When sniping Locust battalions from an assault derrick, high above a forest that stretches as far as the eye can see, it’s easy to forget that Epic Games is anything but an epic company. Indeed, as the credits roll, pretty much everyone in that close-knit outfit gets a chance to sign off, usually with a few kind words to their “other family”.
Perhaps, when all the heads have been stomped, asses hauled and cities felled, that will be the final word on Gears Of War: that a developer so small could think and act so big. Even by the standards of the original, Gears 2 is a titanic game. Leaving the stop-and-pop combat system largely untouched, it doubles its efforts elsewhere, piling thrills upon thrills, fan service upon fan service, and surprises upon expectations.
There’s an analogue to almost everything in the first game – a driving section, a colossal cavern, a hailstorm (made of glass this time, not bats), an abandoned factory, a crumbling palace. But those are just the bones. When it hits its stride, this is compound action at its absolute finest – a masterclass in escalation.
Case in point: the aforementioned third chapter. Coming early in the first of five acts, it cannonballs from air defence to ground skirmish, from its giant vehicles to the forest floor, into and out of an NPC convoy, through a siege, into an ambush and quickly into battle with an entire Locust army and its quarterback, the Brumak. Helicopters spiral, derricks tumble, contrails coalesce and the action revolves enough to make you spin-dizzy.
Forget Achievements, difficulties and co-op – just taking it all in requires playing it twice. The controls are still bliss, the rhythm of the active reload as tight as the under-steer of the roadie run. The plot isn’t, its spuriously pitched themes of loss and retribution sending Dominic Santiago off-mission to find his wife, held somewhere in the bowels of Locustville.
There are slave barges, metal sarcophagi, hideous experiments, torture chambers and, worst of all, acting. Then, with a “HOO-RAH”, an apparent bout of post-traumatic amnesia and a collective sigh of relief from the audience, the game regains its senses, the camera returning to its true love, Marcus Fenix. Just as before, it’s his griping, un-American answers to every bloody nuisance that comes along that keeps the jingoism at bay.
And if not those, then this: “They’re sinking cities with a giant worm!” It’s thanks to the prodigious talents of Tim Sweeney and his fellow engineers that Gears 2 really does sink a city with a giant worm. It does more than that with it too, though telling you would mean greater spoilers than how Space Marine X dies a pitiless death in Embargoed Cutscene Y.
Whatever the series’ myopic eye for influences – its grandest crowd scenes come fresh from the multiplex – that can’t undermine levels that seem oblivious to terms like ‘ceiling’, ‘floor’ and ‘technical limitations’. The stragglers may peddle last season’s God rays, but Epic seems determined to show you where they come from, with backdrops stretching all the way from Heaven to Hell.Quite enough, then, to keep the eyes busy when the thumbs might otherwise twiddle, which can arise in that default state of normal difficulty and singleplayer.
The tooltip for that difficulty reads: ‘You enjoy playing the occasional shooter’ – and if you don’t want a tactics-free ride through battles that almost end before they begin, you might want to take that seriously. So too the news that co-op is being so heavily promoted this time that, in some later battles, the AI Dom is all but useless. Thankfully, the party atmosphere of co-op seldom has to shoulder flagging levels, and reliably makes the game twice as good in almost every respect.
But the penultimate act has its share of makeweight arena battles, culminating in a boss fight that falls flat on its face. Still, even the low points make the entire first game look prostrate. In multiplayer, thanks in no small part to some overdue online matchmaking, the package feels complete. The winning philosophy of Unreal Tournament III was to assume less and provide more, especially when considering newcomers; with its decent bots, tutorials, offline-friendly Achievements and system link support, Gears has carved itself a lucrative but also noble niche.
This is a game that wants to be played and enjoyed by all, its maps and modes striking an improved balance of camaraderie, instant gratification, match turnover and the sense that anyone can be champion no matter when they sign up. Not very hardcore, you might say, but as rewarding an alternative as Team Fortress 2.
Having long positioned itself as never taking gamers for granted, Epic has, with its best game to date, called for that to be recognised. That it thinks and acts so big is just half the equation, as Gears 2 gains just as much from its intimate online play, dexterous set-pieces and modesty in knowing it’s not the deepest, smartest game out there. Instead, at a time when everyone wants to turn the entertainment world on its head – or at least be seen to – it proves that the entertainment itself, whichever way up it may be, is what matters most.