When Gears of War hit the video game scene in the winter of 2006, it instantly became known as the first true example of next-generation gaming on the newly released Xbox 360. The action was innovative and shot full of adrenaline. The story was fast-paced and immersive. And the battles were cinematically "vibrant," brimming with lots and lots of gelatinous blood spatter. Millions of copies sold. Critics raved. Fans played for days on end.
Well, the sequel is here, and the gears grind on. As does the praise. And the gore.
Double-Clutching Won't Help ...
Marcus Fenix, the gruff-voiced, bullnecked soldier, and his squad of Delta fighters—buffed out with granite slab physiques and bulging biceps—are still fighting off a subterranean scourge called the Locust Horde. These albino-skinned marauders have dug their way to the surface of the planet Sera and brought with them a gigantic creature called a Riftworm that can sink entire cities from below. This critter is so devastating that mankind is on the ropes and must make a last-ditch effort to survive. So they gather all their remaining forces and drive underground to try to stomp out the threat at its source.
That take-it-to-the-enemy focus amounts to a much bigger stage this time around. In fact, the game's grander scale motivated gamespy.com to call it "the most visually impressive game of all time." Photorealistic battlefields range from war-torn city streets to mountain-framed forestlands to underground caverns to the insides of the enormous world-eater. Which means that you'll be taking aim at the enemy over the top of a hospital balcony one moment and diving for cover in an acid-spraying intestinal tract not long after.
As with the first title, though, it's the strategic placement of your fighter and the run-for-cover action that keeps things exciting. Charging out with guns blazing is the equivalent of wearing a bull's-eye on your chest and yelling, "Over here, send me back to my last save point!" To win, you've got to work your way to a position of advantage. Gears 2 makes that tactile action of leaping, diving and rolling into cover more viscerally lifelike than any other game around.
... But Chain Saw Bayonets Will
Even a moderate gamer will tell you that when the atmosphere, gameplay and graphics become more realistic, so does the messy stuff. Gears 2 ups that ante by handing out over a dozen different weapons. The Lancer Assault Rifle and its chain saw bayonet is still in service along with a number of other deadly munitions. The Mulcher, for instance, is a high-caliber machine gun that shreds anything with flesh. And the Scorcher Flamethrower can shoot its fire around cover, turning enemies into screaming, sizzling kabobs.
But that kind of raw carnage still wasn't enough for developers. Gamers are also given the up-close-and-personal option. The aforementioned chain saw bayonet can gut and rip a bad guy apart as easily as it does a wooden fence. But you can also grab a Horde member by the throat and use him as a "meat shield." Or you can pummel your foes with your rifle butt and fists, then crush their skulls beneath your massive metal combat boots.
Whether you're gutting, stomping or shooting the Locust by yourself, with a bud in co-op play or with up to 10 others online, copious amounts of blood and ooze splash the walls, floor and camera lens with each kill. It's an over-the-top, horror-movie level of gore and violence that truly earns the game's M rating—and that's before mentioning the obscene dialogue that includes everything from f- and s-words to crude abuses of God's name.
Now, it's worth noting that Gears 2 does come with a gore and language filter. The feature tamps down the blood and foul language. But an eviscerated body is still an eviscerated body, even if the guts don't hit you in the face when you shove the chain saw in.
So, does Gears of War 2 deliver on its promises of bigger, bolder and more explosive gaming? Electronic Gaming Monthly crowed that "this blood-soaked sequel offers a smorgasbord of sadistically entertaining content." The Washington Post called it "dizzying, breathless, relentless." And IGN added, "Watching enemies blow apart into chunks of flesh, meat and bone is very cool," calling Gears 2 "one of the best games available on the Xbox 360."
What happens, though, when you add one word to that list of expectations? Is Gears of War 2 bigger, bolder and better? OK, forget better. How about asking if it's good? Or even tolerable? No matter how you, um, slice it from a questionable content perspective, there's only one answer to those questions. And it's not the one you'll read in EGM.