Never mind Gears of War 3, says Marky R, Epic is still working on Gears of War 2. And how. There have been three multiplayer map packs, and three title updates that rebalanced the game, not to mention a few weekend events that introduced custom playlists, like ticker-packed Horde sessions to celebrate Independence Day. Although we tend to forget about that one over here.
Tomorrow though, three map packs doesn't just become four, it becomes four and then some, as Gears of War 2: Dark Corners introduces seven new multiplayer playgrounds (with typically macho names like "Allfathers Garden") and, perhaps most excitingly, a new single-player and co-operative chapter called Road to Ruin. Dark Corners is available for 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20 / €14.40), or you can gather all of Gears of War 2's existing DLC together in a single bundle called All Fronts Collection, which goes for 1600 MSP (£13.60 / €19.20).
Given that it's not out until tomorrow, however, it's been difficult to find opponents for the new multiplayer maps, and it seems unreasonable to try and review them off the strength of a few snatched games. Not wanting to leave you without any guidance though, Eurogamer's own Coaliation of Ordered Governments (that's me and former editor Kristan Reed) took to the internet over the weekend to play through Road to Ruin and bring you impressions.
Road to Ruin begins with a short video introduction by Epic design director Cliff Bleszinski, who explains that sometimes sections get cut out of games for various reasons. A cynical individual might point out that this one appears to have been cut for the reason of making 1200 Microsoft Points. Whatever - it's being billed as a "Deleted Scene", and can only be played out of sequence. This means that it does checkpoint your progress as you go, but doesn't offer actual save slots, so if you want to stop playing you will need to pick it up from the start next time.
From that you might infer that Road to Ruin is insubstantial, and that's true, but it's still an interesting concoction. It's set between Dom's unfortunate reunion with his wife and the assault on Nexus, and offers you the choice between marching along the Locust highway that takes you to the Locust Queen's palace all-guns-blazing, or borrowing some dead Theron Guards' salmon-pink death-armour and adopting a stealthy approach. And it really does offer it: in classic Gears 2 style, left trigger chooses stealth, right trigger chooses ultraviolence.
There are no new weapons or enemy types to worry about, but then Gears 2's campaign was celebrated not only for those, but for its impressive level design, which forced you to react to terrain and cover points that sometimes changed over the course of a fight, rather than boxing you into a fairly basic battle over and over again like the first game. Road to Ruin continues in this vein, splitting the action into a series of large-scale encounters bookended by massive Locust checkpoints, which consist of chunky metal blast doors and behave like locks on a canal, only allowing you to progress once you've closed the door behind you.
The first battle is a straightforward crate-to-wall-to-crate dodge along a flat and fairly narrow causeway, but things get interesting in the second and third big encounters, which include massive opposing staircases, a torture area that branches off in two different directions to open your flanks, and challenging use of the game's many enemy types: boomers supported by beast riders charging down a hundred-foot staircase towards you are pretty overwhelming, and in a manner the host game didn't attempt.
Then there's a bridge crossing rendered impassable by an old enemy, and an old friend to liberate following a slight hiccup. The better weapons are gradually uncovered - the longshot, the torque bow, the mulcher, etc. - and the pacing and level of variation in general is comparable to the better sections in Gears of War 2's Nexus assault, which of course would have followed this had Epic decided to include it on the disc last year.
Stealth, however, changes things considerably - although thankfully it's a different kind of stealth to the tedium that accompanied the hunt for Dom's wife among the iron man-cages in the main game. With Marcus and Dom dressed up as Theron Guards - they look like Boo from Monsters, Inc. - they can walk among the Locust without detection, providing they stay out of a certain range. The idea is that the Locust will sniff them out if they get too close.
Battles that rage for quite some time if you go in all-guns-blazing can be skilfully side-stepped. Some of the Locust are stationary, but several patrol on set routes, and there are distractions to set off to try and carve out a path. Coordinating stealth with a friend over headset is easy and enjoyable, and if you're on your own then AI Dom is surprisingly good at self-preservation, even calling situations for you. There's no extra interface clutter, but then it's not necessary.
If you are identified, of course, it's masks-off and guns up, and if you then die, you're transported back to the last canal lock checkpoint. Handily though, if you can fight off the Locusts instead and make it to the next canal lock thing, Marcus and Dom put their masks back on for the next bit and sneak around again. It's enough to justify the canal locks, anyway, which are otherwise very silly, complete with levers that need to be pulled simultaneously that also happen to be up entirely superfluous ladders. It's unusually fluffy stuff for Gears.
Overall though, Road to Ruin is an enjoyable extra chapter. Whether you choose stealth or violence, it culminates in a challenging brawl outside the doorway to Nexus against all sorts of old friends - tickers, beast riders, those resurrection bastards, and others - and playing through it a couple of times with a friend is a diverting hour-or-so's work, and worth 75 gamerpoints - 25 each for stealth and all-guns-blazing finishes, and 25 more for doing it in co-op.
With that said, it is very much a scene that could afford to be deleted. The stealth element is novel for Gears but hardly amazing, and while the action option hits some high points, they're not exactly using a giant worm. Fans of the series hoping that it might shed more light on the main story - what Adam Fenix is up to and so on - may also be disappointed, and the vaunted cameo from the first game isn't exactly General RAAM.
If you were thinking of buying Dark Corners specifically to play Road to Ruin, then, you will feel short-changed. However, throw in seven multiplayer maps, as Epic has, and the story may be different. Assuming we can find some people to play them with once the expansion's actually out, we'll try to bring you a real verdict in the days ahead.
Gears of War 2: Dark Corners and All Fronts Collection are both due out on 28th July.