First Time Playing: Gears of War 2

"It may be the second game in the franchise but this is the real start of Gears of War"

It’s time to continue my journey from life-long PlayStation gamer to new Xbox enthusiast as I play the Xbox exclusives that I’ve missed out on over the last decade or so. This week I return to the Gears of War franchise with the second game in the series, aptly titled Gears of War 2. It may be the second game in the franchise but this is the real start of Gears of War. It’s clear now that the first game was but a trial run; a prologue; a demo. This is the true introduction of the series. Sure, the first game debuted the great gameplay but this is the start of everything else. Within the first few minutes, the characters, motivations, story and world are introduced and explored more than the entire first game. I understand the reasons for the conflict between the humans and Locust, the current state of the war, the locations and the personal motivations the characters have going forward. This isn’t the same as the previous game where we were just handed a chainsaw gun and pointed in the direction of incoming fire, but rather it has a well-thought-out narrative and universe. I was invested in more than just how good the game feels to play but the world, story and characters presented to me too.

Now I’m not saying the game is some masterclass in storytelling because it’s not. The thing is that it does have storytelling. The first game was simple: good guys and bad guys shoot at each other and then the good guys blow up the bad guys. The end. Playing the first game truly is inessential to enjoy the sequel. The ‘story’ is covered in the opening prologue and the detonation of the Lightmass bomb and everything that went with it have no lasting impact. While this almost dismisses the first game as some playable beta and enforces that this is the real first game, it makes Gears of War 2 all the better for it. The game starts after the Locust counterattack, with them surrounding Jacinto, the last bastion of humanity on the planet Sera. The COG soldiers decide to retaliate and take the fight to the Locust’s home, discovering their true plans along the way.

The emotional centre of the game is Dom’s search for his missing wife, which grounds the action with more personal stakes. Out of the four core characters, Dom – who I have just learnt has the same voice actor as Leonardo da Vinci in Assassin’s Creed and will never hear that character the same way again – is the character that goes on an emotional journey and has the closest thing to an arc. It’s his game really and I wish he was the playable protagonist rather than Marcus Fenix. Marcus is the unshakable gruff tough guy but little else. There are mentions of his father (I’ll get to that later) but nothing substantial to his character. I guess he’s a proxy for the player and we’re supposed to imprint ourselves on his vacuous persona, but I always prefer to watch a story unfold in games rather than be a character in them.

The Locust are no longer just enemies to shoot at. They have a backstory… and they are enemies to shoot at. The thing is that I’m not entirely sure I understand their backstory. Around the game’s midpoint, Marcus and his crew come across an abandoned facility and face the rogue AI controlling it. It’s probably my favourite section of the game and swaps the epic front-line battles for a more claustrophobic horror atmosphere. Within you come across creatures called “Sires”, which seem like proto-Locust. Are they the result of genetic testing on humans to make them more like Locust in order to survive the war or are they the origin of the Locust? All evidence points towards the latter but the facility, and the creatures they house, is only about 70 years old. How did the Locust build their elaborate underground chambers (which look ancient) in only 7 decades and grow to a race of seemingly millions? They must mate like rabbits and build like [insert name of animal that builds fast here]. What’s more is that the Locust Queen, who can speak English while here loyal subjects can’t, looks human. What’s going on there?

I don’t know if I should know the answers to what’s going on or if they will be revealed in a future game. Or is the information I seek in the novels? I’ve looked at the Wiki and read some articles but that just makes me even more confused. There’s tons of information online but where’s it all from? A prime example is Marcus’s father. Throughout the game we keep hearing lines like, “With what you did for your father”. What did he do?! I don’t know anything about his dad but, apparently, it’s very important. Am I supposed to know what happened at this point and why his father is important, or is that to be revealed at a later date? Then we get a post credits scene which was intended to be a shock because it reveals Marcus’s dad is alive. I didn’t know he was supposed to be dead! Was I supposed to? Where has the story of Marcus’s father been told? I’ve clearly missed it somewhere. Help!

Despite not fully understanding what the hell is going on, at least I’m intrigued. A big part of that is the lore of the world you uncover through collectables like newspapers. This appeals to completionist in me, being much better than the dog/COG tag collectables from the first game, and just feels natural. It’s also an easy way to get across snapshots of information quickly without using dialogue, which isn’t particularly good in this series. A standout piece of clunky and laughable dialogue happens early on in the game and explains Dom’s temperament. Marcus comments to Dom, “You’re mad today”, to which Dom replies, “Damn right. I miss my family!”. Never one to go for subtlety is Gears of War.

The colour palette of the series has expanded from the grey of the first game to, well, some more shades of grey, but also some white. I kid but this sequel does look superior to the original, particularly the unique locations like snowy hilltop villages, lakes of glowing Imulsion and the insides of giant worms. At times I found myself stopping and looking around at the environment I was in, something I never did while playing the first game. It’s not just the visuals but the sense of scale too. The game is bigger than its predecessor in every way and better for it, which is often not the case with sequels.

The game’s set pieces are a sight to behold, even by today’s standards. You find yourself standing atop huge tanks going into battle before being overrun with Locust, essentially putting you on a front-line war that’s seamlessly moving throughout a detailed environment. Climbing on structures hanging from giant subterranean creatures before jumping to the next and fighting on its back. Driving an APC through tight mountain paths and wide frozen lakes while taking out both ground and air forces deep in enemy territory. Fighting through collapsing cityscapes and dodging falling buildings while dropping mortars on legions of evil goons. And then, at the climax, riding a Brumak through the Locust Nexus and wiping out literally hundreds of Locusts using powerful weaponry. The highlight comes earlier however when the team are ingested by a giant worm and you have to kill it from the inside. After dodging intestinal teeth and scuttling feeders in the stomach-churning locale, it ends in a literal bloodbath as you chainsaw through the worm’s three hearts. It’s awesome. Although it’s hard not to snigger when someone, with complete sincerity, shouts “They’re sinking cities with a giant worm!”. I love this game.

While similar in most respects, Gears 2 feels even better to play than the first game. Minor tweaks make the thrill of shooting off heads and dismembering Locust more entertaining than ever. And thankfully there are a greater variety of Locust and creatures to kill, none appearing often enough to get boring, apart from the obvious waves of basic grunts. The ‘Screaming General Locust’ (I have no idea what his actual name is) is my favourite of the bunch and you have to kill him before he calls in reinforcements. I also like to nab the burst-action pistol off his dead corpse because it’s a great weapon. There are also more optional routes to take in this game and you’re no longer taken out of gameplay to decide which one you want to take. You simply walk to the left or the right. Like any self-respecting Gears player – or Jedi for that matter – I always choose the high ground. Literal not moral.

I have to say I’m getting damn good at those active reloads. Seeing that little white bar stop in the middle of that small white block is one of the few remaining joys in life, filling your gun with amped-up projectiles in speedy fashion, ready to behead the next wave of scaly monster men. Aren’t games awesome. Maybe they’ve made the reloading easier in the sequel or maybe I’m just improving. Hitting those last game made me question my ability as a gamer but now I’ve got my confidence back. Although I am playing on the easiest difficulty.

This is not to say there are no problems with the gameplay. While it’s fluid and appropriately meaty, the cover system can get a little frustrating at times because the A button does everything. Press it to get in cover, get out of cover, vault over cover, switch to another piece of cover and run out of cover towards yet more cover. All with the press of a single button. The only difference is what direction you are pointing the analog stick while pressing A. Point it just slightly in the wrong direction and you ending up rolling out of cover and into deadly incoming fire instead of simply moving to another piece of cover. My inadvertently twitchy fingers make this a common and annoying issue when I’m in the middle of an immersive firefight. If only the developers realised there are three more buttons right next to A on the controller. Also, an occasional but no less annoying issue is when you try to run up and chainsaw an enemy, a typically satisfying thing to do, but instead end up chopping the box they were using for cover instead while you get shot in the face. I’ve used the word “cover” far too much this paragraph. I’ll stop now.

You can now grab enemies to use as human shields – or Locust shields I guess – picking them up off the ground and protecting yourself from incoming fire behind their mushy meaty bodies. The sad thing is that it’s a fairly useless mechanic. An ‘innovation’ that was no doubt used to promote the game and show how different it is from the first to persuade people to buy it, but I only used it 2 or 3 times in my entire playthrough. For a cover-based shooter it’s an interesting concept to be able to create your own cover like that, but the levels are still designed with plenty of cover, from walls to cars to conveniently-placed mounds of rubble, dotted around so it’s near impossible to break from your previous conditioning and not use them.

The game is far longer than the first in the series and that’s a plus. Until it’s not. The last couple of hours drag on forever. You spend far too long trekking through the Nexus caves and royal palace and I was ready for the credits to roll when I returned to Jacinto but there was a whole ‘nother act left! The game does end on an interesting turn of events though. Jacinto is purposefully destroyed by the humans to flood the Nexus and kill as many Locust as possible but this leaves both races without a home, putting them on equal footing for the last game in the original trilogy. The Queen survives to make speeches another day but Maria – Dom’s wife – is found worse for wear and Dom has to put her out of her misery. It’s a surprisingly emotional scene for a game brimming with testosterone and men with insane body proportions. And finally, there’s the reveal of the Lambent: another type of creature that are seemingly zombie-like crazed Locust that have been corrupted by Imulsion. That’s why the Locust have been trying to take the surface all along; their true enemy – and maybe humanity’s too – lie even deeper below the surface. Will this lead to a truce to take down a common enemy or an escalation for control of the increasingly-devastated surface? I can’t wait to find out when I play Gears of War 3.

Gears 2 is a bigger and better game than the first in almost every way. It feels like the true start of the franchise and not only has great gameplay but now a fairly engaging story, characters and world too. Starting this series, I set out to find an Xbox franchise that my PlayStation-loving soul would enjoy and I think I’ve found it. But let’s not speak too soon. There are three more Gears games to cover and, from what I hear, the best and worst of the franchise is yet to come. What are your thoughts on Gears of War 2? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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