In 2006, Gears Of War came off like an incredibly polished proof of concept. Instead of having gamers charge in and kill everything, it wanted them to hunker behind fallen columns and overturned cars… then kill everything. Though Gears was slower and bulkier than most twitchy action games, the action was oddly visceral. Somehow, having to pump a hundred bullets into an enemy rather than 10 was an appealing change of pace.
The sequel feels more like Gears 1.5 than Gears Of War 2. Though it's prettier than the last installment, with more environmental variety, the core gameplay is essentially unchanged. Impossibly bulky soldier characters still move with the grace of a bus with four flat tires, and their gunplay against grunting alien enemies is methodical as ever: duck behind cover, fire, run to a new position, repeat. You can rarely create cover, and though bullets appear to chip away at objects, you also can't take it away. Adding more layers to the cover system would have elevated Gears 2 to higher sequel status.
Yet the action crackles to life in the online co-op modes. Offline, hero Marcus Fenix is typically accompanied by Dom, a CPU-controlled partner. The dynamic is far more interesting when another human pulls Dom's strings; you can explore the many pathways to flank enemies, and indulge yourself with weaponry like mortars and massive chain guns that are otherwise too cumbersome to use in single-player mode.
Beyond the game: Gears' cinematic aspirations are more obvious than ever as the story (the middle chapter of a planned trilogy) begins to explain your alien enemies' origin. But dialogue and characterization remain laughable. The upside is a new score from film composer Steve Jablonsky. Occasionally, his tunes echo music from David Lynch's Dune. Given the giant worms' role in this story, that might not be coincidence.
Worth playing for: Online modes like Submission, where a soldier becomes an unwilling stand-in for the object of Capture The Flag, and Horde, which asks up to five players to survive 50 waves of increasingly resilient enemies. The former is creepy, but frantic; the latter is uncommonly addictive.
Frustration sets in when: You're asked to suffer dull breaks in the action like on-rails vehicle segments and a slog through giant monster guts.
Final judgment: Highly addictive online modes dull the pain of mundane offline play.