Tech: Gears of War 2
Lead designer Cliff Bleszinski has famously described "Gears of War 2" as a "bigger, better, and more badass" version of the original. For the most part, he's right:
Emotional music from DeVotchKa notwithstanding, Gears 2 is the same testosterone-fueled gorefest you remember, just amplified in a number of key ways. It's sure to be the blockbuster hit Microsoft needed this holiday season, so this review's mostly about dissecting what does and doesn't work with its new gameplay systems rather than to sway potential purchasers. The singleplayer campaign is good, with some new action setpieces and vehicle sequences, but I figure that real longevity will come from multiplayer matches over Xbox Live.
The big feature of Gears 2 multiplayer for me is that there are more tactics this time around. Assaulting enemy positions is much easier, for instance, since if you down one enemy, the new human shield mechanic allows you to use him as portable cover. It's no longer always suicide to be caught in a 2-on-1 or 3-on-1 scenario, depending on where everyone is. Your shield takes damage over time, but it can absorb the blast from even heavy weapons without too much trouble.
The grenades have been completely revamped - smoke grenades now knock people down, making them an important resource instead of a useless novelty. There's a new poison gas grenade that works great for temporary area denial. Finally, you can tag grenades onto walls for use as proximity mines - very important for protecting your rear and flanks. This also slows down the pace of play considerably; in the first Gears, it seemed like every game devolved into close range shotgun battles, but planted grenades should now dissuade rushers.
There are, of course, new weapons. The new heavy weapons, the mortar and minigun, can easily turn the tide of the match, but the user is vulnerable and has to be protected by teammates. Shelling dug-in defenders from afar with the mortar is particularly satisfying. The boomshield can be planted in the ground to provide semipermanent cover, a fact that clever teams will find ways to exploit in the game's many competitive modes.
The best of these new gametypes is probably Guardian, which is a twist on the old Assassination found in the original Gears. One player on each team is the Leader, and while the Leader is alive, killed team members respawn infinitely. Protecting the Leader becomes incredibly important, and it inspires some interesting attack and defense planning.
The changes aren't all good, though. The game still has no character customization (the RPG-lite "Call of Duty 4" multiplayer has proven to be wildly popular, so this omission is puzzling), the weapon selection does feel constrained at times (I'm guessing 95% of all kills are still made with either the Lancer assault rifle or with the shotgun), and chainsawing people has become almost too easy, especially compared with the difficulty of actually downing someone with the revised shotgun. Still, this is going to be the hot game for Xbox Live this holiday season.