There's a fine line in storytelling between too much and not enough, especially in video games.
As a valid form of entertainment, games have long suffered from the notion that plotlines are extraneous, a conceit for the action, which is, in fact, what they are in most titles. Given their latent interactivity and potential complexity, however, it's easy to argue games are much more immersive than celluloid (if not books).
Unfortunately, Gears of War 2, the Xbox 360 mega-release hitting shelves today, has yet to strike the right balance, plotwise.
The original featured every pop-culture cliche known to man: meat-headed space marines, wisecracking references to films and music (including nods to Clerks, Deliverance and MC Hammer) and a healthy dose of borrowing from games like Bionic Commando, kill.switch and Resident Evil 4. But while the graphics were beautiful and the action intense (both carryovers here), there was an overall dearth of storyline.
That was acceptable in a hardcore shooter aimed at the frat-boy multiplayer set. Who cared what Marcus Fenix was thinking while exploring his father's ruined home or being pressed back into service? I've got BEMs to kill.
And yet. So to remedy lingering criticisms from the dozen or so people actually interested in the campaign mode, Cliff Bleszinski and developer Epic have fleshed out Gears 2 so much they almost forgot to make it a game.
The story is typical fare: The Locust are back, stronger than ever. Fenix is a regular ol' gear again and nothing is right in the world of Sera. But now the COG is taking the fight underground, dropping gears into the Hollow and looking for the Locust queen.
That should be enough for most Gears-heads. But we're subjected to healthy doses of exposition at every turn, of Dom whining for his wife, of every NPC droning on and on about his motivation. (I've yet to really see if this is a problem with Sony's similar Resistance 2, which came out on Tuesday — I didn't get a review copy in time for its release).
Firefights seem a bit too spread out and simplified, and changing the easter egg pickup from COG tags to intel really does make a blissfully mindless shooter like this seem like too much work. I suggest the "hardcore" setting.
But is Gears a good game? Absolutely. Get past the overdose of melodrama and machismo, and Epic has simply improved the winning formula from the original. There's plenty of headshots and bolo grenades to go around, with some fun new stuff, too, like flamethrowers and mortars. It's a multiplayer wonderland, that now allows up to 10 players simultaneously and fun modes like Wingman and Submission. For online players, the fun won't stop for a long time.
For us poor campaigners, though, it can be a case of being careful what you wish for. There's a difference between being immersive and being distracting. If I wanted to watch a game instead of play it, I'd break out Mass Effect.
Still, Delta Squad is going to patrol my 360 for weeks anyway.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at email@example.com.