Hands-on / Gears of War 2 multiplayer

Along with Call of Duty: World at War and Street Fighter IV, Gears of War 2 proved to be one of the more popular games at the Eurogamer Expo. Tucked away at the very back of the exhibition hall, behind an impermeable 10 foot high barrier, hid the frantic multiplayer action, safe from those who didn’t fit the ‘+18 only’ bracket. Despite there being a queue that was constantly increasing in numbers, those with extreme patience were able to get multiple rounds of 4 v 4 annex on the brand new maps in Gears of War 2.

Having played the first Gears of War an insane amount of times (see what I did there?) I was keen to see whether a number of the criticisms directed towards the multiplayer have been fixed.

Most noticeably, the Halo 3 style matchmaking menus ensure that playing with a group of friends is significantly easier than it was in the original. Immediately, as I rolled into my first Gears 2 match on River, I could feel an improvement in the fluidity of the action. Transitioning between rolling, roadie-running and snapping to cover felt smoother. There seemed less of the pauses in between animations that plagued the first Gears of War.

As I made my way through the map, prior to any enemy encounters, I directed my attention towards the graphical improvements in Gears of War 2. Most of the tweaks Epic mentioned have made there way into the multiplayer. Much like in Canals, River has a bridge over a section of water that stretches the length of the map. Here, I noticed the water reacting to movement, gunfire and explosions with greater detail than in the first game. Character and weapon models also appear slightly more detailed, and pretty much everything in the environment benefits from the improved lighting.

I quickly cast aside the improved water physics, and made my way into one of two wooden towers that look over the map from opposite sides of the bridge. It was here that I picked up my first power weapon; the Torque Bow. With increased splash damage, players need to worry more about those torque bow shots that land in close proximity.

Shifting to the Lancer, the inclusion of stopping power — slowing enemies down by concentrated fire — makes Gears of War’s marque weapon much more deadly than it was in the original. However with the Lancer’s increased recoil, the longshot (sniper rifle) is still the weapon to use over long distances, even though its active-reload boost has been nerfed. Another good addition is prior to every game you can choose between the Hammerburst or Lancer as your starting weapon.

In the middle of this map sits the Mulcher, a weapon that can be fired from standing and can also be mounted on cover (the former slows down player movement considerably). Built like a minigun, the mulcher can rip through enemies with incredible power. It’s probably the most suppressive weapon in the Gears 2 arsenal. I was able to keep two members of the opposing team behind cover as they watched the other two try to make a run towards the capture point, only to be mowed down meters from where they started. Mounted on cover, the mulcher provides immense stopping power, but also leaves you very exposed to any one-hit-kill weapon.

As this was a LAN set-up, I obviously couldn’t recognize any sort of lag related problems, e.g. host advantage. But the shotgun appears to be much less effective without careful aim. Don’t expect a shotgun blind-fire to be as much of a instant kill as it was in the first Gears of War. Of the new additions, the flamethrower has a much greater reach than you would expect and the smoke grenades now have a concussive effect to them, knocking down those within range (although only for a couple of seconds).

Moving onto another new map, Pavilion, I participated in my first ever chainsaw battle. As I went into this play session with an impressive knowledge of weapon tweaks and adjustments, I immediately mashed the B-button until the minigame victory was mine. Minutes later, in my second chainsaw battle of the round, I came up against a worthy opponent who was able to turn our epic duel into a disappointing draw. This was something that I was unaware of – and I may be completely wrong about this – but it appears chainsaw battles can end in draws. However, I expect that those with turbo buttons on their controllers will never experience this.

As my last round of the day on River came to a close, I regretted not being able to try the improved Hammerburst, the burst-fire Gorgon pistol, or the scenic Avalanche map. It was in the dying seconds that I picked up the mortar, a weapon requiring both careful aim and a heap of luck, and proceeded to crush the final enemy push by shelling them at their spawn. Much like the Hammer of Dawn, it is a devastating weapon in the right hands, but completely useless in most other players.

Whilst Gears of War 2 multiplayer is by no means perfect (you’d be pushed to notice any improvements in between all that blood) it seems to play smoother and fairer than its predecessor. Anyone who has ever screamed “HOST!!!” down the microphone, as a random blast of the shotgun takes their head clean off, will appreciate the adjustments that Epic have made. But who knows how differently the game will play over Xbox LIVE on November 7. All it could take is the “blatantly dial-up” connection of a 10 year old kid in his basement to have most players cursing the unfairness of online multiplayer. Host advantage could be the deciding factor in whether this is a worthy contender to Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, or simply just their annoying younger brother.