July 7, 2008 - When I first saw Gears of War 2 in motion I was skeptical. The gameplay didn't immediately grab hold as being a huge step forward from the first. It looked a bit better, there was more going on around the core action, but it just wasn't the earth-shattering moment I was hoping for after being such a fan of the first. Gears 2 seemed like it was trying desperately to live up to the now classic "bigger, better and more badass" marketing line that now gets thrown around as fodder in the IGN offices, but was having trouble doing so.
After witnessing a brief level I had my doubts about the abilities of Epic's latest to be the holiday gem that everyone wants it to be.
But having now played the second installment in the mega-hit (Gears of War 1 has sold over 4.7 million copies) series for a full day, I can say without hesitation that Gears 2 is on its way to living up to everyone's expectations.
The first part of my Gears 2 marathon, which included approximately six minutes of sunlight for the eight of the 20 or so journalists who felt the need to see the outside world, was spent entirely with competitive multiplayer (check back on July 14 to find out about the second part of my day). Emphasis on the word "competitive." There was shouting, there were fist pumps and several Microsoft employees were drawn out of their offices to witness all of the commotion. But that's a story that I'll save for later in the article.
We played on three of the twelve maps that will come on the disc this November. The roster included the surefire fan-favorite, Gridlock 2.0, and two newcomers labeled River and Security. Gridlock is a reformed version of the map of the same name from the first. River is pulled straight from the single-player (as are most of the arenas) campaign. It's modeled after a place called Landown, where COG soldiers launch the grindlifts that bore into the ground to launch an attack on the tunneling Locust. Security's hook is a laser fence environmental hazard (a feature that will run throughout several maps) that can be switched off for 20 seconds at a time. Step into the fence and you're down for the count.
We began our session with Gridlock 2.0; a refresher course for those who might have laid their Lancers to rest long ago. Luckily I ran through a few levels of the first game the night before, so my skills were relatively sharp. Stepping into Gears 2 for the first time, you immediately feel the tiny tweaks that have been made to the core movement and cover system. Every move from the first Gears is smoother. You may not have noticed it, but there was a tiny, split-second hitch between doing a roll and entering into a roadie-run. That's been fixed.
The cover system has been refined so there are fewer instances of getting sucked into an unintended piece of the environment. Leaping over cover looks a bit smoother and, once again, the transition from that to any other move is more fluid than it was before. I found I was also able to interrupt my character's SWAT turns in between cover mid-animation. Very helpful if you realize that your intended destination has become inhospitable.
For Gridlock 2.0 we played the typical Warzone (deathmatch) to start, but moved to other modes later in the day. We followed that up with a series of matches on Security. This sucker is pretty much tailor-made for Submission, the mode formerly known as Meat Flag until Microsoft's swashbuckling PR
types put the kybosh on the name.
There's one AI-controlled Stranded -- the nomadic people of Sera -- running around in the center of the map and it was my job to bring that ******* down and back to a capture point. Of course that capture point was conveniently located behind the laser fences. Meaning that I not only had to worry about the shotgun-toting AI character -- who also comes complete with his own kill tally on the score breakdown -- but I also had to be mindful of the death-dealing laser beams (said in the Austin Powers voice).
Meat Flag (sorry, I'll never call it Submission) is also an excellent means of getting acquainted with the mobile cover aspect of Gears 2. In order to score a point in the mode I had to take the Stranded as my unwilling prisoner. Wrapping my character's left arm around his neck and wielding a Gorgan pistol -- the powerful addition to everyone's favorite family of side arms -- seemed to be a perfect combination of offense and defense. The pistol's clip fires in three series, each containing about a handful of rounds. It has a slower firing rate than you might like, but that's only to effectively balance its fire power.
Typically the human shield that you take captive chips away in chunks of flesh and muscle as it takes fire, but in Meat Flag it stays intact as it's the only road to victory. There is also a giant metal shield that is dropped by Boomers in the single-player campaign and can be carried around or planted in the ground. It's great to see three to four separate guns firing on a shield only to have its carrier continue to march forward.
The last map on my docket was River. This is where both Guardian and Wingman found their most suitable home. Wingman is inspired by the buddy-system as you and one other player are twin character models, both acting towards one overall score. Oh, and in case I didn't mention it and you didn't already know, all of the multiplayer action in Gears 2 is playable with up to 10 players. So for Wingman that means five teams of two.
While Wingman was fun in its own right, the real star of my day, and the mode that drew the aforementioned Microsoft employees out of their offices, is called Guardian. It's essentially an evolved version of Assassination from Gears 1. You have to kill the other team's leader, a role that rotates each round, to stop their ability to respawn. It's a mode that I've played before elsewhere but thanks to some of the awesome additions to Gears gameplay, it was unlike the rest of the field.
The first of these additions is likely the most obvious, the chainsaw duel. When I first saw this demoed by Blezinski at Microsoft's Gamers Day my first thought was, "A quicktime event in Gears? Really?" Thankfully it totally works. The feeling of entering into a chainsaw execution in the first game not only yielded you invincibility, but it also started a coin flip as to who was going to kill who if the other person revved up their bayonet as well. Now it's all about mashing that B-button, baby.
It's an especially awe-inspiring moment if you can enter into a chainsaw duel with the leader of the other team. It's a feeling of jubilation rarely felt in games to see your character enter into a duel, you mash that damned B-button until your thumb goes numb, and then you see the chainsaw execution workout in your favor. The fact that I was no longer invulnerable during an execution changed my tactics quite a bit as well.
Of course those afraid of dueling can also use the weapons' newfound stopping power to prevent players from getting in close proximity. The design team at Epic felt like there was too much mindless charging in multiplayer matches in Gears 1 (they were right). To combat this shooting at a charging Leatherface wannabe now slows them down considerably. So much so that they'll probably need to retreat to avoid meeting their maker.
Then there's also the new execution that takes place if you perform a chainsaw execution from behind the enemy. Three words: blood, chunky, and chainsodomy. 'Nuff said.
The ability to crawl is another addition that has an especially satisfying payoff when playing Guardian. Though it's not quite as satisfying as dominating some poor fool with a chainsaw, becoming the leader, being taken down but not out by the other team only to crawl away to safety and be revived by one your brethren is just plain awesome. It's made all the more exciting by the fact that the leader needs to be taken out with an execution, rather than bleeding out or being shot continuously until the grim reaper does his thing.
Luckily there are plenty of new executions. My personal favorite was seeing Marcus hop on the chest of a downed enemy and pummel their skull into a slab of mush. Others included taking a sniper rifle to someone's face in an axe-like manner, snapping your hostage's neck, and curb stomping them to the face rather than to the back of the head. I can't help but feel like the new executions aren't so much an advancement of the gameplay, as they are a pretty little add-on.
Having said that, I want more. Many, many more.
Grenades' role in the core killing in Gears of War has been ratcheted up considerably for GOW2. While the ability to run around and stick enemies with a grenade is still there, I found it much more useful to use them as proximity mines. Playing River in Guardian (can you tell I enjoyed this mode?) afforded me an awesome defensive position. Since there are two adjacent dilapidated houses in the map, planting grenades at the entrances and barricading myself inside was a great way to stay safe. For a time. Of course the grenades can be shot and destroyed, something that my enemies quickly discovered.
Grenades are not only a means of blowing people up, but in Gears 2 they can also blow them over. They're imbued with a cool concussive force that knocks nearby bad guys to the ground, rendering them defenseless for a small amount of time. Couple that move with a friend who has the new poison grenade in their inventory and you're set. Knock them down, chuck the new smogger at them and watch the massive cloud of suffocating green gas make short work of their respiratory system. This is likely the only death in Gears 2 that leaves the color red out of the equation.
Of all the new methods of bringing your opponent's life to an end, the new Scorcher flamethrower weapon was my favorite. First of all, the visual effect of the fire that spews out of that puppy is downright gorgeous. Maybe the coolest looking flames I've seen in a videogame. Not only that, but when those flames make contact with an enemy, there's an awesome charred effect that gets plastered all over their body. Land a perfect active reload with the flamethrower and you'll extend your range a bit further, thus widening the radius of death.
All of the active reloads have been retooled and retimed a bit. Now performing a perfect active reload with the sniper rifle will no longer instantly down your target if you land the next shot. The active reload section of the scrolling bar has also been moved around in order to balance things a bit better.
Even with all the cool modes and maps in the world, a true multiplayer extravaganza cannot be had without some finely tuned menu-driven trimmings. Luckily Microsoft pulled back the veil a bit on these and showed off the new party system along with the battle and ghost cams. The party system works as you'd expect with friends being able to painlessly hop in and play if they so desire. No surprises there.
The Battle Cam is the new spectator cam that users can use to pan around the map as it keeps its view centered on the action-heavy portions. Ghost Cam allows you to free-roam around the map and watch enemies and teammates get the drop on one another.
There's also the photo mode that will eventually assign a numerical score based on the amount of action going on in the scene to screens that you snap while in spectator mode. In our early version it was activated with the B-button, but instead of assigning any type of score and uploading the shot it simply froze the action until the next round. Needless to say, it wasn't working just yet.
It's also worth saying that Cliff mentioned that achievements are being reworked a bit. It seems users got a little too focused on landing 500 headshots or 100 shotgun kills in multiplayer games. In order to keep the focus on the core objectives of a mode, now only your first headshot in a game will count towards your overall tally. It's a questionable move on Epic's part and one that is sure to make a few waves in the multiplayer community.
So now that I've droned on for over 2,000 words about every little nuance of Gears 2 that I'm currently allowed to talk about, it's finally time to talk about graphics. GOW2 is sort of like a 2009 Aston Martin compared to a 2007 Aston Martin. Do you really need the upgrade? No. Is there a vast improvement? Not so much. Am I upset about that? Not in the slightest.
Looking at gameplay videos you can see that there's a slightly bloomier look to the lighting this time around. It's an effort to make the action look more like a Hollywood movie and I'm inclined to say it's working. There are also new water effects that make liquids authentically ripple where appropriate. It's something that I saw a lot of on the map called River.
The environmental destructibility was probably my least favorite of all the new content to Gears 2. It didn't seem to have much of an effect on the way I played and was more of a nice window dressing. Not saying it won't get better as the game continues to developer, but it seemed a bit inconsequential at this juncture.
My day with Gears of War 2 multiplayer ended ceremoniously with my team running the gamut of competitors -- a lot that included a team of Cliff and other Epic developers – and claiming the crown in the multiplayer tournament. Like I said in the beginning, there was yelling, fist pumps and we even disrupted the intra-office dynamic enough to bring people away from their work to see if they were allowed to tell us to shut up.
They could have tried, but it wouldn't have helped.
Gears of War 2 multiplayer takes the great gameplay of the first game and improves in just about every way. There are plenty of finite changes that Gears nuts will love and enough overarching additions that change the core of the game that it will feel different to those who casually ventured through Gears 1. It's rare for a videogame to captivate my attention for more than eight hours and me want to continue playing. Especially when it's a multiplayer mode without a story. At the end of my time with Gears 2, all I wanted to do was get in one last chainsaw duel to satiate my hunger for the trip back home.
Check back on July 14, the start of E3, when I'll be able to talk about the second portion of my day which was spent with a new mode for Gears 2. As fun as the competitive multiplayer was, this has the potential to be better.