The most reassuring thing about our mammoth hands-on session with Gears of War 2 Act One came right at the end. As mysterious spiritual COG Tai goes toe to toe with a Skorge, the new predator-inspired Locust complete with cool spinning-blade-on-end-of-staff weapon, a Microsoft policeman came over to our test 360 and turned it off. "That's all you're allowed to see, I'm afraid," he said. Sadness overcame us, as well as a burning desire to keep on playing. So what did we do? We jumped onto another console and played through the first act all over again.
This is just what we hoped we'd feel - the core Gears of War two-player co-op gameplay burning just as bright as it did at the end of 2006 when millions of gamers snapped to cover, chainsawed a Locust in half and curb stomped a downed COG in multiplayer for the first time. What a relief - Gears has still got it.
Epic has kept the campaign largely under wraps in the run up to the release of the Xbox 360's biggest game of the year. We've already pumped hours into the multiplayer, including the new five player co-op mode Horde, impressions of which you can see here. But for many gamers it's the campaign that floats their boat. With that in mind we roadie ran our way to a special Cliff Bleszinski hosted Gears 2 preview event in London, grabbed an Xbox 360 pad, hooked up with a fellow gaming hack for some quality co-op, eased into a lovely sofa and jumped in. This isn't going to be pretty.
Gears 2 begins much like Gears 1 ends - with a cut-scene and voice over from that unexplained dominatrix female Locust voice. We see clips of the Pendulum Wars - the original human conflict over Sera's natural resources, and the Locust invasion from underneath the planet's crust. "The humans of Sera continue to march blindly to their doom," she says. We see the Locust fight back - Jacinto, the last bastion of humanity, is now under threat. "Humanity, as always, brought this war upon itself," the female voice says, cryptically. What could she mean?
Fast forward six months from the somewhat anti-climactic end of Gears one to Act One of Gears of War 2, titled 'Tip of the Spear'. It starts with Marcus Fenix sighing: "It never ends" - an early insight into the mental state of Gears' hulking hero. He's standing outside Jacinto Hospital with intel extraordinaire Anya (who looks much better, and slightly different, this time around) and his best friend Dom. The two are discussing a Locust raid at Pomerot Depot, just down the road - evidence that the Horde is closing in. Winter is threatening to set in, but hasn't quite plucked up the courage to do so. A bumbling trainee arrives to join Delta Squad - "Private Ben Carmine, sir!" It's here you're presented with your first left trigger or right trigger choice, much like at the beginning of the first game - train Private Ben Carmine (which triggers the tutorial), or don't (jumps you straight into the action).
Tai, who we mentioned at the top of the preview, makes his entrance. He's a huge, mysterious shaman-esque soldier with a Pacific Island style tattoo on his face. Despite his softly spoken voice, Marcus tells Dom he's super tough. He fought alongside Marcus years ago and will be a staunch ally during the campaign. For us, he comes across as a bit strange - "I like the glow of Locust blood in this light" - speaking in riddles we don't completely understand.
Soon enough the action kicks into gear, and Locust storm the hospital. Having chosen to train Private Carmine, we spend most of our time vaulting and snapping to cover inside the hospital itself, passing by people dying from Rustlung, or Imulsion sickness, cases of which have been increasing ever since Marcus and co dropped the Lightmass bomb on the Locust at the end of the first game. Your first encounter with the Locust is an altogether sneaky affair. From the first floor of the hospital you can see Locust entering in a room below. Luckily for you, they're passing gas canisters that are just begging to be shot. Marcus shouts "Now!", we pop up out of cover, pepper the canisters and boom! Locust bits everywhere.
Marcus and co then fight their way out of the hospital, clearing the building using much the same tactics as anyone who played just five minutes of the first game will be familiar with. Epic has clearly taken an 'if it 'aint broke don't fix it' approach to the cover system from the first game, despite confirming it's implemented an impressive 400 tweaks. And why not? The easy to use pop-in-and-out cover system Epic nailed two years ago is still to be bettered. "We're going to have hands down the best cover system in the business," Cliff confidently predicts. We're not about to argue.