Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Gears of War 2

Epic Games

Xbox 360

Ultra-gruff ultra men growling gutter insults at the comically inept girl-man rookie? Cutscenes designed from the ground-up to make pubescent gun-loving USA-chanting retards feel warm and fuzzy inside? Killing, killing, killing in a world of beige and cat-vomit gray?
- Michael Jensen

The above comments from my compatriot offer the kind of illumination only a weary gamer can shed upon Gears of War 2. Overly tinged with what we think is existentialism, our response to the game is a little too like a Peggy Lee song for comfort: is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Or, you know, complaining about the fact that we’ve grown up and games – obviously – haven’t. Damnit.

Gears of War 2 is all too much – too many guns, too many explosions, too many subterranean monsters hell-bent on crippling the human race. There’s a vestigial story hidden somewhere in the melange of ultra-violence and gore, but for the escapist market CliffyB and Epic have been aiming at, it’s really outlived its purpose. After all, even Unreal started with a story, before devolving into various states of tournament FPS gibbing and ultra-gruff muscles with heads facing off against scantily clad minxes whose steel bikinis provided damage resistance equivalent to full-body armour. Even odds that Gears will do the same, before yet another hastily assembled grunts-versus-aliens plotline is hashed together to do justice to yet another interminably shiny graphics engine.

This is what happens, presumably, when you hire the writers last. And with the gameplay so relentlessly pure, fast-paced and, dammit, fun, you might well ask, who needs writers? Racing games like the Burnout and GT series don’t need them – they’re all about the cars and the crashes. Puzzle games arguably don’t need them – how much of a story can a match-three-blocks game require? (Puzzle Quest notwithstanding, I hasten to add.) Singstar has never needed a protagonist. But there’s an acceptance implicit in playing those titles – that blurredly fast cars, matching more than three blocks in a row or massacring ‘Take On Me’ in front of your tipsy flatmates are all that’s important to you: that’s what you like; that’s the thesis statement for the game. If you’re happy playing a game that is about killing, about the glories of Epic’s new pixel shader, about a consistent adrenaline rush being more important than a narrative arc, then Gears 2 may well be the game for you.

It’s not rocket science. Gears of War 2, for all its narrative flaws, is one of the most complete third-person shooters on the market. The game is everything a shooter has become, and at a potentially backwater stage in the Xbox 360’s lifecycle, it’s all you have any right to expect. And now that it’s over, can the adults in the room look forward to a new genre, perhaps with some kind of story attached? (We won’t even call them “games,” we promise – they can be “second-person protagonist explorations,” “interactive novels,” “industrial meta-fictions” or some shit.)

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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