It's hard to believe that it was just two months ago that we donned our shorts and headed off to Los Angeles for the E3 Media & Business Summit. The height of the Californian summer made the winter arrival dates for many games seem a lifetime away, but in the cold reality of September, this year's big hitters are now nearing completion. Gears of War 2 is one such game, and with the game now "going through its final weeks of polish" according to producer Cliff Blezsinski, it's tantalisingly close to being finished. The man himself was in London with a brand new build of the game, so we made it a priority to go down and spend as much time as we could playing it.
We started off by playing through the first act of the single-player game in co-op mode. The game starts out with a cinematic introduction, with the same female voice from the first game explaining how humanity has continued to fight off the Locust horde since Gears 1. The humans have fought man-to-man on the ground and even fired lasers from space to force back their alien enemy, but despite all this, the Locust have survived to become even stronger. The last human settlement is now Jacinto, which is where Marcus Phoenix and Dominic Santiago enter at the beginning of the first level.
As with the first game, the opening section of Gears 2 is a tutorial that you can either choose to play or skip. In the interests of thoroughness, we decided to take the training and headed off with another journalist playing alongside us. The tutorial mission sees you training a new recruit named Ben Carmine, who eagle-eyed Gears fans should recognise as the brother of Anthony Carmine from the first game. Ben's a bit wet behind the ears, so you need to teach him how to use cover, toss grenades, and kick through doors. During all this, you begin to make it into Jacinto--the city that's described as the "last bastion of humanity," and before long, you're breaking into an abandoned hospital.
It turns out that the endless combat since the war began has produced a disease called rust lung that has wiped out much of the population. It's clear that not much is known about the disease, as squadmates advise each other not to get too close to the victims. Once you're inside the complex, you're introduced to a new character called Tai. Tai's a heavily spiritual character with tattoos up his arms and face, as well as a fatalist outlook on life. With such lines as "I like the look of Locust blood in this light," it becomes clear he's generally much more chilled out than Marcus and an increasingly frustrated Dom. As the game progressed, Dom became increasingly desperate to find his wife, and it's clear from the way that Cliff Blezsinski talks about it that this will become a key part of the story in Gears 2. This is so much so, in fact, that the collector's edition of the game will come with a photo of Dom's wife, which has a personal note on the back.
Back in the game, though, we managed to make it out of the hospital and back to the city streets. Another cutscene showed the last of the military forces being given a rousing speech by a commander, and it explained how the fight would soon be ending after 15 years. As homeless people listened in on the radio, we were told that the light mass bombings had only strengthened the Locust forces and that humanity's only hope was to fight them underground. With this in mind, Marcus and Dom's next mission is to escort huge military diggers out of the city to a place called Lowdown so they can push below ground.
The next level should be familiar to Gears fans because it was the first section of gameplay that Epic ever showed of the game. You ride atop huge vehicles called Assault Derricks as they roll through a rocky environment, with enemy rocket fire raining down and Locust enemies riding alongside. It's another multipart set-piece mission that not only culminates in a savage Brumak attack, but also introduces you to another new character called Dizzy. Dizzy's a cowboy-esque handyman who helps fix up your vehicle when it gets damaged, and in turn, you have to protect him from ground level when you're forced off the road.
After we fended off the Brumak--by shooting it in the face with a rocket launcher, no less--we reached roadblocks and had to go on foot. Tai rejoined the squad, and you head into a snowy log-cabin village environment unlike anything we've seen in Gears of War so far. We were also introduced to a new enemy called the "ticker"--a small dog-sized kamikaze Locust that runs at you with explosives strapped to its back. It's a good thing that you're equipped with a shotgun at this stage, and it's even better, once you get the mortar to fend off yet another Brumak attack. The mortar is an incredible weapon--you set it on the ground, aim in a direction, and then hold down the fire button to decide how far to fire. If you judge the distance correctly, then a shower of mortar fire rains down from above. It takes some getting used to, but the mortar can take out a group of enemies--or one big one like the Brumak--with relative ease.
With all of the new weapons, locales, and enemies, there's so much to take in from the new Gears. Collectable newspapers fill in the backstory of the game, while your progress toward achievements is tracked at the bottom of the screen. For example, there's an achievement for killing enemies in a variety of ways--something that the game gives you plenty of new opportunities to do. As well as smashing their heads in with the curb-stomp, you can now beat enemies to death with your bare hands while they're down or pick them up and use them as meat shields. Sadly, though, our play-through of the first act ended rather abruptly with the appearance of a new Locust enemy that appeared to be the alien equivalent of a samurai. As Marcus and Dom were picked up and strapped into an airborne vehicle to take them to the next stage, the enemy started to attack Dizzy with a staff that had a chainsaw blade at the end of it. Blezsinski says that this enemy is "pretty badass," but unfortunately, we were unable to test his strength during this play-through.
We also played some more of the Horde multiplayer mode--the same mode that we encountered back at E3. Blezsinski describes Horde as the Geometry Wars take on the Gears universe, and although the games are still very different, the analogy rings true. When wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies come at you and your teammates, it's your job to stay alive as long as you can. Blezsinski claims that he's made it to wave 27 himself, while his testers have made it to wave 50--we only managed 14 levels due to time constraints. The mixture of enemies, from the tiny suicide bombers to the large flamethrower-packing grunts, made the game constantly challenging, while running around and saving downed allies added to the breathless pace of the game. While we were playing the same level as we did out in LA, it was incredibly addictive, and we had real trouble tearing ourselves away. As for other multiplayer levels, we didn't get to see any, but Blezsinski says there will be a map where an avalanche will fall and open up completely new areas in which to play. There's also a brand new Photo mode, as well as a free camera to watch the action from any angle you wish.
After playing the game for about four hours, we left the Gears 2 event both satisfied and wanting more. The Story mode includes new weapons, enemies, and locations, but it's the subtle improvement in storytelling that stuck with us the most. For a game that's so heavily influenced by Hollywood action blockbusters, Gears 2 really benefits from the tighter scripting, improved characterization, and faster sense of pace. We'll have to wait until the finished game to see how the subplot regarding Dominic's wife pans out, but we're hoping it adds to both the character and the overall plot of the game. Gears of War 2 is out on the Xbox 360 on November 7.