The original Gears of War was a simple, but satisfying, tactical shooter for the XBOX 360. Focused around a fast-paced cover system and exaggerated machismo, Gears 1 kept things visceral, most notably with the chainsaw-equipped guns used to render enemies into juicy piles of flesh. The story was cliche and plain, providing a loose motivation for the gameplay that never got in the way. Aside from an irritating vehicle level, the campaign for Gears 1 was a consistently engaging path of destruction through waves of enemies. Conversely, the multiplayer was poorly thought out and skewed to the host, causing it to grow stale quickly.
As you might expect, Gears of War 2 goes the Hollywood route of trying to expand every aspect. The graphics are prettier, the levels and enemies are bigger, the story has been filled out, and there are more characters and weapons. Sadly, the Hollywood blockbuster sequel analogy works all too well, in that Gears 2 dilutes everything that was good about the original. But before I get into that, let's see what did turn out good. The graphics are pretty, damn pretty. Some of the areas and enemies are gorgeous to look at, especially the outdoor scenes.
Some. Most of them are just copy-pasted rock and rubble sections or temple-esque buildings. Gone is the feel of fighting in the abandoned streets of your home, replaced by the feel of fighting in a bunch of really boring tunnels. There's strangely no sense of immersion to the levels. Although they can be stunning to look at, I never felt like I was really fighting in the burning ruins of a city or a cave full of luminescent fungi. This is partially from being whisked through each area and encounter, but it really comes down to the fact that the actual fights are never in these beautiful areas. Whether it's due to technical limitations or to help enemy visibility, or even because you mostly fight in underground locations, the encounters are always behind the same old rocky walls and pillars.
Ok, so how about the gameplay? Gears 2 sticks closely to the original, with only slight tweaks to the formula. Yet, somehow, it fails to be engaging or entertaining at all. I played on Hardcore, the hardest starting difficulty, and felt absolutely no challenge or thrill from the fights. A large part of the blame for this lies in the level design. Almost all encounters in Gears 2 are linear and rarely allow for flanking or any tactics more interesting than moving to the next closest source of cover. There is a strange feeling that the fights were made easy and simple to keep players moving, constantly encountering new situations. On top of this, Gears 2 has a large focus on "epic" encounters with large enemies, which means that you'll often be fighting from one platform or another using the scripted heavy weapon to defeat these behemoths. Slightly entertaining at first, these scenarios lose all impact after you've killed your tenth Brumak with all the care of an annoying fly. Oh, and remember the stupid vehicle section from the first game? Epic are proud to say they've addressed that by doing it even more, albeit making these sections as unchallenging as the rest of the game.
If that isn't enough, they had to go and force a "deeper" story into the game every five minutes. Every quick fight is capped off by a banal cut-scene or transmission. Rather than keeping the story unobtrusive, Gears 2 takes it upon itself to pretend it's important and meaningful. Be prepared to see Dom's softer side, which is about as involving as internet fanfic. It gets especially laughable when pivotal plot moments are essentially forgotten a cut-scene later. Marcus is thankfully more or less the same, never wasting time going beyond his hardened soldier routine, while new cliches Tai and Dizzy add absolutely nothing to the story. Now, you really wouldn't expect this to be that big of a hangup. It's a war-themed shooter based around testosterone and cliches, who the fuck cares, right? The problem comes in that it disrupts the gameplay too frequently. When the gameplay is already ephemeral enough, it doesn't help matters to break it up with mind-numbing story points.
As far as the campaign is considered, I give it an epic fail. There were only a couple fights near the end that I actually enjoyed, and I would never consider playing through it again unless I was extremely bored. Even Halo 3's campaign was far more entertaining than this.
But we can't forget multiplayer, and this is where the meat lies. The online gameplay has been tweaked to make for a more tactical flow, including the ability to plant grenade mines and stopping power for weapons to cut down on the roll-and-shotgun gameplay that rose out of Gears 1. Once XBOX Live irons its problems out, this should be a rewarding mode to keep the game entertaining. However, the real joy of Gears 2 is the Horde mode. This tasks a group of teammates (up to 5 people) to survive for as long as possible against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Here, new additions like the portable shield and mortar rise to their full potential, becoming necessary for keeping down the relentless Horde. This mode alone makes the game worth getting, albeit maybe not until it's cheaper.
Many people, gamers and reviewers alike, seem to express opinions far different from mine, yet I found Gears of War 2 to be a huge disappointment. However, if you're looking for a worthwhile new multiplayer game to sink into, you should check it out.
Verdict: Indifference [3/5] (ten shitloads indeed)