According to a (removed) listing on GameStop’s website, Gears of War Ultimate will be hitting shelves come February, and it’s rumoured it will contain both of the esteemed games, alongside a complete set of DLC.

Bigger, better and more badass.  These are the words Cliff Bleszinski used when referring to Gears of War 2, raising expectations higher than its predecessor.  Between a fair number of videos and developer diaries, Epic did well to hype up the sequel to their 2006 hit.  Now Gears 2 has been unleashed to Xbox 360 gamers; has it proved to be as great as anticipated or is it a forgetful experience?

Gears of War 2 picks up six months after the end of the first, with the Lightmass bomb leaving but a small dent on the Locust Horde.  Entire cities have been sunk by the Locust with Jacinto being the last human stronghold remaining.  In retaliation, humanity has decided to take the fight to the Locust by launching attacks underground.  There’s also a side story with Dom looking for his wife Maria amidst the raging war.  The plot is one of the many areas that have been improved over the first, with emotions and care for characters coming into play.  There’s still plenty of corny dialogue and some melodrama to be found, but Gears 2 manages to keep its story brisk and interesting.

The core gameplay from Gears of War has barely changed, with only a few tweaks being made.  This doesn’t hinder the game though, since it controls just as well, if not better than before.  The cover system has been touched up a bit and the game does have a slightly better feeling of control.  This isn’t to say nothing has been added to the options players have when slaughtering bloodthirsty opponents.  Downed enemies can now be picked up and used as human shields.  They can be beaten to death by fist, by a weapon-oriented finishing move or through old fashion curb stomping.  Chainsaw duals have also been added to address the issue of who wins when two players have their bayonet ready; with the faster button-masher coming out victorious.  Another small tweak made for the chainsaw is that it’ll take a few more shots than before to lower your bayonet; meaning death by chainsaw isn’t so much a seldom occurrence anymore.  Grenades can now be used as proximity mines by hitting them against walls (with the melee button) and smoke grenades knock down enemies when nearby, making them more useful.  Stopping power also plays a role in the game so that rushing into the action is discouraged.  Getting shot while running will slow you down and likely get you killed very quickly.

To compensate for a lack of major gameplay enhancements, the scope and stakes have been raised drastically.  You’ll be faced with taking on far more enemies than before; with armadas of opponents assaulting you at once.  New foes such as the kamikaze Tickers and the appropriately named Bloodhounds are among the new forces you’ll need to exterminate throughout your expedition.  A few weapons have also been added to even the odds.  The primary Locust rifle (now the Hammerburst) has been altered to become a single shot rifle that can zoom in and is an effective alternative to the Lancer.  A burst pistol, poison grenades, portable shields (can only be used with a pistol in-hand), chainguns and mortars are also available to help you show the Locust who’s got the upper hand.

One of the complaints with the first Gears was that the difficulty levels didn’t feel very balanced; with Casual feeling too easy and Hardcore feeling too challenging.  Thankfully, Epic has addressed these issues and added a Normal difficulty between Casual and Hardcore.  While Normal does feel balanced, it is rather forgiving.  This means the more experienced players will want to start on Hardcore if they’re seeking a real challenge.  Another issue addressed is the length of each Act, with all five being roughly the same duration.  All told, it should take most players around eight to ten hours to finish on their first run.

While the Campaign is short but sweet, Gears of War 2 offers plenty of incentive to keep coming back.  There are several collectibles you can add to your War Journal through the Campaign, giving insight to the thoughts of other characters outside of the main story.  Cooperative play is still available, but only for up to two people.  Then there are the online modes, which all together add some serious replay value.  The player limit has been raised to ten gamers per lobby, making matches bigger without eliminating the in-your-face action.  Outside of the offerings from Gears of War, there are a couple new modes available too.  Guardian works similar to Assassination, but players can continue fighting even if their leader has been killed.  Submission works like capture the flag except a Stranded is the flag and must be shot into submission to grab hold of and secure.  Then there’s Wingman, which divides players into teams of two and allows for a lot more action to occur between teams.  For some matches you’ll still have to wait after dying until the second round starts, but now you can move the camera around maps to help kill time.  If you ever find a nice shot, such as someone getting blown to bits by a shotgun, you can quickly take a picture while looking around.

Perhaps the biggest multiplayer offering is Horde, in which up to five players work together against wave after wave of increasingly difficult Locust.  While it can be played offline with two people it’ll take a full lobby of the best players with everyone working together to reach level fifty (the highest level of difficulty).  What makes Horde such a great mode is that it demands the game be played the way it was designed in order to succeed; killing with teamwork and in the quickest, nastiest ways possible.  It’s also extremely fun since the action is intense and viscerally satisfying, with enemies coming at you from every corner.  Between the solid multiplayer offerings and the challenge offered in Horde, gamers can expect to get plenty of bang for their buck.

Arguably the most impressive aspect of Gears 2 is the visuals, especially from a technical standpoint.  Even though some felt the 360’s limits had been pushed with the first Gears, Epic has once again squeezed as much out of the system as possible.  The Destroyed Beauty theme remains and is used to an even better effect with action taking place in and having a great effect on the once pristine Sera.  As aforementioned, the scale has been raised considerably and is definitely the biggest improvement graphically.  The detail has been bumped up a decent bit as well, with character models and the environments looking smoother and sharper at the same time.  All this has been handled extremely well by the framerate, which remains steady even during the biggest battles.  About all that could be held against the visuals are that there’s still some pop in textures and dead body glitches.  These problems aside, Gears 2 looks absolutely stunning and is a nice step above its predecessor.

The sound for Gears of War 2 is also noticeably superior to its predecessor.  While the same voice actors have reprised their roles and still deliver some cheesy lines, there are occurrences when the dialogue shows improvement, particularly during the game’s more serious points.  The Locust sound just as nasty and sinister as before; growling many of their lines in an almost death metal style tone.  A fairly impressive musical score accompanies the game during every firefight and cutscene, adding to the gritty but intense scenarios and encounters.  What’s more is that the sound effects have also been worked on nicely; with every gun having a distinct pitch when fired, explosions sounding like loud bombardments and exploding bodies sounding as wet and chunky as they should.  That’s to say, you still won’t get sick of hearing your enemies fall apart before your weapons.

Gears of War 2 manages to be everything that the sequel to an intense, violent shooter should be.  The single player might be short, but it offers such a great, huge experience from start to finish that a second playthrough upon completion is likely.  Add on a great online multiplayer portion and one heck of a mode in Horde and you’ve got yourself a damn nice package.  Rest assured this is not Gears of War 1.5; this is a game that gives even the top titles released this year a run for their money.  Be ready for a second round of frantic bone crushing and blood inducement.