When I reviewed Gears of War: Ultimate Edition last year, I mentioned that I was going to try and work my way through the Gears series in order, though due to a number of different reasons it’s taken me a lot longer than I anticipated to continue the journey.
One of those reasons – which you’ll know if you read my review of the first game – is that I never really took to Gears; my opinion didn’t really change after playing through the Ultimate Edition either. So I’ve occupied myself with other games to play – at least until now, having finally worked my way through the second game.
It’s clear from the start of Gears of War 2 that the complaints of the first game being incredibly brown and grey for its entire duration have been addressed. Despite its visual detail and general graphical excellence, the first Gears was a truly dull game in terms of its colour (as well as the repetitive environments and unengaging story) but the second game is an awful lot more vibrant and varied. There’s an awful lot more here in terms of the variety of environments you’ll play through too – though you’ll still sometimes be making your way through the destroyed, decaying urban environments that took up the vast majority of the first game’s story.
There’s a variety in the way that action set pieces are experienced too, with plenty occurring on moving vehicles, some even on water. The core, cover-based gunplay is as satisfyingly weighty as ever and the combat is generally just a blast – sorry for the pun – in the same way that the ’30 seconds of fun’ design ethos works in Halo.
There’s still a bit of an unresponsive bullet sponge feel to most of the bad guys, however – you’ll empty bullets into bad guys who barely react until their corpse ragdolls awkwardly away when they die. Yet the general combat mechanics still hold a lot of appeal.
Marcus Fenix is still a strangely dull central character, little more than a thinly sketched, stereotypical quippy badass, but there’s a lot done here to flesh out his squadmates – especially best bud Dom, who gets an emotional storyline that has real impact in at least one scene. That emotional moment doesn’t last, however, with Dom – despite the truly tragic events he goes through – pretty much back to his normal self just seconds later and for the rest of the game. It feels like a wasted opportunity, particularly when the tragedy itself is so well presented.
The size and scope of the game, visually as well as in terms of the stages and bad guys you’ll face, is still truly impressive – despite Gears of War 2 being close to twelve years old. Though it hasn’t been given the same ‘Ultimate Edition’ coat of paint as the first game, the visuals still hold up remarkably well – though playing on the Xbox One X does mean that it has been enhanced from a resolution and frame rate point of view, it’s incredible that the visuals do hold up so well without the remastering.
In general, the writing is much stronger than in the first game and the campaign a lot more engaging as a result – but a promised showdown with the Locust Queen, teased in the end credits of the previous game, fizzles anti-climactically with no resolution (clearly to leave the story open for a third entry) and the final act drags on way past this point, when the game feels like it’s reached a natural end. Even worse, it does so by padding out the running time with lots of tedious, frustrating and badly designed on rails shooting sections, some of which seem to be very Panzer Dragoon influenced – but are very unclear in terms of what will be fatal to you, as well as what you’re expected to be targeting at specific, scripted moments. When the game reaches its real climax, the final levels and eventual final boss are so underwhelming that it leaves you wondering why they bothered to include such a lengthy section after the Queen encounter.
Despite all these issues, I did find myself enjoying Gears of War 2 a lot more than the first game. It’s still a remarkable technical achievement and even holds up well against some current gen games. The story and character development – at least in a few cases – is an awful lot stronger than in Gears of War, even if it’s still peppered with painfully cringeworthy clichés and accidental – but hilarious – homoeroticism. It’s still not as badass as it seems to think it is (and far too often seems to use gore and profanity to appear more ‘mature’), but there’s at least a far more interesting narrative and less monochrome visual feel to this second chapter in the saga.
I’ll be returning to the series for part 3 (though apparently I can safely skip Judgment in order to play the first current gen chapter, Gears 4) and will of course share my thoughts here when I’ve done so. Watch this space (though not too intently, given how long it took me to get around to Gears of War 2!).
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