That safety net vanishes minutes later when you're riding on the back of a roaring derrick truck that's hurdling down a mountain range, unleashing a gatling gun at the teeming crowds of Locust foot soldiers that surge from their underground burrows. It's a truly mind-blowing sight -- easily five or six times larger than the biggest battle in the original game -- and it's barely fifteen minutes into the first act. The vibrant new scenery, with its lush valleys and snow-capped mountain ranges, also proves to be a welcome change from the gritty, claustrophobic art of the first game. Visual variety takes a front seat in Gears of War 2, with just 30 percent of the scenarios taking place in the underground caverns that frequented the original Gears. The massive shifts in scenery and scale alone make Gears of War 2 a considerable leap over its predecessor, quickly silencing concerns that the game will be only a modest improvement, a mere "Gears 1.5."
Back to the action. The battle has devolved into pure chaos: 50 foot-tall Brumaks now stalk amongst the hordes of Locust soldiers, while squid-like Reavers ominously circle the skies. Red-lining the minigun, we mow down 30 or 40 of the scrambling figures and narrowly deflect several boarding attempts. Overhead, COG helicopters pump out blistering cannon fire, occasionally pin wheeling out of control into a nearby hillside or crowd. After a few more close calls, the most memorable being an ill-timed pit stop and hasty de-boarding in the middle of some Locust emergence holes, the truck arrives safely at our destination: Landown.
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No longer strictly airborne enemies, Reavers will now slamdance on the ground, skewering humans with their thrashing tentacles.
Meet Skorge, leader of the Locust Kantus priest class and an expert at weilding his double-bladed chainsaw staff. Look out, Dizzy!
In Landown, the gameplay shifts to a slower, more suspenseful pace with some survival horror overtones. The sleepy little town, long since abandoned, looks unassuming from the outside. But inside lurk Tickers, scuttling creatures that serve as living anti-vehicle mines for the Locust. While picking through Landown, we came across a new "split-path" scenario that showed off some new cooperative play possibilities. One player can proceed into a ruined hotel, while the other can perch on a nearby rooftop and use the new mortar weapon to cover his teammate from afar. Already a strong point in the original game, cooperative play returns for Gears of War 2 with some added conveniences such as uninterrupted drop-in/drop-out matches and player-specific difficulty settings. Co-op play is still limited to two players (for reasons pertaining to pacing and storytelling, Epic team members explained), but a new five-player Horde mode will help fill that hole nicely.
We finally escort the derrick truck to its designated drilling zone, a nearby graveyard, when a massive Locust force launches a last-ditch effort to halt the drilling. In this graveyard shootout, we noticed some new tricks with the physics engine: gunshots would chip away realistically at the headstones, and grenades would topple them altogether. We used this to our advantage, chewing through the rows of tombstones with the derrick's mounted gatling gun to reach the Locust troops hiding behind them. By the time the smoke cleared, the graveyard was strewn with corpses and the derrick truck was set to deploy its payload. But a sudden ambush by a powerful new enemy, the Locust leader Skorge, leaves Marcus and Dom stranded underground and the COG plan in shambles.
Welcome to the Hollow, home to all sorts of sinister Locust beasts.
Our hands-on experiences with the campaign ended shortly after exiting the grind lifts, so we didn't get to clash with the new Rockworms or Kantus priests in the underground caverns. What we saw of the Hollows looked promising, though: bioluminescent plants, massive fungal growths, and tangles of twisted roots and vines gave the vast underground caverns an almost tactile level of visual detail. It's no stretch to say that Gears of War 2 is already one of the most technically impressive games we've seen on the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3, and is pushing the console's hardware into uncharted territory.
Contrary to some internet naysaying, we frequently saw evidence that Gears of War 2 will top the original game in every possible way. The graphics are stupendous, the storyline is vastly more interesting, and the new battles are bigger, better, and yes, more bad-ass. In fact, the biggest challenge for Gears of War 2's campaign mode will likely be in finding ways to match or exceed the intensity of the first act, which kept a manic, almost exhausting pace. If Epic Games can keep delivering shocking spectacles later in the game - and they swear they're holding back some of the biggest surprises -- then Gears of War 2 will likely go down as a modern classic on par with Half-Life 2 and Call of Duty 4.