Gears of War 2 Campaign Hands-On Preview: It's Bigger, But Is That Better?

For the most part, the Gears 2 campaign sticks to the elements that made Gears what it was: excellent pacing, and solid cover-based shooting.

BOOM widget 72421 What stands out in the sequel are not the new weapons, levels, or execution moves--these turn out to be satisfying, but minor additions. Instead, it's the massive setpieces that significantly distinguish this game from the first, the "bigger" part of creator Cliff Bleszinski's "bigger, better, more bad-ass" development strategy.

Bleszinski calls these large-scale sequences "palette cleansers." The idea is to vary the standard Gears gameplay at key moments, while also providing some serious presentational glitz to increase the stakes.

My extensive time with Gears 2 confirms that the game is an expansive, worthy sequel, but do these new diversions represent chinks in Epic's heavy armor?

One of these sideshows takes place early on. As the game begins, we find Dom and Marcus escaping from a hospital. The Lightmass Bomb has failed to deter the Locust from further attacks, and the COGs have incurred some major casualties, including the sinking of two entire cities. To make matters worse, Dom's wife is missing. Uh oh.

The gameplay through these early sections is straight-up Gears. The addition of weapons such as the Mortar and Ripper, and new two-legged soldiers with fresh AI patterns, keeps things interesting enough. However, you get the sense that the game is holding back its trump cards--and it is.

After some regrouping by the military, the COG commander makes a rousing speech to his troops, explaining that the only chance of saving their last city Jacinto is an all-out attack on the Locust's underground home.

In a sequence seen in the game's first trailer, the player must defend one of many trucks headed to a cavern from which the COGs can launch their invasion. On video it looks like an exciting moment, a refreshing assault through a woodland area filled with giant bosses and massive troop formations to decimate.

In practice, the restrictive space and simple turret-based shooting grows dull rather quickly, and exposes the fundamental problem with these moments--they simply aren't as fun as the basic Gears shoot-and-scoot action. Even though they offer a chance for orchestrated mayhem to play out on a grand scale, and they are quite impressive from a technical and presentational standpoint, I have much more fun flanking around the standard Locust soldiers than I do mindlessly blasting away at dozens of giant Brumak.

Rather than serving as a rewarding dessert, these levels typically feel like annoying distractions from the main course. I won't be buying Gears of War 2 to play an on-rails shooter, but that's what players will be treated to later in the fifth act of the game. As Dom and Marcus make an escape, they hitch a ride--"more bad-ass" may as well translate to "riding everything that moves"--on a Reaver, the Sentinel-like monsters from the first game. The depth of gameplay is reduced to aiming the cursor and shooting at other flying objects, while occasionally dodging a missile.

Some of these diversions are more successful than others, and though I can't go into detail just yet, the already-disclosed "Ride the Brumak" sequence is certainly something to look forward to. But when it comes to the "bigger" part of Gears 2, I'm not so sure those portions are an improvement over the cover-based shooting that made me an ardent defender of Epic's mega-seller on many occasions.

Of course, I should be perfectly clear: the majority of the game is composed of standard Gears-ian shooter sequences. It's only when Epic diverts from this formula that it strays into occasionally underwhelming territory.

I can't wait to talk about Gears 2 multiplayer, and get into the later sections of the game's single-player. This is a huge game--longer than the first--and well worth your attention from a pure dollar-value perspective.

When it comes to that sense of the word "bigger," Epic has definitely delivered.