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I’m generally a solo gamer. Not by design, but by default. Parenthood, a U.S. West Coast residence, and a generally busy life mean my gaming activities occur late at night, after most of my gaming friends are offline or asleep. Once in a while, though, I’ll end up in the same online lobbies with the same group of friends, on a near-nightly basis, for weeks on end.

Last time, it was Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. I spent several weeks with one highly-focused friend, chipping away at the story on all difficulty levels before we did the same with each terrorist hunt map. Before that it was Halo 3, where several friends and I squeezed every ounce of potential out of the story campaign.

We don’t usually play conventional multiplayer matches. We’re not suiting up to do battle with the anonymous denizens of Xbox Live or poking around server lists on the PC. The group I game with consists mostly of folks in their late twenties to early forties, often married, and often with kids. We haven’t got a lot of patience for the cultural cesspool that is anonymous online gaming. We don’t have the reflexes we’d need to compete at the level of the average high school or college kid. And we haven’t got the time to learn the layout of every map or the attributes of each weapon in a given game.

As a result, we’ve long since abandoned action multiplayer mainstays like Counter-Strike or Unreal Tournament. Halo deathmatches have limited appeal. In fact, with the advent of this new console generation, I, like many of my gaming friends, had all but thrown in the towel on multiplayer action games.

But co-op brought us back. And co-op is now how we prefer to game.

I suppose that may sound lame to those who game primarily to compete. If you’re the type of gamer that can’t have fun unless you’re winning, or who delights in nothing more than the wholesale humiliation and slaughter of your opponents, co-op might not be your thing. But for us, it’s a godsend.

While I used to see the fun in some post-headshot teabagging, I think those days are mostly gone. I’m not sure what changed. Somewhere along the line, marriage, home ownership, parenthood, and full-time careers shifted the gaming priorities of my friends and me. In most cases, we’re content to work together against AI-controlled opponents, chipping away at a common goal, laughing at our own failures and cheering our successes. We’re not driven by a need to dominate end-of-match leaderboards.

The original Gears of War co-op story mode was a pretty big deal for a lot of us. It came out at a time when most of the friends I had who were ever going to buy 360s finally had them, and it was the first time a few of the guys I game with now finally ventured onto Xbox Live. It was a blast. When Gears of War 2 released last week, we were hoping for more of the same. If the last few nights are any indication, Epic’s new sequel will keep my gaming friends and me busy for a very long time.

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The original story-based two-player co-op returns in Gears of War 2, but this time around Epic’s done an even better job at occasionally splitting up players into complimentary roles. And the storyline, which reads like a male combat drama written and performed by professional wrestlers, is absolutely (if not necessarily intentionally) hilarious. It would have been a great co-op game if that’s all there was to it.

But there’s much more, as we’ve recently discovered. We’d all been avoiding Gears of War preview content in order to preserve any surprises the game might hold, and so we really didn’t know what we were getting into when three of us first ventured into the multiplayer lobby last weekend. “Is there anything where we can all play against the Horde?” was the first question that came up as we perused the game options.

There was. Not surprisingly, it was called “Horde,” a new mode that pits a team of human players against wave after increasingly difficult wave of enemies. Perfect. We spent the rest of the evening in Horde mode, laughing as we slowly advanced to the inevitable wave that we could not defeat.

We decided to poke around and see if there was anything else that looked interesting. That’s when we noticed the bots.

I’m sure anyone who followed Gears of War 2 news, or who actually read the instruction manual before popping the disc into the drive, knew ahead of time that the game would feature multiplayer AI bot options. But we didn’t. This was big news. These weren’t just any bots. They were Epic bots, some of the best AI bots in the gaming business, and we could adjust how smartly they’d play. Once we discovered that we could face off against teams of intelligent, aggressive bots, the game’s long-term potential became immediately apparent. Not only could we play co-op, but we could play co-op in any of the game’s eight multiplayer modes, in any scenario we pleased.

For a bunch of gamers driven more by the desire to chill out and socialize than curb-stomp each other’s heads, it was a pretty big discovery, one that has since led to a joint realization that Gears of War 2 will probably be the game we gather together to play for months on end. We’ll likely test our skills with the story’s highest difficulty levels, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually turn to achievement whoring as an excuse to get together night after night once the initial novelty wears off.

Epic’s made sure we can fight in the company of friends through every aspect of Gears of War 2, and we applaud them for it.

Adam LaMosca is a writer and researcher in Portland, Oregon, where the current weeks-long rainy season drapes the scenery in muted, washed-out hues. Much like the scenery in Gears of War 2, in fact.

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