The major addition since last time out is the character-creation ranking system, whereby every kill (in every game mode, whether in single or multiplayer - previously, this was a multiplayer only feature) awards players with a certain amount of XP, whether carried out by you or your team-mates. A simple, no-frills kill might bag you a single point of XP, but pull off an impressive feat and you'll not only gain more XP but a skill-point bonus which counts towards ranking up one of three categories: Marksman (for headshots, long-range, opponents killed while using a rope, etc), CQS (close-quarters kills, such as using blindfire or short-range attacks) and Assault (for killing turret-gunners, killing through cover, downing shielded opponents, etc). If you've played the previous Vegas, you'll get a bonus portion of 1250 XP and some equipment to get you underway (thanks!), and from there on, how you work your way up the 20 ranks to Elite status is in your hands. The lower the difficulty you play on, the fewer XP and skill-points. The new XP system is an unexpectedly fantastic addition for numerous reasons. Progressing through the ranks unlocks lots of better weapons, armour and visual upgrades (like comedy camouflage), all of which you can take with you into multiplayer sorties, not to mention other supplementary modes like Terrorist Hunt and co-op.
While you might initially feel a sense of "is that it?" when the credits roll on the somewhat brief story mode, Vegas 2 certainly isn't lightweight. There are 12 Terrorist Hunt missions, for a start, which is almost as good as having an entire extra campaign, mainly because it's wonderfully replayable off or online and perfect for a quick session. Crank up the enemy density and skill level and it becomes a fantastic war of attrition - especially if you're attempting to scoop the Achievement points for finishing all 12 on Realistic.
Online, Vegas 2 has the usual impressive array of options and modes to keep series fans and newcomers happy. Story mode and Terrorist Hunt modes can also be played via Xbox Live (publicly or privately), System Link, or split-screen if you prefer, although we're now limited to two players rather than four in story mode (boo!). In terms of the five Versus modes, across the same 12 maps used in Terrorist Hunt, up to 16 players can engage in team-based and free-for-all. Attack & Defend mode is a self-explanatory team-based affair, Team Leader involves defending your leader while also trying to assassinate your opponent's, while Total Conquest involves capturing satellite transmitters and holding them for the duration of a countdown. Elsewhere, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch tick old-school boxes. As usual, you can tinker with settings for each and specify weapon-restrictions, respawn count, round duration (up to 20 minutes), and whether players can join a match in progress. Even your chosen spoken language shows up in the match search, which helps. There's nothing especially revolutionary about any of it, but the maps are intricate and varied and it's a game anyone can jump into and not feel overwhelmed. Just expect a few frame-rate dips here and there if you fancy playing the story mode in co-op.
Regardless of failure, every kill counts towards improving your rank, so there's a lessened sense of despair when you fail. The fact that your investment of time is counting towards something is an excellent payback that other games could learn from. The other positive element of the XP system is that it encourages you to stop relying on your squad-mates so much, with your feats of skill rewarded more than if your team-mates bag the kill. So not only is there an added incentive to play the offline modes on a tougher skill level, the game also rewards positive and skillful play on every game mode.
In short, the inclusion of the XP system has unexpectedly saved Vegas 2 from feeling like a lazy cash-in release. Although it barely offers anything new elsewhere, this single innovation does enough to make you play more than you otherwise might - and in new ways, too.
On the downside, the overall technology hasn't really moved on in two years. GRAW felt like one of the first games to make the generational leap, but Vegas 2 stands still. There's no doubt the game has the capacity, on occasion, to hold its own against the best Unreal Engine 3-powered shooters, but that's all it does. Worse, screen-tearing issues are still rampant, and texturing is often alarmingly bland. For a full-priced product pitched as a full sequel, you'd expect a bit more - especially when you consider you can pick up the original for probably less than half the price if you shop around. Overall, Vegas 2 feels like an incremental expansion, despite the success of the character-creation feature. The annoying thing is that with a bit more investment these quickfire sequels would feel like true follow-ups, which would go a long way with those of us who've been following the series for the past ten years. As it is, we'll still go to Vegas, but we'll be grumpy on the way home.