Bald Space Marines have become something of an Xbox stereotype, but it's hard to deny that few developers do them better than Epic Games. Gears of War was a smash hit both at the cash register and online in 2006 and through 2007, so the sequel has its work cut out for it.
So the question is - how's it looking? And the answer is - pretty damn good.
Of course, you'd expect a sequel to improve on the original but what's most heartening about what we've seen of Gears of War 2 so far is that the improvements are looking good throughout the game. Technology, gameplay and story all look to have been substantially overhauled. Let's look at how.
Epic Games is also famous for the Unreal Engine, its middleware that forms the basis of all its games - and those of many, many other developers too. In the eighteen months or so since Gears of War's release, Epic's technology team has been hard at work on Unreal Engine 3 and it's looking substantially more capable at blowing our minds than the version used in the original. Here are some of its key new or improved features, and what they mean in game terms.
- Ambient Occlusion: adds more dynamic and realistic shadows.
- Advanced Character Lighting: provides character models with better contrast and specular lighting, more detail overall and faster rendering.
- High Density Crowds: allows the game to show over 100 characters on-screen at once, using flocking technology to move.
- Dynamic Fluid Surfaces: a realistic physics simulation now allows for specular and environmental reflections, more dynamic interactions with water and superior sound effects.
- Soft-body Physics: to better simulate the behaviour of soft objects (the Unreal Engine demo shows a giant, somewhat gooey-looking cube of meat); it's also good for rendering liquids as it can simulate both viscosity and surface tension, so the artists can build more organic environments.
- Matinee Improvements: these allow the cut-scene creators to access movie director-level controls over cameras and cuts and provides a real-time, in-engine preview mode.
- Destructible Environments: Unreal Engine 3 now has real-time structural analysis tools to determine how objects break apart under stress, strain and high explosives.
The short version of all this is that the game should look amazing (as does the original) and will most likely raise the bar on visual fidelity and environmental modelling on the Xbox 360.
All this technology is meaningless without a good game in front of it, and on that count we can look forward to larger, more free-form battles, and a wider selection of weapons. The Active Reload system will remain in place, though it's likely that different weapons will use different mechanics.
Also different are the enemy types, with some truly huge monsters set to appear, along with the Locust's Kantus Monks, who can heal their wounded comrades at a distance and are equipped with sonic attacks, Gorgon Burst Pistols and poisonous grenades (to which you'll eventually gain access).
And at last, Xbox 360 owners will be able to fight a Brumak (the giant beastie that appeared in the Gears of War trailer and an in-game cut-scene).
Happily, the game will support multiple save files (so your progress won't be wiped out by a curious friend or family member who decides to just take a look at the game).
Not much has been revealed about the Gears of War 2's multiplayer components, just a few tid-bits. Everybody's favourite map, Gridlock, will be 're-imagined' and co-op play has been much improved, with drop-in, drop-out play and provisions for gamers on different difficulty levels to play together. Speaking of which, the difficulty levels have been tweaked too. There will be a new level easier than Casual, for first-timers, and the harder difficulty levels promise to be truly horrifying.
Oh, nearly forgot to mention this: chainsaw duels. About (pardon the pun) bloody time...
So. Improved technology. Improved gameplay. These are just the tools that create a great story - and here we know a little (but not a lot) more. Gears of War 2 takes place approximately six months after the events of the first game, and once again we'll be playing as Marcus Fenix. He'll be accompanied by his old pal Dominic Santiago and two new team-mates: Tai Kaliso (described as a 'spiritual' warrior) and Dizzy (one of the Stranded, who joined the COG in exchange for his family's safety). It's rumoured that they'll meet up with their old buddies Baird and Coltrane as the game progresses - here's hoping.
Chairman Prescott will now be issuing the orders and the story will concern, in part at least, the search for Dom's wife Maria, who lost her children at the beginning of the war. You'll be able to learn more about the war by examining the COG tags you collect, and you'll get information from Jack, your floating robot companion.
And the rest
Epic has confirmed that there'll be no demo for Gears of War 2, which is perhaps disappointing. Still, if they'd rather have all hands-on deck to tweak, fine-tune and ultimately finish the game, then who are we to argue? But if you're jonesing for a Gears of War fix, keep an eye on your local comic book store, because the Gears of War comic book is coming. It's being written by Joshua Ortega of Star Wars, Spider Man, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica fame, so we reckon it'll probably be pretty good.
Gears of War was the Xbox 360's first real blockbuster title, and the first game to knock Halo 2 off the number 1 spot on Xbox Live. The sequel is due this November - can Epic Games do it again?