Gears of War 2

The Baltimore Sun

(Microsoft Game Studios) Available on XBox 360. One to two players; up to 10 players online. Rated Mature for intense violence and strong language. Retail $59.99. ***

I must admit when the box boasted "a blockbuster experience," I was skeptical. Shooting games for all their bluster and visuals tend to be monotonous alone - only recouping their value during multiplayer matches. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Gears of War 2 lives up to its own hype.

The solo campaign benefits from a sharper plot than the original Gears. When we last left the warmongering humans of the planet Sera, they had flushed out their subterranean enemies, the Locust Horde, with a deadly "Lightmass Bomb." Yet six months later, the Locust survivors have resurfaced to wreak havoc and sink whole human cities. Out of options, the desperate humans gamble on taking the fight underground to the Horde's home turf.

The developers wisely switch up the game play and restrain the pacing for a more satisfying slog. Players battle it out in ruined buildings and debris-filled streets but also on moving convoys and in darkened tunnels. And the weapons and controls - while far from meager - won't overwhelm novice players.

This being a sequel, there are plenty of flashy upgrades like new weapons and the ability to use fallen enemies as cover - they are lovingly called "meatshields."

While it's a blockbuster experience, it's not an Academy Award-winning one. The game is staged much like slick Hollywood action sequences, but things get awkward when the bullets stop flying. The voice-acting is wooden at best, and Gears (like many of its peers) recruits a lifeless fem-bot to drone on about coordinates and such.

New this week: The year's most original game, Electronic Arts' Mirror's Edge, leaps to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. ... Activision's military franchise goes back to the 1940s in Call of Duty: World at War (360, PS3, Wii, DS). ... The Wii gets an original Star Wars title, LucasArts' The Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels.

Tim Swift

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