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Heavy Gear 2

Oh my god! I am a forty foot tall robot!" Or perhaps I should write "a forty foot tall Gear" for true aficionados. Either way, this is the impression most people have when they first start playing Activision's recently released Heavy Gear 2 demo. It is also one of the initial signs the digital caretakers of the time-honored universe are doing things right this time. The original, as fans readily point out, was deeply flawed. In terms of scale, there was nothing to compare the Gears to except, well, other Gears, which is rather pointless. In the sequel, the scale is perfect, and civilians and foot soldiers help accord the impression that players are nothing less than huge.

The second encouraging sign is the robust hardware-only graphics engine, which solicits further comments that start with the phrase, "Oh my god!" Graphics programmers are certainly doing their job when gamers discuss the elegance of small details. AVault writer Chris Harding gushed, "The environment is one of the best features of the demo. The trees look and feel like trees. There are large pines, and the shadows that fall from them are beautiful." In the original, even the all-important modeling failed to compete with MechWarrior: Mercenaries' 3Dfx standard, so graphically it lagged behind the times.

After the disappointing first game, expectations were restrained at best, but the demo has surprised people. The Heavy Gear universe, with its pen and paper-based credentials, is incredibly rich and was an excellent choice for Activision once it lost the Battletech license, but the designers failed to capture its essence with the first game. There were not enough Gears, their Gear configurations were second-rate and the multiplayer component was vastly inferior to competing products. Imagine a giant robot battle arena with no tactical details, such as hills and trees, to hide behind. Add to this poorly written code that needed serious patching, and you had a game that did not measure up to the MechWarrior offerings. Heavy Gear 2, though, arrives in full regalia. There are close to 50 Gears and an arsenal of almost 80 weapons. In addition, the customization scheme is very close to the pen and paper-based game and permits fantastic variety in design.

For the unwashed, Gears are best described by comparisons. Mechs are brutes that run, stroll and detonate things; Gears are faster, more agile and have more abilities. In fact, they bear more similarities to the robots in Shogo than to Mechs. For instance, instead of having a built-in mounted arsenal, a Gear can pick up weapons and shoot them like a person -- this includes guns dropped by other Gears and hand-to-hand weapons such as Vibroblades and Vibroaxes. To be fair, the weapons were one of the highlights of the first game, and the sequel continues its fine tradition. The implementation of the Gauss rifle is the best in any game, the zoom features are well-done and the range effect is perfect. Continuing with comparisons, Gears can also crouch, lean and move at greater speeds than Mechs. According to producer Dave Georgeson, the intention is to capture the movement and pace of anime while maintaining a realistic-looking simulator.

The slight nod to anime also means the series is heavily story-driven, and the sequel promises to exceed the narrative standard set by the original. Four years after the conclusion of the first game, the civil war that began in Heavy Gear is still raging, and a cataclysmic event alerts the North and South governments that Earth is preparing to invade. The event will not be revealed until the game ships, and it promises to be shattering. Pursuant to survival, the two governments sign a hasty cease fire and prepare to face a common enemy. They also hurriedly assemble an elite team of the best Gear pilots and launch an assault on another planet; the resulting mayhem delays the Earth invasion. Players suit up in the role of the commander of the elite team, the 1st Strike Recon Black Talons squad. Says Georgeson, "The story line of Heavy Gear 2 is very much an integral part of the Heavy Gear universe. We're making some real pivotal changes in the course of the paper-based game while remaining extremely loyal to it in every way."

The style of gameplay, though, is the most essential element. Georgeson describes Heavy Gear 2 as being a fast action game that stresses strategy and maneuvering as much as reflexes. He says the focus of the design is about 60 percent on multiplayer and 40 percent on solo missions. "The team absolutely loves multiplayer and would spend all its time on that if allowed, but the fact is most people still play the single-player experience," he explains. As indicated in the demo, the single player-missions promise to be intense and the final version will include, among other assignments, acting as a diversionary force while a recon team sneaks into a fortress, raiding a starport to steal a vehicle, quickly attacking and capturing a space station to prevent an alarm from sounding, retreating through an urban center while being pursued by an entire army and rescuing rebels from Earth attacks.

The design team, though, firmly believes the core audience wants the multiplayer to rock and is devoting considerable resources to fine-tuning it. According to Frank Evers, vice-president of productions for the action-simulation division at Activision, the demo has spawned more multiplayer games than any previous Activision title. The original was notable for its dynamic Internet campaign, but the sequel aims to surpass that with a host of options. Says Georgeson, "You can challenge people to one-on-one duels in special duelist arenas, fight in an every-man-for-himself deathmatch, play a team strategic game in which teams protect and attack bases, and fight in Capture the Flag and Steal the Beacon games. In STB mode there is a beacon that must be picked up and held for a cumulative amount of time. Everyone tries to kill whoever has the beacon and real mayhem ensues."


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