'Gears of War 2'

The hottest market in videogames may be casual players, but hardcore gamers still want their red meat -- and that's exactly what "Gears of War 2" provides.

The hottest market in videogames may be casual players, but hardcore gamers still want their red meat — and that’s exactly what “Gears of War 2″ provides. Finely tuned, bombastic and relentlessly violent, this sequel to 2006′s bestseller raises the bar in nearly every way, particularly in its creative and highly addictive online gameplay. “Gears 2′s” only major shortcoming is a mawkish and cliche-ridden story, but such concerns are unlikely to slow the hordes of young men who will slaughter the original’s 5 million-unit sales mark.

When it launched two years ago, “Gears of War” stood out from Microsoft’s other Xbox action franchise “Halo” for its sheer heaviness. Whereas “Halo’s” Master Chief bounds through the air and blasts his opponents with lasers, here, the soldiers known as “gears,” all of whom sport thick armor and biceps bigger than their heads, keep their feet planted firmly on the ground as they rumble across the screen, splattering blood with their grisly kills. The signature moment in any “Gears” session comes when players use a combo chainsaw/rifle to dice an enemy in two. In “Gears 2,” it’s been updated to allow players to slice from the bottom up in a move aptly dubbed “chainsodomy.”

Subtle, this game ain’t.

Developer Epic seems to have put the most creative energy into online multiplayer, an afterthought for the first “Gears”that proved surprisingly popular. Sequel features several original new game types that up the need for strategic cooperation while still keeping violence front and center. The best is called “submission,” a twist on capture-the-flag in which the “flag” is a computer-controlled human who’s trying to fight off both teams and has to be forcibly dragged back to base.

“Gears 2″ also features a compelling new online cooperative mode called “horde,” in which up to five players work together to fight wave after wave of aliens bent on slaughtering them. With each wave getting tougher and ammunition in limited supply, horde adds a survival-horror element to “Gears” while forcing players to work together intelligently.

Horde also shows off “Gears 2′s” best technological achievement: brilliant artificial intelligence. Whereas the enemies in most action games tend to stand still and let themselves get shot, the aliens in “Gears” hide, flank and work together so effectively that players will find themselves taking notes on strategy.

The same technology is at work in “Gears 2′s” one- or two-person story mode, but without much creative design. Instead of re-thinking this part of the game, Epic’s mantra seems to have been “more.” There’s nothing wrong with a longer campaign mode, of course, if for no other reason than to provide good training for multiplayer. There are several cool new weapons and alien types, as well as upgraded graphics, but the basic gameplay, with the focus on taking cover and precise re-loading, as well as the dismal gray visual design, is little changed from the first “Gears.”

Though the setup of the original was intriguing enough — humans struggling for survival after a surprise alien invasion devastates their world — the actual plot never came together coherently. Developer Epic could have responded by minimizing story this time around, but instead brought plot, emotion and character to the forefront. It’s a poor decision, since the plot is formulaic, the emotions overwrought and the characters shallow, badly voiced and occasionally offensive. From the bumbling Delta Squad rookie member nicknamed “rook” (want to take a bet on his fate?) to the jive-talking African-American to the veteran who stares at a crumpled picture of his wife as he wonders if she’s alive, there’s barely a single character beat that isn’t cringe-inducing. As for the guy named Dizzy who wears a cowboy hat and talks like Yosemite Sam, the less said, the better.

One can only hope that New Line is planning to use the broad strokes of the “Gears of War” canon only, rather than many specific plot elements, in its forthcoming film. Though they probably won’t be able to resist a little chainsodomy.

Gears of War 2

Rated M. $60

Production

A Microsoft Game Studios presentation of a game developed by Epic Games for the Xbox 360.

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