For many visitors to Microsoft's Spring Showcase, the highlight of the day will be Gears of War 2. But then for many of those who own an Xbox 360, Gears of War 2 will be the highlight of the year - at least that's what Cliff Bleszinski reckons, as you'll know when you read our interview with him later today. He's standing before us and a dozen or so other journalists to show off the game, or as he puts it, to "share the love and share the magic".
Specifically Bleszinski will be sharing the second level, titled Assault. It's the same one featured in the video released a few days ago. According to Bleszinski, however, "What you saw there was just a two-minute snippet of the entire scenario. This is the whole level from start to finish, and I'll be playing it right here in front of you on the Xbox 360."
Like the trailer, the demo begins with a cut-scene showing giant trucks, called Derricks, rolling through a canyon as helicopters fly overhead. Sunlight streams over mountains looming in the distance. Bleszinski explains the game is set about six months after the ending of the first game, just as winter is beginning. The human race still has a stronghold in Jacinto, but perhaps not for long. "The Locusts are back and they're stronger than ever," he informs us. "This time they've brought with them a force that can bring down entire cities." Although the Locust still can't tunnel underneath Jacinto, they have started digging around it. "If they keep doing that, eventually Jacinto will fall and all will be lost for humanity," says Bleszinski.
Humanity's response is to attack the Locusts in their underground habitats. To do this they've constructed tools called grind lifts - "express elevators to Hell", as Bleszinski puts it. Two soldiers enter a pod and it's sent down a tunnel into the ground. Then they pop out and clear all the Locusts in the area, hitting them where they breed.
Marcus Fenix is back but this time not all his fellow soldiers are in it for the glory alone. Bleszinski explains the COG have developed a new programme called Operation Lifeboat. Men are invited to come to Jacinto and sign up on the understanding that in exchange, the families they leave behind will receive water, food and shelter. Dizzy, a character we're being introduced to here, is one of those to have taken up the offer. His accent and the banter he exchanges with Fenix suggest he's a real redneck and not quite as into macho posturing as the characters in the previous game.
The banter doesn't last for long though as a helicopter ahead explodes and mortars begin raining down on the Derrick. Bleszinski gets to work blowing the bombs up before they can complete their trajectory, and giant chunks of rock start flying all over the screen. A huge boulder is dislodged from the canyon wall and crashes into the Derrick, and almost into our hero.
Now he starts shooting at the Nemacyst Mortars flanking the Derrick. Previously seen towards the end of Gears of War 1 and in the first gameplay trailer for GOW2, these are the flying betentacled enemies that suggest someone at Epic quite likes The Matrix. And here comes a Brumak - you can shoot them now, and Bleszinski uses a mounted turret gun to see it off.
As all this is going on the Derrick is still rolling through the canyon, crushing any trees in its path. There's another Derrick travelling alongside, but there's a problem - the Locust have managed to hijack it, accessing the driver's cabin and deck using their grappling hooks. Following a fierce shootout across the bows of both vehicles, the Locust start attempting to take over the Derrick Bleszinski's on. He battles back by shooting their hooks off the bow before they've had a chance to climb up, and when that fails, by blasting them in the chest as they leap onto the deck. Turning his attention back to the successfully hijacked Derrick, Blesinski aims at the Locust in the driver's cabin and fires a perfect shot. With no one behind the wheel it tumbles into the chasm ahead and explodes, while the other Derrick continues over the bridge.
Time for the final act of the level. A Corpser bursts out of the ground right next to the Derrick, and Bleszinski despatches it with a few furious bursts of gunfire. He turns his attentions to the Brumak throwing its body weight against the Derrick in a bid to tip it over, attacking its guns first before shooting it in the face. A splatter of blood hits the camera, the Brumak gives out a great groan and comes crashing to the ground. The Derrick has reached its destination, Landown. "And that's level two," says Bleszinski.
There's just time for a few questions, starting with one about how the Achievements system will work this time around. "I don't want to get into too much of the multiplayer right now, but one thing I can confirm is we are doing Achievement progress," he says. "So players can track how far they're getting with each Achievement in whatever mode.
"We're also going to be throttling the amount of Achievements players can get at any given point." For example, if you're going for headshots, only the first headshot will count when you're in multiplayer mode. "The others won't count, so players won't be able to rock the system and play at getting headshots the entire round just to get their Achievement," explains Bleszinski, before adding that you'll be able to get all Achievements whether in single-player, multiplayer or co-op.
The next person to pipe up wants to know how they've managed to knock out a sequel to Gears of War so quickly. "Because we started working on it the moment the first one shipped," says Bleszinski. "When we saw how the pre-orders were for the first game, when we saw the reviews coming in, we were like, 'We have to do a sequel to this, because it's clearly going to be a success.'" Now the foundation of the series has been established, he continues, the team is able to focus on "having some fun" rather than working out the game's core mechanics.
That fun will include duelling, of which not much was shown in the demo. Bleszinski is happy to talk about it, however. "The chainsaw duelling is just a B-button press mini-game because, I don't know how you guys feel, but if I play another Quick Time Event thing I think I'm going to stab somebody in the neck. I think that trend just needs to die," he says, before outlining a feature we didn't get to see in today's demo but wish we had. "If you come up from behind someone, you'll take the chainsaw up between their legs and behind them and... You know." There's a titter from the audience. "Yeah."
Of course, there's lots more we didn't see in today's demo - for example, enemies and environments other than what was featured in the trailer (Bleszinski promises locations will range "from the deepest depths of the underground to the highest snow-capped peaks"). But it's still a thrill to see Gears of War 2 in action. "I know I've been saying bigger, better, more badass, but I hope you guys agree that's what we're delivering here," says Bleszinski. It certainly looks that way.