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.

But every rose has its thorn, and this game is no exception. Your A.I. squadmates have an annoying habit of vanishing into thin air, just when you need them most, and then taunting you from the great beyond in some tinny, altered voice as if to remind you they’ve checked out. The Dom character is the worst. Late in the game, as you set out on a mission specifically to lend him a hand, he looks you straight in the face and says “Follow me,” then stands where he is, immobile. You can wait for him if you want, but it’s better to forge on ahead. He’ll show up in random elevators from time to time, but again, just stand there. It’s as though he’s just checking in, like your mother seeing how far along you’ve gotten on your homework before dinner.

And then there’s the game’s first couple hours. Every time you turn a corner there’s something new requiring a cut-scene or an in-ear communication from “control.” It’s as if the developers were afraid you’d be so distracted having fun with their game, you’d miss out on how awesome it was. Playing a AAA shooter lately seems more and more like visiting a friend’s house to see his model train set. He doesn’t want you to play with it so much as he wants you to watch him play with it, and just when you think he’s going to shut up and hand over the controls, he decides to show you something else. It’s a kind of insecurity you’d expect Epic to have grown out of by now, and which Gears of War 2 doesn’t deserve. When it gets out of its own way, the game really is ingenious.

Yes, the story is pulp SF at best, but it’s entertaining, and by the end of it I was genuinely enthralled to see how it would turn out – and left hoping for another sequel. Graphically, this game is beautiful. Someone at Epic discovered lighting angles, and for once, the tremendous amount of graphical work poured into the world of Gears of War truly shines. Level after level, I was awed by the amount of graphical whiz-bangery squeezed out of this engine, as well as the design of the levels themselves. Some truly inventive environments grace this game, like the inside of a giant worm, complete with “acid nozzles” and a gigantic, beating heart (and oceans of blood).

Gears of War 2 is more than a sequel, it’s a re-boot, pairing the frenzied, testosterone-fueled, glorified-violence-shooter-inventiveness of the first game with some truly brilliant storytelling and game design. Add in the on and off-line co-op and the new “Horde” multiplayer mode, and this game easily surpasses the original, and should offer plenty of fun for shooter fans this holiday season.

Russ Pitts agrees with Marcus Fenix – they can eat shit and die for all he cares. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com

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