For the past few days I’ve been trying to wrap up my thoughts on Gears 2. Without a doubt it’s worthy of the title and succession to the Gears crown. It’s a marked improvement in almost every way. However, the larger questions remain. Does it have substance as well as flash? Does it have a plot or is it a 10 hour Mountain Dew commercial? How does it stack up against others in the FPS cannon? Read on my friends, read on.

It’s good to see that Epic spent a great deal of time on the title. You can see their craftsmanship in nearly every detail. Everything has that extra spot of polish that really elevates it above the original. My main problem with the original was that I just didn’t “care” about the characters, the story, the world. It was all just kind of tossed at the player without explanation or reason and we were left to figure it out. Ok, the bad guys come from underground and are pretty ugly, I get that. Why are they attacking people? Why am I fighting them? I was in prison, what for? All those sorts of questions were totally ignored by the first game. The game play mechanics, at the time a revolutionary take on 3rd-person perspective, made up for it in spades but for someone like me, who thrives on story and ideas and purpose in my games, I felt left out in the cold.

Thankfully Gears 2 takes the time to address some of these issues. We get more of a background into the main conflict, we learn more about the characters, we even start to care a little about them. So, when the ride is over, we’re left with a good feeling, one of accomplishment. That’s not to say that the story was perfect, or that there weren’t loose ends and unanswered questions, but they were at least trying, which made a good deal of difference for me.

From a gameplay perspective, it’s butter smooth. The animations, the weapons, the entire experience was finely crafted from the start. There’s a good variety of levels, although the vast majority take place underground, which is to be expected given the plot of this one. To be honest though, two of the better levels were the first and the last, two of the few that are entirely above ground and in urban environments. The “urban decay” aesthetic is really something that the Unreal/Gears engine excels at. If you want to really see it in action, give the Horde mode a try as most of those level are above ground.

Speaking of Horde mode, it’s actually one of the best additions to the game. Small, contained levels where you (and your team) fight off wave after wave of enemies. It’s the perfect thing for local co-op play when you don’t really want to get into the story (or have already completed it) and you really “just want to shoot something”. It’s almost casual gaming for the hardcore crowd, and it’s really a great feature. Playing Horde, split-screen, has replaced Halo 3 split-screen as the “party game” of choice in my house.

The online multiplayer is robust and match making is fairly easy and quick, an vast improvement over the original. The XBL experience is nearly identical, with the same level of juvenile socially retarded individuals as before. It’s really a good XBL “party” game as the experience is significantly improved in a group.

There are, as always, a few sticking points to an otherwise pretty positive experience. Spoilers are contained within, so if you’re going to purchase the game, you can stop right here. It has a solid recommendation from me, and I think you will more than likely enjoy it.

For those of you who have finished it, or are more curious as to it’s quirks, read on.

To understand the first of my points about weaknesses in the Gears armor, we need to first establish what Gear “is”. The first Gears was groundbreaking for a single reason, it’s cover system. Not in recent memory has a game made so much use of the environment, especially as a game play mechanic. It seriously redefined what a “cover system” was and how it was to operate. For the first time, gamers under heavy fire were looking for places to take cover instead of charging head on, knowing there would surely be a health pack somewhere nearby. No, Gears took a different approach. Ground cover was valuable, as was flanking you enemy and having good lines of fire.

Gears 2 gives that up, not in a literal sense, there are still plenty of things to hide behind, but as a main game play mechanic worth protecting. Walls are placed here and there to give the feeling of cover, but rarely do your adversaries do anything creative with it, and neither do you. You run up to a wall, get behind it, look over, shoot the bad guy, while he does the same. It’s more of a game of “Whack-A-Mole” and you’re just waiting for the bad guys to pop their heads up so you can take them out. To sum it up, I NEVER used the “move to cover left or right” options. Not once did I “advance” under cover, going from rock to rock while my team covered me. Not once did an enemy flank me by using cover. Not once did my teammates use cover other than the same wall I was at. It was disappointing to see that a major “strategy” element was missing in the game flow.

It seems the real focus of Gears 2 wasn’t so much to make a noticeable “improvement” over Gears 1 as it was to make it “more intense”. That’s both a good thing and a bad. It does provide one of the most visceral experience I’ve ever had on the 360. It’s loud, it’s flashy, it’s in your face, it’s intense. Every moment is jam-packed with stuff going on and things blowing up.  It’s also the only thing it does. It doesn’t advance the genre, it doesn’t improve gameplay, it doesn’t even really add new weapons or ideas or characters. It’s just intense. It’s the Mountain Dew of gaming. It’s not really the full of substance, but it’s the “rush” that you’re looking for.

Another item of note, and something that game-developers need to get scolded for these days, is the slow reintroduction of “quick time events”. The “press B now” concept got real old with Dragon Lance in the early days and I never quite recovered from my hatred of them. It probably doesn’t help that I’m also playing Prince of Persia at the moment, another game that’s packed with quick time events. So, perhaps it’s just a bit of an overload for me. Gears also extends this to “rail shooters” as well. At various times you and your crew will simply be traveling along on a platform of some sort and taking target practice with giant cannons, or mini-guns, or both. I would be O.K. with little bits of a rail shooting experience here and there, but it was literally every other level. Or, if the levels were in multiple parts, it was every other section. Even the ending… done on a rail.

Which brings me to my last and spoiler filled point, the story. How is it, after tracking down the queen of the mole people, that she both looks and sounds completely human AND manages to escape from your two highly trained comrades while you battle with some underground mole-Sith? Really? You just spent the ENTIRE game trying to find the queen and she simply walks away, never to be seen again. This is of course for conveniences sake as well as to set up the 3rd game, but it’s annoying none the less. It was the main driving point of the first 85% of the game, no joke, and then it’s just dismissed as a minor plot point without so much as a thought.

Also, what the hell is a “lambert” and why do I give a crap? Towards the end, a sudden plot twist, which has no bearing on the actual plot, is dropped leaving you scratching your head. See, down in the dark, there’s this glowing evil ooze. Kind of like Ghostbusters 2. At the very end of the game, for some reason which is completely unexplained, the glowing ooze starts to “infect” the bad guys, making them into glowing bad guys, who still don’t like you. So, for you it’s really not an issue, you simply blast them like you were planning on anyway. The queen however seems rather worked up about all this and vows to rid her “people” of this infestation. So, yeah, that happens. Perhaps it’ll be touched on in the next game, but for us playing Gears 2, it’s really kind of a random addition to an already random plot.

There is also talk of “conspiracies”, mention of Marcus’ father, and other huge plot points that aren’t even touched upon. Apparently there is a book which fills in parts of the story but I refuse to believe that they couldn’t have handled any of them in the game. Having enough to fill a book however, doesn’t surprise me at all. In the end, they’re created this really awesome universe that they haven’t bother touching. What was the planet like before the war? How did the war start? Where do the Locus come from? Why are they so pissed off? Is it really that hard to give me a little back story?

It’s actually very much like the Halo universe in it’s vagueness. Having actually read the first of the Halo novels (Halo: The Fall of Reach), I now understand where the Master Chief comes from, so I “get it” now, but I also realize that we as gamers, were really cheated out of the full experience in our games. There’s so much history and so many important story points that we didn’t get in the Halo games alone, that’s it’s almost sad. I imagine that the Gears universe is similar. There’s a story there, about the war, about Marcus becoming the soldier he is, about Dom and his wife, and we don’t get any of that, and it’s really disappointing. Great story telling IS possible in video games, Half-Life proved that. But unfortunately, it’s just hasn’t become a priority yet.

There are a couple other issues here and there, but most of them are minor and don’t sway my opinion of the game in either direction. In summary, they tried really hard to make this game more “badass” than the last, and it worked. It’s intense, it’s visceral, it’s super violent and a lot of fun. In doing so they lost some of the delicate play mechanics that made the first one great, but as a whole, improved on the entire experience. A solid game and very fun to play. A staple of any 360 owner’s collection, regardless of it’s quirks, if for no other reason than playing Horde with your friends.