Whether you realize it or not, Gears of War 2 is the most important title for Microsoft this holiday season. Promising a longer and more story focused experience than the 2006 award-winning original, Epic Games hopes the return of Marcus and Dom will resonate with story loving gamers of a post BioShock, Portal world. We had a chance to play through the first act of the final version of Gears of War 2 recently, jump in to find out if the beginning of the anticipated shooter starts off strong or leaves us wishing for more.
Disclaimer: While major story elements have been made purposely vague in this article we should qualify that some of the following feature contains spoilers of the characters and scenarios in Act One of Gears of War 2.
"Humanity faces extinction unless we end this war now," Chairman Prescott yells to a crowd of COG soldiers as the duo of Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago land onto safe soil near the newly motivated and terrified crowd. The speech signifies the beginning of Gears of War 2 -- the anticipated sequel to the 2006 award-winning shooter.
While it included an amazing gameplay experience, the original story of Gears of War left much to be desired. Too many holes were punched into the past and future of the characters with very little in the way of memorable story development. Gears are bad asses and Locust require killing, that much we were sure of. The introductory sequence of Gears of War 2 showcases the shift of storytelling the game hopes to make. Dom is in search of his wife Maria and scours the world for any lead to her whereabouts. Marcus is there to continue the fight as well as assist his friend in his quest. Immediately the player is thrust into more character development in the first few minutes of Gears of War 2 than was ever apparent in the original game.
Six months after detonating the light mass bomb within the Locust nest, the 15-year-long war between both sides continues. As the Gears suit up for an impeding assault we learn new information has shifted this war from one of survival to all out extinction and the upcoming assault on Locust turf is the last hope for humanity. Nested in one of the last safe areas of the fictional world of Sera, the city of Jacinto welcomes the Gears and introduces Marcus and Dom to the latest member of Delta Squad: Ben Carmine, rookie soldier and brother of dead fan favorite Anthony Carmine.
Eventually the recon led to an all out invasion, as the Jacinto Hospital -- the base of operations for the Gears -- was infiltrated by Drones. The introductory scene to the Drone attack works similarly to the attack in the original Gears, a barricaded door is cutout and blown away which leads to a rush of enemies. Immediately the promised sense of scale is apparent as more Drones than we'd ever seen in such a small area rush the room -- a room that has been prepped for their arrival by a stockpile of hydrogen tanks.
As the Drones walk into, what they assume is an empty courtyard, a steady stream of fire from my newer looking Lancer punctures the tanks and engulfs the room in flames taking everything out in its path. Body parts are flying and fire pops out of the screen like it hasn't in the series before. This is an epic beginning to Gears of War 2.
Room after room we clear the hospital with the help of A.I. controlled Dom and new Gears character warrior/philosopher Tai Kaliso. Throughout the rooms we're introduced to new elements and tweaked mechanics from the first title. No longer does brushing a wall during a roadie-run mean the player will be placed into cover accidentally, the system feels less sticky. Players can also interact with the environment as Marcus will automatically adjust movable items into a cover formation as evidenced by turning a table over to create cover in an open room.
Eventually we accomplished our task and it was off to a convoy as the Gears toward the main objective: drill into the Locust underworld and bring the fight to the enemy. This sequence, nearly identical to the first gameplay footage showcased when Gears of War 2 was announced, is another example of the different venues of battle promised in the game. Players are stationary and it is the world that moves. Facing off against Reavers and Drones armed with grappling hooks to board your transport vehicle -- the Assault Derrick 314 nicknamed "Betty" by another new character, driver and engineer Dizzy Wallin -- the sequence turns into a high speed chase for an upcoming bridge to the convoy's destination.
Again we're shown the sense of scale the developer at Epic is shooting for in this installment of Gears of War 2. The entire sequence faced us off against an impressive number of Drones, Reavers and a few Brumaks -- a first for console Gears players.
After a stop for repairs and the, now iconic, scene of the Derrick ramming into a blinded Brumak from the original gameplay footage, the assault is ended and the convoy makes its way through a deserted city and blackened tunnel. Inching through the environment becomes a battle of survival against small enemies known as Tickers. These over sized beetles are outfitted with explosives and serve as walking time bombs for the Locust Horde.
As we make our way through the town, opting to hit the rooftops with Carmine as Dom and Tai take the route of a nearby hotel, we're introduced to a new super weapon: the mortar shooter. From across the road Dom calls out to us to use the mortar gun to blow a hole into the building he and Tai are attempting to infiltrate. Firing the weapon into the air at it's suggested distance sends countless mortar shells hurling to the ground, grinding up enemies and opening the building up for infiltration.
Eventually, and with some help from the Betty, we make our way through the dark tunnel system and arrive at our destination. Before we're able to complete the objective a large amount of opposition shows up. A pair of Boomers, countless drones and even mortar equipped enemies attempt to end Betty's push to the end zone. The firefight lasts minutes and leaves the landscape red with Locust blood when completed. Equipped with the Grindlift pods necessary for us to drill into the ground to reach the Locust world beneath us, the Derrick sets up each pod in sequence ready for release.
As Dom and Marcus strap into their Grindlift a new terror emerges, Skorge. The staff wielding menace lands in the middle of the fight and squares off against Dizzy and Tai -- the beginnings of an epic battle. Attempting to jump out and help their brothers in arms, Marcus and Dom can only watch as Skorge defends every attack thrown at him with scary precision and deadliness before the Grindlift seals and sends the pair into the Locust occupied area below.
Seems like a guy who calls the shots, Marcus and Dom agree regarding the newly revealed enemy. "He makes RAAM look like a g**damned pushover," Marcus proclaims. The conversation tells us, it won't be the last we'll see of Skorge.
Act One of Gears of War 2 sets the stage for one of the most anticipated and important titles in the Microsoft camp for this holiday season. With hefty competition from the PlayStation 3, Gears of War 2 needs to turn the dial up on every aspect of scale, story and suspense. Act One in the bag we can say the beginning fires on all cylinders and hope the rest of the experience follows suit.