Every video game console has what’s called a “killer app,” that one title that elevates your desire for it from a basic want to sweaty-palmed, heart-pounding lust that consumes your every waking moment.
What, is that only me?
The original Xbox’s killer app was, obviously, Halo. The Xbox 360, however, divided the crown between Halo 3 and a then-new IP by the name of Gears of War, a bloody mishmash of tactical action and survival horror dipped in testosterone. Gears took the world by storm, selling over 3 million units in its first 10 weeks on the shelves, and plenty of Xboxes to go along with it.
Microsoft and developer Epic Games, seeing what they had on their hands (a blank check), obviously decided to continue the adventures of Marcus Fenix and company in their bullet-spraying, roadie-running, curb-stomping mission against the not-quite-alien Locust horde. When we last left Delta squad, they had just dropped a bomb into the Locust tunnels that honeycomb the planet Sera, igniting the Imulsion (Gears’ liquid energy source) and taking out a whole slew of Locust with it. Down, but not completely out, the Locust strike back in desperation, sinking the humans’ cities on the surface with the assistance of a giant riftworm.
Taking the rock steady stance of “if it ain’t broke…” Epic changed almost nothing in the formula between Gears 1 and 2, taking the Doom 2 route of adding a few new weapons (none of which, sadly, are notable) and cranking the adrenaline of the gameplay into the stratosphere, stringing along the slightly meatier story with some of the most insane action set pieces I’ve seen in years. Standout moments from Gears 1 like the battles with the Berserker or dodging the Kryll pale in comparison with the insanity that Gears 2 parades out. By the end of the game, you’ll have navigated (and chainsawed your way out of) the innards of a giant riftworm, blown apart the mighty Brumak, gunned down Corpsers from the turret of a Cog tank, ridden on the back of a Reaver, and basically laid waste to an entire civilization. Nice!
Not satisfied with simply jacking up the gameplay, Epic also tried to inject more emotion into Gears 2’s script, fleshing out the hints of character depth that the first game teased. Much of the game is spent looking for your squadmate Dom’s missing wife, a task that makes the normally cool Dom heat up on more than one occasion. We’re introduced to a few new squadmates as well, such as the hillbilly driver Dizzy, the spiritual Tai, or the wet-behind-the-ears Carmine, which complements the returning roster of Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole (Yay!). You also interact, if only briefly, with other squads fighting in large-scale scripted battles, making Gears of War 2 feel, appropriately enough, like a war. In fact, if it’s one thing that Gears 2 does perfectly, it’s conveying that sense of being a small part of a bigger picture. It’s no longer just you and a handful of squaddies running lone wolf missions against the Locust, but whole battalions fighting and dying around you, giving a sense of urgency and weight to your actions and reminding you that you’re fighting for more than your own self-preservation.
Gears of War 2 may not advance its genre to new levels of depth and intelligence, but instead sits firmly in its niche as a perfectly polished example of the current state of the genre: a balls-out, lead-spewing, skull-cracking action game that takes no prisoners. Why bother being ahead of your time when you can rule the present with an iron fist?