Brutal legend: surviving Gears of War 2

A shattered city. A mysterious plague. A fleeting hope.
  • Sid Shuman (GamePro (online))
  • 15 October, 2008 15:34

Bigger and better are only the beginning Gears of War 2's campaign mode is bloody brilliant. GamePro's Sid Shuman gives his final impressions on the biggest Xbox 360 game of 2008. Released in 2006, Gears of War became the first bonafide smash hit for the fledgling Xbox 360. It instantly popularized an aggressive new breed of shooter, one in which finding cover and laying down suppressive fire are just as important as shooting straight. With its elaborate graphics, gushing gore, and pin-prick precise combat, Gears of War quickly inspired a wave of similar shooters, inferior though they were.

Now Gears of War 2 is planning a full-scale blitzkrieg on the Xbox 360 this fall, and I got an exclusive opportunity to play through the first of five acts. And I'm happy to report that what I played was astounding.

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The first Act in Gears of War 2 would be a fitting climax to most other action games.

"Welcome to Delta"

The original Gears of War was like one of those breezy summer blockbuster movies, the kind where you throw all logic to the wind, kick your feet up, and enjoy the goofy ride. But storyline and atmosphere take a more central, serious role in Gears of War 2. "We did good with gameplay in the first game," design director Cliff Bleszinksi reminisced to me, "but we didn't go far into the narrative. We didn't even have an opening cinema!" With the extra development time since the release of the first game, Bleszinksi and his team refined and rethought their storytelling techniques with Gears of War 2, and the result is a darker, more urgent tale that keeps your blood pumping in between the hectic shootouts.

Even in the first moments of Gears of War 2, a cloud of uncertainty hangs in the air. The opening scenes highlight the increasing desperation of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COGs), a ramshackle collection of human survivors faced with impossible odds. The threat lies below, in the form of subterranean terrors called the Locust Horde. The opening cinemas replay the final moments of the original game, with the Lightmass bomb detonating underground and exterminating untold millions of Locust in a key victory for the COG.

Now the Locust, licking their wounds in their subterranean strongholds, have decided to strike back. And this time, they're fighting dirty. The Locust have begun devouring entire human cities at once, sucking them into enormous sinkholes from below. Only the city of Jacinto, safely nestled on a pillar of solid granite, remains intact. But Jacinto's days, too, may be numbered. The COG's fleeting victory against the Locust has proven to be more of a curse than a blessing: the Lightmass explosion sent contaminants blasting into the air, triggering an outbreak of a mysterious plague called Rust Lung. And a harsh winter is on the way, pushing the already haggard survivors to the breaking point. At the beginning of the game, the dead and dying are already clogging the hospitals of Jacinto.

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When design director Cliff Bleszinki said you'd be 'up to your ears' in Brumaks, he wasn't kidding.

The Road to Landown

It's in front of one such hospital that you begin playing Gears of War 2. As returning COG veteran Marcus Fenix, you arrive on the scene and hear the grim news: the Locust are on the move, and advance word suggests that they've already conquered the nearby village of Landown. But before you tackle that problem, you've got to mop up a scattered band of Locust invaders that have taken refuge in Jacinto. The opening hospital scenario is suspenseful but brief, a welcome warm up to get you comfortable with moving and shooting in Gears of War 2. You'll only fight a few attackers at a time, and you'll always have plenty of help in the form of conveniently placed explosive fuel tanks, COG helicopters, and the other members of Delta Squad watching your back.

Page Break

That safety net vanishes minutes later when you're riding on the back of a roaring derrick truck that's hurdling down a mountain range, unleashing a gatling gun at the teeming crowds of Locust foot soldiers that surge from their underground burrows. It's a truly mind-blowing sight -- easily five or six times larger than the biggest battle in the original game -- and it's barely fifteen minutes into the first act. The vibrant new scenery, with its lush valleys and snow-capped mountain ranges, also proves to be a welcome change from the gritty, claustrophobic art of the first game. Visual variety takes a front seat in Gears of War 2, with just 30 percent of the scenarios taking place in the underground caverns that frequented the original Gears. The massive shifts in scenery and scale alone make Gears of War 2 a considerable leap over its predecessor, quickly silencing concerns that the game will be only a modest improvement, a mere "Gears 1.5."

Back to the action. The battle has devolved into pure chaos: 50 foot-tall Brumaks now stalk amongst the hordes of Locust soldiers, while squid-like Reavers ominously circle the skies. Red-lining the minigun, we mow down 30 or 40 of the scrambling figures and narrowly deflect several boarding attempts. Overhead, COG helicopters pump out blistering cannon fire, occasionally pin wheeling out of control into a nearby hillside or crowd. After a few more close calls, the most memorable being an ill-timed pit stop and hasty de-boarding in the middle of some Locust emergence holes, the truck arrives safely at our destination: Landown.

Continue reading on the next page.

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No longer strictly airborne enemies, Reavers will now slamdance on the ground, skewering humans with their thrashing tentacles.

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Meet Skorge, leader of the Locust Kantus priest class and an expert at weilding his double-bladed chainsaw staff. Look out, Dizzy!

Last Stand

In Landown, the gameplay shifts to a slower, more suspenseful pace with some survival horror overtones. The sleepy little town, long since abandoned, looks unassuming from the outside. But inside lurk Tickers, scuttling creatures that serve as living anti-vehicle mines for the Locust. While picking through Landown, we came across a new "split-path" scenario that showed off some new cooperative play possibilities. One player can proceed into a ruined hotel, while the other can perch on a nearby rooftop and use the new mortar weapon to cover his teammate from afar. Already a strong point in the original game, cooperative play returns for Gears of War 2 with some added conveniences such as uninterrupted drop-in/drop-out matches and player-specific difficulty settings. Co-op play is still limited to two players (for reasons pertaining to pacing and storytelling, Epic team members explained), but a new five-player Horde mode will help fill that hole nicely.

We finally escort the derrick truck to its designated drilling zone, a nearby graveyard, when a massive Locust force launches a last-ditch effort to halt the drilling. In this graveyard shootout, we noticed some new tricks with the physics engine: gunshots would chip away realistically at the headstones, and grenades would topple them altogether. We used this to our advantage, chewing through the rows of tombstones with the derrick's mounted gatling gun to reach the Locust troops hiding behind them. By the time the smoke cleared, the graveyard was strewn with corpses and the derrick truck was set to deploy its payload. But a sudden ambush by a powerful new enemy, the Locust leader Skorge, leaves Marcus and Dom stranded underground and the COG plan in shambles.

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Welcome to the Hollow, home to all sorts of sinister Locust beasts.

Death Star

Our hands-on experiences with the campaign ended shortly after exiting the grind lifts, so we didn't get to clash with the new Rockworms or Kantus priests in the underground caverns. What we saw of the Hollows looked promising, though: bioluminescent plants, massive fungal growths, and tangles of twisted roots and vines gave the vast underground caverns an almost tactile level of visual detail. It's no stretch to say that Gears of War 2 is already one of the most technically impressive games we've seen on the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3, and is pushing the console's hardware into uncharted territory.

Contrary to some internet naysaying, we frequently saw evidence that Gears of War 2 will top the original game in every possible way. The graphics are stupendous, the storyline is vastly more interesting, and the new battles are bigger, better, and yes, more bad-ass. In fact, the biggest challenge for Gears of War 2's campaign mode will likely be in finding ways to match or exceed the intensity of the first act, which kept a manic, almost exhausting pace. If Epic Games can keep delivering shocking spectacles later in the game - and they swear they're holding back some of the biggest surprises -- then Gears of War 2 will likely go down as a modern classic on par with Half-Life 2 and Call of Duty 4.