Video game reviews for me, though still a new venture, often end up being very involved affairs, which I enjoy immensely. On the other hand, it means that they take a long time to complete, and so I don’t finish them at the ace I would like to maintain. Gears of War 2, luckily, affords very little in the way of diversionary analysis. It’s loud and stupid and full of violence. The plot is disposable and generic. The voice acting is shouty and stilted. The game play is pretty predictable and designed in a way that causes the entire game to hover somewhere between idiotically enjoyable and tedious. Basically, whenever people write about how crass and moronic video games are, they’re writing about Gears of War. Of course, as with an action movie that could have the same description applied to it, crass and moronic doesn’t mean the game is without its…not exactly “high” or “positive” points… let’s just say that there is some entertainment to be mined from this gibbering buffoon of a game, in much the same way as one can be entertained by an Antonio Margheriti war film.
The setting of Gears of War 2 is overly familiar to anyone who plays video games or watches shitty science fiction action films. Humanity is at war with an alien race. When the game opens, the war hasn’t been going particularly well for humanity, and the bulk of our forces have been beaten back into the stronghold city of Jacinto, which itself is under constant bombardment and in danger of collapsing. As the player, you assume the identity of Marcus Fenix, an elite soldier known as a Gear. The eliteness of the Gears is an informed attribute, by the way — even disregarding the skill level of the player, there is very little in what we see of the Gears in action to justify their designation as the best of the best. At no point do they really prove to be as awesome as we’re told they are, making me think that maybe human civilization created these hulking buffoons purely as cannon fodder, then tricked them into thinking they were super-elite commandos. They are grotesquely, hilariously malformed fantasies of comic book male awesomeness, with buzzcuts or football player mohawks, douchebag tribal tattoos, and a steroid-swollen anatomy so exaggerated that there’s no way they could possibly move, let alone do all the running and other feats they do in the game. The character design of the Gears makes this the closest you will probably ever come to playing a Tom of Finland video game.
After the obligatory “training a rookie” sequence that helps players familiarize themselves with the easy-to-grasp controls of the game, you are your team are thrown into the heat of battle, first defending Jacinto against a siege and later parading through a series of levels as you take part in an invasion of the alien’s vast underground city, then returning for more above-ground shootin’ and fightin’. Writer Joshua Ortega tries to infuse the otherwise mindless plot with some political intrigue and shenanigans, and some ham-handed “emotional” sequences, but those efforts are ultimately over-shadowed by what seems to be the game’s primary purpose: to let you walk through a bunch of levels, blowing the shit out of aliens. I’m not really opposed to that sort of game — sometimes, you just don’t want something complex and involved and time consuming. Sometimes, you just want to come home and wreak a little gratuitous havoc. If that’s all Gears of War 2 had been, I would have been unimpressed but more or less happy.
Unfortunately, the game forces you to play through a number of my most hated tropes in action gaming. First, there’s the slow and uninteresting procession of giant tanks as you travel to a spot where you and your cohorts can tunnel into the subterranean lair of the Locust horde. For most of this level, you are confined to a mobile platform that is besieged by an assortment of foes, and you have to defend yourself and your tank from the beasties. It goes on way too long and got very repetitive very quickly — and it wasn’t even much fun before it got repetitive. At another point in the game, you and your wacky crew of monstrously malformed beefcakes spend an immeasurable amount of time confined to a smaller tank in an even longer “driving” mission. Driving missions might be my most hated thing in all of gaming. There are multiple times during this sequence where your goals would have been accomplished much faster and more efficiently if you got the fuck out of the buggy, but of course, you’re not allowed to do that. Having to suffer through this part of the game very nearly killed it for me, so little fun did I have.
That part of the game eventually completed, though, I got to spend a nice amount of time doing what makes Gears of War 2 actually somewhat enjoyable — walking through places, taking cover, figuring out tactics, and shooting at stuff. It’s hardly inventive game play or anything, but when it sticks to that, Gears of War 2 is a moderate amount of fun — and not even entirely brainless fun, as devising attack and defense tactics can be involved and challenging. But then, just as I was ready to forgive the game for those dreadful mobile platform and tank driving sequences, we get a “flying” sequence that I disliked just as much, though thankfully it at least seemed a lot shorter. Some parts of the game have a nice, open freedom to them, where you can run around and do a lot of things. Others are woefully confined and “on the rails,” offering you no options but to follow the prescribed course of action.
And then, to pile insult on top of injury, my frequent sidekick Dominic yells “grab the turret!” at one point after a return to Jacinto, and there’s a bit where you have to stand at an unwieldy mounted machine gun and defend an antennae from alien menaces zipping through the sky. In multi-player, this probably isn’t as torturous as it is in single player, but as I was playing it in single player mode, I was nearly suffocated under the tediousness of having to deal with this machine gun bit. In the grand scheme of the game, it’s such a small bit, but something about it was so unenjoyable and so irksome that I actually abandoned the game at this point, only coming back to it weeks later so I could finish it just to write a review.
I mentioned Antonio Margheriti war movies in the opening paragraphs, and I really feel that’s an apt comparison. Margheriti specialized in making action films that were, often, almost enjoyable. He would always have parts that were pretty good, usually full of Filipinos pretending to be Viet Cong fighting rag tag American troops while shitloads of palm trees were blown up, but he wrapped his fun action scenes in movies that were otherwise pretty boring. Since the movies were Italian exploitation productions, they usually included cast members who spoke different languages, and so even the “original” Italian dialogue was mostly a dub job no more or less legitimate than the eventual English language dubbing. The main difference is that the English dubbing was almost always laughably tortured and awkward, written by someone who spoke pretty good English but maybe didn’t grasp the nuances of slang, resulting in weird unnatural lines like “Maybe that’s true, or maybe your mouth is a giant hole full of shit coming out of it.”
The dialogue in the first Gears of War was a kindred spirit to this type of dubbing, often being absurdly corny and poorly written. For Gears 2, the creators at Epic Games hired comic book writer Joshua Ortega to help out with the dialogue problem. Not that, as many of you who read comics know, comic book writers are especially adept at delivering less corny and contrived dialogue than the average video game developer. The result of Ortega’s work is that Gears of War 2 is perhaps less ludicrous than the first but is, instead, simply more generic. Most of it is the sort of gung-ho fake military speak space marines have been growling ever since an entire genre was built out of badly mimicking James Cameron’s Aliens. Dominic has an especially ill-advised melodramatic subplot about finding his missing wife that is handled with about the same level of competency you would expect from a 1980s/1990s direct-to-video action film.
The political sub-plot is as predictable and elementary here as it is when it shows up in crummy action films. Gears of War 2 got a lot of praise upon its initial release, both for the game play and the story. I guess I’m just cranky, because neither impressed me. Those who praised the writing and emotional impact of the game are, I think, setting an extremely low bar for quality. video games are still a relatively new medium compared to others, but script writing is not new, and games don’t really deserve as much slack as they are usually cut. This is dumb writing, with dumb dialogue. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, of course, but really — touting the emotional impact of Dom’s overblown, maudlin, and ultimately pointless subplot seems a bit… silly to me, as does trying to pass off the totally reheated “the government is keeping secrets from the grunts” subplot. This is pure c-grade action movie writing, which means most of it is pretty dumb, but you will get a few good one-liners and maybe a decent hero speech at some point. To try and praise it as anything more is, well, I guess why we are all entitled to our own opinions and judgments.
The voice work is equally as overblown and silly as the lines the voice work has to express. Seasoned actor John DiMaggio provides the voice for Marcus Fenix, sounding most of the time like he’s struggling to take a huge crap and sounding the rest of the time like, well, El-zar from Futurama. I kept waiting for Marcus to be in the middle of buzzsawing his way through a Locust soldier only to stop and yell, “Now to hit ‘em with a blast from my spice weasel!” Everyone else is pretty forgettable, with little to say other than the usual “let’s go kick some alien ass” dialogue that litters both video games and sci-fi action movies. Some stabs at comedy are passable, many induce groans, and pretty much all the attempts at emotional depth, while maybe admirable, are laughable thanks to the hammy, predictable writing and acting. But to give credit where credit is due — while I found Dom’s story to be pretty goofy, I was surprised by the macabre conclusion of it.
But that’s all passable enough. Special mention has to be made, however, of the character Augustus “Coletrain” Cole, voiced by Lester “Mighty Rasta” Speight (best known outside of the video game world as “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker”), who continues the video game medium’s spotty track record of portraying black characters. Outside of Jacob from Mass Effect 2, video game creators seem hard pressed to conceive of a black character who does anything but strut around yelling shit like, “Aww yeah, mother fuckers! How you like dat good shit, son! My ass gonna dance now!” Like everything else in the game, Coletrain is so exaggerated and absurd that it’s hard to be truly offended by the character — his hyper-stereotypical behavior even became an internet meme — but seriously! That said, Speight is actually turning in the game’s best acting performance, and to his credit, I don’t think he ever says, “I gotta get me one of these!”
As for the much lauded improvements in game play, this again serves as an illustration in the gulf between my opinion and those of many more experienced game journalists who may be analyzing games from a different perspective. Yeah, the graphics look good, though the art design is pretty much your typical — if well-done — collection of settings. But many of the things heralded as awesome by many are, in my opinion, cosmetic changes at their deepest, regardless of how impressive the programming feats may be behind them. Just because you improve the physics of interacting with items around you and can now render more of the same foes in one screen doesn’t necessarily make a game innovative. Doing the same thing as before but better is, yes, an improvement. But there’s a difference between improvement and innovation, and when you strip away the hyperbole, Gears of War 2 has pretty typical game play. That it’s gorier and lets you hide behind a giant moving worm fails to strike me as particularly revolutionary. Not that I demand revolutionary. I would have been happy, a I said, to simply play a decently executed third-person shooter, but for every minute Gears of War 2 is just that, it undermines itself with an equal number of minutes devoted to things I absolutely did not like.
The art direction, while nothing we haven’t seen before, is still pretty well done. The shots of a burned out Jacinto are effective, and the sprawling underground caverns and city of the Locusts are gorgeously realized. One of the more amusing and enjoyable parts of the game — even though it’s mostly “on rails” and doesn’t allow for much freedom of movement — takes place inside a giant worm, which is lovingly detailed with all manner of quivering fibers, bodily fluids, and unidentifiable goos. There is some variety among the Locusts, though the bulk of those you engage look sort of like DC Comics anti-hero Lobo. Of course, then there’s the design of the Gears themselves, as already addressed. Seriously, did no one who designed these assholes have any idea bout even the most basic concepts of human anatomy? Only video game and comic book women with their ability to weigh 100 pounds and still perform incredibly feats of physical skill while wearing towering stiletto heels and lugging around boobs the size of some European cars are designed with more warped and impossible proportions. All in all, though, Gears of War 2 breaks no new art design ground, but it executes the formula well, and I’m almost always happy with well-executed formula.
The other positive was the AI of your enemies. While your teammates are the usual bunch of morons sprinting around at random, running across your line of fire, and shouting for you to heal them when they’re injured while never seeming to show up when you yourself could use some help, the bad guys behave pretty cleverly. Wounded opponents will frequently be smart enough to drag themselves behind cover and toward comrades who can patch them up. They’re also pretty good at sneaky maneuvers. When the game throws you into pitched battles against the Locusts, Gears of War 2 lives up to what you might hope to get out of it. If only it’d stuck with that.
So yeah, there’s a lot of negative up there. I didn’t totally hate the game. The parts that were fun were pretty fun, but the parts that weren’t fun really weren’t fun and killed the momentum of the game for me. Ultimately, they tipped the scales into the negative. The fun bits were really nothing more than decently executed third-person shooter hijinks. I can get those from other games that don’t have so many parts I didn’t like. Parts of it are a decent time waster, and other parts are just a waste of time. Maybe it’s more fun in multi-player and cooperative mode. It was included with my console when I bought it, and as a give-away, I guess it was all right. I doubt I would have ever played the game otherwise, and I don’t see much need to go back and play the first one or bother with the third one when it comes out. In the end, if I hadn’t intended to review it, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to finish this game.