Meeting Lester Speight, aka Private Augustus Cole, aka 'The Cole Train', is intimidating enough. He towers over almost everyone in the trendy down town Los Angeles night club, huge arms bulging and chest tearing through his tight shirt. But imagine having him, along with his boisterous American entourage, watch your every move while playing as his virtual counterpart in a high octane game of Horde, Gears of War 2's new five-player cooperative game mode? "Who's playin' me?" he booms. I slowly raise my hand. "This is Lester Speight right here ladies and gentlemen!" announces one of his enthusiastic aides. I have one hell of an audience, and the pressure is on.
It's important, though, that I concentrate on the game, on working out whether the new Horde mode, which sees up to five COG players face off against wave after wave of increasingly tough Locust, is good enough to make up for the fact that Gears of War 2, which we now know is coming out on November 7 exclusively on Xbox 360, won't have four-player co-op campaign play. I toil somewhat over this position, agonising as I sink three hours into game after game, sucking on free Coronas MS has generously laid on for the assembled press. At the end of it all, I decide that it is not.
Don't get me wrong, it's great fun. It's arcadey, addictive fun. But it's no substitute for the true gameplay evolution four-player campaign co-op would have given Gears 2. Sure, the graphics are better. They're sharper, more detailed, and the added colour in the environments does help to make what is a very grey game a lot more interesting. And the tweaks and improvements Epic has implemented - peeking out of the side instead of over the top when at the edge of cover, slowing down opponents by shooting them, making the lobby system much more efficient, making you more vulnerable when in cover, are welcome, but not enough to make you feel that you're playing anything but an evolution of an already brilliant game. Horde feels very much like Gears of War 1.5. Almost like a directors cut. Almost like the Gears of War multiplayer experience Epic desperately wanted the first game to provide.
We know what you're going to say. There's tons in there that make Gears 2 a leap forward rather than a mere step. You're going to point towards the new executions (press Y on a downed enemy), both race specific and weapon specific, the new chainsaw duels (mash B as fast as you can to win), the ability to grab downed enemies and use them as human shields (press A) and the masses of new and intriguing weapons (Mulcher anyone?) as evidence of this fact. We understand your point. During the first hour of multiplayer play Gears 2 feels very new and very fresh. But after a while we realise that it is a very similar experience, a very familiar one, whether we play the new Horde mode or a traditional competitive five on five match (still absolutely brilliant), to what we're used to. It's a better experience, a refined, almost perfected experience. But a similar one nonetheless.
We're playing five-player Horde on new map Day One, a gorgeous looking environment that shows off Epic's new commitment to adding colour to Sera as well as verticality. A massive emergence hole sits at the centre of a four way junction. A family fun centre arcade, which you can go into in search of cover when things get out of control, dominates eye level. Metal steps lead up to the sides of buildings and provide useful sniping positions. And you'll need them, because Horde gets very hard, very quickly.
The first wave sees fewer than 10 Locust storm the map. It's easy to stay behind cover and pick them off. But things soon get a lot tougher. By wave four the Locust are swarming and it's all we, that is all five of us, can do to sort them out. I die a lot, but as long as one COG is standing and all Locust are dead the wave will complete, we'll get a score, and we'll move on. And when we die, we get an opportunity to check out what Epic has done to keep respawning players entertained. The camera is now fully controllable, via a Ghost mode, and you're able to take screen shots too. The class of the still alive locust - grenadier, sniper among others - is displayed above their heads, which should help after-death communication. It's entertaining stuff, but, of course, we want back in the game.
The evening's entertainment is wonderful, but ultimately frustrating. In various groups I managed only to reach level eight. A personal disappointment. But then, with friends over Xbox LIVE, and with proper communication, it should be an easier experience. And just to test I played Horde with only one other player, to see if the difficulty scales. It appears that it does not, and level three was beyond us. To complete Horde, that is to get to wave 50, you're going to need some serious chainsawing skills, that's for sure. The mind boggles at the potential beasties Epic's drummed up to face you towards the end.
What's clear is that Horde is immensely addictive, and has that 'one more turn' quality guaranteed to prove it a success on Xbox LIVE. But despite it being undoubtedly awesome, there are a few things we notice that could do with some attention before release. The Locust's melee execution animation hits fresh air more often than not, with the COG victim reacting to the punishment a few feet from where he should. The new Scorcher flamethrower isn't half as good as it should be - it feels underpowered and in some of the games we play affects the frame rate quite considerably. But there's absolutely no reason to think that Epic won't iron out these kinks before launch. So no need to worry.
You might think we're being harsh. Perhaps we are. If so, it's only because we adore the first game so much, a game we gave a 10/10 score to in our review, that our expectations for the follow up are through the roof. It's a funny thing. Gears 2's graphics are undoubtedly better than those of the original game, but they don't have the same jaw-dropping impact because the first game got there first. The cover system, the incredible sense of being right in the thick of a fire fight, the gruesome but incredibly satisfying chainsaw kills, these were things that made Gears of War so mind blowing. Second time around the effect is somewhat inevitably dulled. This isn't a slight, it's just the way it is.
Gears of War 2 will be one of the best games of 2008, perhaps even the best, that's for sure. We play it for three hours straight and we still want more. But the multiplayer isn't what's going to get this game another 10/10. It's the two player cooperative campaign, which, going by the live demo Cliff Bleszinski performed during Microsoft's E3 press conference, looks mind blowing. This is what we're excited to see. This is what's getting our blood pumping. This is what we wish we were playing right now. "Do something cool!" booms Lester Speight. I press A to roll, and keep doing it. It's the first thing that pops in my head.
Gears of War 2 is due out for Xbox 360 exclusively on November 7 2008.