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If it's any consolation to Cliff Bleszinski, we're forever picking on developers at E3, so he shouldn't feel bad that our first question is whether he was actually playing Gears of War 2 at Microsoft's conference. For those who missed it, the demo began and Marcus advanced towards a smoke-drowned Jacinto skyline before the video feed stopped and reloaded, giving the impression we were actually watching a recording.
"We went to ghost cam," Bleszinski says. "What happened was that everything was working fine at rehearsal, and then when I went on stage and did my presentation and went to use my controller it timed out, and then I'm like 'Mother f***er!' So they went to the backup feed where they were playing in the back, and I had to act like I was playing it, even though I wasn't. I'm not going to lie."
Regardless, what we saw stuck in the mind. Whether you care about Gears' fiction or not, Jacinto in flames was an impressive canvas, and the refined Gears 2 cover-based gameplay mechanics and density of "water-cooler moments", in Bleszinski's phrase, sketched a compelling game across them. "We switch up the gameplay," he acknowledges, adding that the level we saw him play through (or not play through) was set three-quarters of the way through the campaign. "We'll have a new creature, a new weapon, a story scene, a new environment, something falls down and explodes... That's the game we wanted to make: something memorable moment to moment."
Gears 2 sees Marcus Fenix - liberated from prison to deliver a bomb into the heart of the subterranean Locust horde in the first game - and his buddy Dominic Santiago taking the fight to a resurgent adversary at the behest of humanity's ruler-by-default, military chief Chairman Prescott. Bleszinski promises we'll learn more about the characters' backgrounds - and the world's at large. "That was the big mistake with Gears 1," he points out. "People wanted to know more, they were thirsty for more of the universe. That's a good problem to have."
Gamers get to do this with some new weaponry - there's a flamethrower this time, and a mortar that allows you to fire projectiles in a parabolic arc similar to the grenade - and combat techniques. The meat-shield's the one we've all seen: Marcus grabs a Locust enemy and uses him as a mobile cover point. "You get a get-out-of-jail-free card with a grenade or a Torque Bow shot or a Boom shot," Bleszinski says of the meat-shield. "If you face the guy he'll absorb the shot and you'll hardly take any damage, and you just kind of cringe a bit and his body will explode into itty-bitty bits." 'Gears of War 2' Screenshot 1
It's the Jacinto skyline, Bleszinski says. "You're not going to get a lot out of me on that right now," he adds.
Complementary elements like chainsaw bayonet kills (now with button-mashing sub-game if you're up against an enemy armed with the same kit) and Active Reload (the timing-based reload mechanic that boosts ammo strength and combat tempo) also return, but there are other refinements to note. Campaign co-op is still two-player (they felt it was the right number, says Bleszinski), but checkpointing is more considered and the action branches a bit more - or less if you prefer. "We have informal splits where players can choose to go either way or they can stick together and goof around," we're told. "A little bit more open-ended environments." And if you were in the latter camp with the fiction, you can skip it. "Dom will chime in like 'Marcus, what was the--' and you're like 'Shut uuuup'."
But you're fighting a strengthened enemy, too. We've already seen that you'll face epic battlefields of many multiple adversaries, but there are new faces among them. The Flamethrower Boomer (surely Flaming Boomer) is a hefty enemy it's no fun getting caught next to, while the knee-biting Ticker enemies (dogs with time-bombs strapped to their backs) will threaten as the Wretches did in Gears 1, and other enemies toss grenades and sling grappling hooks up to your elevated positions to try and bring the fight to you. The Locust can even undermine your position, dragging your building refuge into the ground, presumably at set-piece moments - and one of the game's narrative preoccupations is whether Jacinto, humanity's last stand, is vulnerable to the Locust "sinkholes". 'Gears of War 2' Screenshot 2
The new flamethrower weapon sorts the men from the barbecue, and Gears 2 looks fierier in general. That enemy back there is a Reaver, by the way. He's misunderstood.
As we detailed in our Gears of War 2 preview earlier this year, there's a grander scale at work - the moving battles shown at Microsoft's San Francisco event in May supported by toppled buildings, epic draw distances and the tantalising prospect of riding the Brumak. As Marcus pointed out at the end of Bleszinski's conference demo, "If they can do it, why can't we?"
Sadly though, Bleszinski wasn't the only one who wasn't playing the single-player Gears of War 2 at E3, because despite hiring out the whole of the Ciudad restaurant in downtown LA for a Monday night showcase event, Microsoft only had multiplayer on hand unless you happened to be on the E3 awards judging panel. Fortunately, one of the key demos was the new five-player co-operative Horde mode - an alternative to four-player campaign co-op, which would have "messed with the storytelling" among other things, according to Bleszinski.
Horde sees a team of players working together to see off a huge number of enemies, who come in waves. Each player has the usual screen furniture plus some Horde stats in the top left - a health-bar for the Horde, which is replaced by a number once the amount of enemies remaining drops to a certain level - and at the end of a wave there are stats to pour over, noting who killed the most, team- and wave-specific scores and the impact of difficulty multiplier (something that's still being tweaked) on the points total. The object of the game is to last as long as possible.
Navigating specific levels (whether Horde is supported by all is still to be confirmed), the dynamic spawn-points for enemies initially drive you around the map, as ears prick to the noise of gunfire and grunts, but as enemy numbers thicken the pendulum swings the other way, and the team backs away instead. Signature elements like Seeder emergence holes and an avalanche that rips through one town centre will threaten stumbling retreats. It's not completely dynamic, though, because it's also meant for high-score play, and so the difficulty curve is rigid - enemies becoming more sophisticated in the seventh or eighth wave and thickening in numbers.
We're spoiled though, having played Valve's Left 4 Dead already, so Horde's simple sieges feel unrefined, with little to coax players together other than a desire to avoid mutual annihilation - and in the context of Monday's multiplayer event, it wasn't enough, every man playing for himself. It could reduce Horde to a fun, throwaway diversion rather than a long-term pursuit.
There are other modes though, and one we got to play was Guardian, which is an evolution of Assassination from Gears 1. As with Assassination, you're on a team with a leader and that guy is the other team's primary target. When he's taken out in Guardian, your team loses the ability to respawn, so you suddenly face an uphill battle to stay in the game. The pods were full all night and a few rounds of our own were bloody and amusing, benefitting greatly from bolt-ons like meat-shields and chainsaw duels. The other new modes we know about are Wingman (five teams of two) and Submission (CTF with an enemy as the flag). 'Gears of War 2' Screenshot 3
Marcus and Dom are the focus for campaign co-op, but familiar faces - like Cole Train - return along with new pals like Dizzy, a former Stranded who joins the COG to buy his family's security.
There are other refinements to multiplayer, too, and Bleszinski was on hand to clarify some of those. The Hammer of Dawn, for instance, now has a timer so that you can't just use it forever. Other knowing tweaks include the removal of the super damage boost on sniper rifle ammo following an Active Reload, which saw players firing into the air and reloading to follow with a single-shot kill - something deemed "unfair" in the original game. There's more elaborate blood trails and crawling around injured, too, seeking that helpful revival tap from a team-mate.
Meanwhile, Epic's keen that multiplayer isn't just the preserve of the dauntless hardcore this time, and so there are bots, and they're more than an afterthought. We're not told much about how they work (other than the fact Steve Polge, who designed the original Quake Reaper Bot mod, is working on them), but we know they're put to use Unreal Tournament-style. "We have a great mode, which is basically training grounds, in which you start off with you and a couple of bots against a few other bots and we basically walk you through the multiplayer experience," says Bleszinski, "so before you're unleashed into the wild of online gaming you can learn everything and have a chance of surviving." 'Gears of War 2' Screenshot 4
Sadly, Bleszinski doesn't tell us whether Marcus and Dom ever kiss.
It's a good idea in a sea of good ideas. A same-gen sequel, Gears of War 2 isn't always as glamorous as your Resident Evil 5s, Fable 2s and Final Fantasy XIIIs, but its E3 showing is extremely assured, and Bleszinski's not sweating on that release date, claiming that Epic has "a way of coming in perfectly under the wire and making everything button up nice".
"You'd be surprised in certain instances where just changing one number can make everything work, and it's just a matter of nudging," he says to us at one point. "Sometimes the pendulum swings one way, sometimes it swings the other way - same thing with weapon damage - so I'm confident we'll get it all ironed out." Either way, we'll certainly be doing what Cliff wasn't doing on Monday when 7th November rolls around, if only to find out whether Cole Train still sings at the end.
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