Gears of War 2 – “Apparently bigger, but the same… just with more testosterone.”

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“Gears of War” was a decent game, nothing spectacular or revolutionary, and certainly not impervious to criticism for its lack of originality, but as it stood then, it still stands today – an uncompromising blockbuster game, more brawn than brain, well paced and with impressive production values.  Cliffy B., lead designer, summed up the sequel as “Bigger, better, more bad-ass”. Or is it? A more accurate account would be: “Apparently bigger, but the same, just with more testosterone.

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“Bigger!” No matter how much technical verbiage Epic throws at players, the fact is that “Gears 2” maintains the claustrophobic, highly constrained level design of its predecessor. It’s not a bad thing per se, as it remains a necessary evil for the maintaining of one of the game’s best features – pacing and tension control. The difference in the sequel is that the surrounding environment, more so than in the first game, is built to give a jaw dropping sense of scale. Huge caverns, numerous boss-sized enemies, hundreds of foot soldiers, all parade about in an inaccessible background. However, because of the game’s controlled environment, and the technical limitations of the game-engine, that scale never materializes into the actual game, making it completely virtual, with little to no interaction going on between the epic-sized background scenarios and the spatial plane in which the player is set. Most times, it’s just an impressive curtain that you can shoot at, with enemies that don’t even react to your gunfire. The sense of presence in an actual war is slightly enhanced, but it’s still far from the large, completely interactive set-pieces from games like “Halo 3”.

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“Better!” Unfortunately, “Gears 2” adds nothing substantial to its predecessor. Better art design (especially in the second half of the game) and perfected controls are the best anyone can come up in terms of actual improvements. That being said, it still abuses dry, washed out color palettes, and game-play could still be further improved. Soundtrack maintains the same repetitive humdrum of battle epics, effective enough as a background for the shooting and explosions, just as long as you don’t tune in to the soundtrack to actually listen. On a side note, the storyline now actually goes somewhere, in an attempt at mitigating the hollowness of the first iteration. Yet, apart from a particularly well directed, dramatic cut-scene (which involves plot spoilers, so I won’t digress on its nature), it still doesn’t makeup for a truly captivating storyline.

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“More Bad-ass!” Cliffy B. never hides the straight-up manliness of his game. Big buffed up space marines, screaming in their coarse voices, hulking in their heavy gear, ridding mankind of pesky, butt-ugly aliens, by shooting them with heavy guns. For the most time, the insanely ridiculous male bravado can be seen as pleasant, in a dumb, B-movie kind of way. However, the effort put up by designers to crank up blood, gore and the “Cole Train” all-American one-liners,  while still trying to make it look dark, gritty and serious (as opposed to light-hearted or campy) makes the game feel excessive and gratuitous.

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All that aside, “Gears 2” is still the action game done right – a fair chunk of rock solid, unapologetic entertainment. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, as long as you don’t keep in mind the big picture… and the big picture is that there are too many “Gears of War” out there. Shooters have become such a banal place for big companies to go back to, replicating their models year after year, in straight sequels that add nothing to the genre or the means. “Gears 2” may even be the best of its lot, but that’s not much on my book. It’s a safe sequel, for a safe franchise, in a safe genre. If that’s what designers call “bad-ass” nowadays, then something is definitely wrong with the industry.

score: 2/5

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