Previews

Gears of War 2

Five-player co-op, anyone? 'Horde' around...

It was painful. We wanted to tell you about all the never-before-seen Gears of War 2 levels, modes and gameplay features we sampled at Microsoft's Redmond office recently, but we couldn't because of those bloody embargo thingies.

Breaking the embargo would probably have gotten us all killed, but now the chains are off we can finally reveal Gears of War's E3 secrets.

First up is a new mode that had us sat in front of the screen, wide-eyed and unflinching for hours: the brand new five-player co-op mode called Horde. You and up to four other players, in any multiplayer map, get to fight against waves of CPU-controlled enemies.

Microsoft described it as Gears of War meets Geometry Wars. The various beasts in the single-player campaign spawn into the map, coming at you and your team from all angles and forcing you to work together to defeat them, with each wave being tougher to beat. Like co-op in the first game's campaign, players can revive each other an unlimited number of times, but if you all die in a single round it's over.

It sounds simple but it's more ingenious than you think. It's all about working together and staying close to each other, but you're each individually scored on the number of enemies you kill, giving the hot-headed players a competitive element to enjoy.

It's bloody tough though. In earlier waves you'll only have small groups of Locust Drones and Wretches to deal with. But a few waves later you'll start to feel the strain. Imagine taking on two Boomers, a pack of explosive Lambent Wretches, three or four Torque Bow-wielding Theron guards and the odd Drone or two packing a flame thrower or sniper rifle. It's mental without including the new enemies (more about that later).

An enemy count in the top left corner of the screen tracks how many beasts left in the current wave - usually between the 15 and 20 mark at the most. When you kill the last enemy of a wave, you hear that distinctive victory chime and it all goes quiet for around a minute before the next wave turns up.

We loved these parts the most. It's tense - you have no idea what might appear next, or where it'll attack from, but you have no choice but to break off and scout around for ammo. It's a moment of both calm and uncomfortable vulnerability.

You'll soon know when someone has wondered too far from the pack though - first you hear the grunt of an enemy who's spotted his prey, followed by screams of your pals on XBL headset as the four of you rush to their rescue.

It was in Horde mode that we got our first glimpse of some of the new enemies you'll see in the single-player campaign. If you thought Wretches were a pain in the ass, you'll have to deal with another race of agile little beasts called Tickers, named after a constant ticking sound they make with their teeth.

They're like giant demonic caterpillars with explosives strapped to their backs. One well-aimed shot can make them explode, but they're nippy and dart from one point of cover to another so fast you barely see them. All you hear is that tick getting closer and closer.

On the bigger side of the scale, Boomers mean business in the sequel. There are now multiple variants of Boomer that carry different weapons. We saw Boomers with the flame thrower, which are so tough that you can't always take them down before they get close enough to torch you to a crisp.

Another attacks with a giant melee weapon and a shield, guarding themselves as they slowly move close to you, then charging you at the last moment (and they're scarily quick) to smash your face in.

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