Gears of War is what people who don't play videogames probably think all videogames look like. Meaty, rubble-strewn and dribbling splatter, its soldiers-versus-lizards storyline suggests entertainment of the direct-to-DVD kind, where characters are little more than a means to an explosion and the only brains are smeared across a wall.
That's how Gears looks, certainly, but how it plays is a different matter. Rather than an eye-bleeding Unreal-alike or an all-night pass to the local offal house, Epic's game moves at its own distinctive pace. Each level is a carefully-constructed maze of cover that will confound anyone bent on mindless blasting, while the weapon-set balances every strength with an equal and opposite weakness elsewhere.
With a template this solid, you could almost forgive the developers for approaching a follow-up as nothing more than a chance to churn out a handful of new maps and the odd one-liner to keep things moving along. But having had a chance to play through the first act of November's sequel, it seems the Gears team are a long way from running out of new ideas.
Don't worry, though: if all you're after is fresh heads to stamp on, you'll be fine. In fact, Gears 2 now even provides you with three different flavours of fatality mapped to the face buttons, along with the option to use a downed enemy as portable cover. But for those who want more, the team has also made attempts to vary the action and, in multiplayer, even experiment.
Gears 2 takes place six months after the first game, and the narrative focuses on the fight to save the city of Jacinto from destruction at the hands of the Locust. On paper, the first act kicks off with a fire-fight through an inner-city hospital before speeding on, past a suitably neo-Nazi battle speech, to mountainous countryside, where you're on a mission to take the fight underground to the Locust's enclave.
In reality this simple agenda quickly becomes a whirlwind of clever variation, with the tempo and objectives switching from one minute to the next. It's clear that aside from the prettiness and increased on-screen body count it's the pacing that has gone through the biggest overhaul this time around, and the results so far are extremely promising.
The initial hospital battle is an exercise in controlled chaos, swinging from higher-ground sniping points to more intimate slaughter on the fly as I bumble through the corridors, playing co-op with a nice fellow who manages to hide his annoyance as I stop to scribble down notes in the middle of crucial battles. (Controversially, Gears 2 will retain the two-player co-op limit of the original.)
While there are scripted moments, such as conveniently placed explosive barrels or the brilliantly comic sight of two locusts popping up from behind a reception desk, the environments are just large enough to allow for experimentation in most encounters. Courtyard corridors are built for flanking and there are a range of cover options available at every turn, with each choice subtly altering the way the carnage plays out.
On top of this are the moments of sheer adrenaline, which show that Epic's approach to set-pieces has been significantly refined. Whether it's the downed Raven crashing through a skylight, or the electricity cutting out as Locusts start to converge from all sides and the ammo runs low, you are never entirely sure what's around the next corner - and the variety never descends into gimmickry.
Although the action remains fairly small scale - a bloodied mess of chainsawed torsos, close-combat gunfire, and kerb-stomping - there's a greater sense of the war going on around you this time, from the Reavers strafing ground troops glimpsed out of the dirty glass of the hospital windows, to a brief trip through rubble-choked streets, while distant - and not so distant - chaos erupts all around.
And when the game moves into the wilderness, this sense of scale increases. While the shift from plodding through corridors to riding on the backs of huge mobile assault derricks seems like you might be in for little more than a clockwork crawl through an elaborate shooting gallery, the mechanics are well hidden for the most part and you rarely feel like you're being unfairly railroaded.
There are boarding Locusts to fight off in the confined space of the derrick itself alongside occasional pit-stops to dismount while an NPC patches a fault, regularly shunting events back to more traditional control-and-flank gameplay. Elsewhere, enemies - previously restricted to a mere handful on screen at any time - swarm out of the ground in dizzying numbers. To make up for the lack of Brumak action in the original game, Gears 2 is now practically tripping over them as they break through the trees and topple boulders.
The scripted moments themselves are undeniably thrilling as incoming mortars curl down out of the sky flinging wakes of black smoke behind them, noisily taking out your neighbours in chunky explosions, and crumbling the nearby mountains into rockslides. To top it off, a frantic battle against a Locust-controlled derrick provides the necessary spectacle for a mini-boss encounter with none of the annoying QTEs.
As you arrive in a deserted mountain town the game switches pace yet again with the addition of a new enemy. The Ticker is an overgrown cockroach with a mine charmingly grafted to its back: attacking en masse, success lies with detonating them from a distance, often triggering a chain reaction of delayed explosions, which is sometimes useful, and sometimes just highly amusing.
There are new weapons, too, such as the mortar, planted in the ground with the left trigger, and fired with the right. It's fiddly at first, with aiming controlled by holding down the right trigger. But as your skills improve, mortars come into their own and provide a way of raining death down on distant Boomer crews while your co-op partner tidies up closer enemies.
Act one saves its greatest thrills for the very end, however. The first is an audacious tunnel set-piece which literally turns out all the lights, sending the screen into total blackness before unleashing a skittering, twitching horde of Tickers who can only be located by the creepy clicking sound they produce and the sporadic light of gunfire.
In its simplicity, it's one of the more memorably frightening moments since Half-Life 2's Ravenholm, and is immediately followed by a second highlight: a fleeting glimpse of a new Locust, the Skorge, spotted merrily screwing around on a derrick, showboating with his dual-chainsaw-bladed bow-staff. The Skorge is apparently the Samurai of the Locust world, scalpel to the typical grunt's sledgehammer, and despite the fact he looks a bit like a Bionicle that's been left on top of a hot fireplace for too long, he promises to be a nasty piece of work. "He's a handful," suggests lead designer Cliff Bleszinksi, helpfully.
With the campaign looking spiky in all the right places, multiplayer seems likely to provide a burst of leftfield innovation in the shape of the new Horde mode. Playable on any of the multiplayer maps, Horde is pure score rush, which sees five players facing of against waves of different variations of enemies, which means it's presumably like working the late night shift in a BP garage.
There are 50 waves in total, with the enemies improving in terms of accuracy and health every ten (the garage analogy breaks down at this point). Bleszinski, who it's safe to assume is probably rather good at this kind of thing, has only made it as far as wave 27. Be warned.
As Horde only pauses rather than resetting between waves, the emphasis is on the post-fight scramble for newly-spawned weapons then the rush to find a good spot before the next onslaught. Playing on a new map, Day One - a surprisingly colourful city intersection, complete with neon signs, a '50s diner and an amusement arcade filled with chirping and bleeping cabinets - offers a mixture of street-fighting and second-storey gantries for sniping and boomshot attacks, and as the waves pass, the game flows between high and low combat very naturally.
The enemy AI, as in the main campaign, seems significantly improved, with Locusts rolling out of trouble or making a break for distant cover when they come under fire. You also get the chance to check out some of the new weapons - such as the gatling gun, which is intensely powerful but slows you down and, as a low-slung weapon, can't be used when taking cover.
The new up-close favourite is the Scorcher, an extremely pleasing flame-thrower which is completely useless at a distance. There's even portable cover in the form of the boomshield, which looks like a hubcap designed by Jean-Paul Gautier, and can either be wielded with the left trigger or planted in the ground.
Although there's no real danger of Gears getting caught in the end-of-year crush, its proximity to unknown quantities like Mirror's Edge and LittleBigPlanet means Epic's good old-fashioned carnage has not generated quite the amount of excitement as it could have so far.
But deep down this is a far from old-fashioned game. As the single-player continues to bring a touch of Resident Evil's thoughtfulness to the futuristic pomp of Halo, and the multiplayer broadens its scope to take on tantalising aspects of Geometry Wars and co, it seems a pretty safe bet that this Christmas, the frosty air will ring out with the sound of a million Locust heads being stomped underfoot.
Gears of War 2 is due out exclusively for Xbox 360 on 7th November. Check out our Eurogamer TV interview with Cliff Bleszinski for more on the game and how its developer feels it's improved.