Editor’s note: John Gaudiosi writes about the videogame industry for Local Tech Wire, writes the Gaming Guru blog for WRAL.com and is widely published across other media as well as within the gaming industry.

CARY, N.C. Epic Games has managed to accomplish something with that not even Bungie could do with Halo 2 – live up to the overwhelming hype.

When Cliff Bleszinski, design director at , promised that Gears 2 would be “bigger, better and more bad ass,” he wasn’t kidding. The game goes on sale at midnight Nov. 7, and pre-sales have already topped those for the original "Gears," which was among the most eagerly awaited games for Christmas 2006.

This sequel to the 5 million-selling original serves up a longer and more action-packed campaign mode (best played with a friend in cooperative), while upping the ante for multiplayer by adding five-on-five battles to the mix. As good as those two gameplay modes are, I found myself hooked on the new Horde mode. Up to five players can join in the fray and take on 50 waves of increasingly difficult Locusts in a frenetic, arcade-style shootout that will actually improve your skills for both online and campaign gaming.

The campaign mode was obviously a major focus for Epic. The original game was a great first effort from Bleszinski and the team, but the characters were more big guns and tattoos than human beings. That’s changed with "Gears 2. "

The story has more heart this time around. And while the soldiers still have big guns, lots of tattoos and filthy mouths, they’re also more believable. A central story line in this game involves Dominic Santiago’s search for his missing wife, Maria. Another story line involves Marcus Phoenix, but I won’t get into that one because it’s one of the many twists and turns that the serpentine story takes as the action moves from the surface of planet Sera to its cavernous belly and then back up again over the course of a dozen or so hours.

When we last left Sera, humanity thought they’d destroyed the Locust once and for all through “lightmass” bombings. But the creatures have returned and taken out all of mankind’s cities, one by one. Those not killed by the Locusts have been wiped out by a disease called rust lung – a result of 15 years of fighting and an after-effect of the lightmass bombs. The last stronghold of humanity is the city of Jacinto, which is where the action picks up – six months after the events of the first game.

This time, the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) is taking the fight down below to the home of the Locusts. For newbies, Epic offers a tutorial that brings everyone up to speed with how the game’s cover and combat system work. They also keep the first level very reminiscent of the original, with close-quarters combat inside a hospital. But then things open up and the game makes full use of the improvements of Epic’s own game development engine, Unreal Engine 3. Hundreds of creatures can be seen on screen at once as they flood the battlefields. In the second level, players will have to contend with several Brumaks – heavily armed beasts that are challenging to take down. (Later in the game, players will get to experience a thrill ride atop one of these monsters.)

The battle plan is for the COG to congregate at Landown and burrow into the center of the planet using huge vehicles called Assault Derricks. Epic throws a lot at gamers early as the convoy makes its way to the launch point. It’s worth noting that gamers of all experience levels will be able to enjoy the action. The casual mode makes things very easy on gamers, allowing them to enjoy the entire story. And there’s Insane for die-hard "Gears" fans. One cool new feature is the ability for players to choose different difficulty levels and play together in co-op campaign.

Going back to play the original "Gears," that game has held up well over the past two years – credit to the UE3 technology. But "Gears 2" really pushed the visuals into new territory. The new water effects, in particular, stand out in the river map for online play, as well as underground in the campaign. The technology also has introduced many new creatures of assorted size to contend with. The level of detail in these creatures, as well as the protagonists, while still definitely a videogame, is much improved.

There’s a larger cast of characters this time around, and they’re more memorable. Living in North Carolina has rubbed off on Bleszinski with one of the game’s most colorful characters, Dizzy, who drives the Assault Derrick, Betsy. He’s a Southern truck driver who is always entertaining to listen to. Other new characters include rookie Ben Carmine (brother of Anthony Carmine from the original game) and Tai, an always-calm spiritual warrior who joins the fray. Even though this is a game and these characters don’t look human, Epic’s sculpted a compelling story that manages to connect you to these soldiers.

I don’t want to ruin any of the surprises, and there are many, but suffice it to say that this is one wild adventure that will stick with you for a very long time. The game keeps the action flowing at a better rate than the original and throws a lot more enemies at you, including new challenges like Tickers (scurrying timebombs). But you also have more weapons, and the ability to chainsaw duel lives up to the promise. It’s still fun to slice through enemies, but it’s great to duel against Locusts (as well as online against other players). I especially enjoyed the great “palette cleanser” moments (that’s what Bleszinski calls them) that include a wild ride atop a Reaver, a snowy tank ride across an ice lake and the aforementioned Brumack battle. These are the types of moments I can see myself going back and experiencing again.

But the thing that’s kept "Gears" as popular today on Xbox Live as any game out there is the online multiplayer. I especially liked Submission, which is a capture the flag mode with a twist – the flag is computer-controlled character that doesn’t want to be caught. Those who don’t want the five-on-five online gameplay can go for Wingman, a two-on-two duel in which each player gets one life to live and the most kills wins. With new maps, modes and weapons to toy with, Epic has delivered an experience that will keep servers busy for another two years – likely the length of time we’ll have to wait for "Gears of War 3."