Gears of War 2 is like one of those big summer blockbuster movies that critics, like me, love to hate. We call them soulless, uninspired, dumb and overwrought, and we're not wrong. They are all of that and so is Gears of War 2. But, just like a big summer blockbuster, Gears of War 2 is also a hell of a lot of fun.
At the heart of Gears of War 2, underneath the hyper-macho, "Get some!" power armor, is a game that just wants to win your heart. Whether it's the schmaltzy, fist-on-shoulder locker room drama of the game's romantic sub-plot; the hoo-rah patriotism of the main story line, pitting a beleaguered band of American-ish humans against a hidden, unknowable enemy; or the war movie pathos of the main characters, the space-marines-as-biker-gang called "Gears," who endure horror upon countless horror, and do so with honor in spite of the psychic toll, Gears of War 2 desperately wants you to feel something. Now here's the shocker: It works. Perhaps not most of the time, and certainly not every time, but playing through the single player campaign of Gears of War 2, you're guaranteed to feel something, even if it's just the excitement of playing a juiced-up badass with a magnetic backpack full of high-powered weaponry who stomps the crap out of everything that gets in his way.
Gears 2 catches up to our heroes, the Gears, as they're mounting a massive counterattack against the dreaded subterranean enemy known as the Locust Horde. In case you haven't been keeping up with current events, the humans of planet Sera got their asses kicked last time around, yet managed to pull off a last-ditch strike that pushed the Horde back underground. Now, they're taking the fight back to the enemy, rushing to humanity's last outpost, Jacinto, to dig giant holes and send teams of Gears into the underworld to kick some ass. The story is, as Design Director Cliffy B told The Escapist earlier this year, "fucking dark." It is also, in a complete 180 from the previous installment, a highly-polished thrill ride.
Two years ago, Gears of War scored low marks from this reviewer for a number of reasons: hit-or-miss (literally) enemy and squad mate A.I., a lackluster story, levels that seemed out of place in the whole of the game (and didn't make much sense on their own either) and the fact that, in spite of the wizardry of Epic's top-flight Unreal Engine team, the game looked impossibly dull.
Gears of War 2 feels like night and day from the original. It has its flaws, to be sure, but every jagged edge that had me gritting my teeth two years ago seems to have been expertly polished away. The A.I., in particular, is phenomenal, with enemies and good guys alike surprising in their ability to act and react. Also impressive - and worth mentioning as a counterpoint to that hideous bat level from the first game - are the levels making use of complete darkness, in which the only thing you see is the patch of ground directly in front of you, illuminated by a tiny light. You can hear the enemy approaching, but you can't see him, and the effect makes your skin crawl.