Gears of War: Judgment Interview – Epic's Jim Brown Talks Looking At Gears With Fresh Eyes
Written Tuesday, March 12, 2013 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
In the early days of the Xbox 360, Gears of War became one of the platform's defining titles, bringing its destroyed beauty, iconic weapons and gruff, bulky characters to the fore, while showing off what the Unreal Engine 3 could really do.
More than six years down the line, Gears of War is still with us, and Epic Games is gearing up to release the fourth instalment in the series, a prequel story starring Lt. Damon Baird and The Cole Train. You can read our latest preview for the full skinny.
Partnering up with Bulletstorm dev and sister studio People Can Fly, Epic is hoping to make Gears of War: Judgment a Gears game that's a fitting last bow for the franchise on Xbox 360. And with a few new ideas up its sleeve, it has every chance of being just that.
We caught up with Epic Games' Lead Level Designer Jim Brown to talk about Gears of War: Judgment, and find out more about what it's bringing to the table when it launches next week.
Was it somewhat daunting taking on a new Gears of War title at the end of a console cycle, with three games in the bag and the story essentially tied up?
It was a challenge, but it was a challenge for us in a different way than you're thinking there, in that we knew we didn't want to just make another game. We knew we wanted to do something new, and the challenge for us was how do we do something new? How do we find that space, but keep it in the context of Gears? And bringing in People Can Fly was a very big influence on that, because they have a very particular kind of crazy intense gameplay style that meshed well with our universe, but they lent fresh eyes on things.
We spent a lot of time talking to fans, going out to the community. Even in terms of multiplayer, we pulled people in, spent some time playing with them, let them play on their own, and then folded them into our design discussion so they could actually have some input and some influence on what we were doing. And so it was really great for us to step back and say, “this is what Gears of War is” and kind of whittle it down to its core, then build another game on top of that, that maintained that core but still had fresh ideas in it.
What was the main goal you had in mind when setting out to develop the fourth game in the series then?
We wanted to do a game that was very much a Gears game, but we wanted to give players a little bit more freedom. We wanted them to be able to kind of tell their own story within the framework of the game, and so we wanted something that was very highly replayable and very streamlined, so that if you're a new player, this will be a great place to start.
In terms of multiplayer, we really wanted to keep people playing the game instead of watching other people play, so we did a lot of things there to help with that. Then we have a whole new loadout system in multiplayer to let people choose how they choose to play the game, and a lot of that folded over to the single-player with the Smart Spawn System and Declassified testimony, because that kind of puts a little bit more control in players' hands if they want to have the unique experience and choose how much challenge they want, and ramp it up and down as they see fit during the storyline.
Will playing the Declassified objectives alter the path or outcome of Gears of War: Judgment's story in any way at all?
It doesn't necessarily change the outcome of the story, but what it does affect is how you get to that outcome and the ultimate journey there. Yes they are a little bit isolated in that each Declassified applies to the specific situation you're in, whether it's a visibility change or weapon change, an enemy change, or any number of things. But what starts to happen is they start to stack on top of one another and combine. If you choose to give up your rifle in favour of only using shotguns, an hour down the line, you realise that it might be really good if you had a rifle in certain situations, for instance. But back two Declassified testimonies ago you chose to give it up, and you're still stuck with that decision. So, they do tend to stack a little bit in that regard and have some influence on each other.
Is it still possible to obtain a three-star rating on a mission without activating the optional Declassified testimony objectives or is it essential to do them to achieve the perfect rating?
No they're not essential, because there's any number of different ways to approach each scenario. The Declassified objective certainly helps and just accepting the challenge gives you a boost, whether or not you even manage to complete it. Some of them are failure conditions, so if you accept it, you have to complete it, but not all of them are. But there's plenty of special moves you can do, awards you can get, like getting three headshots in a row gives you an award, never go down but not out and you'll get an award, and those sorts of things. It's still possible to get the three stars [without doing the Declassified objective], but it's a lot more difficult in a different way.
Can you tell us more about the Aftermath campaign? It's set during the events of Gears of War 3, that much we know. Will you be back playing as Marcus Fenix at any point?
No. At the end of Gears of War 3, there's a section in the old fort where Marcus and Dom tell Baird and Cole to go off to find supplies and get some help, before meeting back on the island of Azura. This picks up as Baird, Cole and Carmine go off on that journey, and you get to see what they do, where they go, and who they meet along the way. A small spoiler, but the first person that they run into is Paduk, so it's kind of a nice tie-in back to the main storyline in Judgment, and you get to see how everyone has changed along the way and what's happened. It kind of ties the whole story together in a nice little bow.
It's a sideline, so when you're playing through at the very end of Gears 3, Baird shows up with Raven helicopters, so this is what happened in between the time he left at the fort to when he arrives with the helicopters.
Gears of War is quite lucky to have quite a strong multiplayer audience, but do you thing it's still hard to innovate within that multiplayer space?
Absolutely. And that's one of our biggest challenges, and that's one of the reasons we've taken a step back and looked at everything as much as we could with fresh eyes. We got as much input from our players as we could to really improve that experience, and we have Team Deathmatch, but we wanted to do more. We've gone with the Free-For-All route and we've started with the new Domination mode. Even that is our standard multiplayer mode and it's really solid and we have our established fanbase, but we wanted to push it a little further, so we started looking at other games to see how we could innovate within the space of the shooter.
We looked at MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games, we looked at RTS games, we looked at RPGs, and then we just started layering all of those elements onto that core shooter experience, and that quickly became out OverRun mode. OverRun is our class-based mode, where everyone has their own special ability and specific role to play on the team, and you get to play as both the COG and the Locust, and then the teams switch. There's a lot of layers in there that are more than just a shooter, that kind of innovate within the genre. It's certainly an innovation for Gears.
Gears of War: Judgment is changing up the Horde mode a bit and calling it Survival. Is it a little risky to change such an established mode do you think?
I don't think it's risky. We can't just continue to do the same thing over and over. We have to innovate, we want to innovate, we want to do new things and we want to challenge ourselves. It was really good to be able to take the best elements of campaign co-op and Horde and Beast, and mash them all together.
When we first started doing that, it was kind of an indirect response to some fan feedback where they said they wanted to play Beast versus Horde, and so we did it, and it was fun. It was really cool to go in there, especially playing as the Locust and crush the little puny humans as a giant monster. Then on the other side, you're a guy with a rifle, and so it didn't quite have that magic we were looking for, so that's when we decided to try and improve the experience, try to innovate and do new things. We couldn't just do the next iteration. We wanted to push it.
Do you think if there was a call to return to classic stripped-down Horde, would you perhaps consider adding it to the game post-launch as DLC?
We do have DLC planned. We have big plans actually, but we're not ready to talk about what it is, or even what it might be. You never know what's coming.
Has the departure of Cliff Bleszinski and Rod Fergusson has any impact upon development of Gears of War: Judgment at all?
It depends on your perspective really. They were definitely influencers on Gears, they are in the DNA of what the franchise is. They were also present throughout the bulk of the development on Gears of War: Judgment, so they had their impact there. But as much as they were the face of the franchise, there's a huge team of hundreds of people behind them, and all of those people are still there, still polishing. Plus, pulling in the guys from PCF, we've got a whole lot of fresh blood there as well, and their influence I would say had an even bigger role on the game. At the end of the day, it's a new Gears game, but it's still a great Gears experience.
With People Can Fly continuing to work closely with Epic, are there any plans to return to Bulletstorm?
I don't know. I mean, they're our sister studio, but they're their own entity. We're still working with them and we work with them every single day, but I don't know what's coming down the pipe yet. We just need to finish this game up and we're still working on DLC stuff, so there's a lot more coming from both of us.
Does having PCF as a sister studio mean you're going to be able to pursue more ambitious projects in the future than would have previously been possible?
Yeah, absolutely. One of the main reasons we went to them was because they helped out on Gears of War for Windows, they contributed to Gears of War 2, they made a big contribution to Gears of War 3, so they knew the franchise and cared about it. Rather than go to some outside studio we were going to contract, we knew we had this really talented group of developers who cared about the franchise, we knew we got along and we could work well together, and so it was really easy to integrate that into our own systems. When we have that unique perspective combined with the core franchise team, putting them together really worked in our favour in the long run.
It's time for the obligatory next-gen consoles question... Are you excited about the potential that next-gen formats will unlock?
Absolutely. We have always been on the cutting edge of technology. We were in a very special place where we were able to influence what the Xbox 360 was, and we continue to do that. Even with Unreal Engine 3 and Gears of War: Judgment, we've really found new ways to push what's already there, so down the road there's more exciting stuff to come, sure!
Gears of War: Judgment is out on March 19th in North America and on March 22nd in Europe.