The great grudge match of video games in 2006 was Microsoft’s Gears of War versus Sony’s Resistance: Fall of Man. Now the sequels to those console games are battling for the hearts of gamers.

The games industry is one of the few that’s still growing in the down economy, so the battle’s bound to be a big one.

Last time, the duel between those two games went a long way toward settling the outcome of the console war. Gears sold more than 5 million copies (or $300 million at retail) and helped Microsoft solidify its second-place showing behind Nintendo, while Resistance sold more than 3 million copies ($180 million at retail) and kept Sony’s third-place PlayStation 3 alive despite a very difficult competitive position.

I’m immersed in this debate over which game is better. They’re both over-the-top violent games meant for adult players. I can sit in front of the TV and play these games into the wee hours. The 2006 games represented the pinnacle of achievement on their respective platforms. Microsoft’s Gears was the first major hit beyond the Halo franchise that established the Xbox 360 as an outstanding platform for hardcore gamers who loved graphics, nonstop action, and clever game mechanics. Sony’s Resistance did the same for the fledgling PlayStation 3. When I reviewed both games in 2006, I decided that Microsoft’s game was better than Sony’s. That was because Gears came together for me in its epic scope and fully consistent world. By comparison, the technically masterful Resistance was short on emotional impact.

This holiday season, I’ve played through the entire single-player versions of the new games. Gears of War 2, developed by Epic Games, has already sold millions. Resistance 2 stands out as a top seller in Sony’s somewhat thin holiday line-up. Gears 2 will undoubtedly outsell Resistance 2, much the way the original did. But that’s partly because Microsoft has sold many more Xbox 360s than Sony has sold PS 3s.

It is much harder to decide which one is the better game this time. Each has made great strides in both storytelling, game play, and artistic achievement. But for all of the faults of the Xbox 360, particularly those surrounding its defect problems, I have to once again choose the Microsoft game, Gears of War 2 from Epic Games, as the best of the two.

If I were Sony, however, I wouldn’t feel that bad with this consolation prize. This season, Nintendo had absolutely nothing that could compare to these two games. I look forward the next slug fest between Microsoft-Epic and Sony-Insomniac. And I hope Nintendo shows up at the fight one of these days.

(Spoiler alert) What follows is my in-depth review of Gears of War 2 and Resistance 2:

Despite the improved graphics and storytelling, you can’t compare these two games to Academy Award-winning movies. They’re not works of art. They’re basically blood fests, where the point is to shoot, pummel, or blow up as many monsters as you can. The bodies pile up so much that it’s very convenient that they disappear before your game character starts tripping over them.

Yet there are moments that are emotionally charged. Some reviewers have noted that Gears 2 has a subplot of a lost love that is a downright tear-jerker. Video games have come a long way if they can make you feel the loss of a single character amid a body count of epic proportions.

The characters in both games are classic Clint Eastwood types. Gears 2 has Marcus Fenix, a marine with a grudge and a squad of buddies with endearing grunt personalities. The original Gears of War showed humanity taking its last stand 14 years after Emergence Day, when a race of underground mutants called Locusts swarmed above ground and destroyed most of the planet. In Gears 2, the events pick up six months after the end of the last game. Fenix has to defend humanity’s last haven, Jacinto, against Locust attacks that can sink whole cities at once.

Resistance 2 takes place in the 1950s in an alternate reality where an alien race, the Chimera, becomes the great enemy in a world that avoids the Second World War. While the first game took place in England, the second one is set in the U.S., which is the new target of the Chimeran invasion. The game’s hero is Nathan Hale, an infected man on a mission to drive back the enemy before he succumbs to a virus that will turn him into the enemy. Hale’s status as a walking time bomb gives a sense of urgency to the game, and it sets up a shocker of an ending.

The object in both games is sheer survival. The enemies in Gears 2 are some of the most difficult-to-beat bad asses in monster history. They fight velociraptor style. If you spend too much time trying to nail one, the other will take you out from the side. The artificial intelligence of the enemies is good enough to make it believable. Your squad mates are also smart — maybe a little too smart, as they do too much of the nasty work for you.

In sequels, new weapons or vehicles are always a staple for holding a gamer’s interest. In Gears 2, you can really express yourself with the flamethrower or the “mulcher,” which is a chain gun that weighs a ton but gets the job done. In Resistance 2, there is a similarly satisfying Wraith chain gun and an elegant pulse cannon that you use in those one-shot situations. These guns are satisfying. And while the chain saw bayonet is the crowning piece of weaponry in Gears 2, the endless choice of weapons in Resistance 2 makes it fun. That’s one of the hallmarks of Insomniac, which also makes the Ratchet & Clank games with zany weapons.  My favorite one this time was the Splicer, which shoots out a circular saw blade that bounces off walls and cuts multiple enemies in half.

Both games had some downright weird scenes. In Gears 2, you had to fight your way through toxic gases and subterranean baddies inside the belly of a giant worm. That gave way to one of the funniest moments in the whole game: a point when Marcus Fenix’s squad mates had to cut their way through the belly of the worm. When the blood-soaked Fenix gets on the radio to explain, he is at a loss for words. “Never mind,” he groans, as the worm’s blood drips everywhere.

Both games could use more humor. Gears 2 has its moments, like when Fenix’s squad drives an armored car into a pitch-black enemy cave. One of the squad mates says, “Daddy, are we there yet?” But humor is hard to come by in worlds where the survival of humanity itself is on the line. The destroyed beauty of both worlds — a planet ravaged by war in Gears 2, a 1950s-style U.S. torn apart by alien invaders in Resistance 2 — sets a consistently dour mood.

I sprinted to the end to find out what happens. But there were times when I stopped and admired the outstanding graphics, particularly in the scenery of Resistance 2, which includes sun glinting off the surface of a Louisiana bayou. Gears 2 can’t really can’t compare on the scenery front, since much it takes place in dark underground caves.

The game play in each title had some very imaginative parts. In Resistance 2, you had to hop around in a flood zone from one sunken car to another to avoid being chewed up by things that looked like seals with gigantic teeth. In Gears of War 2, I had to tip toe from spot to spot while dodging bullets from a firefight and deadly hail stones falling from the skies.

With Resistance 2 and Gears 2, the cinematic scenes (which unfold in movie-like segments) feature realistic human facial movements and lip-synching in conversations. Both games are almost there on capturing human faces and facial expressions. The glare of Hale’s orange eyes in Resistance 2 is unforgettable. It’s clear that both developers have learned to master the technology of the different game consoles. In Gears 2, the graphics improvements show in the presence of many more enemies on the screen. In Resistance 2, the elaborate and beautiful backdrops — like the sunlight coming through redwood trees in a riveting ambush scene — and the speed of the game play are truly impressive.

Both games feature boss fights (which come at the end of a level) with truly gargantuan monsters so that you really feel like you’ve toppled a giant. On Gears 2, you get to ride on the back of a giant Brumak, while in Resistance 2 you slay a 300-foot Leviathan.

While both games are outstanding, the difficulty of Gears 2 made it a much more challenging game. It built up some serious tension that culminated in a series of battles where you had to use your whole arsenal of weapons and other tricks to win.

Resistance 2 is also a far better game than the original in many ways. But toward the end of the game, I felt like my character had gotten into a rut. It was too easy to beat the enemies, and it got progressively easier at the end. That was a letdown. Once again, I come back to the notion that, above all, these are not works of art. They’re blood fests. And Gears 2 just has more intense action than Resistance 2. The action has so much close combat — like a chain saw bayonet duel pictured left — which is a more draining experience.

I realize that I’m splitting hairs here by favoring the Microsoft game. These games were both really close, and they set a new bar for quality in video games.

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