Gears of War II
Platform: Xbox 360 Developer: Epic Software Publisher:Microsoft
Box Quote: “This game will INVITE you over to its house and let you bang its sister!” – Iroquois Pliskin, igndotcom
Full Disclosure: The reviewer played through the coop campaign, but didn't do much with the multiplayer component. The original Gears of War was my first experience “playing” competitive online shooters over xbox live. The scare quotes are there because there are vast stretches of nonconsentual sodomy between picking up the controller for the first time and playing a game, an activity one would do for recreation. My dominant memory of this experience was when some frenchman shrieked “Putain!” and lodged a torque bow bolt into my side. Then, I exploded. Word on the street is that the Horde mode (like Resi 5's Mercenaries mode) is the best portion of the entire product, but I wouldn't know.
Gameplay: Maybe because of its doggedly generic trappings, it's easy to forget what an innovative game Gears of War was on its release in 2006. The cover-based gameplay exchanged twitchy run-and-gunning of the classic FPS for tactical firefighting. Gears' novel integration of co-op into the campaign dovetailed perfectly with this shift in emphasis; success in the pitched battles often hinged on coordinating with your partner to execute flaking maneuvers on the enemy positions, flushing your enemies out of cover. The challenge for Gears II is the following: the bloom is off the rose of cover-based combat. So many of its predecessor's gameplay tropes have become de rigeur in modern shooter design. Where does the series go? The marketing runup for the game basically conceded that the sequel was going for a quantitative leap rather than a qualitative one, and after playing Gears II you'll recognize that “more badass” means “more of the same.” Not that this is a bad thing. Epic is simply better at this thing than its competitors; they've done a great job, again, of using clever level design to concoct memorable, tactically interesting firefights. The most creative moments in the sequel come when you're forced to deal with living, moveable, and otherwise unreliable cover. They've devised some fun new weaponry for this outing as well (I dig mortaring fools), and the complement of weaponry at your disposal gives you the means to vary your tactics in the individual encounters, switching between long, medium, and close-range murder-tools. Unfortunately, the game's other stabs at injecting variety and novelty into the gameplay fall flat. The game is never really enjoyable when you're not hunkered behind cover. A lengthy sequence inside of a colossal worm tries to integrate some platformer-style gameplay into the formula, but your character's movements are too lumbering for this segment to be much fun. The primary function of the numerous re-skinned turret sequences the game throws at you is that they make you pine for conveniently placed sandbags.
Story: You have to give them credit: their unironic devotion to the hoariest action-movie conventions is so total that the whole affair begins to verge on the intended iconicism. To sum up: you're a grim marine. You're toting a metric ton of arm and a blithe attitude towards carnage. The actions the game demands of you save the world, somehow. (The reviewer is a little hazy on the causal nexus) This unflinching adherence to caricature is certainly a discredit to the imagination of the game's creators, but in their defense, it's virtually impossible to recall the central events of any shooter game; even in great shooters like Half-Life 2, it's the texture of the world and the atmosphere that sticks with you, rather than the plot beats. And this is what Gears is really about: when you charge an enemy with your upraised chainsaw, you unseam them from the nave to th' chops, spraying gouts of ichor allover the camera lens. Everything about this gesture is gratuitous, down to the camera lens, but Gears of War II achieves a kind of lunatic grandeur that's hard to dismiss. It's the gore that gives the game its personality. When you walk away from the game you're likely to forget about the emulsion and the purpose of the research facility and the tearjerking zombificaiton of the protagonists' loved ones. You will remember all the the cheerful vivisection.
The Takeaway: Are you not entertained?