Revisiting Gears of War 2

Over the last few weeks I’ve revisited some films (Ghostbusters, 25th Hour) that turned out to be not quite as good as I remembered.  I hoped this new-found problem wouldn’t also apply to games.  So it was with hesitance that I slid the Gears of War 2 disk into my Xbox.  Gears 2 was probably one of my top five current-generation (Xbox 360, Playstation 3) games.  I’ve now returned to play two or three hours worth of it, and I now have another tarnished memory.

With the kind of people you find in the dark recesses of the internet, criticising something is akin to saying it’s bad.  Gears 2 isn’t bad (neither is Ghostbusters or 25th Hour), it’s just not as good as I recall.  It’s fun, tense, and still beautiful looking.  But the combat becomes repetitive, the controls feel clumsy, and the game’s overloaded with exposition.  I last played the game around three years ago, when I would’ve chewed your hand off to play another shooter.  These days I’m more cynical towards the genre, and Gears combat feels less engaging.  Gears is well known for its cover system.  It is good (and it even looks good, your character diving into cover as dirt flies), but inconsistent.  Your controllable character (generally Marcus) will occasionally lose contact with the cover for no reason and pop up into the line of fire.  Gears 2 has an inspired moment in which you discover a snail..thing, made of stone.  You can use it as cover, shooting food down from branches to make it move to helpful positions.  I love this addition, it’s a work of brilliance.  But the controls tarnish the experience as Marcus can detach from the snail of his own accord, resulting in bullety death.

Your game-controlled squad-mates can be irritating too.  Despite the width of the combat arena they’ll sometimes walk right through your line of sight.  Gears, as in most shooters, makes your team-mates invulnerable to your bullets.  They don’t die, but when ammo levels are low, you don’t want to waste any of it plugging your friends with lead.

What particularly irked me was the constant interruptions in gameplay to push the story forward.  I love narrative in games, despite the generally low quality of the storytelling, and god bless a game that tries to tell a tale.  But story shouldn’t regularly ruin the momentum of gameplay.  There were so many moments where I wanted to push ahead, to get to the next battle, the next area.  I’d make Marcus sprint, only to have him slow down to communicate through his earpiece, taking commands and giving sit-reps.  I want to know the reason I’m here, the reason I’m moving on, but constant interruption just make me restless.  In one level Marcus and his squad push through a mostly abandoned town.  And the pattern was thus: one or two small battles, earpiece, slightly bigger battle, earpiece.  Let me decide when to stop and communicate.  Or do it all in one cut scene.  Doling it out in dribs and drabs just became irritating.

The need for story and to build drama had already annoyed me during an earlier level.  The level began on top of a ‘derrick’, a huge, weaponised vehicle.  After being hit with mortars you’re tasked with destroying them as they fly towards you (which you can do with a machine gun, which seemed ridiculous, even for a game like this).  I had decided to play the game on a harder difficulty level than before.  This increase meant that I failed several times, having to restart the section.  This in itself I didn’t mind, I expected repeated failure here (as in life).  But this section starts with a scene you’re powerless in, watching the mortars fly, one hitting a rock and knocking the derricks off of their path.  And so every time you fail you have to watch this scene unfold.  30 seconds of helplessness, one minute of shooting, 20 seconds to reload the level, another 30 seconds of standing around.  Repeat, repeat.  That shit gets old quick.

This post may read as critical but it’s just me coming to the realisation that Gears of War 2 is a pretty good game, with some small flaws that stop it being a great one.  When I first thought about replaying it I tried to remember what I had most enjoyed about playing it.  The answer?  Looking at it.  Gears 2 is such a well designed game.  Games technology changes so quickly that a game can go from being visually outstanding to below average in just a few years (the “technological long jump”, as Tom Bissell puts it).  Gears 2 still looks brilliant though.  The landscapes are superb, the characters are well visualised, and the various enemies, some gargantuan, all looked great.  There are so many epic moments (in a game made by Epic, ooh punnery) with so much going on, yet the game rarely falters.  The game’s opening blatantly rips off the Lord of The Ring films, but the scale it realises makes the comparison a suitable one.  You can be on a derrick firing at Locust soldiers on one side, while an enormous Brumak (think a twisted King Kong with a head-mounted gun) fires at you.  Large scale chaos is what Gears of War 2 excels at.  It’s just a shame that now I’d rather watch someone else play it.

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