One thing I know that "Gears of War 2" lead creator, Cliff Bleszinski, and I have in common is that we both grew up playing Nintendo games.
He's got the famously documented "Super Mario Bros." high score printed in the first issue of Nintendo Power.
I've got an NES in the closet of my childhood bedroom with some SNES instruction manuals I saved for some reason.
And so I think Bleszinski and I are both attuned to what Nintendo's lead designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, and the many creators who worked under him, put into the company's best games. There's a certain style of gameplay, a certain feel. It has nothing to do with colorful graphics our springy sound effects. There's a certain way a Miyamoto game progresses. Not many other games have it. But some do, like "Portal," for example.
Of all the non-Nintendo games I've played this year so far, the only one that has that feel is "Gears of War 2." Bloody chainsaw battles aside, this game feels like something Miyamoto touched.
The best Miyamoto games have always been exceptional at teaching their players to do extraordinary things, one enjoyable, playable step at a time. You're first encouraged to jump in "Super Mario Bros." so you can avoid a Goomba. As soon as you master that, you're using that jump to break a brick. As soon as you're good at breaking bricks, you find that breaking bricks lets you find secret passages. And so on. In every "Zelda" dungeon ever made, you're given a new tool that you're forced to use, usually initially, just to get out of the room you found it in. Then you usually have to use it to beat that dungeon's boss. And after that, with that on-the-job training done, you're usually good enough to start improvising.
Like a "Mario" or "Zelda," ["Gears of War 2" is] a game that teaches its players in subtle ways to do amazing things.
All of that is also the essence of gameplay in "Gears of War 2." Like a "Mario" or "Zelda," it's a game that teaches its players in subtle ways to do amazing things. You learn most of the best moves safely at first. For example, you'll get the game's new mortar weapon, a challenging but potent device for destroying crowds of enemies at a distance. You're made to use it in fairly safe quarters. Then you'll be forced to use it -- and only it -- to finish a level. Then you have it on the battlefield and are free to improvise.
I was talking to Bleszinski earlier this week for a spoiler-filled interview I'll run once more people have had a chance to play the game. I told him that I kept thinking of Miyamoto while playing his game and we talked about the flow of Nintendo's signature games. Bleszinski was flattered by the compliment and pointed out, of course, that "that's just good game design." It is, but it still can be rare.
Some of the best Miyamoto game moments are those that teach without you realizing you're being taught. You know something seems strange about the bushes in "Zelda" but you only realize that you learned to watch for that later when you discover that you can burn things. And back you rush to burn that bush and find a hidden entrance. "Gears 2" has that. In one exceptional mid-game moment you learn that the reason you were just subtly encouraged to learn the pathway of a darkened hallway is because you now have to fight back through it with a rather unusual bit of cargo tethered to your character. Without having just been taught the dimensions of the hallway you'd be lost. Having been taught them, a sudden ambush doesn't instill panic. You know what you need to do to get to safety, because the game had just taught you the way.
Bleszinski was flattered by the compliment and pointed out, of course, that "that's just good game design."
In "Gears 2" there's a sequence with a large worm encased in rocky bone that works much the same way. Like the best Miyamoto moments, you've already learned what you can do with that worm before your brain consciously processes the idea that it's there for. "Oh, I can use the worm as [spoiler]!" By the time you think it, you discover you already were taught how to pull it off. That's Miyamoto right there.
There are many things to laud about "Gears of War 2": its graphics, its score, its multiplayer modes and so on. But heed this additional recommendation. If you want to play a game that feels like what Shigeru Miyamoto might make -- if the Nintendo designer would ever make a third-person shooter that involved stomping on heads -- try "Gears of War 2." It will remind you of "Mario" or "Zelda," at least if you're the kind of person who grew up playing those games.