Gamers rejoice: This year's most eagerly anticipated Xbox 360 shooter--and perhaps the most eagerly awaited game of the year--was released this past week. Yes, I'm talking about Gears of War 2, the sequel to the best Xbox 360 game of 2006 (see my review) and arguably one of the greatest single player video game experiences of all time. I've been putting Gears of War 2 (GOW2) through the paces over the past few days and I'm happy to report that the wait was worth it: The single player game is bigger and better than that of its predecessor, which is saying something. And the multiplayer experience, while not on par with top-tier online titles like Call of Duty 4 (COD4, see my review) is also much improved. And that's a big deal because the multiplayer component of the original GOW was about as weak as the single player component was strong. (See my GOW multiplayer review for details.)

Single player

GOW2, like its predecessor, offers a masterful and immersive single player experience that must be seen to be believed. Everything that was right about the original comes through in the sequel, but the scope of the story and everything in it is so much bigger than before. Consider this single example: In the original GOW, developers at Epic had to cut out a scene in which you battle it out with a giant dinosaur-like creature called the Brumak. That battle was later added to the PC version of GOW (see my review), thanks to that platform's greater storage possibilities. But in GOW, you battle against several Brumaks in the first few minutes of gameplay. And as the game progresses, the size and scope of the creatures you battle--and the environments you battle within--are far greater than anything in the original. There's a Godzilla-sized worm/snake that destroys entire cities by tunneling beneath them. And other similarly-sized fish that tries to capsize your boat as you head for a showdown in the enemy stronghold. And these creatures aren't just background graphics. You battle both of them first-hand, and to dramatic effect.

From a plot standpoint, GOW2 starts off where the original ended: You again play Marcus Feenix and you again are leading the Delta squad in the battle to save humanity itself from the seemingly evil alien Locust. At the end of GOW, you thought you had destroyed the Locust for good, but all you really did was rile them up more than ever. And now they're destroying all of the cities on the human's home world, one by one. As GOW2 opens, only a handful of human cities are left and the Locust are winning the war.

I mentioned that GOW2 was bigger and better than the original, and that point applies to the plot as well as every other aspect of the game. The in-game characters are much more fleshed out, annoyingly so in one case, and are more realistic and believable as a result. The stakes this time around are even higher, and that fact is brought home to startling effect in the epic battles in which you engage. On the minus side, the plot-driven cut-scenes seem to eat up more game time than they did in the original. But then the story is so better it almost doesn't matter. The net effect is a hugely immersive experience. It's awesome.

Speaking of battles, some of the fights you get into this time around are so epic in scope they're hard to even explain. All the cover-based close combat is still there, sure, but there are also humongous scenes in which hundreds of enemies move independently around the battlefield, all while enormous vehicles and creatures move among them. Even the vehicle sequences--a huge problem in the first game--are much improved and even enjoyable, which is saying something. There are almost no bad action moments at all.


Everything in Gears of War 2 is bigger and better than in the stellar original.

And the new environments aren't just bigger. They're also a lot more colorful and diverse: Like the original, GOW2 showcases an incredibly rich and believable world, but this time the all-gray palette of GOW has been updated with splashes of color, not to mention wonderfully different levels. Yes, you go inside and out, and in caves, but this time you'll witness awesome razor hail in addition to rain, worlds of ice and water and fire, and massive underground caverns and worlds that dwarf anything in the original. Sometimes the effects are massive and awe-inspiring, and sometimes it as simple as turning out the lights and seeing eyes appear in the darkness: Both are used to great effect. Again, the theme here is bigger and better, and GOW2 delivers it in spades.

There are new weapons, finishing moves, and death effects to please GOW fans. There are new enemies and creatures, new vehicles and places. There are new Delta Squad members, and we get our first peek at the leadership of both the humans and the Locust. If you're familiar with the original, you'll love the new game. And if you somehow missed the first one--and really, shame on your for that--you can jump right into part 2 easily enough, thanks to a lame (but optional) training sequence at the beginning. In many ways, the original GOW was just a set up for this game. And yes, GOW2 is very clearly just the set up for a third title as well. I can't wait.

One thing I should also mention is that Epic improved Gears' single-player co-op mode in a few important ways. You can jump in and out of someone else's single player experience seamlessly as before. But now each player can set their own difficulty levels independent of the other. And you can drop in and out over Xbox Live without disrupting games. It's pretty impressive.

Put simply, the Gears of War 2 single player experience is the best I've seen this year, and reason enough to own this game. While it's still a bit early to crown this game the best of 2008, it's certainly running away with the title so far.

Multiplayer

I've never understood why the original GOW was so popular online. It was an absolutely miserable online game, and though Epic tried to correct this over time with new game types and maps, GOW never really rose above the problems that dogged this title when it first appeared. There is so much wrong with it, it's hard to even know where to start. And that it came from the same people responsible for Unreal Tournament 2004 (UT2004), arguably the greatest multiplayer shooter of all time, makes it all the more perplexing.

Flash forward two years and GOW2 shows that Epic has learned its lesson, at least somewhat. We get ten multiplayer maps this time, plus five freely downloadable maps from the original GOW, albeit with slightly improved (and more colorful) graphics. Sadly, the core multiplayer experience is the same as with the original: Players trod at ground level only and move like they're wearing overly-full diapers. In most multiplayer game types, the first time you die, you're out until the round ends. (Sort of. See below.)

So why is GOW2 multiplayer not the stinkbomb that the original was? Two reasons. First, Epic has provided a better healing mechanism so that downed players who haven't been finished off with a boot stomp or other finishing move can be revived by teammates more easily. Second, the matchmaking system in GOW2 is about a million times better than with GOW: You're automatically matched according to skill, and then everyone gets to vote on the game type (from within a range of types) and then the map. It's all very democratic, and it works quite well.


Multiplayer is improved as well, and some classic levels from the original are back ... and colorized.

There are also new game types, including the co-op-like Horde mode in which teams of players compete together against increasingly difficult and large hordes of enemy troops. King of the Hill finally hits the GOW console world, and a new two-player-team mode called Wingman lets you take on multiple teams of players with a friend.

GOW2 multiplayer will never outshine the Call of Duty games, especially COD4 and the COD5 World at War multiplayer beta. But then it's really a different kind of game. And I have no doubt it will be as popular online as was GOW. At least this time it deserves to be.

Not-so-final thoughts

Gears of War 2 exceeds its stellar predecessor in every possible way, and that's pretty impressive given how good the original was. The single player experience takes the incredible plot and gameplay from GOW and makes it bigger and better, and even more playable. And the multiplayer experience, which was a sad joke in the original, is now not just tolerable but actually enjoyable. If you're already a fan of the original or an avid shooter, you need to check out GOW2. It really delivers. I'll need to wait on Call of Duty 5 before the "game of the year" accolades begin, by I have a hard time imagining another game outclassing GOW2 at this point, especially the single player experience. Highly recommended.