AI partners are actually useful this time; running in to provide support fire and reviving you when you're down (lesser on harder difficulty levels though). If only because they occasionally keep you from the game over screen, it feels far more rewarding to have Cole, Baird and co at your side.
One section in particular is hands-down the single best chapter in either Gears of War game. Annoyingly Microsoft won't let us tell you about it - and we wouldn't dare spoil it anyway - but we can say that it involves putting a chainsaw through something far more gruesome than a Locust's chest. You'll know it when you see it.
Gears' arsenal of weapons have been tinkered and skewed to sound even more powerful and each feels more satisfying. The Lancer is now a chizzled and deadly-sounding beast compared to the original's clunky and annoying rat-a-tat-tat gun.
Locust weapons aren't the last-resort selections they were in the first game, they're now strategic, powerful-but-slow alternatives to the COG's automatic-but-weak arsenal.
Thankfully Epic has opted to concentrate on this refinement work across all of Gears 2's guns rather than flooding you with new toys, and it makes for a particularly balanced multiplayer experience (although the flamethrower, shield, mortar and Mulcher mini-gun have relevant spots in the line-up too and are fun to use).
Teams have been expanded with five members instead of four, which makes the multiplayer experience feel a sight more frantic and also caters for larger multiplayer maps, which definitely look and feel grander in scale.
The player expansion trickles into the design of other areas of the multiplayer experience as well, including the addition of bots (not available in Horde though) and the awesome new game mode Wingman, which separates players into several teams of two.
One or two 'superweapons', i.e. the mortar, Hammer of Dawn or Mulcher mini-gun are placed as showpieces in the arena and players are forced to scramble for them. The introduction of Chainsaw duels serves only as an instigator over lag and "I chainsawed you first!" outbursts over Xbox Live. They are quite exciting though.
Putting lancer on lancer switches the action to a cinematic camera angle and challenging combatants frantically hammer the B button until a winner is decided. We're sure the technical process of deciding who mashed the buttons the fastest isn't very complicated, but it makes you feel like you actually did some work, at least.
But the most poignant addition on the online side is the excellent co-op bout Horde, so good is it that Epic's decided to slap it right on the front menu. Much like Unreal Tournament's Invasion mode, Horde sticks five players together on a multiplayer map and then challenges them to survive wave after wave of increasingly tough Locust baddies.
Cleverly, if you and your teammates fail to defeat a Locust wave (and they get bloody hard) you can choose to re-attempt it as many times you like. This encourages strategy among your teammates and you'll soon be splitting in to pairs, manning the Hammer of Dawn and backing up your comrades as they defend a besieged house as if it were Lord of the Rings.
It makes us want that four-player co-op campaign even more, though the variety in the new co-op campaign is fantastic and at times absolutely awesome.
But as we said, Gears 2 isn't perfect - not in the campaign mode, anyway. Disappointingly, the slightly off vehicle section in the first game's campaign has been multiplied and extended in length. Gears 2 will have Marcus and co hijack various Locust nasties for GTA-style joyrides, and storm through a forest in a tank the size of a monster truck.
While these sections are thrilling and quite fun the first time around, subsequent playthroughs remove the initial novelty factor, and driving off ledges and blasting at relentless waves of Locust troops can get quite frustrating in harder difficulties. We can see their place in breaking up on-foot combat, but we wish they could've been cut down a bit or put on rails and expanded into awesome forest derrick battles.