Image: "Gears of War 2"
Epic Games/Microsoft
The human home world of Sera is under attack from below. The subterranean Locusts are destroying Sera’s cities with massive sinkholes.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/6/2008 8:59:00 AM ET 2008-11-06T13:59:00

“If it ain't broke ... ” could have been the design brief for “Gears of War 2,” which ships Nov. 7 exclusively for the Xbox 360.

For those who fancy a heaping helping of guns, grit and grubs there is plenty to dig into. But in light of some exceptional, sophisticated games this year, “Gears of War 2” doesn't feel quite as momentous as its predecessor.

When “Gears of War” came out two years ago, it was a serious contender for the ultimate sci-fi shooter. “Halo,” the gold standard, looked positively tame compared to the raw, visceral action in “Gears.” The Locust enemies (or grubs) and the human soldiers, the titular Gears, were meaner and more menacing than Master Chief and his buddies.

In case you missed the first outing, the story is the stuff of classic, yet well-worn military sci-fi. If you've seen “Aliens” or “Starship Troopers” you can slip right in to the “Gears” universe.

The humans, on their home world of Sera, are embroiled in a genocidal war with the subterranean Locusts. The governing Coalition of Ordered Governments, the COG in our “Gears,” has charged the Gears troops,  including main character Marcus Fenix and sidekick Dom Santiago of the elite Delta squad, with saving Sera in a last ditch assault on the Locusts. Sera's cities have been falling, literally, as the Locusts suck them underground. 

“Gears 2” takes up where the first installment left off. Marcus and Dom delivered the Lightmass bomb in what was hoped to be the finishing blow to the Locusts. It turns out that the bomb just made the grubs even angrier. When you enter the picture in “Gears 2,” Sera’s capitol, Jacinto, is under threat.

The best aspects of “Gears” return for an encore: The art direction is inspired. The crumbling, war-torn buildings of Sera convey a sense of waste and loss much like photos of the destruction in Europe's cities during WWII. We get our first glimpse of the Locust's culture through elaborately decorated temples and structures during the underground levels. 

The character designs are likewise a success. Marcus' face is intricately detailed, complete with battle scars and leathery texture. The Delta squad look appropriately, even grotesquely muscle-bound, as if raised on steroids and bio-augmentations.

Locust classes run the gamut from hulking, snarling foot soldiers to colossal, armored worms and a particularly bizarre living, floating barge that looks like a pirate ship atop a giant squid. There are more boss fights than the last outing; not to spoil any surprises, expect a couple of truly harrowing opponents.

Controlling Marcus is a high point. Animations are smooth and natural — for a 300-pound superhuman anyway — and the “roadie run,” a crouch/sprint, is invaluable for self-preservation when the slugs start flying.

The “Gears” cover system is among the best in video games. Marcus slams against columns and hunkers down behind sand bags with a push of a button; more complex maneuvers like dodge-rolling from cover to cover are easy to perform and critical to survival.

If you find yourself out in the open you can grab a barely alive grub to use as a “meat shield,” a new feature that's both entertaining and handy.

The single-player campaign in “Gears 2” is substantial but ends rather abruptly, no doubt setting the stage for the next game. To extend the campaign, two player co-op is available with local and Xbox Live options.

The meager Xbox Live multi-player modes from “Gears,” while insanely popular, left fans eager more. “Gears 2” delivers with enough multi-player action to keep players busy for months.

While we were unable to get a representative experience before the game’s release, a few of the new game modes look to be winners. Submission places two teams together with a computer-controlled character, or ‘bot. The object is to subdue the ‘bot, employ the “meat shield” technique and drag him to a specific zone on the map. It’s a little like football, except the opposition is shooting at you.

Horde pits a team of up to five online players against wave after wave of homicidal Locusts. The action is insanely intense, especially as the Horde’s health, accuracy and damage delivered ramps up in successive waves.

Unfortunately, there are a few critical areas where “Gears 2” comes up short. While there are choices on how to progress through the levels — typically “go left or right,” decided with the trigger buttons — the gameplay is still linear. There are even old-fashioned “on rails” sections. One scene has Marcus mounted atop a Locust creature that follows a predetermined path while you aim the weapon.

More freedom to explore and less emphasis on pre-determined, scripted events would make the series more contemporary and rewarding.

The weakest, and continually distracting, element in “Gears 2” is the attempt to humanize the Delta squad heroes. Game characters like Marcus and Dom work best as one dimensional tools of destruction. Now Marcus is getting all choked up when comrades die and Dom is asking for time alone while he pulls himself together. The search for Dom’s missing wife, a central part of the game’s story, seems out of place and forced in this context. 

Introducing a softer, more sentimental side to Marcus and Dom to engage us assumes that the action alone isn’t enough. It is.

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