Brutal legend: surviving Gears of War 2

A shattered city. A mysterious plague. A fleeting hope.

Bigger and better are only the beginning Gears of War 2's campaign mode is bloody brilliant. GamePro's Sid Shuman gives his final impressions on the biggest Xbox 360 game of 2008. Released in 2006, Gears of War became the first bonafide smash hit for the fledgling Xbox 360. It instantly popularized an aggressive new breed of shooter, one in which finding cover and laying down suppressive fire are just as important as shooting straight. With its elaborate graphics, gushing gore, and pin-prick precise combat, Gears of War quickly inspired a wave of similar shooters, inferior though they were.

Now Gears of War 2 is planning a full-scale blitzkrieg on the Xbox 360 this fall, and I got an exclusive opportunity to play through the first of five acts. And I'm happy to report that what I played was astounding.

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The first Act in Gears of War 2 would be a fitting climax to most other action games.

"Welcome to Delta"

The original Gears of War was like one of those breezy summer blockbuster movies, the kind where you throw all logic to the wind, kick your feet up, and enjoy the goofy ride. But storyline and atmosphere take a more central, serious role in Gears of War 2. "We did good with gameplay in the first game," design director Cliff Bleszinksi reminisced to me, "but we didn't go far into the narrative. We didn't even have an opening cinema!" With the extra development time since the release of the first game, Bleszinksi and his team refined and rethought their storytelling techniques with Gears of War 2, and the result is a darker, more urgent tale that keeps your blood pumping in between the hectic shootouts.

Even in the first moments of Gears of War 2, a cloud of uncertainty hangs in the air. The opening scenes highlight the increasing desperation of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COGs), a ramshackle collection of human survivors faced with impossible odds. The threat lies below, in the form of subterranean terrors called the Locust Horde. The opening cinemas replay the final moments of the original game, with the Lightmass bomb detonating underground and exterminating untold millions of Locust in a key victory for the COG.

Now the Locust, licking their wounds in their subterranean strongholds, have decided to strike back. And this time, they're fighting dirty. The Locust have begun devouring entire human cities at once, sucking them into enormous sinkholes from below. Only the city of Jacinto, safely nestled on a pillar of solid granite, remains intact. But Jacinto's days, too, may be numbered. The COG's fleeting victory against the Locust has proven to be more of a curse than a blessing: the Lightmass explosion sent contaminants blasting into the air, triggering an outbreak of a mysterious plague called Rust Lung. And a harsh winter is on the way, pushing the already haggard survivors to the breaking point. At the beginning of the game, the dead and dying are already clogging the hospitals of Jacinto.

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When design director Cliff Bleszinki said you'd be 'up to your ears' in Brumaks, he wasn't kidding.

The Road to Landown

It's in front of one such hospital that you begin playing Gears of War 2. As returning COG veteran Marcus Fenix, you arrive on the scene and hear the grim news: the Locust are on the move, and advance word suggests that they've already conquered the nearby village of Landown. But before you tackle that problem, you've got to mop up a scattered band of Locust invaders that have taken refuge in Jacinto. The opening hospital scenario is suspenseful but brief, a welcome warm up to get you comfortable with moving and shooting in Gears of War 2. You'll only fight a few attackers at a time, and you'll always have plenty of help in the form of conveniently placed explosive fuel tanks, COG helicopters, and the other members of Delta Squad watching your back.

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Sid Shuman

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