning with co-op in mind, rather than just throwing a second guy into the action. The frustrating parts are over quickly so they don’t really bother me much in the greater scheme of things. I think Gears is the first series to really get co-op right.
Joe: To me, Horde is really the shining star that I’ll go back to play again and again. Campaign co-op is good, but in the same way all co-op play has been since Halo. Horde draws you in and really creates new gameplay experiences based on how your team is clicking or not clicking. The well-designed maps are more open tactically and let you try more stuff, rather than just proceeding down another corridor to the next shooting gallery.