Gears of War 2: Most improved sequel ever?

The gameplay now really mixes it up

Let go of that caps lock key and calm down. The core of Gears' cover shooting gameplay is still there and as strong as ever. It's just that this time around that core is complimented by a greater focus on varied set-pieces. It really freshens things up, as well as adding that all-important 'epic' factor to the action.

Take the Derrick level you've seen inthe preview videos. In practice, it's a masterpiece of scripted pacing that would make Infinity Ward proud. After the ominous quiet of the initial roll through the countryside, we were set upon by Nemecyst mortars and forced to quickly man a deck-mounted troika to shoot down the barrage before it obliterated our transport. Soon afterwards, an engine failure forced us to park up as driver and mechanic Dizzy rallied to get the derrick back up and running. And wouldn't you know it, a nearby emergence hole quickly had us descending a ladder to ground level for a swift but intense defensive stand as Locust fired upon us at ground level and from the cliffs towering above.

Once safely back on board, the poop really exploded through the air-based cooling device, as the battlefield filled up with Brumacks and hundreds of Locust troops. While close inspection revealed a lot of the Locust army to be a smoke and mirrors trick to add scale and life to the background scenery - we could shoot them down from half a mile away but never genuinely interacted with them - the sense of chaos it inflicted as enemy troops assaulted our transport with grappling hooks was almost disorientingly visceral. And at the end of the day, you can't beat the experience of meeting a Brumack nose-to-nose, with only a troika barrel separating you from a good dose of decapitation.

The tweaks to the cover system are very welcome

We'll level with you here. We still got stuck on cover while trying to roadie-run through a doorway. It happened a couple of times in fact. But twice over a five hour period isn't bad going for a Gears of War game, compared to the way things used to be - damn you, Berserker fight! - and on the whole things have definitely improved. The distance Marcus can slide into cover now seems to have been increased, making it far less painful to run between safe spots. And the running angle at which he can lock to cover now seems a hell of a lot wider, so there's far less of that old 'square movement' feel to progressing through a level.

And even better is the addition of free-form cover. As with many additions to Gears of War 2, it makes everything feel immensely more organic and dynamic than the original game. Marcus and squad can now knock over tables to crouch behind, much like the bad guys in F.E.A.R., and an underground level we were demoed (but unfortunately didn't get to play) also showcased mobile cover in the form of the new rock worm creatures.

These huge, indestructible centipede-like things work just like an extended brick wall in terms of offering protection, but can be guided around the room by shooting down glowing food pods from the ceiling to provide a safe route across wide, open areas. And did we mention that some hulking great Locust now carry shields which you can pick up and use after killing them? Speaking of which...