Gears of War 2: CliffyB Presents the Third Chapter

Earlier today at the Microsoft Spring Showcase in San Francisco, I got a chance to check out an entire early level of Gears of War 2. The shorthand? It's Gears, but louder.

First the setup, courtesy series creator Cliff "Cliffy B" Bleszinski: "It's six months after the events of Gears 1, and the Locusts have actually returned. We're right at the onset of winter, it's the last day of fall as we open the game. Basically the Locusts have returned with a force that's capable of sinking entire cities."

Faced with utter destruction, the last bastion of humanity suits up to take the fight into the underground home of the Locusts.

"The way that we do this is with a massive assault scenario, in which the humans have these devices called grind lifts," continued Bleszinski. "These are essentially express elevators to hell, in which two guys get in, and it tunnels down into the depths of the underground, and then they go into the Locust cities and kick their ass."

The opening of the sequel sees Marcus hooking up with an armored column on its way toward Locust-held territory, as seen in the few minutes of footage released last week. The whole of the chapter consists of an on-rails sequence, the player restricted to movement within the boundary of his truck as it rolls onward through the surrounding battle. Registered users can use the HD Stream.

Right off the bat the volume is turned to 11. Enemy mortar shells scream in, leaving coal-black contrails smeared across the brightly colored sky. Though Epic reps were quick to note that the gameplay dictated the change in color palette, and not the other way around, it was a refreshing sight regardless. Getting outside of the concrete-laden urban landscape that so dominated Gears is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the sequel. Just seeing a series of power lines poking up through a dense forest seemed like a revelation in terms of the Gears aesthetic.

But you won't have much time to admire the scenery. Players must first shoot down the incoming mortars with shotgun blasts, then deal with flying Reaver enemies that soar in from the sides. Locust foot soldiers leap onto the truck from opposing vehicles, others staying behind to snipe at you. While Bleszinski was quick to mention that the game will have its slower moments, it certainly begins where the last game left off.

Inbetween the set-pieces, a few interesting changes could be noted. A few new weapons could be picked out, including a high-powered rifle and a semi-auto pistol. The standard chainsaw rifle has been modified since the original Gears, now a bit beefier than its previous iteration. The extra pop is accompanied by appropriately thundering sound effects, as compared to the first game's thin-sounding shots.

As seen in the trailer, enemies can now be used as mobile cover, with Marcus converting his foes into "meat shields." Some enemies will now attack with their own chainsaws as well, giving the Cogs a taste of their own well-oiled medicine. The chainsaw dueling mechanic is similar in practice to a Jedi Knight lightsaber lock, with the player simply mashing the "B" button to overcome the foe. Bleszinski also told us that unlike the build seen in the trailer, you can now do a reverse chainsaw, slicing an enemy upward "between his legs, and up through his taint."

Hey, I just print this shit.

In any case, the level progresses through the woody area, the combat reaching a fever pitch as the convoy nears its destination. Firefights have clearly been ramped up, with more enemies and allies blasting away at each other at any given time. Tanks and friendly helicopters hover overhead, occasionally showing up to save your truck from a lumbering Brumak or a spider-like Corpser. If the first level were any indication, this game is pure chaos.

Gameplay-wise there wasn't much to comment on in the opening level. Most of the obvious work seems to have been relegated to presentation, with scripted sequences and over-the-top combat scenarios dominating the demo. Bleszinski noted that enemy AI has been improved, with more advanced scripting that results in weaving enemy paths and more believable attackers. It was difficult to see concrete evidence of this in the middle of the war zone, but I'll take his word for now.

While the game's hordes of enemies were touted as a major technical feature, they didn't factor into gameplay in a significant way, behaving more like killable background extras. Bleszinski explained that having the player face down hundreds of enemies wouldn't make sense in terms of balancing, so the team has been careful to incorporate the hordes into logical scenarios. They certainly look impressive from a distance, a large step up in crowd animation compared to something seen in a game like Kameo.

The grandiose scale of Gears 2 was underscored in how trivial the boss monsters of the original game have been made. Near the end of the level, a dinosaur-like Brumak was taken down in mere seconds by way of a mounted turret, its weapons blown away, its head literally shredded by machine gun fire.

Belabored emphasis was placed on story improvements, with both Gears manager Kudo Tsunoda and Cliffy taking great pains to stress that things would be getting darker. The opening showed little of this, though it did introduce a new ally, Dizzy, a character just as forgettable as the rest of the Gears cast.

After several firefights, the player's rig is slammed right up against an enemy truck, the driver staring menacingly you through the glass window. A few rounds ended the stare, and the truck, and the chapter.

It's Gears, but louder.

"You go all the way into the depths of the underground, seeing how the Locusts live and what their cities look like, to the highest snow-capped mountain on the world of Sera," said Blezsinski to cap off the presentation. "All the variety that's contained--we're pretty proud of it."

An Xbox 360 exclusive, Gears of War 2 is slated to arrive in November. Much like the first Gears of War, Epic has no plans to for a downloadable demo.

Be sure to hit up our Microsoft Spring Showcase Roundup for all the news and media from the event.

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