Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
After the phenomenal success of Halo: Combat Evolved and its sequel Halo 2, many questioned if Xbox and Microsoft Studios were a one-trick pony where first person shooters were concerned. Master Chief held the promise that the Halo franchise could be successful for the foreseeable future, but many were left wondering what the next big franchise would be, if another was even capable of competing with Bungie’s armor-clad hero. Enter Gears of War: a third-person shooter released for the Xbox 360 on 11/09/06. GoW was initially viewed by some as filler material until Halo 3 was completed, but it quickly won over gamers with its over-the-shoulder point of view and innovative use of cover, and the game built a strong fan following in spite of perceived problems with the story and online multiplayer. Players complained, and Epic Games listened.
Released earlier this month Gears of War 2 at once offers more of what worked and what gamers loved about GoW, and also makes strides in righting the wrongs of its predecessor. Before we really get into the meat of the review, let’s recap how we got here.
GoW introduced gamers to the fictional world of Sera. Sera is a world conspicuously similar to Earth, and though the humans that inhabit it have achieved a more technologically advanced civilization, they are still largely dependent on natural fuel sources and fight their wars with more traditional gunpowder-based weaponry. GoW starts in media res, and we learn that the discovery of Immulsion has altered the arc of Sera’s history. With the development that Immulsion could serve as a clean, abundant energy source, the different factions of humanity on Sera began fighting over this resource, and thus began the Pendulum Wars. But these skirmishes were only the beginning.
On Emergence Day, a terrifying new species made its existence known to the surface dwellers of Sera. Believed to have been riled by humanity’s incursions into "the Hollow," the Locust Horde erupted from their subterranean home and launched a series of attacks that decimated cities around Sera and left humanity crippled. Forced to unite in the face of this new menace, the Coalition of Governments (or COG, as it is known) formed a new army (the Gears) to fend off the Locusts. GoW begins 14 years after Emergence Day with the introduction of Marcus Fenix, the main, playable character of GoW. Fenix, who always seems to me to be a caricature of Arnold Schwarzenegger at his most pumped-up, bad-ass action-movie-star fictional self, has been in prison serving out a sentence for insubordination. Busted loose by old friends and mates from Delta Squad, you take the fight to the Horde, ultimately delivering and detonating a "Lightmass Bomb" in what is believed to be the heart of the Locust stronghold underground in the Hollow.
Along the way you meet and become acquainted not only with Marcus, but also the other members of Delta. There’s Dominic Santiago, Marcus’s oldest and most trusted friend, haunted by the uncertainty of his beloved wife’s fate. There’s Damon Baird, a sarcastic, pessimistic but ultimately reliable and courageous soldier, and Augustus "Cole Train" Cole – a boisterous former professional "thrashball" player who voluntarily joined the Gears for the “thrill” of combat. Throughout GoW these characters fight alongside you, and if players are dissatisfied by the AI controlling these NPCs, the game also offers cooperative campaign play where a friend can assume control of Dom.
GoW2 picks up soon after where the first game left off. Things have only become direr for the humans of Sera. Jacinto, a city conveniently built on a massive granite geological formation, has held strong while virtually every other city on the surface has been sunk (literally) by the Locusts. It represents that last bastion of humanity, and even now it is threatened. It has become obvious that the lightmass bomb was woefully inadequate, and the COG determines their last recourse is a full-scale invasion of the Hollow. GoW2 plays out in 5 acts, and while you are free to once again fight through the main campaign with a friend in cooperative mode, if you play it alone you will be gratified to learn that the AI controlling the other members of Delta Squad is much improved.
Likewise GoW2 is improved pretty much across the board, a rare sequel that surpasses the original. While not without flaws the story is richer and deeper, and more is learned about the Locusts and their motivations, though there is obviously plenty of story left for a third installment that is no doubt on its way. I only really have two complaints about the story. The first is that during an incursion late in the game into Nexus, the true stronghold of the Locusts and residence of their queen, a plot device is used to achieve the enlightenment of players regarding the Locusts. That device is to have the Locust Queen addressing her subjects over a PA system, offering “inspirational” rhetoric to “rouse the troops”. It is obvious that this is both not meant for the characters in the game but very much meant for players outside of the game at the same time. What makes it seem especially artificial and forced is that the Queen is addressing the Locusts in English. While it is evidenced throughout both games that the Locusts have some rudimentary understanding of English, and much like the alien in Predator they can speak certain words in a guttural manner indicative of how different it is from their natural form of communication, not to mention the fact that whenever a Locust is encountered that appears to hold some position of authority it communicates with roars, yells, and other animalistic sounding means of communication, it makes no sense to me why the Locust Queen would be able to speak fluent (and indeed, very aristocratic sounding) English nor how the Locust Horde would be able to understand her.
My second beef with the plot of Gow2 is how contrived the big climax appears. I should offer a MAJOR SPOILER WARNING before continuing, so read at your own peril, particularly if you’re planning to play this game.
It is revealed in Act 4 of the game that the Locusts are actually fighting a war on two fronts. They have been fighting the humans on the surface as well as fighting a splintered-off faction of Locusts called the Lambent. These are members of the Horde that have come in contact with Immulsion to the point that they glow, are explosive, and for a reason not explained in this game are viewed as a “plague” by the non-Lambent Locusts (including their Queen). Ultimately the Locusts plan to sink Jacinto, and in so doing with a single stroke they will both destroy humanity’s last refuge and flood the Hollow with sea water, drowning all of the Lambent. Marcus decides that this is a splendid idea, provided Jacinto sinks before the Locusts can evacuate the Hollow. What bothers me about his plot development is that it makes it, as well as the entire game series so far, seem contrived. This is because it turns out that Marcus Fenix’s father Adam had been advocating sinking Jacinto years ago, and had the COG listened to him they could have easily eradicated the Locust Horde at the expense of sinking a single (evacuated) city. Making things more interesting, and perhaps more confusing is the big twist revealed after the credits roll upon beating the game. A voice, apparently coming over a radio frequency, identifies itself as Adam Fenix and implores, “What have you done? What have you done?” So let me see if I have this straight. Marcus’s dad wanted to sink Jacinto to kill the Locusts. The Locust Queen wants to sink Jacinto to kill the Lambent. Marcus wants to sink Jacinto to kill ‘em all, which cause the Locust to try to stop the humans from doing what they wanted to do earlier, but only long enough so they can evacuate, at which point they’ll probably try to sink it again anyway. And after all that the guy who wanted to sink it in the first place now obviously thinks that was the bad idea to end all bad ideas. I believe this calls for a WTF?
Okay, my rant is finished. In the end, the GoW series is sort of like a summer blockbuster of a movie. It’s a big, expensive-looking production with a plot that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Gamers like myself probably shouldn’t over-think it and just sit back and enjoy the carnage. There's certainly plenty of that on display. The violence in GoW2 is somehow more abundant and more graphic than what was present in the first game. This isn't necessarily a criticism, as I felt a queer sense of joy at all the mayhem onscreen. And the improved graphics don't begin and end with kills, but pervade every aspect of the game. Level designs have been opened up, often bestowing a grander and more epic feel to the game. And while GoW essentially featured a single vehicle level, GoW2 mixes things up by offering several vehicle levels that put you in command (and sometimes at the mercy) of various COG and Locust machinery. While some have criticised that the game climaxes in the fourth act and the fifth is fairly lackluster, I found it satisfied and achieved the ends the game developers intended: wrapping up GoW2's storyline while setting up a third installment.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't talk about GoW2's multiplayer. Admittedly, I'm not a big fan of mulitplayer. It's not that I actively dislike it as a general rule, more that I mostly don't care. But even I can appreciate that GoW2 has a much better multiplayer component than its predecessor, and it offers gamers who love multiplayer shooters some great options that will keep them entertained for months to come. The two scenarios that I've played and enjoyed the most are Wingman and Horde. In Wingman you have several teams of two in a deathmatch setup, which I thought was great in that you know you have someone who'll cover your ass. Horde has by far been my favorite. A team of five players chooses a map, and then you simply see how long you can survive as wave after ever-increasingly more challenging wave of Locusts attacks you. After each wave dead players will respawn, so all you need is one team member to survive to advance, and you can save your progress so that if you all die on Wave 6, you can come back the next day and not have to restart at the beginning. It appears that this game mode is like the old arcade favorite Galaga in that it has no end, which will likely serve as an open challenge to gamers to see which team can last the the longest.
In summary Gears of War 2 is a stellar game that in many ways surpasses the original and competes with every other shooter on the market today both with an exciting single player campaign, as well as with a vast and diverse multiplayer component that promises hours of fun for fans of the shooter genre. This sequel packs a bigger, more emotional punch in terms of its story, and sets up another sequel that promises to make Gears of War another lucrative franchise on the order of the Halo games. It's a must-have for any Xbox 360 owner.