Monday, May 9, 2011

Gears of War 2

Gears of War 2 didn't wow me as much in 2011 as Gears of War did in 2006. Part of that is just the time difference - I've played a lot of shooters in that period, and most games don't benefit from waiting until a couple years after release to check them out. I do think it's still a slightly less impressive game than the original though. It's a sequel that doesn't do a whole lot new - its cover mechanics are still among the best in the business, but they're not exactly fresh; its mantra of being bigger and more badass doesn't result in combat situations that are necessarily more interesting; and in a world where plenty of games combine third person shooting with other fun elements, games that are nothing but third person shooting the entire time don't stand out as much. It's still a really solid shooter - the graphics still look great two and a half years later, the fundamentals of the gameplay are as good as anybody's, and there are a few surprising ideas sprinkled around. It just didn't strike me as a great game the same way the first Gears did - the first game set the tone for action games for the whole generation, while the second is... just the second one.

I've had people tell me Gears is really meant to be played co-op, and perhaps I am doing the game a small disservice by only playing it by myself. But that's how I play most games, and I believe that if one actually needs to be played with a friend to be awesome, then it's not really awesome - almost everything is better if you're doing it with friends, so it's not actually to a game's credit that it has working co-op. I played Gears 1 by myself too, so it's not like that was the factor that caused me to find the game slightly disappointing. Nothing was really missing at all, it's just that the things they added weren't enough to maintain the same thrill throughout the length of the campaign. Large set pieces like riding a huge platform on wheels through a forest look neat but don't quite result in especially memorable action, and too much of the game is spent in environments I found fairly dull - underground caverns that have a lot of technically impressive art in them, but are a bit boring stylistically and end in formulaic boss fights. I enjoyed the game more when I was battling through a war-torn city near the end, and wish there was more of that - I know some people are bored of shooters that use too many flashy scripted events to shake up the action, but it usually at least distracts you from fighting through a lot of similar battles over and over.

Few of the new weapons made a real impact, and I mostly ended up using what I was familiar with. In some ways, the Lancer is actually too good of a weapon. It's reasonably accurate, it holds a lot of ammo, and it has the best melee ability in the game - there's no reason to ever not have one, so you're limited to fewer slots for experimentation. It's the gun I used for a significant majority of both games, and I don't expect that to change in the third - if they made it wilder or took away the chainsaw to compensate, fans would throw a fit. Additions to the things you can do in combat didn't quite pay off. For example, the idea of being able to pick up a wounded enemy and use him as a shield sounds neat, but it rarely comes up in actual gameplay, because you spend most of your time ducking behind a wall across that battlefield from most of your enemies, and I suspect opportunities for that kind of up-close scuffle are even more rare on harder difficulty levels, where a couple seconds out of cover are likely to get you torn to shreds. This even has an additional negative effect on the game - downed enemies can now crawl around looking for help like your buddies can, which results in them either being revived and dragging out fights, or being hidden out of sight when everyone else is dead, preventing the game from playing the sound that indicates you've cleared the room of enemies, making you unsure of what's happening for a little while. The fact that you yourself can now be revived as long as your friends are still walking mitigates it somewhat, but it's still an annoyance.

Another example of a somewhat superfluous feature is the addition of certain areas where the cover can be raised or lowered out of the ground by switches, and you have to make sure you're protected and your enemies aren't during fights. It's kind of a cool idea, but it doesn't result in many actual battles of much strategic significance, and it sort of just makes you wonder why the Locust thought it would be cool to fill their city with switches that raise and lower chest-high metal walls with no real purpose. That's not even the only new cover gimmick - for some reason Epic seemed to feel the need to experiment with that stuff, but just give me a few sandbags or crumbled columns to lean against and I won't complain. On the positive side, I did enjoy the increased variety in the "vehicle" sections, and the game gets stronger as it goes on. I was kind of surprised by how late some of the stuff they showed before the game's release ended up being in the final campaign, but luckily that didn't cause it to lose too much impact. I enjoyed it when the tone departed a bit from the dude bro action somewhere in the middle, and again, it's hard to overstate how nice the game looks.

Story-wise, it's... well, it's Gears. John DiMaggio plays a gruff-voiced badass in charge of a group of badasses who don't take no shit and refuse to wear helmets, because they obscure your vision more than they expose your brain to getting bullets shot into it. It's a mostly cheesy conglomeration of action, war, and science fiction tropes that works well enough to keep things going without ever being especially memorable or profound. Dom's still kind of a wiener, although now he has a shoehorned in subplot where he's searching for his wife that makes his wienerness stand out more. Cole's still over the top, and Baird is still the secretly likable one. There are a couple new guys, although they don't end up getting much to do. The queen of the Locust Horde still seems out of place in this setting, and while the climax and conclusion of the story seemed better formed this time, it also ended kind of abruptly in the game itself. They clearly put more effort into the back story with some tangents that seem like they could come up again and hidden notes scattered everywhere, though honestly I didn't feel compelled to track that stuff down or even read it when I found it. Being that this is the era of trilogies, the third game is supposed to bring this grand arc to a close later this year, and while I don't really care what happens to any of these people, I imagine I'll end up playing it at some point. The Gears of War series is not exactly one I have a real affection for, but it's hard to say they're not competent, well-made games.

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