keskiviikko 29. kesäkuuta 2011

REVIEW - Gears of War 2 (2008)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: November 2008
DEVELOPER(S): Epic Games
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Game Studios

Gears of War won numerous Game of the Year awards... in the golden era of multiplayer games for consoles. Despite having a dull single-player campaign, the game is still hailed as one of the best and most important action titles of the century. With Gears of War 2, Epic Games consciously aimed at a deeper, more dramatic story, and they somewhat pulled it off. They also ended up with a much more exciting and surprising game, more of an adventure than a straightforward shooter, with occasionally stunning visuals and crazy plotline twists that guarantee diverse gameplay, and therefore a game even the lonesome may enjoy even if it's still a co-op game to the core. Gears of War 2 is often seen as an equal, consistent sequel to the first game. In my opinion, it is considerably better than its predecessor. It's like the first true GAME in the franchise instead of a bunch of maps. It's definitely not perfect, but it's definitely fun.

Kickin' into higher gear

John DiMaggio : Sgt. Marcus Fenix / Franklin Tsoko
Carlos Ferro : Cpl. Dominic Santiago
Fred Tatasciore : Cpl. Damon Baird / Cpl. Tai Kaliso / Locust Drone / Boomer
Lester Speight : Pvt. Augustus Cole
Nan McNamara : Lt. Anya Stroud
Michael Gough : Pvt. Benjamin Carmine / Pvt. Anthony Carmine
Carolyn Seymour : Queen Myrrah
Jamie Alcroft : Col. Victor S. Hoffman
Charles Cioffi : Chairman Richard Prescott / Maj. Adam Fenix
Nolan North : Cpl. Jace Stratton / Gamma 3 Soldier / KR Pilot #3

Six months after the Lightmass bomb destroyed much of the Locust Horde, the aliens have regrouped and risen against the remnants of humanity again. This time, they've found seemingly unstoppable means to strike entire human colonies at once and literally sink them into the ground. The COG is soon once again on the receiving end of the most casualties of war. The COG devises a counterattack against the Locust, having no choice but to take the fight to the aliens in their home, known to humans as the "Hollow", to find the source of the devastating earthquakes. Delta Squad, consisting of Sergeant Marcus Fenix, his best friend Dominic Santiago, and the bumbling rookie Benjamin Carmine, is on the frontline. Given Fenix and Dom's experience, they might be the only soldiers capable of finishing another chapter in this seemingly eternal war.

After being totally underwhelmed by Gears of War, you can probably imagine that I wasn't exactly thrilled to slap in the sequel less than 12 hours after reading the credits for the first game. Gears of War was not bad at all, but as a huge fan and expert of third-person shooters of all kinds, and a definite spokesperson for single-player satisfaction even in these times when a multiplayer mode is pretty much a priority and necessity in all games. A game has to be quite damn special and specifically designed for single players to not have a constantly patched multiplayer - like non-MMO RPG's. Some developers just don't get it: some people prefer to play alone. Since I disliked the single-player campaign in the previous game, from my point of view it took one Gears of War game for Epic to figure out that there are lone rangers ("how can you pluralize that?" - Airheads rules) out there. Although it might not have been Epic's intention or priority, Gears of War 2 is full of variables that make it a lot more interesting game for a single player to hack through than the previous installment. It's still at its best as a co-op game, I'm sure of that (haven't tried it, at least not yet), but having a friend beside you is no longer a necessity. You could make the typical statement: Gears of War 2 is exactly what the previous game should've been.

Fenix is ready to kick some ass, all by himself.
You can see from the very beginning of the game, hell, even before it begins, that it's not going to be much longer than the first game. The names of all of the acts and their parts are listed in your War Journal, which can be read in the main menu, and which also lists all collectables, unlockables and Xbox 360 Achievements you've nailed thus far. There are just as many "levels" in this game as in the first one, but they are much longer and include dozens of objectives. I usually go over design issues the same time as the graphics, but design does this game so much wonders in comparison to its predecessor I have to mention it now. The level design is absolutely awesome - there are not very many of those mandatory routes, long hallways and complexed buildings in this game. I don't want to go into any specifics, I hope that saying this game is more about exploration than navigation, is enough. The character design is exactly the same when it comes to the humanoids and the basic enemies, but there are some amazing new boss designs in this game. Again, I don't want to go into any specifics, instead I'll just say you should be prepared for some epic confrontations and setbacks...

...Which are shamelessly borrowed from other games, I admit that, but in the game's defense, I can also admit that some of my favourite games that have emerged later, have in turn shamelessly borrowed from Gears of War 2. There's a certain type of survival horror element in this game, which immediately links it to Resident Evil, and moreover, Dead Space. The modern Resident Evil engine was one of the main influences of the Gears of War series, and in this game, that influence sticks out even more obviously than during the Berserker confrontations in the first game. Many elements are swiped straight off Resident Evil 4 - you'll likely see what I'm talking about - but, on the other hand, Gears of War 2 went on to be raped 'n' robbed by Resident Evil 5 in some senses, most obvious of them being the basics of the co-op system. Dead Space came out about a month prior to Gears of War 2, and I can't help but feel that Epic made some final, three-seconds-to-deadline adjustments to the design of the game, influenced by Isaac Clarke's morbid tale. OK, I'll blurt one out: one of the bosses is like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space combined. That's all I'm gonna say. One whole act in this game kind of reminds me of Fallout 3 - which, for the record, was released about the same time as Dead Space. Enough of these comparisons which are starting to be more like accusations, let's get into the game and see some of the other reasons why I hold it in much higher regard than its predecessor.

The graphics are almost exactly the same on the surface, but the game indeed has a more cinematic and surprising overall look than the first game. Some of the biggest fights are way more visual, like having to defend a gigantic battletank from another one that's been hijacked, and somehow manage to kill the driver to swerve the whole bulk of shit off road before it does the same to yours. One of the best missions in this game is like a long-ass boss fight in itself, in which you have very few enemies to encounter. You dodge, destroy, disable and escape hazards, and navigate through toxic labyrinths in a tense gauntlet run, making your way to your overgrown enemy's only soft spot. It's kind of like something off a certain video game franchise also abbreviated "GoW".

"BOOM!" Boom this, bitch.
Although the story is still very secondary, the voiceover work is great. John DiMaggio pulls off another great performance as Fenix, even better than the last time, and Carlos Ferro has definitely stepped up a little as Dom - the character is still a bit uninteresting even with a personal crisis, but he stands out, thanks to "being there" a bit more. Cole and Baird are quite minor characters in this game, and the probable reason is that they used up most their best character traits and dialogue in the first one. Either way, they're always a hoot to listen to. There are not many new characters or actors, which means all the guys and gals on board pretty much know what they're doing and what they're involved with. One more note: the very white Nolan North does the voice of another black Gear - weird.

The music is amazing at its best. Kevin Riepl left the helm, and got replaced by Steve Jablonsky - a name usually associated with movies rather than video games at the time. He has specialized in horror movie remakes that became standard during the decade, including The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street - hell, almost every movie that Michael Bay's been involved with as of late. Clay Duncan, who has worked with Jablonsky numerous times, worked on Gears of War 2 as an assistant. Since both men have experience composing music for sci-fi, horror and superhero movies, you can just imagine how epic Gears of War 2 sounds in its key moments.

You know, after finishing Gears of War 2, I found myself wondering about two things: one, how moderately little had to be changed about the original game's formula to make it work. Two, was there anything wrong with Gears of War 2? Yes, there was, and I'll get to some of its most annoying problems - but no, you didn't read wrong, and no, I was not in a bad mood when I reviewed the first game. I really think Gears of War 2 is in a whole other league than its predecessor, no matter how similar it looks on the surface. Everything about it is notably better - the setting, mapping, single-player campaign, controls, A.I., enemies including bosses, weapons, even the Achievements. Everything - except for one thing. I'll get to it towards the end.

There's a very short tutorial in the beginning which you can skip right away if you want, only if you do it on the first playthrough, you'll gain an Achievement for it. Just like in the first game, there are five proper Acts in the game, but their length varies by a lot; the fourth one is most definitely the lengthiest one in the bunch. I didn't really concentrate on how long it took to beat the game, but it's definitely hours more than it took to beat the first one. I didn't get bored once, think about it - I was bored almost throughout the last game, from the beginning to the end. I was hoping that a friend would come by my apartment and just happen to have an Xbox controller with him. Me, a not-so-huge fan of co-op or multiplayer in general. I wanted to play Gears of War the way it was meant to be played. I gladly played Gears of War 2 to the end all by myself before I started to wonder what the game would've been like as a co-op game. (NOTE: I'll get a chance to replay both games in co-op next weekend.)

For a surprisingly big percentage of the game, it's just Fenix and Dom. However, they have many supports along the line in some choice situations, and the maximum number of soldiers in your squad is extended from four to five. The path choices work exactly the same as before, there are definitely fewer of these instances, though. Most of them are not even literal path choices, rather a coin toss which one of you will play the decoy for a Locust wave, and which one will climb a nearby rock, flank the whole bunch of uglies and greet them with a refreshing hail of mortar.

A chainsaw duel. Yup, they're possible. Even
The Gear A.I. has improved. Don't go relying too much on it, though. Sometimes, your partner just goes his own way and this brings on a lot of different trouble. For example, you want to stay put and explore at your own pace. You can actually lose sight of your partner this way, as well as the correct route to your destination. Squad orders are completely removed from the game, so you can't call out to him, and the COG radar doesn't help one bit, as it can easily point to a wall. Well, you know this much: your partner's behind that wall. Now, how do you get there? I really got stuck in a situation like this once. In battle situations, your partner can take surprisingly good care of himself this time around - but, the bastard's still hogging your covers, he won't move even at your emergency, and sometimes, he can be right next to you and just choose not to revive you, instead he's trying to shoot at a tiny, momentarily harmless melee bug 500 meters away with very little success. Damn, what logic. Only a few enemies are capable of nailing you with an OHK. Most of even their strongest attacks leave chance for full revival, as long as your partner's A.I. is awake in the right place at the right time.

Enemies can also be revived by their partners, assuming you've not destroyed any of their limbs. Cool? If you shoot a Locust's arms to shit, he can't be of any use in combat to the opposing side, so usually his partners just let him slither along and die of blood loss. If the only enemy in the area is a Drone with one foot in the grave, you can run up to him and make his death a little bit quicker (but also more violent) by punching his face in with your fists, decapitating him by using your shotgun as a golf club, or squashing his brain with your gigantic boot. Or, you can pick up the unlucky alien and use what's left of his body as a shield against enemy fire. Oh yeah, it's neat. There will be blood, more than you bargained for, in fact.

The controls in general are a lot better, and even if the game has buttons mapped just the same as before, taking proper cover works considerably better. Also, there are not any enemies remotely like the Kryll nighthunters in the previous game, so you do not need to fear dark areas or taking cover in them. There are a few unique and detailed enemies, but only in good ways. For example, enemies with flamethrowers can be real nasty bastards if they get up close, and they absorb a considerable amount of firepower, but if you manage to place one good shot into their gas tanks, their heads catch fire, they panic, and finally their weapons explode, leaving nothing behind of the ugly bastards but gallons of blood and shit.

I smell BBQ'd Locust. Can I have some?
In this game, all of the numerous weapons have their good qualities, and since there are so many different combat stipulations, you will find yourself tempted to try out how different weapons resolve different conflicts better and quicker. Each weapon has a unique bonus granted by a perfect active reload; for example, the flamethrower's range temporarily expands, some weapons gain a damage bonus, and some a faster firing rate. There are two different types of grenades: the normal ones, and toxic ink grenades. The game has two portable heavies (the Mulcher and the mortar), which do not take up any slots in your inventory; instead, you carry the weapon until you either run out of ammo or manually change it to one of your normal weapons. You can't get the weapon back once you've changed it. Also, sadly, you cannot jump over covers or do a roadie run with a heavy weapon. Finally, certain enemies carry a portable cover called the Boomshield. You can pick that up and use it as a cover at any spot, and also as a melee weapon.

There was only one vehicle mission in Gears of War, and it sucked. Here, there are plenty of exciting "vehicle" missions. However, one (luckily short) mission requires you to use a similar small tank you had in the first game, and the controls of it are simply HORRIBLE! Think Mako in Mass Effect, and multiply the reek of its controls and the environment you have to use it in by ten. Up 'til that point in the game, I was pretty sure Gears of War 2 would easily end up one of the top rated games on the blog. It has many other weak points, but that's the lowest one. The abrupt ending of the game comes pretty close. I know this is supposed to be a trilogy and all that, but after killing a totally effortless, nearly automatic boss, the last thing I thought to see was a game completion Achievement light up in the corner of the screen. Really? That was it?! You've got to be fucking kidding me! I mean, I didn't exactly want to deal with another RAAM, but I expected even a little challenge or at least a little bit of excitement. The cliffhanger ending's quite epic as far as cinematics go, but I would've liked some actual gameplay instead.

Saving the worst for last: Epic didn't do SQUAT about the checkpoints. If possible, they're even more misplaced than before. The worst part of it is that there are a lot of sequences in the game in which all you do is wait around, even during boss fights. Imagine simply not figuring out what to do to a boss, dying numerous times and having to sit around, and simply wait for the boss to show up over and over again. The waiting's tense and cool on the first time around, but not on the 13th try.

I have to admit the game is very easy, since it doesn't have any sort of climax. The regular battles get harder towards the end, but I don't remember getting stuck for more than three to four tries in any of them. It's quite simple to just pick a strategy and go with it; I think the levels themselves, especially the "gauntlet run" and the research lab, including the surrounding area, pose more challenge than any actual combat in Gears of War 2. For me, the most important thing is that it's FUN to play alone, and I'm sure it's damn near phenomenal with a friend.

Hoffman is finally doing something, instead of
barking orders like any stereotypical colonel
who has watched Full Metal Jacket way too
Replay value? I'm not so sure about that on a full scale. After beating the game, you can replay any chapter to go on a hunt for the missing collectable items, which include COG Tags and different memos left behind by different people. There are 41 in all - you get Achievements for collecting 10, 20, and finally, all of them. The Achievements make so much more sense than the ones you got from the first game, that I could just scream out of joy. Well over a half of them are single-player Achievements, mostly related to advanced combat skills and killing enough folk with certain types of weapons. This game does not reward you for beating each and every chapter on each and every difficulty level like the first one. It rewards you for making progress on any setting, and for the completion of the whole game on each. If you beat the game on the Hardcore level, the game rewards you for Casual, Normal and Hardcore, all of them at once. This is how things work in the modern Trophy/Achievement whorebase, and we love it! The "Seriously..." Achievement has upgraded, to "Seriously 2.0". This time, you need to kill an accumulative amount of 100,000 players. Sick, but you can do it in any mode, including the single-player campaign. After one playthrough, I ended up with something like 1,200 kills. Happy hunting... if you're really into this game, it will stick on you for quite a while.

Gears of War 2 is such a notable improvement over the first game, that I was almost prepared to compare it to Assassin's Creed II and its improvement over its predecessor. However, it's not nearly as drastic (and now I'm teased by the thought of a Gears of War sandbox...). Instead, it's a very impressive showcase of how little you have to do to a decent game to make it a very good one. Not fantastic, though. The A.I. is still not up to the task, the game is moderately challenging at best, and it hits a brick wall. The single-player campaign lacks important replay value, but the most important thing is that it's consistent fun to play through once. Gears of War 2 is a very recommendable game to people who love the smell of napalm in the morning.

SOUND : 9.5


GameRankings: 93.32%

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