[18 December 2008]
It may be strange to think about it now, but most of the classic early first person shooters we came to know and love in the early ‘90s—Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Wolfenstein 3D—none of these games had real stories. Sure, there were narratives in the most primitive sense. In Doom, for instance, you were a space marine thrust into the role of defeating the forces of Hell in a colony on Mars. But there were no real characters, dialogue, mid-level cutscenes, or other storytelling devices we’ve come accustomed to in our shooters—just a lot of corridors to run in, a lot of guns to shoot and a lot of bad guys to kill.
That changed arguably around the time the original Half-Life burst on to the scene for the PC with its compelling tale of an experiment gone horribly wrong. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to shoot in our shooters, we had to have elaborate plots and complex motivations for our characters to polish their knives and fire up their rocket launchers.
This development isn’t necessarily a bad thing—the Metal Gear Solid series is an example of a game in which the traditional gameplay is almost exceeded by a mindblowingly rich narrative. There are times, though, where it seems like the story of a game gets in the way instead of complementing it. In this case, I’m thinking of Gears of War 2—a sequel with nearly perfect gameplay sullied by silly, derivative and downright ridiculous story and dialogue.
If we were to examine Gears 2 in the same way we looked at Doom 15 years ago—based mostly on the graphics, sounds, fast and visceral action, and simple fun of the gameplay—it would be a perfect 10 in almost every book.
First off, I can honestly say that Gears 2 is the best looking game I’ve ever seen. It’s only in the opening level where you’re in another one of those grimy, abandoned buildings that typified the first game and too many first person shooters. After that, Gears 2 takes you to beautiful outdoor vistas and vast underground caverns and all of it—the snow-capped mountains, the greenery of the forests and even the viscera of giant monsters is amazingly detailed and colorful. There were times that I wanted to take a break from monster slaying just to look around at the environments.
In terms of gameplay, Gears 2 thankfully hasn’t changed much from the pulse-pounding, pop-and-run style of the original game, but you can spot some refinements. The cover system feels a bit more easy to use and the weapons are more balanced this time around. There are also new weapons like the flamethrower—handy when you’re taking on groups of enemies in close quarters—and a heavy duty chaingun that’s slow to fire but deadly when used correctly. The only real hiccups come in the form of a mid-game vehicle level in which the tank you control feels utterly broken.
Again though, the real ace up Gears 2‘s sleeve is the brilliantly executed co-op campaign. When played with a friend (either locally with a split-screen setup or via Xbox Live) the fun factor increases exponentially. As in the first title, one player controls Marcus Fenix and the other controls his Delta Squad partner Dominic Santiago, and Epic Studios has done an even better job at splitting you up and giving you different things to do. In one underground level for instance, there’s a part where one player stays on the cave floor and the other traverses an upper cavern. While one takes on lots of baddies on the ground, the other carefully shoots down fruit to entice giant worms to feed on them, in turn providing the other player with more safe cover.
The multiplayer in Gears 2 is also top-notch, with four new modes, 10 new maps, and support for up to 10 players instead of eight. The best of these new modes is Horde, where your cooperative team of five must take on wave after wave of Locust enemies that get progressively harder. Horde mode is exhilarating and addicting when playing with friends.
But alas, Gears 2 aspires to be more than the next Doom, it also wants to exist as a big Hollywood-style action blockbuster. Thus we get the continuation of a rather forgettable sci-fi storyline from the first Gears of War. It’s six months after Delta Squad held off the Locust forces, but now the enemies have a new weapon that is powerful enough to sink entire cities from the underground. Marcus and Dom are then recruited to go down to the depths of the Locust base for a dramatic last stand for the survival of humanity and all that jazz. Without giving away spoilers, there are elements of the story that remind of Half-Life 2, Resident Evil, and countless “Us versus the Aliens” movies. The problem is that none of it feels fresh, and worse, there are plenty of weird tonal shifts that are simply jarring.
Half the time, the Delta Squad is gleefully killing aliens, eagerly quipping one-liners to one another, especially by the character “Cole Train”, who seems to exist as a wisecracking stereotypical African-American comic relief character who spouts out lines like “Yeah, baby, it’s playoff time!” after blowing up a creature with a grenade. Marcus Fenix, on the other hand, is the grim, no nonsense “Let’s kick some ass!” type. One critic has complained that the characters and dialogue feel pulled from a Mountain Dew commercial, but to me they are more like the cast of the original testosterone-fueled Predator movie—all guns, biceps and a nihilistic sense of wit. The rating on the game says it’s Mature, but half the time it feels like it was the brainchild of a 15-year old boy.
Yet there are also moments when Gears 2 feels the need to thrust personal drama in your face, its like they are trying to force poignant themes of love and death to resonate—but it’s hard to feel any sort of connection with this when you’re executing enemies with a chainsaw that causes blood to spurt across the screen or when you’re in the mouth of a giant worm yelling “‘Sup, bitch?!” After playing through Gears 2, you’ll realize that it seems to be the second chapter of a continuing story, but it’s difficult to care about seeing the mysteries of the storyline solved.
There are two different ways in which to look at Gears 2, and both of them seem perfectly valid. If you’re taking the approach of looking purely through the gamer’s perspective which values graphics, gameplay, a cohesive co-op and multiplayer experience, Gears 2 is one of the top games of the last five years. But if you’re looking for a compelling story, interesting characters and a holistic experience, Gears 2 disappoints.