In a week of playing this game I've already had more fun with it than any other game I've played. That's saying a hell of a lot. This game really is fantastic. It's not without its flaws, though. The die-hard Gears fanboy in me really wants to give this game an S simply because I love Gears so much, but I can't. It just doesn't deserve top marks, because while it has improved so much in its second iteration, those improvements have brought with them some frustrating flaws.
Its flaws are primarily found in multiplayer only, so I'll discuss them when I get to them. The Campaign however is almost blemish-free, and addresses almost all of the questions raised by the first game. With a focus on story and dialogue, you learn a lot more about the world of Sera, its history, its people and most importantly, the Gears you play as and with.
The dialogue has been criticized by some. I honestly can't understand why. This is Gears of War. You shouldn't need a thesaurus to understand it. And I'd have to say that "Ten shitloads" is an accurate way of saying the following, in fewer words: "There are so many locust that the term 'shitload' simply does not do their vast numbers justice". Seriously, what's wrong with "Ten shitloads"? It makes a hell of a lot of sense to me.
So yeah, there's a lot more dialogue, more cutscenes, more character development, new (awesome) weapons, and more subtle improvements to the engine than I can count. The upgraded lighting makes the game look so much nicer, although I do have a minor complaint that in most areas, it's either too light or too dark to see all the detail on the characters, so you often just look a washed out shade of grey, which becomes extremely disappointing when you arrive in an area with perfect lighting and realize just how incredibly bright and detailed all the armor and weapons are, and then the lighting's too bright again and you can't see how cool you look any more.
Overall the campaign was great. The story is intriguing and delves deeper than Gears of War 1. It also lasts a lot longer. My initial Hardcore play through took at least ten hours, but I was taking it slow and getting all the collectibles. You can really tell they've put a lot of effort into improving it.
I was extremely disappointed by the boss fight with Skorge, though. Come the fuck on, Epic. That wasn't even a god damn fight. I just fucking stood there for a few minutes, then pressed B for a while, then stood there a few more minutes, then pressed B again. Sorry, but fuck you, that's not a boss fight, it's just an incredibly dull quicktime event. Another boss fight in the game, in which you fight a giant fish, is the glitchiest and most unpredictable sequence in the game. I've never gotten stuck on terrain so much. Not only that, but a Lancer is required for the boss fight as you need a chainsaw. It supplies one - and only one - during the fight. I was using the Hammerburst when the fight began, so when I picked up the Lancer the Hammerburst was left kicking around on the floor. When grabbing some grenades, I accidentally picked up the Hammerburst, throwing the Lancer over the side of the boat in the process, meaning I had to watch helplessly without a chainsaw as the fish thing pulled the boat under. That was frustrating.
I highly doubt Epic tested the game's difficulty levels. I first played through it on Hardcore which was just about right, and then Casual to compare, and I'm currently playing through it solo on Insane mode. Insane is too hard by far and in some sections you have to rely entirely on luck, and hope to god that the horrendous AI of your teammates actually does something useful for a change. I've died countless times because they stand around like idiots instead of helping me. I can only assume that they designed Insane mode to be played co-operatively with a friend and not alone, because at some points your gun alone isn't enough, and the AI is never any help.
More evidence to suggest that Insane mode wasn't tested is Horde. Horde mode is an absolutely fantastic addition to the game, but Insane mode simply isn't possible in the later levels. There is just no way to beat it on Insane, even with 5 people. I refuse to accept that it can be done without cheating. That being said, my friends and I always end up laughing harder than ever when we're playing Horde together. It's a really fun game type.
The weapons in general have been improved, and they all look and sound a lot better. They've given the weapons more of a balance now (for the most part). They're all a lot more fun to use now, too. However, they've made some serious and unforgivable mistakes when it comes to multiplayer weapon balance. The chainsaw is now unstoppable. It was bad enough in Gears of War, but now there's no defense against it. They've made the shotgun unreliable - a direct hit with it at point blank range is now hit-or-miss. For some reason they've given the boomshot more ammo, meaning you can take out almost an entire team with it, and smoke grenades now knock people over, and have a blast radius so large that even if you're far away from a smoke, you'll still fall over. Not only this, but EVERYONE starts each round with a smoke grenade, meaning that at the start of every round, everybody falls over for a few long, boring, frustrating minutes until the smokes are all gone and you can finally play the damn game. Don't get me wrong, smokes are an excellent tactical tool, but giving all ten people one of them at the beginning of each round was a horrible, horrible idea.
Multiplayer is still indescribably good, though. With so many new game types to play, there's enough variety to keep people playing for years. Gears of War 1 had a huge following and was ridiculously fun online with only a couple of decent game types. Now there are several, and many, many more maps and weapons, and more players as well.
After reading this review, it probably sounds like the game has some serious flaws and that all I've done is complain about it, but it's a really good game and has improved drastically, and its flaws are minor when you look at the game as a whole. I'm positive that a patch will fix some of the game's more frustrating multiplayer issues, but in the meantime they can be avoided by making good use of tactics and not doing anything stupid. Although that last part is easier said than done.
Final verdict: A
Campaign play time: 10+ hours
Addendum: It is worth noting that the multiplayer at launch, and for a significant period of time afterwards (until Title Update 6 to be precise) sucked huge steaming piles of shit. Now, after update 6, it's playable, and actually pretty fun, but nowhere near perfect and still has tons of bugs. At the time of writing this review, I hadn't played very much multiplayer. If I had known then what I know now, I would probably have rated this game lower.