Then & Now: Gears of War 2

We look at the Gears of War series to see how the original game holds up to its sequel.

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The original Gears of War hit the Xbox 360 like a sledgehammer, going on to sell millions of copies and winning GameSpot's Game of the Year award in 2006. When we reviewed the game, we called it an "amazing technical achievement," emphasising that "games just don't typically look this good." True to our word, games in 2007 had a hard time matching up to Gears' presentational quality, and even now, two years later, the original game is still a standard-bearer.

In early 2008, Epic attended the Game Developer's Conference to show off the latest features of its Unreal Engine 3 technology, as well as to formally announce Gears of War 2. Deformable scenery, improved water, crowd generation, and soft tissue were all demoed to an eager crowd and gave an indication of what Gears fans could expect in the sequel. All of these effects and more made it into Gears 2 when it launched in November 2008, and we claimed that "the sequel maintains [its predecessor's] high technical and artistic quality."

Given that Gears 2 contains many of the same characters, weapons, and locations as the first game, we decided to compare the two. Epic claims that the two-year interim allowed its designers to push the Xbox 360 to its limits, but were they really able to raise the bar any higher? Let's find out.

Environments

When Epic shipped Gears 2, it remade five of the original game's multiplayer maps and published them on Xbox Live. All of these maps are structurally identical, but they do feature substantial changes in certain areas, such as weather.

Mansion

One of the most iconic maps from the first Gears, Mansion has a considerably different look in the sequel. The darkness and the rain have been swapped for what appears to be morning sunshine, allowing you to appreciate more of the finer details in the environments. Check out the plant pots and the mansion itself--they're much more detailed than they were previously. Inside the building, the same holes in the ceiling exist, but instead of letting in trickling rain, they're filtering the sunshine.

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Gridlock

One of the biggest improvements to Gears 2 is that there's much more greenery in the environments. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in Gridlock, where the derelict buildings are now covered with vines, and the trees have been left to grow over the years. Despite the neglect that appears to have aged the rest of the map, someone at Epic has been in and redecorated--a new bell has been added to the tower at the center of the level, and the statue opposite the tower has been removed.

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Subway

Epic must have gotten bored with all the rain in its multiplayer maps, because Subway is a lot drier than in the first game. It has a scorched-earth feel to it now, with black dust swirling around the exterior environments. The deserted vehicles have a lot more detail, as you can see from our screens, but we miss the light that used to pour into the subway.

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Tyro Station

The most unchanged of the remastered Gears maps is Tyro Station. The color palette is less red and more green in Gears 2, but the features, architecture, and weather remain pretty much the same. A huge train periodically bursts through the middle of the level, taking anyone who's on the track with it. Taking the trip is still worth the risk, though, thanks to the Torque Bow and the Hammer of Dawn weapons that await you in the middle of the track. The vans underneath the track, meanwhile, have mysteriously turned into storage containers.

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Environments Cont.

Canals

Canals received a winter makeover for Gears 2, giving the map a much lighter look than before. The water on the ground level has now turned to ice, the few plants and trees have disappeared, and the walls have a nice-looking icy finish. You can also notice some of the extra details that have been put into the backgrounds, especially on the buildings in the final shot.

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Weapons

Lancer

As Gears of War's signature weapon, the lancer was sure to make a return in the sequel. As a rifle, it's still equally effective at short and long distances, although we noticed the weapon had a lot more kick in the second game. Compare these two shots--we've unloaded an entire ammo clip at the same pillar from the same distance. Not only is the line much longer in the sequel, but it even curves slightly at the end when we're running out of bullets.

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Chainsaw Melee

The lancer is all about the chainsaw though, and this particular finishing move has actually been toned down for the sequel. The blood definitely has more viscosity in Gears 2. It used to spray out in different directions like a fountain in the original Gears, but it now just pours out of the unfortunate chainsaw recipient. The result: It's less gratuitous, if that's even possible for a move where you chainsaw someone in half.

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Sniper Rifle

The original sniper rifle was deadly in multiplayer, able to take a player's head clean off with the right shot. Thankfully, the same rules apply in the sequel, only this time the sniper scope is substantially different. Gone are the angular edges of the targeting reticle; they've been replaced with a much rounder, more traditional bull's-eye shape. A horizontal line across the middle of the HUD is another subtle but helpful addition, allowing you to line up headshots with greater efficiency.

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Weapons Cont.

Smoke Grenade

The smoke grenade was given a substantial upgrade for Gears 2, with a minor explosive punch that can knock players off their feet. That said, this has a detrimental effect on the grenade's smoke capacity. The original Gears' smoke grenade lasted for 12 seconds and produced a much darker cloud, whereas the one in the second game fades out in half the time. Thankfully, you can stick grenades to walls in the second game, which then explode when shot or when an enemy comes in close proximity.

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Characters

Marcus Fenix & Dom Santiago

If there's one thing that the Gears engine excelled in, it was drawing big armour-clad dudes that looked like they'd been through some wars. The faces of Marcus and Dom remain unchanged in Gears 2, but there are some minor changes to their suits. Those mysterious blue lights on Marcus' collarbone look more inset, and they're also brighter than before. In general, the bumps and ridges in the suits are more noticeable in Gears 2, perhaps owing to a better engine and/or more artistic license for the designers.

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Anya Stroud

While the Unreal Engine had no trouble drawing the rough, angular heads of the members of Delta Squad, it definitely struggled with female characters. Anya, the command contact for Delta Squad, had straight features and flat hair in the first game, but she has become much softer in the sequel and has more-realistic hair. Her outfit also has more detail, especially the badges on her right arm and the embroidered name on her jacket.

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Locust

These close-ups really show how the Locust have color-coordinated themselves for their Gears 2 appearance. Their lancer now features red lights, presumably to remind you which side you're fighting for. It's also worth noting that holding the left trigger in the first game brought a tighter close-up shot than it does in the sequel. In the normal view, the standard Locust grunt looks remarkably similar between the two games, but there are more detailed calluses on his right shoulder in Gears 2.

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Weapons Cont.

Smoke Grenade

The smoke grenade was given a substantial upgrade for Gears 2, with a minor explosive punch that can knock players off their feet. That said, this has a detrimental effect on the grenade's smoke capacity. The original Gears' smoke grenade lasted for 12 seconds and produced a much darker cloud, whereas the one in the second game fades out in half the time. Thankfully, you can stick grenades to walls in the second game, which then explode when shot or when an enemy comes in close proximity.
Gears of War 2 Gears of War

Characters

Marcus Fenix & Dom Santiago

If there's one thing that the Gears engine excelled in, it was drawing big armour-clad dudes that looked like they'd been through some wars. The faces of Marcus and Dom remain unchanged in Gears 2, but there are some minor changes to their suits. Those mysterious blue lights on Marcus' collarbone look more inset, and they're also brighter than before. In general, the bumps and ridges in the suits are more noticeable in Gears 2, perhaps owing to a better engine and/or more artistic license for the designers.
Gears of War 2 Gears of War

Anya Stroud

While the Unreal Engine had no trouble drawing the rough, angular heads of the members of Delta Squad, it definitely struggled with female characters. Anya, the command contact for Delta Squad, had straight features and flat hair in the first game, but she has become much softer in the sequel and has more-realistic hair. Her outfit also has more detail, especially the badges on her right arm and the embroidered name on her jacket.
Gears of War 2 Gears of War

Locust

These close-ups really show how the Locust have color-coordinated themselves for their Gears 2 appearance. Their lancer now features red lights, presumably to remind you which side you're fighting for. It's also worth noting that holding the left trigger in the first game brought a tighter close-up shot than it does in the sequel. In the normal view, the standard Locust grunt looks remarkably similar between the two games, but there are more detailed calluses on his right shoulder in Gears 2.
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