'Gears of War 2' churns out intense action

— -- When video game Gears of War 2 was unveiled earlier this year, franchise mastermind Cliff Bleszinski, design director at studio Epic Games, vowed the long-awaited sequel would be bigger and better.

The grisly third-person shooter lives up to this mantra by utilizing huge enemies, satisfying new weapons and an exquisite level of polish.

The sequel sticks with what made the first Gears of War, released in 2006, such a success: Intense third-person warfare with a strong emphasis on using cover. Instead of drastically altering the title's look and feel, Epic Games opts for smart refinements.

In Gears of War 2, a group of soldiers called the Delta Squad and their leader, Marcus Fenix, must thwart another invasion by aliens known as the Locust. Having survived an epic bomb blast in the first game, the Locust have countered by sinking cities from underground.

The campaign feels very much like a hands-on Hollywood blockbuster. Battlefields look enormous, packed with intricate detail on buildings and characters. Explosions are powerful. The camera angles used in cut scenes set a dramatic tone.

Game levels skew to a more traditional layout compared to the first Gears. Acts involve well-paced combat culminating with a fierce battle against a mammoth boss. The boss confrontations look daunting initially, but ultimately posed little challenge.

However, the overall pace of the campaign is fantastic. While Gears of War 2's specialty is in entrenched firefights, there's enough mission diversity to keep the adventure from turning one-dimensional.

This diversity also extends to weapons and Locust opponents. The signature Lancer with chainsaw bayonet remains part of the arsenal. The newer weapons are equally gratifying to use, particularly the flamethrower and the Mulcher, a gatling gun. Enemies range in both size and power, from nimble Wretches to towering Brumaks.

Fenix packs a few extra tricks, most notably the human shield. When enemies are hurt, you can pull them up and use them as cover, slowing walking along while picking apart foes with a handgun. Players can also perform new executions near dying enemies as well as engage in chainsaw duels.

The annoyances creep in when you're fighting with computer-controlled teammates. While they don't get killed as often as the first game, they still love to step in front of your shot.

Gears of War built its stellar reputation through multiplayer mode, and the sequel is no different. Developers have made key tweaks, including a seamless co-operative mode, matchmaking and a party system so you can stick with friends during your online experience.

But the highlight of Gears of War 2 is Horde mode. Players can join up to four others online and battle waves of Locusts. As you defeat each wave, you'll encounter a new one that's bigger and tougher. If you're eliminated during a wave, you're revived if your team kills the remaining enemies. It's great incentive for communicating with teammates and helping them advance, even if you're not actively participating.

As its designer claims, Gears of War 2 is indeed bigger and better. When lining up this year's crop of action shooters, you may want to add "best" to the list of superlatives.