Gears of War 2: Most improved sequel ever?

New, varied environments make Sera feel like a real planet

We worked through three distinct areas during our play through act one, and every one of them added an extra dimension to Sera as a world. While the introductory section was in many ways a traditional Gears of War urban slog, a hospital is an inherently affecting human environment, and while it wasn't in a working condition during our battle, the leftover remnants of its better days - occasional dead bodies included - made us feel at the centre of a very real place. Similarly, the opulent - and yes, colourful! - city outside was a powerful indicator of the real Sera that had previously been hidden from us.

That said, the mountainous countryside outside of the city was the real eye-opener. Hitting the Derrick level, we were pumelled with how different things felt from anything we'd experienced in Gears before. Between the verdant greenery, blue skies and the fact that our view was clear all the way to the distant horizon, at last there was a real sense of what the Gears are fighting to protect. It's strange how a beautiful environment can add so much gravitas to a warzone, but getting out of the cities and into the real Sera added a huge amount of impact to Gears' narrative on top of the variety it brought to the gameplay. And the same went for the quiet, snow-draped rural town of Landown we visited a little while later.

Everything is just damnably hardcore

And we don't just mean that in the way you might think. Epic has repeatedly promised a deeper, darker, heavier, more involving experience with Gears of War 2, and right now we're going to stick our collective neck out and say that those promises certainly don't look to be hyperbole. No, Gears 2 seems to crank up the gravitas, the seriousness and the pounding grittiness all the way. And for once in videogames, that tone is far from boring.

Chairman Prescott's opening speech in front of an army of rallied Gears is all at once stirring and terrifying, telling us without doubt that this is a fight that humanity has to win. But it also has deep, uncomfortable tones of fascistic dogma.Make of that what you will. The voiceover by his Locust counter-part - yes, she's back - tells of a strengthening Locust resolve and even evokes a tinge of sympathy for their struggle, detailing their retaliation from the day of the Lightmass bomb with bitter talk of the humans' "weapons of mass destruction".

The usually stoic Dom has been pushed to breaking point by the losses he has suffered throughout the Locust war, unashamedly letting his strong veneer break throughout the opening section of the game as the loss of his dead children and still-missing wife come dangerously close to being just too much for one man to bear. Globally and personally, Gears 2 is where things come to a head, guns and emotions firing hard in desperate bids for resolution. Make no mistake about it, Gears 2 feels like it's going to be one hell of an experience on a great many levels.