Lots of people consider innovation the most important thing about game design. If a game isn't doing something new, if it isn't blowing you away at every step, then you start to wonder if it's worth your time. Think of how many often people give sequels the short end of the stick. If a game is too much like its predecessor, people can get antsy.
Well Gears of War 2 tries to innovate. Maybe it doesn't try to innovate in the way that other games do, exploring wild new horizons of exploration and interaction, but it does have a whole level inside of a giant worm that lives underground and eats rocks. Also, they put you in a car again. The innovation is there is not so much the vehicle mission. No, the innovation is that it sucks marginally less than the vehicle mission in the original Gears of War.
There are games out there that we want to try something different. Everyone got pretty wiped on Katamari Damacy after awhile because the soulless execs felt the need to milk that cow until the udders bled. These games exist and, on the whole, I'd say we want people trying things that are exciting and new. This is the same logic that says that we don’t want every film coming out of Hollywood to be directed by Michael Bay and starring Martin Lawrence, even if Bad Boys was a pretty sweet flick.
The difference is this: from the start, Gears of War was not exactly on par with the contemporary videogame greats. Regardless of your thoughts on Metal Gear Solid the series certainly prompts discussion. I am willing to believe the Gears series prompts discussion too, I just have a feeling it mostly happens over Xbox Live headsets and it’s the sort of thing that my mother must never hear.
Stuff like Katamari and Metal Gear are like movies directed by some French guy with a funny name that your ex-girlfriend drags you to go watch and the whole time she and her friend are tittering along about how sad the main character’s life is when really he just seems like a douchey loser, and if he’d stop being an awkward klutz all the time then maybe he’d get the girl. Risky, talky, weird games flop more often than they succeed, but we want them to keep doing it because when they win, they win big.
Gears of War, at one point in its life, held no pretensions of being that kind of game. It was like Total Recall. That movie is awesome because Quaid has to use the reactor to save Mars and he's going to do it even if it means he’s gonna have to put a bullet in Sharon Stone’s head and chop Michael Ironside's arms off and throw them down an elevator shaft. If there was a purpose to all the alien killing in Gears of War I don't remember it clearly. I can say that there was at least one point where I was told to do something specific involving a bomb. Then the characters did it in a cutscene. This, of course, prompted swarms of evil aliens to explode from the very soil of the planet in an attempt to halt our progress. Well we dispatched them but good! Then we killed some more aliens! Eventually we were on a train. Then the game ended. It was radiant in its simplicity.
Gears of War 2 tries to get all fancy. Problem is, we all know even if you put a pig in a dress you can't send it to prom. Or, I guess you can send it to prom but it'll get made fun of and develop an eating disorder. And why shouldn't it? That pig was destined to become bacon, and as bacon it would’ve made so many people happy. Now it’s trying to gussy itself up as some sort of "fancy" pig and look where that’s gotten us: nowhere. We don't even have any bacon. We were all expecting bacon!
My metaphor is a little tortured, because Gears of War 2 is still a fantastically fun game, but it's really only a fantastically fun game when it's playing exactly like the first one did. All the extra stuff (platforming in worm levels, too-long vehicle missions, the conclusion of the subplot with Dom's wife that teeters between laughably bad and horrendously offensive) is there because we’re supposed to believe that we’ve been given an explosive evolution of form, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. Turns out nobody likes butterflies. We're all eight year old boys at heart and, despite all the kvetching about innovation, we all want to play with slimy caterpillars. And, honestly, that butterfly wasn’t that cute anyway. Let me tell you, I've seen about a thousand butterflies in my day, and none of them were as beautiful as the caterpillar of Gears of War.
Cliff Blezinski, the guy who made this game, said Gears of War 2 would make you cry. Or maybe some guy the internet said Cliff said that, and if that kind of criteria is good enough for the internet news blogs then it's good enough for me. The stuff with Dom's wife, which I'm sure is what he was talking about, didn't really tug at my heartstrings. I guess I might have shed a few tears because the vehicle mission went on so long that I was convinced I had died and I was now in hell and my endless torment was being sentenced to drive a stupid tank over a frozen lake for all eternity and that shocking revelation rent my very soul. Does that count? I somehow feel that isn't what CliffyB meant.
Not every game should be dumb. Game design like that gave us the mediocre, "me too!" series God of War. Some games, though, some games just do dumb SO GOOD. The majority of Gears of War 2 still consists of you and a co-op buddy hiding behind shattered concrete walls, tossing grenades and standing up just long enough to shoot a subterranean lizardman in the face with a shotgun. Guess what CliffyB (and everyone else at Epic): THAT’S IS NOT A PROBLEM THAT NEEDS FIXING, THAT'S THE GOOD PART OF THE GAME. When Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery were approached by Jesus himself and he handed them the script to the movie that would later be known as The Rock they didn’t ask what the intertextual impact of their actions would be. No, they set up a production studio and the next day they were firing a rocket into the chest of the guy from Candyman.
Don’t even give us a story. We don’t need it. Just put me in a bunch of rooms with a bunch of monsters. And then funnel me into the next room with the next group of monsters. If there has to be a cutscene, me and my computer buddy should probably just high five each other and shout "Fuck yeah!" Maybe put me in a rowboat fighting a kraken for some reason, I don’t know. That crap was awesome! Just, and I swear to god I’m serious here, if there is another three legged race in Gears of War 3 I will murder your families. Don’t get cute with me. If even the first syllable of 'innovation' passes your lips, I will slap the taste out of your mouth.
Game's pretty good, though. The flamethrower is sweet.