When I got the chance to go and get some hands-on time with Gears 2 a week or so back, I also got the chance to be bundled in to a room with Cliff Bleszinski and co. to discuss plenty of hot topics, from host advantage, the "bad motherfucker" Skorge to things like the upcoming Gears movie.
Sit back, grab a drink, it's a beast of an interview with plenty of insight!! Enjoy.
Obviously the first game was massive and when the sequel comes along, people are expecting it to be doubley awesome. How do you start with that, do you literally start to do it “bigger, better”?
Well you know, we were originally saying the whole “bigger, better, more badass” thing which was marketing speak and it had alliteration and things like that, ultimately becoming a self parody of itself, which is why we reinforced the fact that the whole game is “epic and more intimate” this time around.
We all just kind of got together and went through a process we called “new, better, more”... What would be new in Gears 2? What would be better than the original? What would we have more of? We came up with a huge list and voted on it as the leads and hashed out what it would be...
We knew the campaign would be longer and we’d have a better story. We knew we’d have new of course new weapons and new multiplayer modes and bots in the versus. Then we set out to start building it. I think that sometimes having a fresh perspective, Susan O’Connor is an excellent writer and I think bringing a new writer on board for Gears 2, helped a lot to have more angles on existing characters and that’s what Josh brought to the table.
There’s little things like, we’ve got a new musician, a guy named Steve Jablonsky did an excellent job of not only scoring the cinematics but also the in-game music. A very talented kind of A- list Hollywood composer, adding so much to the game where the point is that it’s no longer a game, but a platform. Each mode is huge, the campaign is longer, the co-op has two... basically, you can play through the campaign and then horde, as well as many multiplayer modes and build a package that hopefully people will play for months, if not years to come.What’s was the most important thing you wanted to improve upon from the first Gears, to the sequel?
The campaign and the story are the obvious ones and doing something that has a little bit of heart in it. At the same time though I was dying to get back with Ray in the code and tweak the cover system because when I played the first game I feel like we did a really good job but there was so many little moments when you’re roadie running and you accidentally slam in to a wall and you want to swat turn but you can’t interrupt the swat turn, but you can now... Where you dive towards cover, now you can interrupt that but you couldn’t in the first game.
When you got knocked down but not out and I wanted to crawl around and all of the stuff. Tweaking all of those things were very, very high on the list and that’s one thing I’m really happy we were able to do.
Going back to the script writing and such. How much control did Josh Ortega have with the direction of the universe?
Basically the way we do the process is that I come up with a two page treatment, and then Rod and Mike, who is our President and also acts as an Executive Producer, tear it to hell and tear it to shreds and then you do another treatment, and another treatment till we have something that we feel will be a solid outline of what the game’s going to be. Then the two pager that’s solid is given to the lead level designer who breaks down the level designs from there and then Josh comes in and gets involved and that’s the way Gears 2 panned out.
We’re always learning as we go and the process continues to evolve. Josh, he’s a very charismatic guy, he’s a force of nature and he knew when to pick his battles and what to push for and it’s that type of system, of checks and balances that ultimately yields the best product, especially the narrative.
Is there anything in particular that he pushed for that was maybe a challenge?
I can’t talk about any of those without spoiling to be honest. Let’s just say that narrative wise we take some risks in the game and we do some things that I haven’t seen a videogame ever do.
You’ve been quite forward with your information so far regarding multiplayer modes, weapons, and the campaign. Have you got any surprises up your sleeves still?
I think the fact that you only get to see like three quarters of the first act, when there’s five acts, says that there is a still a lot that remains to be seen and if anything, it’s a little frustrating right now to tell you guys about all the cool stuff that’s in the game, when I know there’s so many cool twists and turns and moments in the campaign later that I can’t show you. It’s kind of agonising. There’s still plenty more to be seen.
Are there any multiplayer surprises? Maybe unannounced modes?
There’s a couple that we not supposed to be confirming too much about, that’s the press briefing but as we get down to a release date coming up very soon... We’re at the point where it’s in our best interest, for the journalists out there and the gamers to have a pretty good idea as to what’s in the game as far as a bullet point listing the box.
There seems to be a real difference in the graphical style from the first game and the second game. There seems to be a more European slant with more decoration. Were you looking to show off a bit? What was the thinking in changing the entire look of the game?
I disagree on saying that we kind of changed the entire look of the game. I still think it very much looks and feels like Gears, but I think we’ve allowed a little more saturation to bleed through. That’s not to say we’ve made the game look like Care Bears and rainbows and unicorns. There are more expansive open environments that you see ... you see beautiful vistas with trees and mountains in the background which are things you didn’t see a lot of in the first game.
A lot of people have the memory of Gears 1 being a lot of gray pillars and claustrophobic environments and it made sense to blow things out a little bit in regards to draw distance because the engine is optimized as well as allowing more colour to bleed through.
The European influence was there in Gears 1, honestly. So much of Gears 1 was inspired the trip I took a few years ago to London and I had a day where I did the whole 500 step climb to the top of St Pauls and watched the sunset setting over London and looked at the architecture.
Now you’ve got this whole Alpine, mountain thing going on...
Well it starts off, kind of Euro style and then we decided to go with Austrian, kind of a mountain hamlets, Little Asheville ... For some reason mountain hamlets kind of have that construction set look for gingerbread houses. You’re going to do a mountain hamlet, they give you the pre-fabs to put in right? You know, it was a location we hadn’t seen yet in Gears and still kind of feeling like Gears but we’ve evolved the style to show you things we hadn’t seen before. That was the goal.
The colour palette seems to have shifted from grey/green to sort of brown... Would you say that was true?
To say an entire game that has a long campaign is limited to one colour palette is a bit of a misnomer. When you go to the underground and see the beautiful blues of the indigenous plants of the Hollow as well as the reds of the flames that appear later in the sink hole level. There are more browns than gray this time around, but there are other colours that bleed through. You know, there is a little bit more greens with the trees and things like that.
On a similar topic, how do you manage to get so much out the Unreal engine, other people you license to don’t seem to come close to matching it?
I think Mass Effect and Bioshock looked quite good, but I think that we have, in my opinion, some of the best artists in the industry, if not in entertainment in general. We are incredibly picky with who we hire and we have incredibly high standards with the content that they produce and then we work extremely hard to make sure every single itty bit of that model is battened down and looks perfect. It’s the same toolset that our licensees get, I think the key is having amazing artists.
So you don’t tweak the engine a little bit yourselves and don’t tell the others about it?
Absolutely not! Every single thing we have, we share with our licensees because it’s in our best interest for them to have game that looks amazing.
So Skorge is the new Gears bad guy, can you give us a little background, tell us how he fits in?
Yeah, he’s... I don’t know whether you’ve seen the Kantus which are like the Locust priests; they’re the guys that have all these abilities and can take a lot of hit points, they can evade, kind of like ninja’s almost in regards to their mobility. They can summon Tickers by using their voices and control other creatures by using their voice, as well as reviving Locust that get knocked down as kind of a rallying cry. He’s kind of like the head priest and he’s very high up in terms of the Locust hierarchy. Did you guys have chance to get to his cutscene?
Yeah, we got introduced to him right at the end...
So you saw him wielding the staff with cool chainsaws on it that can cut through a tank. He’s a bad motherfucker.
You mentioned that you were trying to add more kind of personal touches to the game like the photograph that comes with the Collector’s Edition. What are some of the other personal touches?
There is some interesting stuff that they are doing with the marketing campaign with the COG tags, that you’re going to see that I can’t talk about yet but I think that when you find for example, a note on the ground from someone who is writing home about their experience from the war. Writing back to their family and all the horrors that they’re are going through and how difficult things were... You know, finding a complaint letter in the hospital saying that soldiers aren’t getting enough medical care and I think it’s things like that that starts to push through other buttons and themes and it’s not just killing monsters.So last time the multiplayer was huge and it still is huge and we know you’ve put the party system in now and the host advantage has gone with the shotgun and such?
Will it still work on the same sort of basis then that the host will have an advantage over the opposition?
The person who is the host on a client-server game will always have an advantage, it’s an unfortunate side effect of doing a client-server architecture. We’re not a peer-to-peer architecture but we’ve optimized so much of that code to reduce it as much as possible, as well as balancing the game better with things like stopping power because personally I found the host advantage to be very frustrating.
Did you ever think about changing the whole architecture to peer-to-peer?
It’s one of those things that’s fairly engrained in the engine right now and there’s been some talks about it but we haven’t made future plans.
Epic quite recently said that you’re coming quite close to what the 360 can graphically achieve...
Yeah, that was a Rod quote that was taken out of context.
So it’s not true?
I think we’re pushing the 360 but I think if you look at the system, it’s not going to get anymore RAM, it’s not going to get a faster processor, but at the same time, that puts the impetus on the our programmers and our artists to be smarter about what they work with.
I always like to use the metaphor of the SNES. You know, the first ones that came out for the SNES were like, “oh wow, a new console, this looks great” and the next generation came out and they’re like “this is good” and by the time they got to the tail end of it, they were like “oh fuck, I can’t believe they are doing this with the mode 7 graphics, how did they figure out how to do this!?” Right? And all these ninja code tricks.
If you look at the whole demo scene from Assembly in Finland and all those things and they could make an amazing graphical demo above 32k right. It’s amazing what programmers can do and I wouldn’t count our guys out yet.
So do you think there will be a big visual punch then for the 3rd game over the 2nd game?
If there is a future product I have a feeling that it will look better than what we’re doing but whatever percentage that is, remains to be seen.
Do you enjoy working on the 360, I mean obviously the PS3 has got more grunt, would you prefer to have these games on the PS3?
I don’t really work on the PS3.
Just looking at the tech aspect, would you enjoy working with the machine?
I hate the fucking controller. I’m sorry, I just can’t stand the PS3 controller. I love the Blu-Ray player. I think there are some great games for PS3, I think Metal Gear was great, I think Heavenly Sword was great but at the same time right now, I’m always working on Xbox with Gears.
You don’t feel hemmed in by the architecture? You’re comfortable with the 360?
I’m pretty comfortable with the 360. I like its controller.
So Santiago’s story is getting a little bit deeper and there is a little more emotion from him. What about some of other characters, can we expect to see more on them?
Well there is only so many, while adhering to our rules of 3-5 minute cut scenes and keeping a certain amount of action in the game, we only have so many points to spend on story. So it is very much more Dominic Santiago’s personal story than anyone else in the game.
Carmine actually has a lot more to do in this game and he was only in Gear’s 1 for like an hour and for Benjamin Carmine to have a significant big part in Gears 2 is very interesting and we get to find out what makes guy tick a bit more and there also a lot of interesting things that happen with Tai Kaliso, the spiritual warrior who is seemingly invincible and crawls out of the wreck of his Derrick unscathed and he’s got a very unique plot
So what’s the deal with Carmine because he starts the first few levels a bit nervous, does he come out of his shell at all?
That’s spoiler territory there. It remains to be seen what happens with Carmine, whether he lives or dies, I won’t spoil it.
One of the elements most criticised in the original the vehicle sections, yet you add more to the sequel, how have you improved on those?
The Kryll sequence was just alright. It was one of those things where we were trying to do an original twist on the, you drive, I’ll shoot formula and it was very meh... It was kind of there. This time of round we’re kind of brainstorming, what kind of vehicles do we do? If they want a tank, just give them a tank. “Ok, if we’re going to do a tank, how can we twist it and make it ours?” “Well let’s give it a giant monster truck”, so it’s very bouncy kind of cruising up the mountain and everything... Suddenly, when you start combining active reloads with faster tank shots, with a snowy environment and the occasional icy lake, and crowd Locust that you’re power sliding through and knocking over trees and doing jumps, suddenly the level starts getting cool.
And they were all like “Alright, what else can we do?” “Well we always wanted to somehow see the guys get on some Locust creatures” so they’d have a sequence where you guys are on Reavers, one player is on another Reaver, and one’s on a second one. Then you ultimately end up on a Brumak, that was golden... We call them sorbets, you know, they’re these levels that are palette cleansers between the main courses of combat. You’ve really got to switch up the pacing a little bit. It makes sense to do a better job.So it’s coming out at the key point of the year and will have some stiff competition with titles like Resistance 2. What is the one key thing you would to someone looking to make a single buying choice this year and why would they buy Gears of War 2?
I think it’s a perfect example of playing through an interactive movie in regards to a tremendously good Hollywood summer blockbuster.
How is the movie coming along, the 2010 one?
Working on it. Len Wiseman’s the director, he’s a very visual, a very talented guy... He’s very good looking actually. The writer Chris Morgan did a great job adapting Wanted, if you ever read the graphic novels, it’s almost unfilmable as Watchmen and that turned out to be a really cool movie with Angelina Jolie in there.
Are you doing much with it? Are you involved much?
I’m the Executive Producer. That means I take a lot of phone calls. We’re cycling on scripts and things like that. Once all that gets solidified, we’ll go on to casting which we’ve not really announced anything about, except no pro-wrestlers.