Gears of War 2 is a third-person shooter for the Microsoft Xbox 360 that take place in a war zone.

As a devoted fan of the shooter genre, I really enjoyed the original Gears of War - its in-the-trenches intensity was a shot of adrenaline for the entire action genre.

Unfortunately, I was left somewhat disappointed by its too-short campaign and groan-worthy character dialogue, as well as its fickle online multiplayer.

Despite my complaints, I knew that Gears of War was something special, with its ultra-violent presentation and intense cover-hopping action.

Since its release, I've been proven right: literally dozens of other games have mimicked the style, if not the substance, of the original Gears of War.

Fall of man

The comparisons between Metal Gear Solid 4 and Gears of War 2 are inescapable. Both games are third-person shooters that take place in teeming warzones, but they follow entirely different paths with equally pleasing results.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is long-winded but emotionally complex: its combat and gameplay were riveting, but those aspects almost took a back seat to the ambitious storytelling. Gears of War 2 is the polar opposite: it's a balls-to-the-wall rollercoaster ride where massive action set pieces take center stage.

If MGS4 was an art-house film, Gears of War 2 is a fast-paced graphic novel. Both approaches have their charms, and Gears of War 2 leverages its bold, colorful style to maximum effect.

The story picks up some six months after the original game, and mankind is facing some seriously grim odds. As in the original Gears of War, the storytelling here runs at a brisk pace - there are no 15-minute, Metal Gear Solid 4-style monologues to interrupt the action. But this time, you actually know what you're fighting for.

Your overarching goal is to protect the last standing human outpost from The Locust, a race of subterranean monsters who can devour entire cities from below. The increased sense of desperation and horror gives Gears of War 2 an emotional charge that was noticeably AWOL from the original game.

When I played the original Gears, I was left confused and bewildered by plot developments that seemed to come from nowhere. Not so in Gears of War 2: I always knew who to shoot, why to shoot, and where I needed to go next.

Although the storytelling and dialogue are enormously improved over the original game, they're not perfect. Oddly, we still learn frustratingly little about the origins of the sinister Locust, several important new foes are left virtually unexplained, and one likable character seemingly vanishes halfway into the game.

As a whole, though, Gears of War 2 succeeds in crafting a nail-biting tale of desperation, vengeance, and the atrocities of war. As the stakes ratcheted ever higher, I found myself compulsively playing on to see whether Marcus Fenix and his band of elite warriors could score a much-needed victory against their seemingly unstoppable opponents.

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Gears of War 2 is a third-person shooter for the Microsoft Xbox 360 that take place in a war zone.

Like clockwork

Gameplay wise, Gears of War 2 is very much like its predecessor, so finding cover and staying concealed is still a key aspect of combat. However, this isn't just a simple rehash of the original: a host of subtle tweaks and refinements give Gears of War 2 a sleeker, more polished feel.

Dodging, hopping from cover to cover, and mounting obstacles feels smoother and more natural, and I never once felt like I was battling the controls.

Gears of War 2 is clearly the leader in its unique breed of tactical action, and now more than ever it's destined to leave a lasting mark on the genre. What Gears of War 2 does, it does right.

I especially liked the arsenal of powerful new weapons, which include a satisfying flamethrower, a monstrous mini-gun, and a devastating mortar launcher that rains down death from above. Marcus and the other COG forces have learned some new tricks, too, including a new "meat shield" maneuvre where they grab a downed opponent to deflect incoming shots.

I found these new mechanics to be effective, particularly in certain multiplayer modes, though they don't drastically alter the basics of combat. Given that Gears of War 2's gameplay already feels so tight and responsive, this is definitely a smart move.

World war

Overall, I was most impressed by the game's grand sense of scale. At certain climactic moments, I battled what seemed like hundreds of enemy Locust creatures using gatling guns, tanks and a walking behemoth called the Brumak (and yes, this particular battle is well worth the wait). Variety is definitely a strong point in Gears of War 2.

Although the battles are generally several times larger than those in the original game, other moments lean more towards survival horror. The highlight here was a suspenseful romp through an eerie abandoned research base, and though the tension stayed high, the final payoff left me feeling underwhelmed and somewhat baffled. Still, scenarios such as these keep the game from being a numbing, constant assault on the senses.

Choosing my favourite moment in the game turned out to be easy. The most memorable sequence involves a show-stopping boss battle with a certain aquatic adversary that I will not name here. When you see it, you'll know and trust me, it's everything you could ask for in a boss fight.

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Gears of War 2 is a third-person shooter for the Microsoft Xbox 360 that take place in a war zone.

Grindhouse

I'm not going to beat around the bush - Gears of War 2 is a damned fine action game. It's a much longer, more satisfying experience than the original game, too, clocking in at a solid 10 to 12 hours. Although the pacing drags a bit towards the end, I still found myself glued to the controller for hours at a time.

Of course, the long-term attraction will be the game's many multiplayer modes, from online and split-screen cooperative play to five-on-five team battles over Xbox Live. The machtmaking interface and party options are vastly superior to the first game, and manage to come within striking distance of Halo 3's high water mark.

After playing all the multiplayer modes extensively, I feel that the standout is definitely Horde, a cooperative mode where five players team up against endless waves of increasingly powerful Locust foes. Because there are 50 waves of enemies, and players are scored following each round, it's likely that Horde will encourage the same kind of high-score obsession not seen since Geometry Wars.

What is it good for?

Granted, Gears 2 isn't the smartest shooter on the market, but for now, it is probably the must-own title of this holiday season for Xbox 360 gamers.

If you loved the first one, then strap in and get ready to continue the battle. Even if you missed the first chapter, there's enough guts and glory here to have you gaming long into the night. Either way, I'll see you online - I'll be the one pumping your ass full of bullets.

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Xbox 360 review

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Gears of War 2: Specs

  • Microsoft Xbox 360
  • Microsoft Xbox 360

OUR VERDICT

The good news is that Gears of War 2 significantly improves upon the original game in every possible way, addressing several key shortcomings that kept its predecessor from being a bona-fide classic. Gears of War 2 is a terrific action game that deservedly resides in the upper echelon of console shooters, and is the best shooter to hit the Xbox 360 so far this year. Action gamers, you've found your next obsession.

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