Saturday, November 29, 2008

Gears of War 2: Limited Edition (Xbox 360) Review

Like it's predecessor, Gears of War 2 is one of the single most hyped games on any platform for this holiday season. In fact, if you're reading this, than it's highly likely that you already own a copy and have played it to death. It's generated huge hype, received excellent reviews, and is generally accepted as a smash success.

But me, I'm your average Joe, and like I said in my review for Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition (which you can find right here), I call them as I see them. Is Gears of War 2 "bigger, better, and more badass" as Epic Games loves to tote? To sum it up, yes, Gears of War 2 is a larger, more epic experience than the first game, but when all is said and done, Gears of War 2 suffers for the exact same reason: it amplifies the issues that weren't corrected from the first time around. To pull a quote right out of my Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition review: "Gears of War is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played with some fierce and intense gameplay, but some annoying design decisions often leave a good bit of the game an exercise in frustration."

Gears of War 2 begins with a nice little intro summarizing humanity's constant state of war, Emergence Day, and the eventual deployment of the Light Mass Bomb that you delivered at the end of Gears of War. While the COG thought the Locust Horde decimated, the Locust have returned in force and are pushing right at Jacinto itself, humanity's last city and safe haven.

While Gears of War didn't feature much in the way of a story, Gears of War 2 actually does. The characters are developed a lot better this time around, they're generally explored and fleshed out (even Jack, who's constantly around and useful to the point where I actually care for the little guy), and a lot of the concepts hinted at in the original game are brought to the forefront and built upon, if not completely revealed. While some of the story is rather hokey, let's face it, this isn't BioShock, it gets the job done, and even features a few moments that are really sad and touching.

I also feel it important to mention at this point that we actually get to see Anya more than once in the game, and Fenix isn't just standing there staring with a proverbial thought bubble above his head that says "Marcus see girl." This fact alone elevates the sequel above it's predecessor in the realm of storytelling. True, there's the odd part of the story that rather crumbles, and I thought the last third of the game got real sketchy from a story standpoint (not to mention the loss of feeling that you're a small part in a major offensive), but there's enough here to really call it an advancement and to set up another sequel.

Collectibles have also been revised, and even turned into a storytelling medium. In Gears of War, you collected COG tags scattered around the levels. Now, you collect various collectibles from COG tags, to documents, to books, and all of these collectibles provide story info with associated text, and they're actually quite a nice touch to the traditional item hunt.

As always though, I'm jumping ahead of myself, so let's get back to the beginning of the game. After a brief training period (that you can skip) in which you show Carmine the "Golden Rule," Marcus and Dom are called in to help repel another Locust incursion in a hospital. This here is tried and true Gears of War, in which you navigate beautifully designed levels taking cover and popping out to fire bursts at your enemy. The cover system is near identical to the original game, but it feels more refined, and a few moves are executed a little quicker and smoother, which is a big plus. The core gameplay mechanic of take cover, neutralize threats, and advance are just as addictive and satisfying as last time around, and it's the kind of experience that only Gears of War can offer.

Of course, the pop and gun gameplay is only as fun as the game's weapons and enemies, and thankfully, weapons like the signature Lancer Assault Rifle with it's wonderful Chainsaw bayonet return, and now you can ram your Chainsaw through an enemy's gut from behind, or engage in quick Chainsaw Duals with other Lancer-wielding foes. The Locust Hammerburst has also been redesigned, now functioning with more staggered bursts and a lot more kick, but it's better at long range and can blow an enemy's head clean off, something the Lancer is incapable of doing.

Other weapons, such as the Gnasher Shotgun and Longshot Sniper Rifle return with a few minor tweaks, and several new toys are introduced to add to the mayhem. I would say the highlight of these are the heavy weapons, such as the Mulcher and Mortar, large weapons that you carry around at the expense of movement, but they do significant damage (similar concept to the heavy weapons found in Halo 3) and add some nice variety to the game's standard mechanic. As does the Boomshield, an actual shield you can acquire to protect from all sorts of damage, and you can even stick it in the ground for use as static cover. It's simply a great, excellent innovation not only for damage reduction, but also as an expansion to the cover system.

Another overhaul on combat is the introduction of stopping power. Now, if you're shooting an enemy, they will actually slow down, which prevents people from simply rolling into you for a quick Shotgun kill, and changing the way the game is played forcing players to be that much more cautious.

Enemy wise, most of the Locust return, some with a few new tricks and others totally overhauled, and of course you have an assortment of new baddies to contend with. Most will make excellent use of cover and provide a suitable challenge, and with new enemies like the Kantus Monks who can bring non-gibbed Locust back from the dead, you're going to have your hands full.

Graphically, Epic Games has pushed the Unreal Engine 3 very nicely, and character models are more detailed, better lit, and they have more fluid animations than before. The game world itself is more vibrant than last time around, and Epic has been able to squeeze even more detail out of both environments and items. Simply watch the Lancer's barrel smoke and turn red after sustained fire to see what I mean. Awe inspiring, and as of this typing, Gears of War 2 stands as the best looking game I can think of on the Xbox 360. The game features some very nice panoramas, excellent cinematics, and larger (and more unique) locals than it's predecessor to fight in, which all add up for a visual delight.

Audio wise, the voice acting is the standard gruff fair like in the original game, and the sound effects are vivid and spot on. The game's soundtrack, though, is spectacular. So many of the game's compositions literally get you psyched up for battle, and I found myself humming them as I Curb Stomped Locust skulls in, and Curb Stomped I did.

Previously, you'd fill enemies full of lead and they'd die. Simple right? Well now, often times an enemy won't die right out (excluding blowing them to bits, of course), but they'll be Down but not Out, in which case they'll slowly crawl around bleeding out, trying to make it to an ally to revive them. If they reach an ally before you get to them or gun them down, they're revived and back in the action. If you get to them first, you can Curb Stomp them, perform an Execution (of which there are several delightfully nasty new moves), Pummel them to death, or pick them up as a Meat Shield, whip out your Pistol, and let them act as a bullet sponge for you. Get tired of lugging them around, you can drop them or break their neck with a satisfying snap that makes your own spine tingle!

The wonderful thing is that the Down but not Out system now applies to you, whether in Co-Op or Single Player. If you can get to an ally, they'll revive you, and you're right back in the game instead of loading that last Checkpoint. I literally yelped with glee when I first experienced this, simply because it's a solid offset to the game's horribly inadequate Checkpoint system, which has seen no improvement since the original game.

Seriously, what is it with console game developers and their obsession with shoddy save systems? Let me illustrate an example from Gears of War 2 for you. As shown in an early Campaign Gameplay video, towards the beginning of the game you're riding on these large vehicles called Rigs. After an exceptional cinematic showing the COG rallying for war to take the fight to the heart of the Locust, complete with awe inspiring music that really gets your adrenaline pumping, you're treated to one of the most poorly designed sections of the game that completely crushes the high you were just feeling.

Sections like these, and other such "turret sequences" found at several points throughout the game, are the exception to the wonderful cover and pop gameplay the series is so well known for, and they are the single biggest issue with Gears of War 2.

To continue with the current example, the Locust of course start attacking the Rigs, and as the Campaign Gameplay video showed, you need to shoot down Nemecyst and then some attacking Reavers. On the easier difficulties, this isn't too much trouble, but try it on Insane, and you'll be ready to put your Controller through your TV.

There is no margin for error in this sequence. A few Nemecyst hit the Rig, you die. That Reaver hits your Rig a few times, you die. The Down but not Out system has no bearing here, the cover system is useless, and it's a sequence that's clearly designed with Co-Op in mind, not Single Player, and is nothing more than an exercise in Checkpoint loading frustration. And what happens if you die? You have to load your last Checkpoint, but of course, it won't start you right at the beginning of the action, it'll start you at the beginning of the attack where you're forced to stand around and wait a minute before you can engage in combat. In short, just like the original game, the shoddy Checkpoint system kills momentum, pacing, and enjoyment.

It's the kind of design decision that makes you want to sit in a room with the developers and straight up ask them what were they thinking? Like it's predecessor, there are so many parts to Gears of War 2 that will thrill you, engage you, and provide you with experiences like no other game, but then Epic goes and drops the ball hard with several questionable design decisions that should have been stamped out earlier in the design process. There is a distinct love/hate relationship with Gears of War 2 because of this, and you suffer through these parts simply to get to the next rush, and I don't know whether to hate Epic Games for this, or to praise them for structuring the game well enough where I'll put up with the crap and keep going.

As many of you know from my reviews and posts, I have no tolerance what-so-ever for shoddy design. None. And why should I? In this industry that I love more than any other, in this industry that's doing so well that it now grosses more than Hollywood, why should I put up with something sub par? I can presently name you half a dozen titles, easy, that have been released this year alone that would qualify as must-own games, so if something has flaws, why should I spend my limited time on it? In the end, Epic Games should consider itself lucky that it has done more right than wrong, that the Gears of War 2 experience taken as a whole is so well done that horrible and inexcusable design decisions such as these "turret sequences" can be overlooked once passed.

Once you are done with the Campaign, which is a solid experience despite my above rant, you can then jump into the game's Versus and new Horde modes. Versus has the standard Multiplayer modes, but also some other interesting twists thrown in, like using a Stranded as a living flag to capture, and Horde mode sees up to 5 players working cooperatively against a maximum 50 waves of ever increasingly difficult Locust enemies. Gears of War 2 also features a wonderful Multiplayer training section in which the game shows new players the ropes in great detail, and this is an excellent edition that I really wish had been included in the first game. In fact, I was so impressed that a Multiplayer tutorial was includes, I actually played through it prior to touching the Campaign!

If you happened to spend the extra $10.00 on the Gears of War 2: Limited Edition like I did, you're treated to a wonderful SteelBook case which houses the game disc as well as the game's bonus disc. You also get a hardcover artbook, a code for a Gold Plated Lancer to be used in Multiplayer, and a keepsake photo of Dom and his wife Maria.

The bonus disc has a good "Making of" documentary called "Beneath the Surface," which highlights a lot of the design process on Gears of War 2, though honestly I found it mainly generic and forgettable unlike the original game's bonus DVD which showcased the relation and conflicts between developer and publisher. You also get some gameplay and cinematic trailers, an art gallery featuring character, weapon, and location development that has commentary but also likes to pause itself the second your Wireless Controller shuts itself off (and of course the bonus disc doesn't recognize the official Xbox 360 Media Remote), and there's also some Gamerpics that you can install to your HDD. Honestly, the bonus disc is rather disappointing save for the inclusion of four main tracks from the game's soundtrack, which as mentioned, are exceptional.

The hardcover artbook turned out to be all in French, and a softcover English book was thrown in for the rest of us. Not only is that a bit of a downer seeing as how we all paid for a hardcover book, but the artbook itself didn't provide us with anything we didn't already know. While the original game's artbook actually gave important backstory, the sequel's is, like the bonus disc, a bit of a letdown. At least Microsoft has put in place a program to have hardcover English artbooks sent out, though as of this typing I'm still waiting for mine.

Lastly, the Gold Plated Lancer codes weren't all working correctly at launch, but those issues are all fixed now and anyone can re-download them. But again, having an exclusive code that doesn't work right away isn't the best way to leave an impression, and overall, aside from the great SteelBook case, I have to say that the Limited Edition of Gears of War 2 is not worth it, and a disappointment over previous collector's editions.

So, there you have it. Bigger, better, and more badass indeed, but Gears of War 2 takes the scope of all it does well, and also amplifies all it does wrong. Beautiful graphics and intense gameplay are tempered with some shoddy level design and a horrible Checkpoint system, and the game's Limited Edition was rather lackluster as well.

Don't get me wrong, for all that Gears of War 2 screws up, it does a lot more right, but keep in mind that the game is not the be-all-end-all title for the Xbox 360. One major artistic element that Epic Games has constantly mentioned for their Gears of War franchise is that of destroyed beauty, how the world, the characters, and the encounters, the very style of Gears of War reflects that which once was beautiful, but has now fallen. It's a wonderful concept, and Epic Games has implemented it so well, that they may not even be aware that it's the perfect definition for their gameplay design, their mechanics, and their final product itself; the perfect definition for irony.



I loved your review. =D

I would love to do what you do.

Juxtapose said...

Thank you! And there's nothing stopping you. I'm not a professional reviewer nor do I work for a professional gaming publication.

I started this blog three and a half years ago, and I'm a simple Joe just like everyone else.

If you really want to review games, simply start up your own blog and get to it. Your writing style will likely evolve and improve over time as mine has.