Joining the ranks of the Halo franchise as one of Microsoft's golden Xbox eggs, Gears of War 2 is easily one of the most anticipated games of the year. At this year's X'08 show in Toronto, we sat down with the artist formerly known as CliffyB to get some hands on time with both the single and multiplayer modes.

When asked what the biggest change from the first title to now was, Bleszinski answered right away. "This time around, things are much more epic and intimate," he said. "This is truly humanity's last stand, but at the same time, it's a much more personal story.

Around this time, Bleszinski reached into his wallet and pulled out a ratty looking photograph. The picture was of Dom from the first game, with his wife who went unmentioned in the first game. "Dom is looking for his wife Maria. He goes around asking for her and showing this picture. There is a strong sense of loss and desperation to the game," said Bleszinski. Players who buy the special edition of the game will get a copy of the photo amongst other goodies.

The single player demo featured some intense action that rivals any action set piece from the first game. Even the short demo we played had enough intense action to fill several levels of your average shooter. Players get the chance to ride a giant Brumak, escape from a collapsing building, and ride an elevator in a horizontal building. This particular part of the demo was a real treat, as the elevator travelled sideways instead of upwards, opening on several locust infested floors. The demo ended with Marcus and Dom hijacking a massive Brumak to go on a rampage.

The arsenal has also been given a significant upgrade. Most notably, players now have access to a flamethrower, a particularly devastating weapon that delivers some spectacular flame effects. There's also a burst pistol that essentially acts as a handheld battle rifle. Also, players can now use mobile cover that can be deployed anywhere, similar to the bubble shield from Halo 3.

It also became clear rather quickly that the developers at Epic know what their bread and butter is. The first Gears' major selling point was the chainsaw mounted assault rifle, and that doesn't seem to be changing this time around. Players now have more options with the wonderful weapon this time around, including hitting their enemies from between the legs in an upward motion. This is lovingly called a "chainsodomy." If two enemies come at each other with chainsaws at the same time, a "chainsaw duel" will ensue, with the winner being the one who can slam the A button the fastest. Also, now players have multiple options for taking out an enemy beyond stomping their skull into the pavement. Examples include pounding their faces into mush with your fists and ripping off your opponents arm and beating them to death with it.

Despite its popularity, the first game didn't exactly have a fully featured suite of multiplayer goodness. This has been rectified this time around. Those who like to team up with others will be happy to know that the two player co-op campaign mode has made a triumphant return, alongside a five player horde mode. Horde is similar to the terrorist hunt mode from the Rainbow Six series. A team of five players must eliminate a set number of locust without getting killed. As the players move up the levels, the number of locust moves up and the levels get more difficult.

On the competitive side of things, the multiplayer has also been given a much needed shot in the arm. Games now support five versus five instead four on four, and there is a smattering of new modes. We actually played a mode entitled "Guardian", in which all the players on any given team have unlimited respawns until the leader of the team dies. Once that happens, respawning ability is lost. It's an intense little game, and requires some decent team play and planning.

Gears of War 2 has been given a graphical overhaul that will not be lost on enthusiasts. First of all, there is more than black, grey, and red in the colour palette this time around, making for a more colourful wasteland than before. The game also supports far more locust on screen than before, and the game physics and framerate have been kicked up a notch as well. So has the gore for that matter.

Gears of War 2 is looking like a fantastic addition to a game that was already a masterpiece to begin with. It may not be a quantum leap forward to the original, but considering how ahead of its time the first game was, it's more about the rest of the industry catching up to what Bleszinski and his talented team have accomplished. Epic will set the bar a little higher this holiday season, exclusively on the Xbox 360.