I should mention that my rating of this game should include trading in your copy of Gears of War 1 towards Gears of War 2, even if all you get is a dollar, you'll get more from that dollar than anything you'd get from going back to Gears 1.

Epic Games accomplished many a milestone with Gears of War on Xbox 360.  The marketing and hype were both massive and brilliant, anyone remember the "Mad World" ad campaign during the finals days of countdown towards Emergence Day, Epic's own moniker for the release date.  Now, two years to the date Epic drops Gears of War 2 on the masses.  How does it hold up?  Read on and find out.     

The Story

Gears of War brought with it plenty of hype and we were marketed promised a story penned by some highly regarded writers in the business and AAA voice overs that delivered the epic tale of Sera, a planet whose inhabitants are on the brink of total annihilation from the Locust Horde and the camaraderie of Delta Squad, the unit tasked with bringing down the Locust infestation once and for all.  What we ended up with was the equivalent of it's standout line in dialogue "Eat shit and die!".   Gears of War 2 should not only satisfy brainless jocks who ignore story for steroids, but it's busting at the seams with visceral enjoyment, hence the "Bigger, Better and More Badass!" slogan Epic or more specifically Cliff Blezenski, Lead Designer of the Gears series, will undoubtedly never live down. 

This time around Delta Squad is tasked with taking the fight directly to the Locust, after discovering the Light Mass Bomb they detonated at the end of the original Gears of War didn't really do the job as was intended.  The Locust discover ways to sink entire cities and when Jacinto, the last remaining haven for humans is next on the list, you discover that $60 gets you admission to the roller coaster that is, kickass human salvation.

Epic does a better job of fully immersing you in the world and it's characters, more so if you've played the original, however most of those attempts still fall flat.  The situation in which Dom is looking for his wife Maria could not have been more poorly executed.  The fact that immediately after Dom finds her is not justified in anyway nor does anyone in Delta Squad even acknowledge what just happened, breaks the immersion and any emotional effect they had worked so hard to build up.  Scattered through out the different areas are items, ranging from cog tags to documents detailing a bit of the back story.  Cliff promised the beloved Carmine would return in the sequel though many wondered how as he basically took a bullet between the eyes.  It's not surprising how they pull it off but the curse comes back with him and veterans of the game will appreciate the effort.  You also can't help but feel sorry for the guy. 

As with most forms of entertainment, Gears 1 had it's fair share of political allusion, more so if you went in looking for it but Gears 2 doesn't hold back and brings it in buckets, though never heavy handed.  References to weapons of mass destruction and taking the fight to them before they can deal any damage to us.  Sounds familiar doesn't it.

For a game heavily based on gameplay the story is acceptable but nowhere near the quality Microsoft or Epic undoubtedly wish it was.

Gameplay

Let me start off by saying anyone who loves the worm level.  Fuck you!  There's nothing exciting about that chapter aside from reaching the end and finding out it's finally over.

Where Gears 1 shined, Gears 2 steals the show, and then some.  The cover mechanic or stop and pop gameplay as Cliff refers to it, is still slightly buggy, you'll still find yourself sticking to cover unintentionally, but it's not as bad as it was originally.  Epic seems to have to taken a page from Valve's playbook with the achievement tracker, so that you can get an idea of just how much closer you are to that Seriously 2.0 achievement.  I'm a bit of a completionist, so this added feature is key in my book.  Immediately upon inserting the disc and starting up the game you'll unlock some multiplayer skins based on any achievements you gained in Gears 1, such as defeating General Raam on Insane.  Both my pal T-Dawg and I knocked that sucker out Bad Boys style 2 years ago.

The Hammerburst Rifle has been rebuilt and only for the better.  It now fires off single shots instead of bursts and gives a slight zoom which comes in handy.  Some new weapons have been added to the arsenal such as the Mulcher and the Mortar ala Halo 3's weapon rip system, sans the rip,  you can now carry a third, quite powerful, yet cumbersome weapon.  The Mortar has a tricky learning curve to it, that, once mastered, and combined with active reload, can deal some massive damage.  In the pistols category we get the addition of the Gorgon Pistol.  It's ability to take out drones in two shots is countered only by it's 2 second delay between bursts which can quickly lead to a "Load last checkpoint" screen if you're aim is a little on the sloppy side.

The Lancer, ofcourse, is back and maybe it's just me, but I've noticed a slight rhythm to the recoil that can be used to you're advantage in campaign mode but for obvious reasons not in multiplayer.  Your first shot will always stun the Locust, however if you keep the right trigger pressed down every subsequent shot will shift your aim up ever so slightly causing less damage and wasting precious ammo, so it's best to stun them with the first shot, then immediately let go of the right trigger, slightly adjust your aim and blast away again.  Epic also drastically changed the angle of aiming from the hip so that blindfiring no longer lands in the center of the screen, intentionally slowing the action down to minimize Rambo-ing and keeping to the elemental stop and pop gameplay.

The massive on-rail segments that help mix up the action and crush any merits Gears 1 received, in terms of battles and boss encounters, prove downright cheap and unbelievably frustrating on the higher difficulties.  Where on casual you absorb damage to no end, on insane you can't so much as wave hello to the Locusts without the bright red crimson logo appearing instantly.  The on-foot encounters tend to be much more enjoyable from my experience until they throw in the equivalent of the lambent wretches from the prequel, the tickers.  These little bastards self detonate, take you out from what seems like an unfair distance, and cause some infuriating controller hurling moments.  Again, they feel CHEAP, with a double caps lock C for COCKSUCKERS.  The animations simply do not allow enough of a margin for error.  If you dedicate yourself to a grenade launch, execution or reload you better make sure your timing is dead on or your blood will boil with fury after successive attempts with no progress.  At first I was floored with Epic's ability to accommodate two difficulty settings at once.  In other words I could play on Insane while my not so kickass friend could play on casual.  Come to find out that's where the "down but not out" element comes into play.  If you play on insane you can't take nearly as much damage as your Life Goes On costar, but if you go down you can crawl away and hope your buddy makes it to you in time.  All together now.  CHEAP.

Do yourself a favor and go through your initial playthrough on Normal as I did.  I didn't so much as raise my voice, save for a "FUCK YEAH" here and there followed by a fist in the air all hair metal like.

I'll save my thoughts on multiplayer for a later write up but will simply mention that Epic's supreme reign in the bot world has finally been brought into the Gears realm.  Yes, all multiplayer modes now support bots, except for Horde Mode, and they can't be commended enough for it.  The AI in the Unreal series was so unbelievably well implemented that gamers were dumbfounded when Gears 1 failed to deliver the component.  However, Gears of War 2 all the more justifies its existence for it and lends credit to the fact that this is more than Gears 1.5 but more so the definitive Gears of War package.  Try going back to Gears of War 1 after playing this.  I'm sure it'll be less than weaksauce and just absolutely pale in comparison.  All five original the good ones maps from Gears 1 are included out of the box.  Check out this video of them side by side. 

Sound and Graphics

The main reason Gears of War 2 didn't hit home with me when it was first announced back at GDC was that I honestly believed Epic could not have possibly done anything new with the franchise.  I'd call that ignorance.  Epic has tightened up the visuals, textures are cleaner and pop in is near impossible to notice.  The infamous meat cube demonstration actually makes sense now.  Although cover is not fully destructible, with slugs chipping away and passing right above your head, maneuvering about the environment to avoid the load screen gives it more of that platformy feel Cliff has always alluded to. 

The weapons have such a visceral effect theres no doubt Epic has nailed down, in  simplest terms, how to point and shoot your weapon and make that connection just click.  If you don't own a surround sound system, get one, if you do, crank it.  Fuck the neighbors.  You will not regret it.  Halo 3's assault rifle can't hold a candle to the Lancer's loud ass, Locust shredding badassery.

Epic borrows some good ideas from Kojima Production's Metal Gear Solid series by now allowing us to pause cutscenes as well as use the enemy as a shield.  Before when you would down an enemy you could only curbstomp them.  Now there are three separate options assigned to A for using enemy as shied, X for the good ol' curbstomp,  and depending on what weapon you have equipped, B for an extended execution.

If there were ever any hints that Cliff was a huge fan of the Resident Evil 4/Survival Horror genre, they couldn't be more obvious than they are in this installment.  From the battle on the gunboat to the visually haunting military base chapter.  Visuals and audio by no means take a back seat here.  They are front and center, just waiting to change that dial at a moments notice.   
 
The Conclusion

Epic has gone above and beyond my expectations.  Aside from the story, which is absolute FAIL, Gears of Wars 2 makes no excuses for gimping the original of the fully robust feature set included in this sequel.  In fact I feel it even makes up for the abortion of a level they included in the Games For Windows re-release.  I can't imagine for a second ever going back to Gears 1 except to mock and belittle it.  Massive battles, and an on-rails final segment that will leave you feeling almost God-like, is plenty to fill my cup 'til it's time to enlist with Delta Squad once again.

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