The sequel plays essentially the same as the original, but it's a better and more varied experience. The first game was a pretty limited cover-based shooter with some occasional melee combat. Gears of War 2 mixes up the basic gameplay by including a few new enemy types, most notably some classes of larger enemies that do not rely on cover, instead advancing on the player character directly. Breaking up the standard shootouts are many sections of alternative play styles, including a variety of on-rails and vehicular segments, a Bowser's Castle-type stage full of lethal contraptions, and a few really crappy boss fights. Most memorable in co-op was a short mission that required each player to lift one end of a heavy trunk, reducing movement to a coordinated three-legged race. Comparable to the rappelling and car chase sequences of Metal Gear Solid, these bits may not be fully realized or altogether successful, but they keep the gameplay from becoming monotonous, and most are thankfully short enough to keep from wearing out their welcomes.
The core shooting action still provides the most fun, but it remains limited in scope. Despite being able to move and shoot at the same time, the Gears of War characters never feel as versatile as, for example, the heroes of recent Resident Evil titles. The clumsy melee attacks come into play only when smaller enemies are fool enough to charge at you. The majority of the time, you just exchange fire at long range from behind cover, and unless you have a sniper rifle for headshots, it doesn't really matter where on the body or even with what weapon you tag the enemy.
After having taken much criticism concerning the shallow plot of the first game, developer Epic Games made much of its recruitment of novelist Joshua Ortega to script the sequel. I'd be surprised if any players had actually heard of Ortega before this, and Epic was clearly patronizingly selling with his nebulous profession rather than his name or past works, but his addition definitely shows as an asset, as Gears of War 2 features a much stronger story than the last game. At least in parts. It has some dramatic moments, but it's spottily implemented and flimsily held together, and, once again, I rarely knew how or why the characters were in a given location. It left me pondering what an unusual office it must have been to serve as writer on a project that so blatantly did not begin with the script. Or rather, the design team must have had its own disjointed script of set pieces and environments already in mind, which Ortega then had to screw together and fit his plot around. To be fair, I hear many blockbuster movies are produced the same way. But why must that be the ideal that every triple-A video game aspires toward?
For all the complaints of Western critics about the passivity of the Metal Gear cut scenes, never have I found the disconnect between game and story so jarring as in Gears of War 2. There are the little things, like how these characters are able to go through traumatic experiences, only to emerge bloodthirsty as ever, as they mow down their enemies while gloatingly calling them "grubs" and "bitches." Perhaps these could be taken as signs that their psyches snapped long ago from the alien wars, but I know better than to think too deeply about that. The real issue with Gears of War 2 is that the narrative arc does not at all agree with the interactive progression. The story reaches its climax midway through the fourth chapter, but instead of arriving at appropriate resolution at the end of that act, the player must still fight through one more final full-length chapter. Epic seemed determined to save its biggest interactive set pieces for the finale, but, whatever the developer may have intended, the reality was that I had become more invested in the plot than in the gameplay, so that when the final chapter strayed from the engaging earlier threads to move on instead to a practically unrelated episode, I no longer cared how big the action got, because it could only be anticlimactic within the narrative structure.
Then there were those damn "active briefing" segments in both games, where, instead of cutting to a cinematic, characters would simply put away their guns and activate their earpieces to receive new orders. The transition is meant to appear seamless, and players are expected to continue proceeding forward even as their characters converse. Except that you can only walk at the slowest gear. Personally, I found this so much more frustrating than the interminable MGS4 cut scenes. I generally don't mind video games that can shift between active and passive modes. If I see a movie coming on, it triggers a switch in my brain telling me to relax and enjoy the show. It can be both a reward and a relief. I'm not so ADD that my fingers need always be pounding buttons. Gears of War thinks it knows better, however, and presents the player with a transparent illusion of interactivity, whereby you can tilt the stick to move your character around, but you'll quickly tire at feeling unable to do anything but inch along the path that the game leads you on. Because there's no obvious cut to cinematic, it's not a clean break from the action, and so my brain is still set for battle.
While, as a story it dragged on too long, the campaign was actually incredibly short. The game shrewdly omits any sort of clock, preventing me from determining exactly how short it was, but it could not have been ten hours. Without anything to unlock or upgrade, neither is there much incentive to revisit stages. And, however active the online community may be, the cover-based gameplay was clearly never designed for competitive multiplayer. The cooperative "Horde" mode offers perhaps a more balanced take on the Resident Evil "Mercenaries" concept, but it's disappointing that the different playable characters do not come with unique moves or animations. Honestly, I don't really see myself returning to the game now that I've beaten it.
Although I am glad I waited for it to drop in price before picking it up, I did still have fun with Gears of War 2. Whatever my complaints, it is undeniably a well-made and entertaining experience for most of its short duration. At its very best, it does feel like an interactive summer blockbuster, which, right in the introduction in the manual, director Cliff Bleszinski states was exactly his team's aim. Am I a fool to ask for more than that?