Gears of War 2 Preview - 22/10/2008

New guns! Fearsome monsters! Buckets more blood! Romantic subplot?

‘Bigger, better, and more badass’. That’s the unsubtle phrase Epic Games Design Director Cliff Bleszinski used all those months ago to introduce us to the unveiling video of Gears of War 2 – sequel to the best-selling game of 2006 and Microsoft’s saving grace in the face of a Masterchief-less Christmas. What we saw in the ‘Rendezvous’ demo was impressive enough - Epic’s unnaturally bulky COG team fighting a high-seas-style battle against airborne enemies through a verdant vista. But, while elaborate, it was little more than a cool set piece.

Since then, however, vid-docs, trailers and even ‘Bairds top 5’ have detailed the commendable improvements Cliff and the crew have made to beef-up the fun and intensity of a story which sees the last human inhabitants of fictional planet Sera gather for one last stand against the amassing Locust horde, threatening to sink their cities whole. And, if there was one word to do justice to it all, Cliff would be hard-pressed to find one that fits better than ‘Badass’.

The team are back to take the fight to the Locusts.

Cynics labelled GOW2 as Gears 1.5 and fanboys declared Marcus Fenix and his team defunct in the face of Resistance 2 and Killzone 2. Some may argue that they had a point. While the original took a chainsaw to its competition two years ago, all that Microsoft could reasonably ask for was a repeat performance. Well, going on what we’ve now seen from the developers, one thing is abundantly clear; they haven’t just repeated the experience but enhanced it in every way imaginable.

The biggest criticism of the original lay in a shallow and poorly-communicated narrative. While shooting monster with big, dirty guns was alright for some, it wasn’t for most, and gamers craving disposition, depth and even emotion besides the odd masculine chest-beat were left sorely disappointed. By recruiting novelist Josh Ortega, best known for his graphic novel work on the Star Wars, Batman and Spiderman properties, it seems Epic Games aren’t set to let one of the most promising survival stories in gaming go to waste.

There is a welcome new epic scale to everything in the game.

Set six months after the COG team set off the Lightmass bomb underground, wiping out a healthy portion of Locust, the last human survivors have developed a disease known as ‘rust lung’ – a fallout from the bomb vaporising the planets natural energy source. To boot, major cities around the planet are mysteriously disappearing, with just one – Jacinto Plateau – remaining. Only a matter of time before this too falls, the humans must, as the promo videos say, ‘take the fight to the locust’. As Ortega himself says, ‘the stakes are raised. This is humanity's last stand. Everything is at risk. Nothing is safe’.

Showing head where there was once just chunky bits of heart, it’s clear they want you to care, and with new subplots involving Dom’s search for his missing wife Maria and even hints of morally cloudy undertones involving the COG teams rather imperialistic desire to exterminate planet natives, you’d have to be made of stone not to. However, only time will tell whether such addition and focus on the story cement Gears’ place at the peak of the ‘games are art’ mountain or merely distract from all the shooting. Case in point: who would have actually rather listen to the poetic ramblings of that big green weed Gravemind in Halo 2 than shoot Covenant ass?

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