It's more of what we expect in the Gears of War franchise, but new weapons and challenges make for some unique moments.

User Rating: 8.5 | Gears of War 2 X360
If you were an Xbox 360 owner in 2006, you probably were awaiting Halo 3. But as the clock kept ticking ever so slowly towards that glorious day, rumors and stories arose about a brand-new franchise from famed developers Epic Games. Known for their success in the Unreal Tournament series, Epic Games was a staple in the FPS genre. This new franchise slowly came into the public eye under the name Gears of War. After plenty of hype, Gears of War was released, and boy, what a ride it was. A unique cover system, top-notch production values, and a rag-tag bunch of space marines as protagonists made Gears of War a hit. It's been just a couple of years since Emergence Day and Epic Games has already prepped the sequel Gears of War 2 for the Xbox 360. Marcus, Dom, and all the rest return for some good ol' fashioned Locust hunting. Is the world ready for another Locust attack?

Gears of War 2 takes place a short amount of time after the events of the original, with angry anti-hero Marcus Fenix still the leader of Delta Squad. With the Locust Horde presumably destroyed by the Light Mass Bomb, the word gets out that the Locust aren't just alive, but mobilizing stronger than ever. The entire human race is ready to take out the Locust, this time hitting them where it hurts: their underground lair. Though the story is essentially the same as the original, a few new twists arise throughout the course of the narrative. Dom, for instance, is searching for his wife Maria. Though he doesn't even know if she's alive or not, his journey gives some incentive to the storyline. Also, newcomer young Carmine, the relative of the original Carmine of the original, is your typical rookie soldier. His nervousness and lack of warrior resolve is a complete contrast to the rest of the squad, but he tends to explore that sense of heavy, unwilling emotion that many new soldiers feel. Don't worry, though; familiar faces make appearances. The story is essentially the same, but once you're blasting away at Locusts, you'll no doubt forget the story's very familiar trappings.

What made Gears of War so groundbreaking was the cover system, which remains in full effect. Pressing A when near a wall or cover will let the player sidle up against the obstacle. The player can then use the L-Trigger to aim, or simply use the R-Trigger to shoot blindly at an enemy. The game also uses the "second-person" view, where when pressing and holding the L-Trigger the player can aim with an over-the-shoulder view, sacrificing speed for accuracy. The cover system and firing abilities are extremely fluid, and in a tight situation, work well together. The Active Reload (where you can either speed up a reload or slow it down depending on your reflexes) and Crimson Omen (the replacement of a regenerating health bar) still appear, adding to the cinematic flair of the game, while also making the gameplay versatile and linked. The controls may feel odd at first (especially if you haven't played the first Gears of War), but they are very easy to get together. Soon, blasting at Locust becomes second nature.

And you're going to need it, because Gears of War 2 isn't easy. Though the addition of a new difficulty level Normal (a midpoint between Casual and Hardcore) is something, the game still pushes the difficulty curve, most in part to the enemies and their dangerous access to bigger and badder weapons. This adds some challenge, but even better is that there's a bit more diversity in the weapon choice. After killing off a Boomer or Grinder, take their weapon and spill Locust blood everywhere. Some weapons like the Mortar Cannon are pretty tough to manage, but the introduction of new weapons is always a good thing in such an action-oriented game like Gears of War 2. The Lancer makes a triumphant return, now allowing chainsaw clashes (when two Lancer-equipped opponents try to shred their enemies with the chainsaw bayonet) where the player must hammer on the B button for victory. Gears of War 2 delivers an excellent arsenal of weapons to learn, use, and master, making combat intense and action-packed.

Gameplay in Gears of War 2 is essentially the same stuff you've seen in Gears of War. There is very little progression here. The introduction of certain gameplay quirks like using downed enemies as "meat-shields" or having custom animations for specific weaponry adds some flair, but it all feels gimmicky and tacked-on. There are definitely some amazing moments in Gears of War 2, some that really shake up the scope of the Locust battle, but you'll mostly be using the cover system and shooting at enemies. While this was very innovative in Gears of War, Gears of War 2 feels too much like a sequel, with too little creativity and not enough new twists in the gameplay. That's not to say that the game is bad; it's very far from it. The mix of strong action, expansive encounters, and excellent control couldn't be more welcome. The game just feels rushed, lacking the awesome innovation that the original bestowed upon the suffering shooter genre.

Multiplayer has been a hit-and-miss affair with Gears of War. Despite having visceral action and clever gameplay, weapon imbalances and a slight over-dependency on teamwork caused some players to turn away. This time around the multiplayer makes some improvements, but just doesn't nail it the way other online shooters have. You do get traditional gameplay modes like Warzone and Annex, along with a few new ones like Wingman (where teams of two try to take out their opponents) and Submission (where teams must down, capture, and escort an enemy). These are okay, but you won't find huge changes to the gameplay or the multiplayer atmosphere. The biggest multiplayer mode (or at least the most hyped) is Horde, where five players tackle waves and waves of Locust. Like the rest of the multiplayer, this is fun, but you won't see drastic changes in the actual gameplay. The weapons are still pretty unbalanced and the different maps can leave much to be desired, but Gears of War 2 does possess more substance and modes than the original Gears of War, and that's far from a bad thing.

The first Gears of War was a polarizing game when it came to presentation: though the graphics were technically impressive, they also were generally uninspired. The game fell into the pitfall of modern day graphics: the "brown" or "grey" game. While Gears of War 2 does make some effectively unique situations, this is still very brown. Compared to other games that have been released since the Xbox 360's debut, Gears of War 2 lacks cosmetic progression. Some sequences do add some spice. One of the initial battles takes place on a giant rig in transport to a drill zone, where Delta Squad is to infiltrate the Locust Hollow. Some of the later battles go beyond the action game norm and really show off some creativity, something that Gears of War 2 seems to lack in this respect. Fortunately, the audio does back up the graphics. John Dimaggio's role as Marcus Fenix is as gruff and angry as ever, and Carlos Ferro's role as Dom makes his struggle to find his wife pretty expressive. The sound effects and music are top-notch, filling the action-packed battles with powerful ambiance. Silent moments are suspenseful moments, where the sound of an enemy will no doubt catch you off guard at least once. Gears of War 2 isn't very different from its predecessor, but it manages to hold its ground as a technically-impressive title, even though its style is pretty shallow and repetitive.

+ Great presentation
+ Amazing arsenal of weapons
+ Solid selection of modes
+ Exciting campaign

- Multiplayer isn't very much improved
- Storyline is essentially the same
- Lacks cosmetic variety in levels
- Not enough progression in gameplay

Gears of War 2, in a nutshell, came out too early. The action lacks the strong innovation of its predecessor, the multiplayer is still pretty flawed, and the environments don't possess the diversity and uniqueness of other shooter games. But as much of a problem those factors turn out to be, Gears of War 2 is very, very difficult to not like. Despite these issues, everything else in the game shines. Gears of War 2 takes many of the shooting-packed battles of the original and multiplies the action tenfold. There are far too many amazing and exciting moments during the campaign to ignore. The controls are tight, the weapons are inventive, and the presentation is unlike any other game on the system. Whether you're pinned down in cover while a Locust swarm tosses a grenade or you're tackling a Brumak with a mortar cannon, Gears of War 2 is jam-packed with unforgettable moments. If Gears of War 2 had maybe half a year more in development, the problems could easily be ironed out. Regardless, even in its current form, Gears of War 2 is a wild ride with plenty of memorable moments and tons of shooter action. It's definitely worth a purchase.